Like most great sci-fi, Citizen Sleeper has something to say about the here and now

Citizen Sleeper's machinist character
(Image credit: Jump Over the Age)

Citizen Sleeper debuted at the PC Gaming Show in June, and it immediately dazzled me. It stood out as a stylish science-fiction RPG, and its focus on storytelling and freedom seemed especially promising. Creator Gareth Damian Martin released In Other Waters in 2020, a game where you play as an AI helping a xenobiologist, and is particularly interested in digging into today's real world problems again with this new game, but with a different angle and style.

"Just like In Other Waters sent players to another planet in order to explore and discuss our relationship to this planet," Damian Martin says, "Citizen Sleeper sends players to a far-flung future of opaque technology and extreme precarity in order to explore our own time."

I love games that try to capture a sense of relatable reality, and Citizen Sleeper seems to be attempting to do this in a sci-fi setting. Damian Martin mentions the influence of the anime Cowboy Bebop, specifically its emphasis on "gig-work and loneliness and boredom." Damian Martin also uses the words "precarity, personhood and freedom" on Citizen Sleeper's Steam page, and I was intrigued to know how they planned to explore each of those in the game. When we talk, the concept they outline is both haunting and an example of thoughtful science fiction that still feels relatively rare in games.

"Imagine you could sign yourself up to be copied," Damian Martin says. "This copy of you could then be put in a digital body and work for you, clearing your debts and earning you money while you slept. You would never have to experience the work, or the suffering of your copy, and one day you could just wake up with your debt cleared, money in your pocket and walk out. In Citizen Sleeper you are one of these copies, a sleeper, a dead end of a life, meant to be deleted, but who escaped from the system.

"This kind of debt-slavery is something we can see versions of in our society, in structures such as Uber which promise freedom but control both their workers' debt (when buying a car to use as a taxi) and the methods of repayment." 

Sleepers aren't legally considered "people" in the game, just copies. Corporate property. 

"In our society we also legislate who qualifies as a person or citizen," Damian Martin says. "Children of refugees are born with no nation or official identity. Trans people are legislated against in order to restrict their access to healthcare we would otherwise consider a human right."

They add, however, that the game "is not meant to be a metaphor for these experiences, but an exploration of the conditions and logics created by such a system."

The description of the game mentions that it’s about ‘roleplaying in the ruins of interplanetary capitalism’, which is perhaps the most overt sign of the game’s interest in politics. Damian Martin explains that this line is partly inspired by anthropologist Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins with ‘ruins’ here representing "what is left after capitalism has moved on."

Damian Martin uses the word ‘precarity’ often for a reason. Citizen Sleeper is partially a game about their experience doing "incredibly difficult" gig work in the past, for low wages, with "a constant fear of not making rent, and the need to drop your plans at any moment to take a shift." Citizen Sleeper will capture that bleak reality, but also the more positive experiences that came with it. "The communities I worked with, the sense of mutual support and care, and the experience of being outside of routine structures and the conventions of office work kept me alive," Martin says.

Damian Martin has even attempted to convey this crucial sense of precariousness through the gameplay mechanics where each ‘cycle’ begins with a roll of dice, and the numbers the player ends up with shape their decisions.

"We've all had days where we feel like we have woken up having rolled 'all ones': nothing goes right, and fate itself seems stacked against us," Damian Martin says. "For a gig-worker this feeling is even more extreme I think, as the support structures other jobs have just aren't there. Luck is so much harder to mitigate when you are living on the edge of poverty or homelessness. So the question when you roll a handful of ones and twos is how do I make something out of my day?"

Political issues are clearly a key concern here, but the game is also a very personal one, with Damian Martin channeling their own emotional turmoil and struggles in regard to both gender (Damian Martin came out as non-binary in early 2021) and mental health into their work.

"I think my intention has been to reflect my own experiences through the lens of the sleeper. As I mentioned, this means my experience with gig-work, but it also means my struggles with depression and mental illness and my struggles with gender and sexuality. The idea of a body that is somehow not yours, and that is decaying or dying, or sabotaging your life is a feeling that I have had in my own experiences, whether than has been the frustration of depression affecting my ability to have a career or a life, or the feelings of depersonalisation that I grew up with."

Citizen Sleeper's narrative will branch based on some of the decisions you make. Drinking in the bar can lead to working there, and as you interact with the character that runs the bar (named Tala), "new stories will emerge."

When I ask Martin what they want players to take away from their experience with Citizen Sleeper, its approach to storytelling comes first.

"While Citizen Sleeper does engage with a lot of heady stuff, it is also a world full of stories. Some of them are funny, some of them are exciting, there are potential betrayals, and possible life-long friendships. So I want those stories to feel both separate from the world and part of it—which is how I often feel. And I guess if people find comfort, or joy, or even understanding in the game that would be pretty great too."

PC Gamer's Rachel Watts recently played an early version of Citizen Sleeper, writing that "So far, I'm completely bewitched."