We’re finally here! My Game of the Year for 2022 is Citizen Sleeper, a narrative adventure game by solo developer Gareth Damian Martin with light RPG elements and some of the heaviest and most poignant writing I’ve seen in games this year — and also some of the most hopeful.
The game itself is gorgeous: behind its UI are gleaming lights and heavy shadows cast across the blocky components of the space station on which it’s set. Its music provides a powerful atmosphere, and its character designs are bursting with details. But its aesthetic polish is only the cherry on top of a beautifully written story filled with evocative prose and storytelling that consistently works equally well as metaphor and diegesis.
One Day at a Time
Citizen Sleeper follows the story of a Sleeper, a type of android laborer built from the mind and memories of a human being (sound familiar?). The Sleepers are effectively copies of living people who are loaded into android bodies (the property of megacorporation that indentures them) and sent into difficult and dangerous jobs, like mining resources from uninhabited worlds. The humans who volunteer their mental data to the system exchange it for a chance at an easier life, never really knowing the fate of their mental clones that go on to work in harsh conditions.
The game opens with the titular Sleeper awakening on a ship, having successfully escaped from the mining operation that they were posted at, to find that they’re the only one to have made it out. They’ve landed on Erlin’s Eye, a space station on the edge of space that’s controlled by a number of factions who vie for its labor, space, trafficked goods, and the salvage and supplies that come by via regular shipments.
Since the Sleeper is essentially an escaped slave, the Essen-Arp corporation that crafted them has built in mechanisms that will prevent them from surviving outside of the company’s grasp. The Sleeper’s body is deteriorating, reliant by design on a proprietary supplement that Essen-Arp manufactures. The only way to stay alive is to get more of it, somehow. Meanwhile, they’ll need to eat, sleep, earn money, and evade further threats.
For each day the Sleeper spends on the Eye, they’ll roll a number of dice that can be slotted into different tasks to advance their goals. Helping the salvager who unearthed you in his shipyard, exploring parts of the station, gambling, and investigating the mysteries of the station itself; all of these objectives can be advanced by spending dice. The higher the die, the better the chance of a successful or neutral outcome; negative outcomes may take away resources or hinder progress.
At the beginning, each day is a struggle to make the most of limited resources, find reliable work, and find the few kind-hearted strangers that will make it possible for the Sleeper to survive. The power wielded by exploitative medical systems, and the lengths that corporations will go to in order to protect anything they consider their property, are ultimately thinly-veiled metaphors. But Citizen Sleeper goes out of its way to explore nuanced implications and details, bringing richness to the story itself as well as the concepts it stands in for.
Survival under powerful systems of oppression and control is difficult on the best of days… and some days, the Sleeper just won’t roll well. They’ll wake up at the beginning of they cycle and the HUD at the top of the screen might have a 3 as the best die available today. And it’ll have to do, it’ll have to be enough, somehow.
Citizen Sleeper’s use of interface to communicate its world is constantly spectacular. It deploys systems lifted from tabletop RPGs (dice rolls, progress clocks) to keep its storytelling guided but flexible, and the use of interface to tell its stories brings an unexpected tactility. It feels terrible to drag that 1-value die into a slot and press the “Start Action” button; but it’s often better to risk it than to waste the time. The interface that drives the various narrative devices does everything it can to build its own metaphors around the struggle of existence with chronic illness and disability under an uncaring and exploitative medical system.
Building a Home
In the end, there’s really only one way to survive on the Eye: through community. Over the course of the game, Citizen Sleeper introduces a number of side characters who will become companions, antagonists, employers, or business partners. The relationships built aren’t directly codified in the story (there’s no incrementing Social Link or anything like that), but many of the side characters are at the center of storylines that can be pursued.
Erlin’s Eye is a remote station, writhing in the wake of overthrown corporate masters and the various factions who negotiate and fight over the available resources. Some communities on the Eye do their best to unravel its mysteries and find sustainable ways to live and generate resources. A multitude of characters will come in and out of focus during the Sleeper’s life on the Eye, and some may become part of the life they build there.
Citizen Sleeper is a stark and heart-wrenching game at times but it is first and foremost a hopeful one. Its people are struggling but warm, and kindness can be found in unusual places. Many characters will request the Sleeper’s assistance with large projects that they couldn’t do alone or ask for help acquiring hard-to-find resources and objects. As the Sleeper entangles their lives with the people on the station, they find salvation, comfort, and mutual aid in the people they work with.
Shortly after arriving, the Sleeper also discovers something unique about their synthetic body: the ability to access the enigmatic data cloud that drives Erlin’s Eye. Time can be spent probing its depths to uncover hidden information and advance objectives, often at the risk of awakening the dormant security systems. The way that the Sleeper can interfaces with the Eye’s data cloud adds further layers to its ideas about bodies, minds, and the ways that they’re connected and distinct.
The transhumanist ideas in Citizen Sleeper are especially striking in how grounded they are, explored through the perspective of an individual and their perceptions. The writing does a lot of legwork to orient its biggest philosophical ideas around the ways in which they impact the daily lives of the Eye’s residents. Its examination of personhood through machines and digital lifeforms reflects the same depth of empathy and intellectual curiosity as the human residents of Erlin’s Eye.
Citizen Sleeper is my Game of the Year because it was moving to me on so many levels, while always feeling grounded in stories about people and their lived experience. I probably could find much more to say about it, but there’s so much joy to be found in seeing the game unfold that I don’t want to give up any more details.
Moreover, there are more story updates that I’ve yet to even play, and more coming next year. It’s a world that feels alive, and lets me feel like I’ve helped to build something without ever doing more than dropping dice into slots. I’m really excited to go back to it, but I also hope I can convince more folks to give it their time. It’s a really special game and there’s nothing else quite like it.