Citizen Sleeper: Dice Rolls Make the Space Station Go Round
Citizen Sleeper does an excellent job of replicating the challenges I faced in living in new cities around the world. It mimics my feeling of being lost but needing to find work, friends, and a safe place to live. Setting it in the abandoned “Eye” space station and giving me the persona of a “Sleeper” – a human soul trapped in a replicant body -- makes it an intriguing, creepy, and oddly heartwarming experience.
Warning: Because I'm focused on story events working in tandem with gameplay mechanics there are spoilers ahead.
Up top I want to complement Game Designer/Writer Gareth Damian Martin of Jump Over the Age for creating a perfectly paced game. Once I got past the densely written tutorial and dove into game play, I found the balance between action/mechanics and character/story events perfectly satisfying.
Let me put this game into context with the D&D of it all. I am a D&D newbie. I’ve just played my first one-shot campaign of D&D this last weekend, after I started playing Citizen Sleeper.
Before starting, with what little I knew of D&D, I could sense that many of the mechanics of Citizen Sleeper come from that format. But I didn’t know how they would work. So, I threw myself into the game and figured it out as I went. I may just have discovered my play style. When I don't know what to do, I throw myself in there and give it a go!
I scanned the tutorial as best I could. Then I looked over the three possible avatar choices. The meaning of the drives and skills shown on the options didn’t really click for me. I made my selection almost randomly – probably based on the look of the character more than anything.
When I don't know what to do, I throw myself in there and give it a go!
By the way, all of the Characters in Citizen Sleeper are gorgeously evocative. Big kudos to artist Guillaume Singelin!
My drives and skills didn’t start making sense until three things happened: 1) I unknowingly earned upgrade points and didn’t know how to best to apply them to my character. 2) I unknowingly lost character upgrade points by letting my food and medicine health bars drop, and 3) I started reading the fine print on the money-making tasks.
Surviving in the world of Citizen Sleeper is like any job. The more comfortable I got, the more head space I had for details.
Some ways to make money rely on intuition in buying and selling scrap material. Ooooh! I get it. Next upgrade, I will add to my intuition. And I did. And I made more money in my trades.
Surviving in the world of Citizen Sleeper is like any job. The more comfortable I got, the more head space I had for details. When I got into the groove of the work/rest cycle and had my basic needs met, then I started reading the fine print and was more selective with my actions.
The other D&D aligned mechanic is the random roll of five potential action die shown at the top of the dashboard. Anytime you want, you can return to your home and recharge. By the time I finished playing I had found or renovated four places to end my cycle, sleep, and recover. This made play super-efficient. I could sleep near where I was working on a particular project.
By the time I finished playing I had found or renovated four places to end my cycle, sleep, and recover.
When you wake up from your recovery/sleep, the five die have been rolled for you. Sometimes all five die are high numbers like fives and sixes. Sometimes only two die show up and they are both ones. These die can then be used to complete tasks. If you get five sixes, you can complete five dangerous actions safely. If you got two ones, you can try your luck and probably fail, or you can stick to safe actions.
Every time you recharge, all of the active ticking cycle-clocks on the Eye station progress one wedge along their clock-face. Cycle-clock progression can be good if you are waiting for a crop of mushrooms to grow, or it can be anxiety producing if a bounty hunter is closing in on you.
Frequently I wanted to run through the cycles – so that my alcohol would brew, or a ship that I could work on would return. Other times I was aware that I needed to use my turns very judiciously. I failed to beat the clock a few times—twice when bounty hunters were after me, and once when I did not complete a ship repair before it needed to depart the station.
Cycle-clock progression can be good if you are waiting for a crop of mushrooms to grow, or it can be anxiety producing if a bounty hunter is closing in on you.
These ticking cycle-clocks drove the game for me. I enjoyed the story events and NPCs that I met. I took on their needs as best I could. But in the beginning of the game, I was more interested in surviving the clocks. Once the bounty hunters were dead, and I had stabilized my ability to survive, then I was much more inspired and able complete quests given to me by NPCs. I think that’s very human—get safe, take care of myself, then I can help others.
Once I got my basic needs met, I fell in love with the NPCs and wanted to help them. Their stories are compellingly written. Their careful dialogue inquiries echoed my IRL interactions with strangers in unfamiliar lands.
I didn’t kill my first bounty hunter when I had the chance. I did have to kill the second bounty hunter to save my life. I helped Tala build her still. I let Lem and Mina take my place on the escape ship. I kept helping Bliss with her repair work -- even when she consistently didn’t pay me. I helped Ankhita fix her ship, didn’t kill her when she killed my fellow sleeper, and I even helped her escape the station with Bliss and leave me behind.
I fell in love with the NPCs and wanted to help them. Their stories are compellingly written.
With so many options, I truly felt like I co-authored my experience in the game. There were many quests that I did not follow up on... not so much by choice, but because I couldn't figure out how to do them. I completed the game (got the end credits) twice, but never found a single data chip! Many of the NPCs needed data and referred to me as a data trader. But that wasn't me. That wasn't the path that I was able to follow.
The story events married perfectly to the gameplay mechanics to create a palpable emotional arc. To go from hustling to survive and then evolve to being able to develop relationships and help others is an amazing feeling!
Citizen Sleeper does a great job of connecting me to the feeling of contemporary gig living while elevating me into an intriguing Science Fiction world. I loved it.