The Game Pass Gambols is my chronicle of attempting to at least sample every game released on Game Pass in 2022.
Game: Citizen Sleeper
Game Type: Visual novel game with mechanics drawn from tabletop RPGs
Time Played: About 7 hours
Completion level: Rolled credits.
Approachability: Medium-low: It can be intimidating at first and many people won't 'get' it but it gets easier quickly and I think most people will be able to master it pretty quickly.
Should You Try It?: I wish you would. If you have any interest in visual novels this is probably my favorite example of the genre, and I think the writing is something special.
When I booted up Citizen Sleeper I planned to dip in long enough to get a sense for what it was like and then shut it off. It was billed as an RPG but the screen shots made it look like one of those weird indie games that tend to be opaque and hard as nails, with lots of unintuitive mechanics and even more jank.
I turned it off 6 hours later, having reached one of the potential endings but declining the finale to give me a chance to explore a few more of the potential ending paths. My first impressions had been wrong. The game’s mechanics had been relatively easy to pick up and ultimately unobtrusive, and they made way for the real star of the show.
Citizen Sleeper can really best be categorized as a visual novel with some tabletop RPG elements. You play a “sleeper,” an android body controlled by a digital copy of a real person’s mind. They’re called sleepers because the real biological person is put into hibernation while this digital copy controls the artificial body and essentially acts as a serf for some megacorporation. The corporations do this because true AI is illegal but these copies of real people fall into a loophole and are allowed.
Your sleeper awakens on a space station after the ship they were on experienced some catastrophic event and was salvaged, leaving you as the only survivor. The station itself broke free of its original corporate control and exists as one of the few independent places where misfits and non-affiliated people can survive. Unfortunately you soon find out that your body is programmed to self-destruct if you do not feed it a specific drug manufactured by the corporation you belonged to, and the corporation has also planted a tracker in you that it plans to use to recover its property. You must find a way to survive and fit in on this station while maintaining both your autonomy and your life.
The mechanics of Citizen Sleeper seem complex at first but are relatively simple once you get the hang of them. At the beginning of each day you start with a certain number of dice with the numbers already rolled. You then go to various locations and engage in actions, such as taking a shift working as a waiter for a restaurant or scavenging for items. You assign a die to each action and the number of that die dictates the chances of a positive, neutral, or negative outcome. Positive actions generally give you a purely positive result, like earning a bunch of money or filling a large number of spots on a longer running task like gaining someone’s trust, which may take a large number of actions to complete as you fill up the meter over time. Neutral actions generally result in a less positive but still beneficial outcome, like gaining a smaller amount of currency but also using up some of your energy for the day (I’ll explain what that means a bit later), or filling in only one slot on the longer term project. Negative outcomes might have you earning no money, wasting a bunch of your daily energy, or even taking damage. Your chances of each of the 3 potential outcomes are determined by how high the dice roll assigned was. A 5 or 6 means you’re generally guaranteed a positive or neutral outcome, while a 1 might mean your best case is neutral and you are likely to get a negative outcome. There is also another type of action based around computer hacking, and there instead of using the dice to influence the odds of your outcome you have to use the particular dice shown to complete the action (so only a 1 will work for some hacking, 2 for others etc…) Often the best use for low dice rolls is this hacking, which can net you resources and money from dice rolls that would otherwise likely give you a negative outcome.
In addition to the dice mechanic your character also has stats, which can influence the dice rolls on certain types of actions (such as actions characterized under ‘engineering’ if you have points in engineering; each action is characterized as one of these types) by giving you one or two extra ‘point’ on the die you assign (so if you assign a 4 it will bump it up to a 5 or 6, etc…) or by giving you an additional benefit, such as a chance of restoring your energy or getting a chance of earning an extra resource on certain kinds of actions. You also have both energy and overall health. Energy depletes with many actions and can usually be restored by buying food to eat. Health is lost at the start of each day, and your health status determines how many dice you get for that day, with each downgrade in health status meaning you can take fewer actions per day. If your energy is fully depleted you will lose more health at the start of the day. Health can also be restored, but it takes more resources than energy. Likewise health can be lost if you get a negative outcome on an action, but that’s relatively rare.
If all this sounds head-swimmingly complex, it is a little daunting at first, but the system becomes relatively intuitive after about half an hour of play. Additionally the game seems like it will be fairly difficult but it’s really quite easy. After you complete a few goals and start assigning XP points to your perks you reach a point where you’re stable and can focus on longer term goals and storylines, and then when you’re overpowered that the game’s various meters and timers are barely an annoyance. The gameplay of Citizen Sleeper is fairly shallow but it soon recedes into the background so you can focus on the story.
Citizen Sleeper’s story manages to combine its larger philosophical questions about what it means to be alive and an individual with down to earth stories of people just trying to survive in a harsh world. It’s this balance that makes it special. You will meet well drawn characters like a food stall manager or a spaceyard laborer and his adopted daughter and your interactions with them will cause your character to wonder about who they are and what their place in this world is. I found basically all the characters interesting, with clear motivations and actions that made sense, which is a rarity in video game writing. I found myself thinking “I’ll just see how this storyline resolves and then take a break” only to found myself swept up in the next one, a pattern that carried me to the end of the game in one afternoon and evening. The prose itself can be a bit pretentious and longwinded, but the characters and scenarios are interesting enough to make that a minor quibble.
It's also notable how upbeat Citizen Sleeper is for a cyberpunk game. It’s a genre of fiction that’s usually focused on the dark corners of society, with its heroes cynical and hard-bitten and its villains menacing and powerful, with the endless resources of faceless corporations at their disposal. Citizen Sleeper features a lot of kind and genuinely helpful characters, and while the evil faceless megacorps are present they are not the focus of the storytelling and seem more like a reason why the people living in their shadow come together and hold on to the little bit of the galaxy they have carved out for themselves, even if it’s just a little restaurant on a backwater space station.
I don’t think Citizen Sleeper will be for everyone, but if you’re into the Cyberpunk genre and willing to give it a little while to adjust to the mechanics I think it’s definitely worth a play. I liked it much more than I expected to, and when I reached the end I was both satisfied with the journey and left wanting at least a little bit more. It’s a bit of a misfit game but I hope it finds an audience on Game Pass and I’d be interested in whatever this team does next. These kinds of offbeat indie games that eschew traditional genres and try something interesting and weird often don’t pull me in, but Citizen Sleeper did and it offered a unique experience even to someone who has been playing games for decades. It’s a reminder that there is as much beauty to be found in the cracks and crevices of the gaming space as there is in the rusting corners of an old space station where a broken robot from a destroyed ship can find a sense of community and build a life.
GAME PASS GAMBOLS RATING(out of 5):