Playing Citizen Sleeper felt like a very private experience, but there’s one character that I feel everyone should know and love the way I do.
- Title: Citizen Sleeper
- Release Date: May 5, 2022
- Price: $19.99
- Suggested Audience Age: Rated T for Teen by the ESRB
- Availability: Switch, Xbox, Steam
- Recommended for fans of:
Geek to Geek Media was provided with a review copy of this title.
I started and finished playing Citizen Sleeper about two months ago. I’d heard so much praise for its storytelling and decision-based gameplay, but assumed it would feel overhyped when I finally got to it myself. Instead, after about 40 minutes the core loop got its hooks into me and Citizen Sleeper became a game I could not put down.
When I finished it, though, I couldn’t come up with anything to say about it. Playing Citizen Sleeper felt like reading a wonderful book that was written just for me, and I couldn’t come up with anything about my story that didn’t feel too personal to share. Unlike most games, that experience was not something I wanted to tell the world. It was my story and I wanted to keep it to myself.
There is one specific character, though, that the world needs to know about.
Citizen Sleeper is a Book That You Play
In case you missed the hype for last year’s narrative indie darling, Citizen Sleeper is a dystopian sci-fi game with basically no gameplay. The story starts when your character wakes up on a space station called The Eye after running away from a life of indentured servitude. You are a “sleeper”, a sort of cyborg that runs on an emulated copy of a human brain. I expected the game to be about discovering who that person was and how a corporation coerced them into creating you, but that never really matters.
The person whose brain you were born from is not who you are. Instead, Citizen Sleeper is a game all about figuring out who this runaway slave is now, on their own, in a small community on the edge of space. The station you end up on has an extreme frontier vibe. This isn’t an up-and-coming space, though, but a space that seems to have been forgotten by the rest of the world. The people who live on the station are scrapping a life for themselves in a society where law and order are established by gangs and businesses rather than the government.
The gameplay in Citizen Sleeper is extremely simple. Each day your character wakes up, and a few dice are rolled. These dice represent the actions you can take around the station, with higher numbers leading to greater success. Gameplay is determining what actions around the station you will dedicate your maximum of five dice towards. You can use them to work at a shop, to help a hacker steal corporate secrets, or to ingratiate yourself with the enforcers who patrol a neighborhood-sized apartment building. Your character’s condition determines how many dice you get, so staying healthy and fed are essential.
The Fungus Guy
There are a lot of characters you get to know through Citizen Sleeper. Many of the citizens of The Eye have long, sprawling stories that you learn as you talk to them and spend your precious dice helping them through their struggles. In general, spending those dice pay off both by revealing story elements and unlocking new interactions you can use to earn money, food, or other helpful boons. As an example, getting to know a bartender can lead to being able to pick up shifts at her establishment.
And then there is Emphis.
Emphis is a guy who runs a food stall on The Eye. Pretty much all of the food that everyone eats at the station is derived from mushrooms, and whenever it’s described it sounds bland and utilitarian. Not Emphis’s mushrooms, though, the game lovingly describes him stirring them up in a wok, seasoning them carefully with all sorts of spices and seasonings to make a meal that burns when you eat it. Sometimes he trades you food for stories, but you usually have to spend money to buy fungus from Emphis. Even though there are other ways to eat, I always went back to him. He is a quiet, focused, and deliberate character. Patronizing his shop is probably one of the least efficient ways to stay fed, but I loved visiting him so much. Stopping by his stall with a few credits after spending all of my dice elsewhere felt like stopping by my favorite burrito shop on the way home from work.
Emphis is perhaps the least developed character in Citizen Sleeper and might be the least mechanically significant. He’s also the single character I’ve thought about most since I finished the game.
I think I am drawn to video games as entertainment because of the stories that can unfold from their ones-and-zeroes. Sometimes that means a thoughtful narrative in the game, while other times it’s my own personal story of triumph over a difficult experience. Despite that being the primary draw of gaming, I tend to steer away from “narrative” games. I want there to be some sort of active gameplay, or I usually can’t stay focused.
If you look at the ratio of enjoyment to “amount of gameplay”, I think I like Citizen Sleeper more than any other game. And if you looked at the ratio of “character development” to “fascination”, I think Emphis is one of the most interesting characters in gaming.