How a game tackles its narrative and player choice can sometimes make or break it as a whole, so here we visit Citizen Sleeper to see how this impacts the experience.
Minor spoilers ahead, though it doesn’t really matter.
“…when you watch the ship pull away, you feel a sense of longing. A longing to be carried. Not by the systems that spin the suns, or the corporations that run the colonies. But by love, towards an uncertain future.” Those were some of the last words right before the screen faded to black after I made my decision to stay on “The Eye,” instead of joining Lem and his daughter Mina aboard the ship—a ship that Lem and I had worked tirelessly on for many cycles—that would take us to a possibly brighter future. I made this decision in part because I felt it was the “right” one for my character in this moment, as I felt their story wasn’t complete. Though, in truth, it was also because I didn’t want this game to end. Not yet. There were characters whose stories weren’t finished, their problems unsolved. “I can’t leave yet” I thought as I tearfully watched Lem and Mina vanish into the void. And so I returned, to survive another cycle.
This was a recurring theme during my play-through of Citizen Sleeper, a table-top-inspired narrative RPG developed by Jump Over The Age and published by Fellow Traveller. Every time I was given the choice between going off with one of the beautifully written characters and finally escaping this decrepit and seemingly dangerous space station—an objective given to you from the onset—or staying back, I chose the latter. This decision repeated itself until most of the characters I shared a bond with and grew close to, left with the hopes of a better tomorrow. But I remained. Until there was nothing left for me to do. I pressed the left bumper on my Xbox controller that brought up my “drives” (objectives), to be greeted with a blank page. I was “done.” The only thing left was simply to keep living. Work with Moritz on yet another mundane contract, help Tala at the bar, and eat another bowl of mushroom stew with Emphis.
When I exited the dashboard and turned my Xbox off, I couldn’t help but feel hollow and full at the same time. A fullness in knowing that I had created a home for my character, given them a reason to live and to keep on going. Whilst also knowing that the characters whom I said goodbye to are, or will be, in a better place. And yet, there was the hollowness of knowing that my character had to continue living in this shell of a body. A body that is not entirely theirs, but merely a synthetic property of an exploitative organization, with blurred memories from a sleeping owner thousands of miles away. Why then, when I was given the choice to continue my character’s existence within the vast networks of “The Eye,” leaving my body and simply existing, eternally and at peace, as data; not having to worry about my next injection of stabilizer, did I choose—yet again—to return to my corporeal form? The answer to that is one that I doubt I’ll ever be able to give. But it’s a choice that I would like to believe the developers at Jump Over The Age think is the “right” one.
Citizen Sleeper tells you from the onset that the primary objective for your character is to get off this space station and escape. But the more you play, the more you connect with these characters, and the more you get acquainted with each section of this station to the point where you know it like the back of your hand, you come to realize that the “objective” is to…be. To allow yourself, and fight, to exist. Even if that choice comes with suffering, there’s a willingness I felt my character must have to endure that suffering. Not for some self-sabotaging reason, but in order to continue to feel. And the game purposefully—through thoughtful and genuine writing—illustrates these feelings beautifully within subtle and intimate interactions between characters. When the game told me that my character couldn’t necessarily feel the tastes of Emphis’ famous stew, but it still gave them a sensation of warmth, a feeling of home, even if they didn’t understand what that word meant, it told me all I needed to know about my future on this station.
Moments like these can only work if the many aspects of game-development can come together and stride in unison. And thankfully, they do. From the evocative and tremendous artwork of Guillaume Singelin that brings each of the characters to life, to the subtle contextual pieces of music that ebbs and flows between traditional sci-if synth beats and ethereal soundscapes that illustrate the vastness of the void you are a part of; all of which perfectly accentuate—but never overpower—both the suspenseful and intimate moments. And of course, Garett Damian Martin’s heartfelt—but never cliché—first-person script. A choice that I felt was purposeful in attaching the player to their character even further. To live that experience not through the detached pros of third-person, but in the heart of the first-person. This decision, then, makes the dialogue choices for the player even more visceral. And the choices you make in Citizen Sleeper are not between life or death, though they may seem like it. They’re between—for me at least—the illusions of escape for a better tomorrow, or allowing yourself to exist in the today. Discovering yourself and those around you with each passing cycle and being part of a community, however insignificant it may seem. This is a narrative game unlike any other, whose themes aren’t presented linearly, but ones that you must allow yourself to feel, and accept as you play. It’s a game that wants you to live. To allow both the hellos and goodbyes of characters, and to understand that to wake is to suffer, but to endure is to find the warmth that will eventually come.