I’m not the least bit surprised that Citizen Sleeper has been named TG’s Game of the Year for 2022. While it wasn’t my personal choice (that honor goes to the strikingly similar Hardspace: Shipbreaker), it checked all the boxes it needed to come out on top. It was short enough that most of us actually finished it, it was exceptionally well-written and emotionally resonant, and it spoke to the disdain for late-stage capitalism that we leftist media types tend to devour. I loved the Citizen Sleeper, and I’m proud to call it our GOTY, but I also can’t shake the feeling that it doesn’t quite fit together like it could have. While I appreciate the intention behind its freeform approach to mission tracking, I don’t think the game systems – specifically the mission timers – adequately support the choice-based narrative. Let me explain.
Citizen Sleeper does not have a “main” questline. There are a few basic survival things you’ll need to deal with, like restoring your energy and health, but even those goals have multiple solutions. Right from the start, you are free to explore Erlin’s Eye and pursue the quests that interest you most. There is no difference between the main quests and the side quests – whatever you choose to do determines how your story unfolds.
This is different from any other RPG I’ve ever played. Normally you follow a critical path that tells you the story, and if you want more you can branch off in different directions along the way to experience side missions. One of the most impressive features of Citizen Sleeper is the way the themes and gameplay reflect each other. You are a synthetic person with someone else’s memories who has rejected the path laid out for you by the company that created you, and now you are trying to figure out who you really are and what you want your life to be. The freeform approach to quest path allows you to explore your character’s options and shape their life story however you want.
That’s something I loved about the Citizen Sleeper, but I also think it has a critical design flaw. As you settle into life on Erlin’s eye, the passage of time is represented by timers. Some pursuits can only be accomplished within a window of several days or weeks, so the game keeps track of how much time you have left to complete your goals. Sometimes this can create a lot of dramatic tension. When you discover that the company is sending an agent to get you, you only have so many cycles to find a way to disable your tracker before he arrives. That time pressure makes every decision feel critical. Starting the day with weak dice rolls can be devastating when you run out of time, and when you’re forced to make high-risk, high-reward decisions, success is exhilarating.
More importantly, the time constraints can force you to make choices that change the path you’re on. Some plot threads expire after a certain amount of time, meaning you only have a small window to pursue certain storylines before they’re gone. These constraints are important because they shape your story and make your choices feel important. After all, making choices that define your character is what RPGs are all about.
The problem is that this never really happens in Citizen Sleeper. You can follow the questlines in any order you want, but if you want to do them all, you can pretty much do it. In my playthrough, there were only two stations in the entire game that I was unable to complete, neither of which changed the path of my story.
As you learn about the company that builds the shuttle, Sidereal, to escape Erlin’s eye, you will meet Lem, a father who wants to work at the shipyard to earn a ticket for himself and his daughter Mina. To do that, Lem needs you to babysit Mina while he works. If you haven’t spent enough time babysitting Mina by the time the transport is finished, Lem will miss the chance to leave.
I ignored this drive expecting that I would be able to earn a spot on the ship and give it to Lem, but it turned out that the whole thing was a scam from the start, and there was no way Lem – or you – could have earned a ticket anyway. The next step is to forge a ticket by helping a man named Castor hack some data from the Celis servers. I also ignored this station, but for reasons I still don’t fully understand, I was invited on to Sidereal. At this point I could either leave, end the game, or give my place to Lem and Mina. Nothing I did up until now had any effect on the outcome, and none of my choices, except for this last one, actually mattered.
The other drive I wasn’t able to finish was Ethan’s Tab, a story involving a mercenary sent to bring you back to the company that made you. At a certain point, Ethan will reveal that another bounty hunter named Maywick is out to get you, but he can protect you if you’re willing to help him pay his money. I ignored this drive and instead focused on helping Feng expose Hardin’s betrayal to the citizens of Earlin’s Eye, knowing that Feng had agreed to disable the tracker if I did. Like Lem’s story, the only difference here is how things end. If you pay off Ethan’s tab, he and Maywick will kill each other, but if you have Feng disable the tracker, you will never see Maywick and Ethan will disappear. You can follow both questlines up to the critical point, and the only thing that changes is the ending.
I’ve heard my colleagues talk about doing multiple playthroughs of Citizen Sleeper, but I see no reason to do so. I completed every single run where I could and even the two that expired had no effect on my path. I could play it again and do things in a different order, I guess, but it wouldn’t be a different story, nor would my character feel like they were a different person in the end based on my choices. Had the timers been more restrictive and actually forced you to make hard decisions about which stations to pursue, there would have been a reason to replay it, make different choices, and see all the things you missed. Citizen Sleeper’s strength is the way it lets you go off in any direction, but its flaw is never asking you to commit to the direction you choose.