Citizen Sleeper (spoiler thread)
July 14, 2022 5:52 PM - Subscribe

Spoiler thread for talking about Citizen Sleeper.

Citizen Sleeper opens to you dreaming of a past life and escaping to a new one, which I think is appropriate, since playing CZ is my own dream: finding a home, and a community, and a way to live in a bleak future.

You play a Sleeper, a copy of a human that has been modified and placed in a synthetic body. Your body has been sabotaged by the company that made you, so if you don't receive special chemicals on a regular basis your body will break down and you will die. The company still owns you, legally, and wants to recover you to force you back into labor. Supposedly, your labors will pay for something for your original, but you and your kind toil until you fail for someone who has created you to be a slave.

And then you escape.

Your rescue is haphazard. You're salvaged from stasis in the wreck of your escape vessel, and the person who finds you gives you a home in an empty shipping container, and offers you work. You've washed up on an old space station at the edge of habited space with no friends, no contacts, no resources, and a disability that will shortly kill you if you cannot find a way to stave it off. Your rescuer has his own problems, and is nervous to have someone like you around; he's tried to do right by you, but you quickly reach a point where he cuts his ties with you, and you are, once again, on your own. But you still have access to this shipping container, this quiet refuge that is yours, and which no one can take from you.

So right off the bat we're dealing with chronic disability and housing security in a corporate capitalistic dystopia. When you select your character, you pick one of three broad labor backgrounds, but your name, your gender, your other details -- these are left up to your imagination, and how you the player feel. There's a lot here to resonate with marginalized communities.

There are around 10 different main storylines in the base game (more coming soon), all of them built around your relationships with the people you meet. You have two needs you have to see to, your health and your energy (broadly, your disability/health clock, and a hunger clock). In the beginning you're relying a lot on the charity of certain characters and working to earn money to buy the things you need. As time progresses and you build relationships, you can find other ways to get those things, either in trade or on your own.

Something that continued to strike me - to leave me poleaxed, reeling - over and over again is how the storylines are fully grounded in community and mutual aid. These are not questlines where you do X to get Y to give to Z. Some of those situations occur, but there are usually multiple ways to accomplish it. You're playing through because you are after your own personal goal - to be free to make your own life. You can do that on the station, or there's a way for you to sail off to the stars with a crew. Either way, you find a home.

Some of the storylines are long and quiet. A food stall vendor offers you some free soup, and you two get to talking, and over a long period you're able to find some new mushrooms for him and you each open up to each other more. There's no grand resolution here, you just.. make a friend. You find a comfortable place to get a meal on a regular basis. But in doing so, you yourself become more a part of the community, and it becomes part of you.

Another of the quiet ones, and maybe my favorite, is an apartment you squat and fix up. It takes awhile, to source the repair material and do the labor. You can't even find the apartment until you've integrated more with the neighborhood it's part of. It's one of the four homes you can find in the game, and the only one that you make yourself. At the end, a stray cat comes to visit, and you two can share a silent moment together contemplating the station ring and the lights above and below.

The storyline that kills me, personally, every time, is Lem & Mina.

Lem is a man working on building a generation ship that's currently in dock on the station. The setup is that if you work on the ship, you have a chance at a ticket on it, and a life on a new colony world. Mina is Lem's adopted daughter. Early on in the storyline you wind up babysitting Mina, whose regular babysitter is no longer available. There are four endings to this storyline.

One is that you eventually secure a ticket on the ship, but Lem & Mina are left behind. This sounds.. maybe a little bleak, but it's framed as a kind of freedom, of not being pulled along with anyone else's dream or hope, and completely forging on your own. It's not one I would choose, but I can see it.

One is that you stay on the station, but help Lem & Mina get away on the ship. It's framed as you facilitating and helping them get what they want most, presumably because you would rather make a home there (or leave the station another way).

One is that all three of you manage to get tickets and get away on the ship, and stay together as found family.

The last is that all three of you stay on the station, deciding to make a home there, instead of gambling on another corporation. This is the one that gets me.

For the rest of the game, when you need to rest, you can always come watch Mina for awhile. It's safe, and you'll recharge a bit, and be able to tackle whatever else you're dealing with. Which is maybe nothing. The game doesn't end-end. Storylines wrap up, but you can keep playing through cycles, either exploring other storylines, or just.. living. You could conceivably boot the game up, collect some scrap or deliver food or tend the gardens, spend time with your adopted child, and then go to sleep.

And this one, I think, speaks to one of the powers that games can have. The actions that you-the-player can take that directly reinforce the themes of the game and what it's about. This action to babysit Mina is categorized in the game as "Safe". Every action you take is either Dangerous, Risky, or Safe, and you complete actions by spending pre-rolled dice that you get at the start of every day. If you have full or close to full health, you get five dice. As your health deteriorates, you get less. They're basic six-sided dice, and -in general- (there's a special exception), higher is better. Dangerous actions, if you fail them (use a die that's less than 6, typically), have a chance for a neutral or negative outcome. Those might mean you get hurt, or you inadvertently close off a minor path. Risky have less-severe failures. Safe actions, even if you fail, you're fine. Nothing goes wrong, you still get a little money or energy or something.

And this, too, is a radical action! There are days that everything might come up at 1s. You don't have capacity to do more. You have to respect what your body and mind are doing that day, and here's the thing -- THAT'S FINE. IT'S OKAY TO BE TIRED. IT'S OKAY TO BE BROKEN AND WORN OUT AND NOT ABLE TO DO VERY MUCH. You've got friends and found places that you can go and say, "Hey, I need some help today. I can only do a very little bit." There are Safe actions for energy, and for health. Safe actions for money. Because you're taking care of each other. And when you're able, you can do bigger things for those people (and probably have already done bigger things for them). And, shit, if that's where you're at, you could also just go back to sleep. You can say, whew, I'm not able to do anything today. I'm going to rest, and see how I feel tomorrow.

And THAT'S the dream here, that's the thing about the whole game that has made me cry more than once, to think of being able to live somewhere that's possible. Where I've overcome my own challenges and have managed to make the friends and connections I need to survive, where I'm not worried about losing my home, or my job, or my healthcare if I'm not out scrabbling every fucking day.

There's a lot more to say about the game. I could write something for every character and storyline. About what the art says, more about the game mechanics. And the soundtrack! Which is in turns breathtakingly sweet and comforting, and relentlessly dark and driving. Maybe I'll write more. I've been trying to write this since the game came out, and there's always.. more. There's more I want to think about and talk about with other people.
posted by curious nu to A Videogame Club (5 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Oh my gosh curious nu, you've captured it so well. Your brief description in the video game thread made me want to play it the first time, and now I want to play it again.

I pushed the wrong choice somewhere and all of a sudden I had a ticket on the ship without one for Lem and Mina. I felt like an absolute heel. From there on, I was closely reading the options to try to get them on the ship, and in the final moments of boarding got them to take my place. I'd much rather have chosen the option where they stick around, but I missed it - maybe I'll try again. I continuously picked options that let me stay on the station, but in the end that mean the station felt a bit lonelier because lots of people had left. But it was still the place I'd picked to be home, and I was happy with my choice. Which is funny, because, well, a bunch of people moved away from my city in the past six months, and I've been thinking about belonging to a place, not wanting to leave, but having to rebuild friendship and community. Huh.

I found it sort of inexplicable how I just kept rocking up to that apartment to feed the cat. I got deeply into the whole mushroom scene. I can almost taste those noodles. (And after reading this review, now I want to read The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins).

I kept wanting to be able to know whether I could trust someone. I mean usually in video games you can tell if you're going to be shafted by a character. But in most cases, I didn't really have a choice BUT to trust someone. Which is, again, you know, precarious living.
posted by happyfrog at 4:07 AM on July 16, 2022 [3 favorites]

Citizen Sleeper is one of my favorite games from this year, and ranks high among my all time favorites. The mechanics, art, and music are so evocative, and the writing is some of the best science fiction I've read. There's so many little subtle touches that hint at the wider setting, and leave you wanting more. And the narrative is a combination of bleak and hopeful that feels aptly suited to our present.

The arc that impacted me the most was joining the commune and working with the scientist trying to understand the ecosystem in that greenhouse area of the Eye. The culmination of that thread, where the sleeper is faced with the choice of abandoning their physical form and joining the hive consciousness or staying in their body, was very impactful to me. In my play through I chose to return to the sleeper's body, and the description of waking up back in a physical reality with a deteriorating body, but holding the hand of this scientist who you've helped, and who has helped you find self sufficiency by growing your own medicine, was extremely emotionally affecting.

My only criticism is that the game is quite mechanically forgiving, and after a certain point I didn't feel like I was scraping by and surviving any more, but instead was able to overcome most obstacles using the bonuses you unlock. I've read a few people say in other places that this is intentional, to give you this feeling of eventually finding stability. But I don't really buy that because some of the writing doesn't quite support it: there were times when I wanted to help the friends I'd made along the way, using resources I'd accumulated, but the game wouldn't give me that option. I also think that there was a missed opportunity in commenting on housing, since you never actually have to mechanically worry about it, even though your housing precarity is implied.

Still, I think it's an exceptional piece of work, and I hope more people play it. May be worth noting that it's quite short and available on Game Pass at the moment. Shout out to Renata Price over at Waypoint who brought it to my attention. Thanks for posting about it curious nu
posted by okonomichiyaki at 4:10 PM on July 16, 2022 [3 favorites]

re: being forced to trust: that's really interesting and I hadn't thought about it, but yeah, that really emphasizes the precariousness and lack of true agency in some of this. Once you get to a point that you're pretty self-sufficient (either growing the wossname-mushrooms I forget the name of that will restore structure, or get the perk that lets you use scrap to repair and you get to the far wasteland to gather it) some of that sting is gone, but given how the game presents the bounty hunter clocks, there's still always something in the back that suggests.. maybe some day you'll have to flee again. I think that ties into the mechanically-forgiving part as well. I never ran into an issue of almost dying but I sure as hell FELT stressed.

That Renata Price piece is really great, thanks for linking that!

I wonder what there is to dig into re: mushrooms, about fruiting bodies from the unseen mycelium networks that alternatively feed on decay and join in symbiosis with hosts.

This is such a great piece of work.
posted by curious nu at 5:17 PM on July 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

(also I definitely want to try some mushroom alcohol/cocktails now)
posted by curious nu at 5:35 PM on July 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed this one, as well as the recently released DLC. I agree with the others - near the end of my run, I could re-roll my dice and money was not a concern. All the narrative pressure and tough choices kind of evaporated, so it was a matter of just playing out the clock.

There were a lot stronger narrative hooks near the beginning with the ticking clock of being tracked/hunted and your decaying body. Each choice I made in that early game was part of painful decisions. I hit a point in the narrative where I had one shipmind and two characters that desperately needed it; I didn't know that Shipminds are kind of a dime-a-dozen near the end game, and I didn't really have to make a choice.

Still, looking forward to the other parts of the DLC for sure, and probably going to do another runthrough roleplaying very differently.
posted by WedgedPiano at 9:57 PM on July 29, 2022 [2 favorites]

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