citizen sleeper is my salve

I’ve anticipated the release of Citizen Sleeper, the second game by developer Jump Over the Age and published by Fellow Traveler, since its first teaser was released. I anticipated it because Jump Over the Age’s first game, In Other Waters, quite literally changed my life. I encountered the game during the first wave of quarantine, when I was stranded on my college campus after everyone else had been sent home, alone and isolated in a dorm, unsure where I would be dropped by my school’s administration, with most of my belongings packed in boxes or in storage. I was shuffled around empty dorms for a few weeks, with only a few blankets, a suitcase of clothes, and my computer and my nintendo switch to keep vigil during long, uncertain nights. Did I mention it was my 21st birthday, that fateful late March-time, that I spent stranded? After the transition to online classes I still had to keep up with school and work, alone and far from home, while everyone else I knew was either hunkering down in their comfortable houses to ride out the pandemic, or gearing up to return to the blasted wastelands of service work. I was more alone than I had ever been before.

In Other Waters, a methodical, mesmerizing exploration game on another world was a lifeline to me then. Its themes spoke to me deeply, as someone whose career is staked on exoplanetology and whose funding is staked on public interest in astrobiology and whose brain is fixated on space ethics, anti-capitalism, and environmentalism. This past year, sharing In Other Waters helped me bond with one of my best friends, and gave us an incredibly meaningful shared experience. The game came to me at the right moment in my life, and performed a field sketch of my heart.

Proving my fandom by including this stalk scraper In Other Waters print I have hanging in my office. Friends have described it as “dope as f*ck” and “sick” and it gets the occasional compliment during zoom calls.

I think a lot that is to be written about how fantastic Citizen Sleeper the video game is has already been written. But I think that is a drop in the bucket of things that will, and can be written about Citizen Sleeper.

Yet I find myself confronting Gareth Damian Martin’s second game with similar fear, insecurity, and upheaval in my life as I did when I played Waters. And I can already feel it having a similar affect on me. I started writing this post because my fingers were itchy, so to speak, but a lot of the time when I want to exposit on a game, I self-censor. I get so tangled up in having “original thoughts” and a perspective that is “worth sharing” and ideas that are “meaningful” that I don’t write anything. I think I’m trying to slowly internalize that the things I think people really find interesting (or at least, the things that I find myself most interested in reading) aren’t, or don’t have to be, tied up in all of that. What’s interesting is what you feel, and where you felt it, and what connections those feelings catalyze.

I think a lot that is to be written about how fantastic Citizen Sleeper the video game is has already been written. But I think that is a drop in the bucket of things that will, and can be written about Citizen Sleeper. I still haven’t finished Citizen Sleeper, I’ve committed myself to taking my time, and chewing thoroughly through the density of the Eye, but the game makes me feel and think and that’s all I could have hoped for. The next bit of this post is just my brain dump of feelings and connections. Itchy fingers, and all. If you find it interesting, let me know.

The grit, the actual mechanics of the game’s speculation reminds me of Gibson, but the form of the narrative and the philosophical speculation in the game make me reflect deeply on Delany (particularly Nova and Dhalgren) and on Kim Stanley Robinson (particularly Aurora and the Martians). Speculative fiction always makes me return to the work of my friend Kola Heyward-Rotimi, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about his amazing+all other qualifiers work E.I.

It gamifies the clock system that I think is one of the triumphs of Blades in the Dark and other Forged in the Dark games in a very smooth and enjoyable way. Playing this game with my friend, I remember muttering “we’re fucked” as one of our red clocks ticked down, and really feeling that tension and suspense. It, along with Disco Elysium, is one of the rare games that have really made its digitized ttrpg elements feel worthwhile. I have the privilege of having wonderful friends to play physical roleplaying games with, and I think that gives me some conceptual wiggle room to interrogate a game’s roleplaying elements. If a game doesn’t hold up to the question “why am I playing your roleplaying system, instead of just playing with real dice and my real friends?” then I usually don’t finish the game. The roleplaying elements of Citizen Sleeper passed the interrogation check with a positive outcome, so to speak.

I love Lem & Mina. I will die for them.

I think the game captures the emotional range of poverty in a profoundly hopeful way, which is refreshing. Often, I find that media that tries to touch on these themes falls flat for me. My response is frequently, “yeah, I know.” I already know what eating the same meal for weeks on end feels like. I already know what living paycheck to paycheck feels like- hell I’m doing it right now, and backwards in my sleep. The chits in the game, the quests, but also the narrative content capture the elements of poverty that drive me and inform my perspective. The constant hope for something better, the grasping and clawing at your surroundings, pulling yourself up always, never knowing what next week looks like, feet dangling over the edge, but always with a wide-eyed wonder, a deep love for the world around you and the sky above you (whatever that means on a derelict space station). I want to spend a day working as a traffic controller so I can make enough to salvage a shipmind for my vending machine friend. I want desperately to have dice by the end of the cycle so I can babysit Mina for Lem, so they can get a spot on their generation ship (even if Aurora taught me never to trust a generation-ship ever, ever ever). I want to do these things because I believe they’re meaningful, because the constraints of the monetary system in the game make choosing between them meaningful, but that is deepened because they speak to the hope and beauty you hold out for as a worker. The form and content of the game are cohesive, in short.

The game makes me think about space capitalism, and the terrain of space, and the about indentured service. Elon Musk’s vow to bring indentured workers to Mars, for instance. It makes me reflect on my own earlier writing about language and space colonialism. It makes me think about gig-work, poverty wages, precarity, and the reserve army of labor. It deftly weaves a story about systems within systems: the revolutionary Eye, the Eye as a node within a broader capitalist system, about socialism in one state, about intercommunalism and liberated territories. Sites of ideological conflict within these uncertain territories (heyyy Feng). How persistent power is (hiiii Hardin).

The game made me think of this quote by Delany:

Science fiction isn’t just thinking about the world out there. It’s also thinking about how that world might be—a particularly important exercise for those who are oppressed, because if they’re going to change the world we live in, they—and all of us—have to be able to think about a world that works differently.

Citizen Sleeper grapples with a world searingly similar to our own, that like our own is groaning to be different. It thinks deeply, and makes me think, about how it could work differently, and how it works now. For that, I am thankful for Citizen Sleeper. Until next time, clear skies.


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