Life aboard the Eye: A brief conversation about Citizen Sleeper

Citizen Sleeper, a brilliant role-playing game that was one of our games of 2022, is a personal favorite of mine. So of course when my good friend and colleague Eduardo Reboucas posted in Slack to say he’d just played it this month, I had to ask if he wanted to chat about it. What follows is a quick conversation between us about what we loved about Citizen Sleeper. Enjoy!

Callum: Man, where I do begin.

Citizen Sleeper is one of those games that absorbed me from the second I started playing. Not uncommon for me, granted (I will devour just about anything if I really get into it), but it was a game I had to actively tear myself away from because of how easily it gets its hooks in you. I’ve heard multiple critics say they ended up playing it in a single sitting (or close to it). Something about it is just… entrancing.

Part of it, I think, is how strong the writing and characters are. The many stories you encounter throughout Citizen Sleeper are intricate and always compelling. Some are more grandiose than others (dealing with a killer AI and everything that follows, comes to mind), but the more mundane arcs are what really make it work. Helps make it feel like the Sleeper is actually building a life here instead of just getting involved in a bunch of wild adventures. That it also has a good gameplay loop on top of that helps make it easy to lose time to.

I played Citizen Sleeper half a year ago at this point, but you’ve just recently played through it yourself. What’d you think of it?

Citizen Sleeper screenshot showing a character named Sabine. Text reads: "I'm sorry, Sabine says, and you are unsure if they mean for the cold teach of the metal or everything else. "Emulations like you, sleepers as most know you, aren't classified as people in any of the surrogate systems. You have no rights, no status." They focus hard on the inspection of your arm. "And Essen-Arp has no reason to release stabilizer into the market."

Eduardo: I really dug it. I didn’t expect to like it so much, and honestly, the first few minutes playing it on Game Pass sometime last year while I still had an active subscription didn’t really fill me with confidence. But having had the chance to jump back this time again, it grew on me for sure.

I find the game to be quite an accomplishment as a narrative adventure first and foremost. It’s so god damn well written! In all honesty, there’s not much to it when it comes to gameplay, I found it to be just okay in that regard.

How did you like playing it? What was your favorite part of Citizen Sleeper?

Callum: Really? I thought the gameplay was very strong. The ways it uses tabletop design like drives and clocks to illustrate the passage of time and track progress on bigger tasks; the ways dice rolls influence decisions and effectively systematize the ways in which you just sometimes can’t do a good job at work some days (those moments when all I have are low value dice and fail to earn much, if any, credits because I failed the roll) and the stress that comes with it. In a vacuum, it’s nothing particularly special, sure, but in concert with the many narrative threads? Man. So good.

But it’s also just compelling on a really basic level as well. Cameron Kunzelmann compared it to the “clicky draw of a mobile game” and I can see it. Its systems definitely feel like they are of a type of design that, intentionally or not, encourages that sort of obsessive play. Watching bars fill is just fundamentally satisfying, especially when you have some measure of input instead of watching them move passively. Cycles are quick and actions are easy to breeze through, so it’s very easy to fall into the classic “just one more turn” loop that’s defined so many games.

My favorite part, though… gosh. That’s hard. I know I said this elsewhere already, but probably the quiet, mundane moments. The process of slowly making a home for yourself amid the many communities that exist on The Eye and the act of getting there I found really affecting. As much as I enjoy grandiose sequences and stories like anyone else, the specific ways Citizen Sleeper sticks to smaller, more grounded stakes — how it is just a story of trying to eke out a comfortable living for yourself — just really, really works for me.

What about yours? Any moments that stuck out?

Eduardo: I think I generalized the gameplay too much in saying I didn’t like it. I just think that it ends up feeling overly simplified when it all boils down to dice, even more so when you level up a lot by the endgame. I did enjoy the overall idea that your improvements would make challenges relatively easier to overcome. That was a pretty cool part of the whole thing. But I get you, having it go by in such a zippy fashion is awesome and when you get cycles where your actions’ consequences come into fruition, it’s particularly cathartic.

You know, I find it hard to pick just one special moment out of all the mini stories built into the game. I guess due to all the trouble you have to go through in the game to get the ingredients for the chef’s quest, I guess that could be one of my favorites. The payoff is so mundane, just two people trading life stories. Even after all of that work, since you basically pick up his quest way early in the game and only come back a while later after all the story development in the Greenway, I was satisfied with the way it concluded.

Even after beating the game once, I still want to jump back to it to see other outcomes. Did you feel like you were done with the game after getting one of the endings? Are you planning on playing the extra DLC scenario? I started that and… I’m getting pulled back into it… oh oh…

Callum: Oh, that’s a good one. Love that last scene with the chef. Just a nice quiet moment. Perfect example of how good Citizen Sleeper is at creating memorable scenes out of the mundane.

Yeah, once I got my ending I didn’t really feel the draw to try and see the others. There’s a couple plot threads I left hanging by doing so, but like… the ending I got had such a sense of finality to it. Choosing to remain in this fragile form, with all the pain and struggles that come with it, instead of joining a bunch of AIs in transcending mortal existence, because of the connections I’d made on the station and the life I’d built felt like the perfect place to stop.

Well, at least until the DLC arrived. I need to get back to that. Finished the first part and meant to dive into the second as soon as it launched, but, uh… other games followed by game of the year prep happened. First part was… all right. Lot of setup for what’s to come more than anything. Feel like some Big Choices may be coming. Might just wait for the final part to be out before I finally dive back in so I can just plow through it all at once.

Most notable thing about that first part is how much it becomes a huge resource drain. Multiple objectives with long clocks to fill on a pretty tight schedule. Where the base game more or less became a breeze by the end because of how much you can break the “economy” of the game (tons of credits available and plenty of stabilizer too), the DLC seems like it’s a direct response to the late-game in how much it ups the ante. Definitely felt the increased pressure. Was able to accomplish everything, but it came down to the wire. Expecting the other two parts to be equally challenging.

Eduardo: Yeah, that’s the thing with this game in particular, it feels like there’s room for it to keep going with other stories that would have happened in The Eye during our time there. And that’s exactly what the devs are going for, adding in new DLC exactly for that. While I’m not exactly jumping back to the game straight after finishing it recently, I want to drop by eventually and see what’s up with that mysterious freighter and the people depending on it to survive.

Citizen Sleep is an incredible game that leaves plenty for the imagination, as well as providing lots of food for thought with the stories within.

Thanks for dropping by to chat, Callum. See you on the next one!

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