Citizen Sleeper is a Harsh but Hopeful Tale of Community Overcoming Corporate Cruelty

Science fiction is full of tales which play with the idea of human consciousness transcending the human body. Could technology someday extract the experience of being in our own mind and put it in something else? Could we obtain immortality by shedding our physical bodies like unneeded husks? With this idea come ethical questions: how could this power be misused or exploited? How would amazing technology on this scale be utilized by corporations in the name of profit and extraction in our capitalistic world? Citizen Sleeper isn’t the first work of science fiction to play in this space, but it may be one of the most engaging that I personally have experienced thanks to its unique gameplay, its honesty, but most importantly its hope.

You play as a sleeper, a human being’s emulated consciousness planted inside of a robotic body and owned by a corporation. Who you are emulated from or why they underwent this process (money is my guess) is largely irrelevant to you. What matters is that you have escaped life as a corporate slave and ended up as a fugitive and refugee on a space station called Erlin’s Eye. Because of a feature of your body known as “planned obsolescence,” you will slowly decay and eventually day without an official, branded medication from the company that owns you administered on a regular basis. They’ll be looking to reclaim their property in the meantime. Can you survive and escape long enough to get somewhere else or build a life on the Eye? This is the basic premise of Citizen Sleeper.

The game begins as many do with creating your character. You’ll have three basic archetypes to choose from which defines your starting stats and special skill. Once the game begins you can build out to your character however you want, but this early specialization will define what tasks are easier for you in the early game. The five stats are interface (hacking/using drones), engineer (building/repairing), intuit (intellectual tasks), endure (hard labor), and engage (social skills). Based on your archetype you’ll start with one stat at +1 and one stat at -1, and everything else at 0. Stats can get as high as +2, and every stat has two skills associated with it that you can learn as well. In my playthrough I chose the drone operator, which made it so that I had +1 to interface and occasionally gave me a small amount of money when using the interface skill. This seems to be the “default” build and I definitely found having a high interface to have some additional benefits compared to other skills because of how hacking works in the game.

I’m getting ahead of myself though because there are two other important stats to understand about your sleeper: condition and energy. Condition is essentially your health bar, and if it reaches zero your “planned obsolescence” will cause your body to fall apart completely. Theoretically, at least – I did not let it reach zero in my playthrough. Energy represents your capacity to take action and if something would sap your energy when you don’t have any, it subtracts from your condition instead. Condition loss is also doubled when your energy is empty. In the early game the majority of your actions are going to revolve around trying to get reliable ways to keep these two stats from dropping to zero: food for energy and stabilizer for condition. Since both of those things cost money, you’ll want to use the skills you bring to the table to earn currency (called “cryo”).

“Planned obsolescence” – if the corporation can’t have you, nobody can.

This is where the gameplay mechanics come in. Your interface when playing Citizen Sleeper is a map of Erlin’s Eye. Along that map will be nodes indicating locations you can visit. When you visit a location you’ll see a list of possible actions that can be taken there. To take actions you have to place something in the action box; for example, if you are giving someone an item such as a mushroom, you drag that mushroom to the box. Or if you’re paying for food, you drag your currency to the box. So what do you drag if you’re taking an action like working a job? Because significant actions have a chance for failure, that random chance is represented by dice.

Each in-game day (called a “cycle”) your character rolls between 1-5 six-sided dice based on their current condition. Dice have different likelihoods of making your actions successful based on their value. A roll of 1-2 means a 50% chance for a neutral outcome and a 50% chance of a negative outcome. Dice rolls of 3-4 reduce the negative likelihood by 25% in favor of a 25% chance for a positive outcome. A dice roll of 5 is 50/50 for neutral or positive, while a 6 is a 100% guarantee of a positive outcome. Your dice are modified by the stat that is relevant to the action; so playing a 5 on an action with a +1 brings you up from a 50% chance for a positive outcome to a 100% chance. This makes stat bonuses very powerful, and part of the strategy of Citizen Sleeper is managing your dice to have the highest chances of successful outcomes when you take actions.

So how do you make the most of your dice? The first thing is to keep your condition high – at maximum condition you start the day with 5 dice, while if your condition is low you’ll only have 1. Taking five actions per day instead of one is obviously the best way to increase your chances of survival on the Eye, so you’ll want to prioritize keeping yourself supplied with stabilizer. Once your dice are rolled for the day, you’ll generally have a mix of low and high numbers. Because low numbers have a higher risk of negative outcomes, you’ll want to use them on actions that are safe. Actions have three difficulty ranks: safe, risky, and dangerous. The negative outcome on a safe action won’t cost you energy, cryo, or condition, while even the neutral outcome of a dangerous action will lose you energy or cryo and a negative outcome will definitely reduce condition. Using your low dice for safer actions helps to minimize negative outcomes. Finally, low dice have a great function when it comes to hacking. Your character can mentally access the ship’s network and interface with nodes to steal data; unlike normal actions, these checks don’t have success rates but instead require specific dice values. The most common nodes need smaller numbers that you usually wouldn’t want to spend on actions. So you can spend your low dice to accomplish tasks that require hacking without putting your energy or condition at risk. This is particularly true if you have increased interfacing, which adds to the number of dice which are accepted at hacking nodes.

For a critical, dangerous action like stealing the dock plans, you want to have a good dice like the six I have hanging out at the top to guarantee the best possible outcome.

So any given day you have 1-5 actions you can take based on your current condition: what do you do with those actions? As you explore the Eye you’ll discover a number of Drives, essentially quests that guide what types of actions will be rewarding for your character. Successfully completing drives gives you upgrade points to increase your stats, and especially early in the game most drives are going to be tied to actions that also give you more practical rewards like cryo so you can buy food and stabilizer. A lot of activities on the ship are locked behind exploration – you’ll have a node that represents a wide swath of the ship and until you do activities there to learn about that section of the Eye, you won’t have access to all of the options available there. This was my biggest mistake in my early playthrough of the game: I didn’t do very much exploring, so I got to a point where I had missed out on a lot of useful resources because I waited until there were basically no quests I could finish without fleshing out the rest of the ship.

Progress towards significant outcomes either positive or negative are tracked on clocks. Clocks vary in size depending on the complexity of a task and can be filled in different ways. Some clocks – like maintaining a mushroom garden – may just need a certain number of cycles to fill, while other clocks – like repairing a ship – won’t fill unless you take specific action to fill them. Certain clocks tied to negative outcomes may fill as a consequence for a poor roll. Whether a clock is good or bad, once it fills an event will become available related to the completion of the clock. This can move Drives forward or cause them to be failed. Failure is an inevitability on the Eye, but Citizen Sleeper operates on a fail-forward system where unsuccessful tasks don’t result in a game-over state or stop the action. You can grow past your mistakes and still find an ending to your journey that’s satisfying.

This brings me to one of the most satisfying aspects of Citizen Sleeper: the narrative. I’ve shared the basic premise – you’re a sleeper owned by a corporation trying to get your life together after escaping. But cruel corporate overlords and the consequences of their behavior don’t just exist back where you came from. The Eye is in a strange state when you find it, years removed from a unionization effort that attempted to separate it from corporate control but still having its own structures of power and bureaucracy to contend with. It’s a world that no sleeper could survive on their own; what you really need to succeed are meaningful relationships with other people.

It took my sleeper far too long to meet Tala, and when he did he was at rock bottom. Her friendship was his first glimmer of hope on Erlin’s Eye, and marked a serious turning point in my playthrough.

Citizen Sleeper has a lovely cast of outsiders for your character to work with in order to build a life. Like you, many of them have been hurt by the callousness of capital. As a result, some of them will even do things that hurt you. But more often than not, the friendships you build on the Eye will be the beacons of hope for your character, the unexpected rescue in the clutch that gets you stabilizer or food when you most need it, or protects you from your corporate masters when their bounty hunters come knocking. Most of the game’s Drives are strongly attached to one or two characters, and the time you spend with them culminates in meaningful exchanges that show the power of community to bring safety and healing in an otherwise cruel world.

I don’t want to spoil for you the kinds of things that can happen as part of your journey through Citizen Sleeper. What I will say is that the game does an excellent job of giving you control over how your story ends. I technically got two endings during my playthrough, but one was a choice I rejected in favor of pursuing the other. I was able to use that rejected ending to resolve a sore spot from a previous drive – a missed connection, a friend I failed to help when they needed me – and then pursue my other goals to what I felt was their logical conclusion. During my time with Citizen Sleeper there were moments when I truly felt the pressure of the clock and the looming thread of low condition and energy even if I never actually plunged all that low on my meter. But the game did an excellent job of applying that pressure and being honest about how hard it is to live in a world where your survival is dependent on the whim of a faceless boss who cares only about profitability. And the hope I found in being able to break free of that system and eventually transcend it led to a satisfying payoff for my sleeper.

I’ve played some damn good games this year, and Citizen Sleeper may be one of the best. The way the mechanics work to reinforce the narrative while also providing a fun gameplay loop on their own right kept me glued to the game every time I got a chance to play. I wanted the best outcomes for the characters I grew to care about and genuinely felt bad about the drives I failed. Erlin’s Eye went from a stopping point on my character’s desperate flight to somewhere else to a place they were happy to stay, integrating themselves into the ecosystem there as intimately as they possibly could to give back to the community that saved their life and made them free. I highly recommend the game; it’s one that I can feel will stick with me for quite some time.

2 thoughts on “Citizen Sleeper is a Harsh but Hopeful Tale of Community Overcoming Corporate Cruelty

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  1. I am so envious of your ability to articulate exactly why Citizen Sleeper is one of this year’s best games. I spent hours trying to do so, but ultimately reduced it down to a couple of paragraphs in a post covering several titles. 😐

    Regardless, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I was pretty dang sure that you would once I finished it myself. Are you planning to do a spoiler filled post about the endings you got, or should I ask about that over DM?

    Liked by 1 person

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