This lo-fi role-playing game set aboard a decaying space station sees you play as a Sleeper, a human mind in a robot body. Multiple storylines to explore create a fantastic sci-fi tapestry, finds Jacob Aron
5 May 2022
As I have written previously in this column, in addition to being New Scientist’s resident video game guru, I am a big fan of tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) like Dungeons & Dragons. With no need to conjure up graphics or touch a line of computer code, in a TTRPG, you are only limited by you and your friends’ shared imagination.
Pleasingly, video games are increasingly borrowing ideas from TTRPGs. The latest is Citizen Sleeper, a lo-fi cyberpunk RPG set aboard a decaying space station called Erlin’s Eye. You play as a Sleeper, a human mind in a robot body. Wiped of their original memories, Sleepers usually serve as slaves for the megacorporation that owns them, but you have escaped and need to find your own path in life.
Like a TTRPG, much of the game takes place in your imagination. You don’t navigate a 3D world, instead interacting through location points dotted around a map of the space station. These might present you with an opportunity for conversations, told through text in a manner similar to Disco Elysium, another TTRPG-inspired game, and charming character pictures. Or you could be given a choice of tasks to perform in order to achieve your goals.
The first priority in the game is survival. Your robot body is built with planned obsolescence, meaning it will slowly decay unless you can get treatment that is only provided by the megacorps – finding an alternative supplier is an early goal. You also needs food for power, and initially the only way to pay for it is by earning cryptocurrency by working in a variety of jobs, like bartending or shifting packages.
The game operates in cycles, the equivalent of a day on the space station, and at the start of each cycle the state of your body and hunger determines the number of dice you receive, up to a total of five. These have random values from 1 to 6 and can be used to carry out actions like working or exploring the space station, with higher values increasing the possibility of a positive outcome. Once you have used all your dice, that’s it until a new cycle starts, limiting how much you can achieve each day.
Longer goals are possible thanks to clocks at each location, a game mechanic popularised by the TTRPG Blades in the Dark. These are circles divided into segments, with more difficult or lengthy tasks corresponding to higher subdivisions. Tending bar might gradually fill up a clock that allows you to make friends with the owner, for example.
As you make your way in Erlin’s Eye, your options explode to the point where you will never manage to do everything, but juggling clocks allows you to pursue the stories and characters that you are most interested in, weaving together a fantastic sci-fi tapestry. The game offers some direction with suggested goals that, once completed, allow you to invest in skills such as engineering, but I found it more enjoyable to let my interests guide me.
Without spoiling too much, my personal narrative was incredibly moving, almost like a Becky Chambers novel. Having got myself in a position where I was able to survive happily cycle to cycle, I split my time between working on building a colony ship, where I met a man and his daughter, and trying to grow a ship repair business with a partner.
A twist in the first story left me distraught and searching for answers, to the point where I didn’t devote enough time to the business. With the clock ticking down on a huge repair job, I realised all the work I had put in had been wasted because there was no way I could finish it. Worried that I had totally failed in the game, a risky, last-minute chance for redemption appeared, leading to a satisfying and emotional ending.
Once the credits roll, the game lets you go back to just before the end and make different decisions. I still had much of the station to explore, but trying these alternative options immediately felt wrong. After all, what is the point in choosing, if not to step away from one path and on to another? Like a TTRPG, Citizen Sleeper let me tell my story, and I wouldn’t want to change it.
Jump Over the Age
PC, Xbox One and Series X/S, Nintendo Switch
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