The creator of Citizen Sleeper was inspired by our modern dystopia

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Citizen Sleeper excellent narrative adventure indie game about survival in the urban environment of a struggling space station. Count Space meets basket of life. The game has established itself for weeks as the toast of narrative adventure lovers, being hailed as a revelation of intelligent cyberpunk and a manifestation of the power of hope in the dark fringes of galactic society, making it a serious contender for awards season.

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A deceptively simple story, inspired by the mechanics and narrative of TTRPG, tells the tale of a “sleeping”, emulated human mind in a synthetic body that has recently escaped the Essen-Arp Corporation, its rightful owner. Half-frozen to a salvaged hull, you’ll learn how to clean up existence on the Eye of Erlynne, the space station of a bankrupt intergalactic conglomerate that has been rebuilt by its old alliance, the authority now known as the Havenage, as bounty hunters pursue them.

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With a set of refreshing themes unmistakably parallel to our modern lives, the story is rich in cathartic elements. I caught up Gareth Damian Martinthe creator of the game to understand what is behind its genius.

“Such stories have always fascinated me long before I became a developer,” explains Damian Martin, “and even a DM. When I first started my developer journey, I had two ideas in my head: In other waters, my debut game, and another, looser one about being a thief in a sprawling fantasy city trying to survive in poverty while being involved in the city’s many disparate political structures.

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“Through the fire of conceptualization, Citizen Sleeper here’s what came out of that idea. Despite the leap into a sci-fi setting, the ascendant perspective of a vast network of city lives at the mercy of various machinations has survived.”

On the fringes of science fiction

Often such multi-faceted stories, filled with fictional intrigue, win the hearts of fans of fantasy and sci-fi role-playing games. Indeed, Damian Martin recalled whimsical encounters with new areas in mass effectand how they couldn’t help but be fascinated by the stories of passers-by and workers meant to give Commander Shepard an insight into life on this particular planet.

“Every time the main characters find themselves in a mundane bar or discussing docking fees, I feel the need to learn more about the secondary characters who occupy these places,” adds Damian Martin. “These are the people in the margins of a big story that the protagonists gliding past, rushing through busy streets or crowded hangars. While sci-fi stories drag the narrative towards explosive quests, I want to stay with these people living ordinary lives in extraordinary circumstances.

“That’s what I’ve always adored Spaceport Cleaner’s Diaries. This game seemed like such an honest depiction of shitty work that was wonderfully accentuated by the backdrop of a colorful spaceport. I love seeing how science fiction can be a powerful ambient space for stories about life. Space to extrapolate stories about yourself,” they explain.

“It’s like the death star is out there, somewhere far away, but people still live meaningful lives around it. The infrastructure required for this massive set covers thousands of lives that play out month after month and have little to do with the Great Space War. This is us. We are all living around the death star right now, hearing about climactic events taking place elsewhere. In the meantime, we have a day to pay the rent.

“In Citizen Sleeper, I wanted to strike a balance between these two extremes of drama, juggling an unsettling, important journey in tandem with the intimate, personal experiences of real people, especially those on the fringes of society.”

Millennial dystopia

Discussing similar games in the 2022 roster, Damian Martin shared that as they prepared for the presentation Citizen Sleeper their publisher Companion in 2020, one of the game’s hooks was that the protagonist would be saddled with an unfair debt that he would pay by processing space salvage.

When Hardspace: Shipwreck, a physics game about saving spaceships to pay off a billion dollar debt was announced in early access, Damian Martin had to redo their presentation, but they recognize the similarities even now. “There must have been something in the water at the time,” muses Damian Martin. “I was inspired by the terrible behavior of Uber, which led to drivers with serious debts are forced to rent out their cars, working 15-hour days, wasting time dodging plainclothes repos while paying tolls.“.

The ugly details of the modern world have always inspired dystopian writers, but what Damian Martin saw in our world was something the genre never achieved.

“Dystopian stories portray corporations as ruthless—and ruthlessly efficient,” they note. “In fiction, the terrible power of corporations stems from their overwhelming thoroughness and productivity. Meanwhile, in our world, we are seeing this ruthlessness begin to exist, but it is completely ineffective, poorly implemented, completely sociopathic and extends to all aspects of life.

The millennial zeitgeist has certainly been rich in recognition that little can be gained by asking years of experience in entry level positions, disincentives for sick days during historic pandemicsas well as surveillance of workers is so intrusive that they develop anxiety states.

Damian Martin went on to explain that when market experiments and subversive practices try to squeeze extra hours out of workers, the results spill over into the bodies and minds of people who have no choice but to work to survive. They state that a corporation is, by definition, a dispersed agency: no individual is ever required to take moral responsibility for their company, so we find that they are not questioned enough.

You can feel the shadow of these notions in suspense Citizen Sleeperigniting a lifelong war of your synthetic body against artificial obsolescence, the hostile fuses of the old station networks, and destruction throughout the station after the bankruptcy of its creators.

“I don’t think any corporation is truly evil, not only because they’re so spread out, but because they’re often made up of many people who would like to do the right thing if they had a choice.” Damian Martin explains. “But that doesn’t change the fact that corporate culture is getting better and better at normalizing states of passive abusiveness in ways that are increasingly difficult to account for.”

Other factions on the station, such as the Port Authority, the former Havenage union, and the loosely regulated and overly gullible commune of Hypha, are organizations as scattered as any corporation and just as capable of institutional neglect. As long as Damian Martin has his own politics, they are not interested in veiled agitprop.

“I never wanted the story to be focused on destroying a ridiculously evil conglomerate. I wanted to tell a story on the fringes of capitalism, where many of us have learned to exist.”

Our shaky world

In many of his interviews about Citizen Sleeperdepth, Damian Martin focused on the concept of insecurity that inspired them when they read Anna Tsing’s book. Mushroom at the end of the worldone of the many brilliant works of modern science fiction mentioned in the game.

“So many structures around us put pressure on our lives,” notes Damian Martin, “we need to be healthy, successful and contented. We are all struggling to achieve these goals, competing with each other for jobs, opportunities, property, and even social position.

“We justify this with the myth of meritocracy, which claims that the only thing that separates someone from the comfort of success or the desperation of failure is the arbitrary judgment that they are good at something of arbitrary value. This is an incredibly unreliable method of confirming our right to a decent existence.

When you consider the implications of stock markets, international politics, or the restrictions of an immigrant or other limited identity, you find even more insecurities. Our world is full of systems that we can never control. We are surrounded by tiny, fragile walls,” explains Damian Martin, “when these walls cave in and break, we fall into mental breakdown, bankruptcy, poverty, or even death.”

We constantly feel these walls in Citizen Sleeper. The game’s economic anxieties that we can afford food are exacerbated by medical concerns about where to get the serum that supports our feeble body, or how to afford the decisions that can lift us out of our precarious circumstances. Caught among so many predatory systems at crucial moments, rolling a small set of action dice can result in cascading failures.

“The best defense against these unsympathetic systems, I have found, is grassroots mutualism,” concludes Damian Martin. “Although we cannot determine the value of what we earn or the rights we deserve, we can always try to help each other when we are needed. When people roll snake eyes. Mutual support intimacy is, in essence, how one survives in this world. From the start it’s always been an arc Citizen Sleeperas it has been in my own life in many ways. I don’t think there are enough stories about people being trapped in these precarious spaces.”

Citizen Sleeper should continue with three free DLC episodes, the first of which, titled “Flux”, tells the story of a refugee flotilla blocked from the Eye of Erlynne by quarantine measures.

“All I’m going to say right now is that Flux focuses on refugee issues, bureaucracy, and creating space for compassion within democratic systems,” explains Damian Martin. “I hope players will find it interesting and keep an eye on the episodic story as it unfolds this year and next.”

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