Citizen Sleeper review: A subversive sci-fi RPG with tabletop freedom

Half-way sleeper citizen, I realize that the closest thing I have to real parents on this whole space station is trapped inside an old vending machine. Neovend 33 is a grumpy little thing, but who can blame it? The AI ​​is dormant, gathering dust in a locked bay, hoping someone like me—a dysfunctional sleeper who barely holds it together—would come to help. Long after saying goodbye to Neovend, it remains planted in my head like a seed, and I am alone to face the practical impossibilities of my own existence. And when I finish the game, only having to exist, I miss Neovend deeply.

Citizen Sleeper is the new narrative, text-heavy role-playing game from Jump Over the Age (aka Gareth Damian Martin, the creator of the 2020s In other waters) which uses a dice system inspired by tabletop games. The player controls a Sleeper – an emulated “person” fleeing the Essen-Arp megacorporation in a proprietary body designed for “planned obsolescence”. It’s not far from consumer tech now – hardware purposely designed to wither away in the face of endless updates and opaque new operating systems (or in the case of the bionic eyes company Second sight, equipment that bricks in the face of bankruptcy). For Essen-Arp, these frames are a fail-safe to keep escapees like me from going too far before they can send someone to bring me back. It is, however, possible to partially repair the body of the Sleeper, which is more than can be said for many electronic devices today.

Drawing on its tabletop inspirations, Citizen Sleeper offers a range of three character classes. I choose one as far from my life traits as possible: the careful and structured machinist who excels in engineering type work. I wake up, filled with anxiety, on Erlin’s Eye (or simply “the Eye”), a decaying space station. My frame needs fixing, and after meeting scrap metal scavenger Dragos, it becomes clear that I need to earn “cryo”, a cryptocurrency that has been isolated from the market. Capitalism is a never-ending female dog, but I quickly learn that even in the face of truly grim choices, the game still allows The Sleeper to retain a sweet, haunting sense of humanity through dialogue and actions. Fleeting scenes of violence and brutality also offer vulnerability, and I come away filled with conflicting flashes of sadness and resentment. A subplot, involving a hired moron named Ethan, is eerily moving, and at the end of its story I dwell on the awful minutiae of humanity in a universe where individual lives don’t seem to matter.

It takes me several cycles to build momentum towards narrative immersion, as well as some budding trust in the Eye. “Cycles” are the increments of time that move the game forward (these are basically working days). Each cycle requires managing my condition (the state of my body), my available dice rolls (the actions I can perform) and my energy bar (the food situation). The worse my state is, the less dice I have. With each new character I encounter or area I explore, the game unlocks a new “drive” or big goals to pursue – like joining a commune or finding a way to remove the Essen-Arp tracker from my treacherous setting. The essential idea behind Citizen Sleeper is to survive and use readers as loose avenues to serve your own needs, whether that means learning more about your past or understanding your future.

The early tutorial cycles aren’t complicated if you’re familiar with turn-based tabletop RPGs that run on dice. However, it takes me time to find a good rhythm. By the time I hit 30-40 cycles, I feel a singular, laser-like focus as I enter the green lane, where I must search for fragile mushrooms. I immerse myself in delivering noodles, unloading goods, and scavenging scraps to fix small parts of my body.

All of these little tasks serve larger purposes – especially the drive to help others – and they fill the narrative lulls and waiting periods with a sense of purpose, even if it’s just a busy work. I stubbornly spend at least 3 cryos a day feeding a stray cat, hoping the game will eventually give way and allow me to have a pet (it doesn’t).

Neovend 33, an AI from Citizen Sleeper, has been stuck in a vending machine for years

Image: Jump Over Age/Travel Companion

As each cycle progresses, I explore more of the Eye and become familiar with its ad hoc bureaucracies, resident mercenaries, and enterprising merchants. After an event known as the “Collapse”, the station became a haven for misfits and fugitives, a haven for victims of industrial greed, and a haven for restless AIs. There’s Emphis, a street food vendor whose body is scarred with the telltale signs of corporate biotech; there’s also Sabine, an enigmatic doctor with suspicious motives. One of my favorite NPCs is Feng, an Eye born and bred hacker bent on exorcising his house of its corporate past. It’s clear that Sleepers like me are rare here, though, and the practical realities of life in this lawless place mean that many see the Sleeper’s precious body as a means to an end. Everyone on the Eye knows their place in the world except me.

One thing that turned me off was that the credits play after each “correct” ending, and then I return to where I left off, free to work on remaining drives or just spin around my eye. (I was a bit confused the first time it happened, but I kept playing – I had passed up a chance to leave my body for good. But the second time it happened, I realized it was intentional, as if the game was repeatedly testing my desire to be truly free.) Finally, I complete all urges and choose, against all common sense, to stay on the Eye at instead of escaping to the promise of a better life. At this point, I’ve amassed enough resources to run my body for 40 or 50 cycles – if I keep doing my chores, I can exist as long as I want. The panic and desperation of early cycles are long gone and my cup is overflowing with cryo. I have nothing more to do.

My spontaneous decision to stay on the Eye, long after I had exhausted all my lingering urges and curiosities, threw me into a loop. I rejected every ending offered by the game in favor of a self-induced limbo, which forced me to confront my expectations of a clean and neat closure; I don’t know how this will all resonate with someone who’s chosen a more finished way of wrapping things up.

An aerial view of a section of The Eye in Citizen Sleeper

Image: Jump Over Age/Travel Companion

But the game’s greatest strength (and also its most infuriating choice) is detaching myself from concrete goals and letting myself exist for no reason. I keep going through cycles of feeding the cat, playing games of table for cryo, and helping out at the local bar. At first, I expect an endgame surprise, like a sadistic JRPG boss lurking behind the scenes (which would be a decidedly unusual move for the developer), but nothing happens. What am I supposed to do without a drive? Why am I even here? It’s almost a troll, but I realize that I have no reason to wait any longer. The bluntness of the “ending,” or rather the vague flexibility around my particular ending, is confusing, but I respected it as a kind of passive-aggressive drag.

When I finally decide to end the game, I leave my Sleeper in the green lane, where I imagine they can continue to go about their quiet, private business. I’m not sure I’ll go back to the Eye because even though I make different decisions in another run, Citizen Sleeper’s strongest power is in that first part, when you come in with nothing and get some know even less. It’s not so much about “replay value” as it is about the singular experience of a journey that, in keeping with the fiction of being a ragged sleeper trying to survive, is a one-way street. Did I do well by my Sleeper? I do not know. But everything must come to an end, and I have a feeling they would understand.

sleeper citizen will be released on May 5 on Windows PC, Mac, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Jump Over the Age. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased through affiliate links. You can find additional information on Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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