Citizen Sleeper Title Card

Citizen Sleeper Review: Deliberative Dice Based Decisions

Citizen Sleeper blends wonderful art, narrative storytelling and meaningfully thematic gameplay in a way that is so confidently designed it’s hard not to be impressed.

Developed by Jump Over The Age and published by Fellow Traveller, with character art by Guillaume Singelin. Citizen Sleeper is a cyberpunk role playing game that heavily draws from tabletop games for a novel mechanical experience. 

Erlin’s Eye. A space station on the edge of stellar civilisation. Harnessed for profit by corporations through the ages. Built upon by people who continue to be exploited and used by those with power in order to realise their dreams of shipbuilding or corporate power.

And yet somehow you’re on a social strata beneath even them. 

You’re a sleeper. A consciousness implanted into a cybernetic body. Working in indentured servitude to pay your debts. Your implantation was crude, leaving you with broken memories and suffering from out of body experiences on a frequent basis.

And yet that body itself is even cruder. Designed around obsolescence and dependent upon proprietary drugs, you’re not even anything approaching self sufficient. Without the Company you’ll literally degrade and fall apart. 

And yet. 

You’re sentient enough and downtrodden enough to decide that escape is better than what you’re suffering. The risk of capture, the dangers of freezing to death in open space or dying before you reach safety are all still worth it. Because on Erlin’s Eye you can take the first steps to the rest of your life.

As a player, you’re immediately drawn in as you’re guided through a simple tutorial that runs through the core mechanics, while introducing you to the wider narrative structures of the game. 

The art for the world immediately captures how expansive Erlin’s Eye is as a location, spinning in the void, featureless and uncaring. 

By contrast, Singelin’s character designs and art are exactly my sort of thing. They have a gribbly, messy exhaustively detailed quality, one that I adore.

A beautiful understanding of lighting, expressive body language and with an eye for the smallest detail that means the more you look, the more you understand who these people are and what world they live in.  

Which is important as the world of Citizen Sleeper is a simple one. You click on locations from a map of the space station that you can rotate and move around from an external view. Sometimes characters will offer opportunities for conversation, but usually you’ll be seeing the action choice options for any given location, and the text channel that describes what’s happening. 

The text descriptions that flow down the right side of the screen make up a lot of Citizen Sleeper. Its helpful then that they’re generally filled with very good script. There’s a slight tendency for ponderance and rhetorical questioning, but in a game that’s this inspired by Blade Runner I think that’s a feature, not a flaw. In particular, there’s a habit of the text drifting into the second person. You’re yourself. And you’re the body these things are happening to. 

It’s a very tabletop RPG way of handling characterisation. The slight arms length of describing what your character does, rather than what “you” are doing. And this tabletop structure is one of the most intriguing things about Citizen Sleeper. Video Games crib from Tabletop games all the time. Wildermyth and Disco Elysium are both absolutely terrific examples of ways to incorporate these ideas directly. In Citizen Sleeper’s case, it’s the use of clocks, dice, actions and randomness as specific narratively integrated tools that set it apart. 

A rhythm develops as the game continues. You’ll pan the camera over the station. Consider what clocks tracking daily cycles have filled, and what options are available as a result. Maybe that salvage ship has finally come in, and needs workers to unburden it. 

Maybe your efforts to help a friend have paid off, the four cycles you had to wait for their new clock to fill have completed and now you have new opportunities. 

But your body both is and isn’t your own. You decide what you’ll do with it. But how much you can do, and how well, isn’t always within your control. 

If you can keep your body stable (through expensive medicines) you’ll stay more capable for longer. And by doing so you’ll have more dice rolled each cycle. 

But stability is not surety. Just because you have the capacity to function doesn’t mean you have a body that won’t fail.

These dice can be assigned to activities on the station, but are merely offering a chance at success. Channeling tabletop roleplaying games, especially those in the Powered by the Apocalypse genre, a dice offers a chance at a check, modified by your stats. With a 1/2, you’ve got a 50/50 Negative/Neutral outcome. A 3/4? 25/50/25 to Negative/Neutral/Positive.  Once all the dice are spent, you can use whatever items you may have, then are required to end the cycle.

You treasure high rolls. A good day may mean a string of fives and sixes that guarantee bonus effects. A stack of activities that let you make real progress.

Roll poorly? Not a waste of a cycle. Some activities can only be activated by set dice, so you simply change priority for that day. 

But most of the time you’ll have one or two good dice, and the rest is up to luck.

This randomness reflects the moments where the body simply is beyond your control. All you can do is simply take your low rolls and apply them to activities that you can cope with failing at.

It’s a very gamified way of depicting health and chronic conditions, through a fairly abstracted method. It’s no accident that the first stabiliser you get to keep your body going comes from a gangland doctor working off the books.

Mechanical mastery applied to a body that is a facsimile of a full human. Because you can in fact game the system. And to some extent this is exacerbated by the cycle/clock system being entirely visible at all times.

For example, I knew I wanted to get involved with a family I met, to continue their story and to help them. To do so meant engaging in a specific activity with them around the mid point of Citizen Sleeper. In game terms, this was represented as me going to their home and literally assigning an action every cycle. More if I could spare them. A very simple action, with not much risk.

This is no different, in theory, than when I’d go and talk to NPCs in Elden Ring or Mass Effect at every opportunity between quests, to advance their plotlines. 

The difference here is that I literally had a filling clock in front of me, telling me that if I babysat a child one more time, it would have progress in a narrative. Later, one of the upgrade tree elements literally shows you the positive/negative outcomes of most actions. 

It’s a small but compelling distinction. The effect often is falling into a mechanical passiveness as a player while your sleeper is performing actions that explicitly reinforce their humanity, and their place in the community.

A lot of the pondering and questioning of Citizen Sleeper comes down to how real the sleeper is. Whether they’re a person like everyone else they help, or held apart by their differences. Is the sleeper a thing that thinks it’s a person, deserving of that second person narration? Or a conflicted individual trying to connect with the people around you? 

Citzien Sleeper Emphis

What I found (potentially through my choices alone) was that I ended up actively pushing against that distinction. It’s a fun interrogation. Early on, I began to wonder if I was just a tool to the people of Erlin’s Eye. I’d accomplish their tasks, fill their clocks, wait for their next instructions. In between I’d struggle to try and keep enough resources to balance their needs and my own. It was a  string of low paying, high turnover jobs I’d be assigning actions to every cycle.

It created a fascinating arc for the game. A real sense of staving off early disaster by the thinnest of margins, and being so dependent on the kindness of others to keep you going.

And then something changed, and the overall arc of the game shifted from fear of my own degradation and return to the corporation. 

Everything stabilised. 

There were actions to spare occasionally. I could focus on tasks I hadn’t worked on previously. There was time to double down on plotlines, able to choose what I wanted to happen for myself, for these people, for Erlin’s Eye.

In short, asking the rhetorical questions of personhood simply became less important than just being a good person.

Mechanical design evoking human emotion to drive the player towards those interactions, in the midst of an environment that’s hostile to everyone involved. Citizen Sleeper does a really good job of that. Both in game and out.

Citizen Sleeper is available now on Xbox (including Gamepass), PC on Steam, GOG, Humble and the Epic Game Store as well as Nintendo Switch

All Media Assets provided Courtesy of Fellow Traveller