If your brain were copied and placed in a robot body, would it have human rights? That’s the thorny issue at the heart of Citizen Sleeper, a game set on a run-down space station called Erlin’s Eye in the far-flung future. In this reality, AI is strictly controlled and artificial beings that achieve sentience are hunted down and destroyed, Blade Runner-style. But “emulated” humans known as sleepers offer a loophole, being neither fully artificial nor fully human.
Nefarious megacorporations will pay desperate volunteers handsomely for the right to emulate their brain. The person’s memories are then excised before their cloned mind is pitched into a robot body and worked remorselessly. Sleepers are a classless entity owned by a corporation, who have no idea of who they once were yet retain human feelings.
The game casts you as a sleeper who has just escaped from a life of company slavery. You arrive on Erlin’s Eye as a stowaway and must struggle to survive. Finding food is a daily necessity: despite their artificial bodies, sleepers still need to eat. More problematic is your body’s built-in obsolescence. Unless you receive regular doses of a proprietary serum, your robot body will decay – an insurance policy from your maker, Essen-Arp, to ensure that no one else can profit from company property. Worst of all, Essen-Arp wants its sleeper back and is tracking your every move.
Each day, or “cycle”, you are given five dice, which you can assign to tasks around the station, such as unloading cargo from a space freighter or helping out at a space bar. Each job has a positive, neutral or negative outcome, and the higher the number on the die the greater the chance you’ll succeed. But there’s never enough time, and never enough dice. Each day your body will degrade further, and you’re constantly forced to choose between earning money to pay for food and serum, or exploring more of the station to find new opportunities and advance the plot. As your body degrades, the number of dice you receive at the start of each cycle is reduced, piling on the pressure.
As with designer Gareth Damian Martin’s previous game, In Other Waters, you mostly interact with the world through descriptions of the things around you, rather than graphical depictions. But here the text is supplemented with some lovely character art by Guillaume Singelin, and the writing is gloriously evocative and compelling. In a sense, there’s nothing new here: the central idea of human brains in artificial bodies has been explored extensively in other sci-fi works. But although Martin draws liberally on many well-worn sci-fi staples, including gruff mercenaries and evil space corporations, he pastes together a convincing portrait of life aboard a creaking space station that feels intriguing and unique.
Clues about the history of Erlin’s Eye and the characters aboard it are steadily drip-fed, and I was compelled to see how the twisting conspiracies and tragic character arcs are resolved. Yet the tension inherent in the first half of the game is largely removed by the end, as you gradually find solutions to your synthetic body’s various problems. The finale is more of a sedate plod to the exit than a frantic dash to the finish line, as you saunter around the station tying up loose threads at your leisure.
You can easily reach one of the game’s multiple endings within a day or two – although you may want to dive back in for a second playthrough to see how different choices would have affected your journey. The characters are so well drawn, literally and figuratively, that it’s tempting to spend as much time as you can in their orbit. It helps, too, that the music is superb, vaguely reminiscent of Blade Runner’s Vangelis soundtrack at times, and it changes subtly with the decisions that you make. It’s just a shame that Citizen Sleeper fizzles out at the point where it’s set to explode. There are far more stories to tell in this fascinating universe, and this is some of the finest video-game sci-fi writing out there.