How ‘Citizen Sleeper’ Turns Stress into Intimate Storytelling

Most video games explain how and why the player might fail. 'Citizen Sleeper' keeps this information hidden on purpose.

You never have enough in Citizen Sleeper, a stellar sci-fi mashup of a visual novel, survival game, and tabletop RPG, to feel safe, whether it’s money, food, or the medicine to stop your body—an emulated version of a human under a corporation’s control—from decaying over time. You are poor in Citizen Sleeper, and yet, everything you need to survive is expensive. 

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Citizen Sleeper, a game that projects as chill vibes, locks players into a perpetual state of distress, to the point that I was often walking away to properly think through next steps.

“The idea of managing a decaying artificial body came pretty early on in Citizen Sleeper, back when it was just an idea about debt-slavery and precarity,” said designer Gareth Damian Martin to Waypoint. “I had wanted to make a sci-fi game about gig-work for a long time, after many years spent working temp or zero-hours contracts, and that shaped the way I experienced London as a city with all its complexity and layers of interlocking lives.”

One of the game’s strongest tools is forbidding players from knowing too much about how things can go wrong, but constantly threatening they can and will. The most basic example is what the game calls “condition,” aka your health bar. Citizen Sleeper involves the player advancing an activity—earning money, working a job site, exploring an area—by rolling a set of five dice each “cycle,” the equivalent of a day. When you’re out of dice, it’s time to end the cycle, which advances plot points, refreshes your dice, and knocks condition and energy—a separate health bar that increases condition decay when it’s too low—down a few notches. 

“My initial inspiration were the kind of systems that keep people in closed loops, company towns, Uber drivers who rent their cars from Uber, these structures that lock people into downward spirals of debt and difficulty,” said Martin. “Abstracting that to being about someone's body felt like a natural leap to me, but retrospectively I think that was about my own experiences of depersonalization, depression, and gender dysphoria. I was definitely interested in the idea of a body that was not yours, or that was hostile to you in some way.”

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Martin wanted Citizen Sleeper to, in both systems and story, focus on “interactions that games so often ignore,” like waking up, working, eating, sleeping, and drinking. These are actions more likely to be found in the incredibly popular survival sim genre, but in Citizen Sleeper, they exist “to give a sense of living, more a sense of busyness and productivity.”

Importantly, most games have a kind of endstate, triggered by players failing some action, prompting the game to send players back to an old save game, or to start from scratch. Citizen Sleeper has game systems that strongly imply one of these will happen, but the game never explains what happens if, say, your condition hits zero. Instead, it relies on institutional knowledge that failing in video games is bad, so you should probably avoid it!

“I knew the threat of failure was important, the fear and tension of the bar going down,” said Martin, “but I also wanted as many people as possible to get the desired experience—that of scraping by, of building on their failures, of multiple failures and successes coming together to tell a story that felt real and earned. I do actually tell the player, in one of the first tutorials, that if their condition reaches zero they will experience a ‘breakdown,’ I just don't define that on purpose! I know that most players will see the condition going down and get scared, and the game is balanced so (I hope) the majority of players won't see a breakdown.”

One time, while navigating through an unnerving situation where my character’s condition was on the verge of collapse, I was simultaneously in debt to a bounty hunter hired by the corporation that’d made me. I needed to pay the bounty hunter to avoid dying, as I tried to navigate whatever my new definition of “life” was, but there might not be a point to living if my condition deteriorated so much that my body could no longer engage with the world.

In a moment of weakness, I looked up a walkthrough for Citizen Sleeper on Neoseeker, and almost clicked on the section called “What Happens If 'Condition' Reaches 0?” But I stayed strong, paid for the life-saving medicine my body needed, and headed into the next cycle hungry but without cash, clinging to hope I’d figure out a path forward on the other side. 

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Martin said one of their design strategies was to “take the failures as canon,” which is why—mild spoiler incoming—reaching condition zero is not game over. It’s not without punishment, as players have one of their primary skills docked an upgrade point, but you keep going. The game is balanced to avoid most players ever experiencing this, but if they do, the threat of a game over screen does the heavy lifting, rather than the frustration of a literal game over.

“I think frustration, friction and tension do a lot to make a game world feel meaningful, and for you to feel like your character is really part of it.”

“One early decision I made in the game was to never to supply the player with an option that would lead them into something disappointing or boring,” said Matin. “Just like when I am running a tabletop game I am always trying to provide interesting consequences to failures, and keep the narrative running, so here I am playing that role, too. I am trying to guide each player through a meaningful path, where there are moments of relief and moments of tension, but where I never just shut the book in their face and say they failed and they have to start again.”

Lots of games attempt to push players into uncomfortable situations, but few have the true courage of their conditions because of a very basic concept: saved games. It’s pretty common, especially in story-based games, for players to have an opportunity to experience a decision, sit through the ramifications, and decide to essentially re-roll by loading a save.

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Citizen Sleeper, by contrast, is constantly autosaving every minute or so. You can even check how long it’s been since the last autosave by pausing the game, a feature I wish more games had for reasons entirely unrelated to locking in my stressful choices. But here, autosaves serve the important function of preventing save scumming. A choice is a choice.

“I can't let the player go back and reload and take another shot,” said Martin. “The story has to keep going, so I'm not going to let you save scum. It's the same with the failstate. I knew the threat of failure was important, the fear and tension of the bar going down, but I also wanted as many people as possible to get the desired experience—that of scraping by, of building on their failures, of multiple failures and successes coming together to tell a story that felt real and earned.”

It’s possible to break the difficulty curve towards the end of Citizen Sleeper, if you roll your dice right. It’s suddenly much cheaper to buy your medicine, eat food, and provide supplies to the community you’ve built around you. But it feels properly earned, not a cheat code. It slots in alongside the hours you’ve spent discovering who you want to become in this place.

“I think frustration, friction and tension do a lot to make a game world feel meaningful, and for you to feel like your character is really part of it,” said Martin. “There are stakes! But too much tension all the time and it feels unfair and painful. Really I think balance is a bit of a myth in games, you can only ever balance for one group of players effectively. And by doing that you end up excluding another group on some level. So I tried instead to provide a broad palette of experiences and activities, and make them lead to interesting moments”

They pulled that off, certainly. Citizen Sleeper is a marvel that feels incredibly personal. 

“It's tricky to GM a tabletop game for 100,000+ people,” said Martin, “but It's something I'm eager to figure out how to do, and I think Citizen Sleeper is a step in the right direction.”

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).

Tagged:

Tabletop-RPGs, Citizen Sleeper

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