The Melancholy Realism of Citizen Sleeper

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The Melancholy Realism of Citizen Sleeper

Citizen Sleeper takes place in the hinterlands. Playing as a Sleeper, a robotic emulated clone of the mind of someone in cryogenic sleep, somewhere else, the game tasks you with navigating a new kind of life. You’ve been picked up out of deep space, and the technology that keeps your artificial body alive is hard to come by. Here on the cold frontier, in the middle of space on a station overrun by the needs and desires of a diverse array of humanity, you have to try to make some kind of unlife.

A few paths open up to you. There are crime bosses who are running things behind the scenes and can make daily struggles a little less hard if you’re willing to play ball. There’s a space-faring nature commune. An IT manager wants to understand the deep secrets of the data systems that make up the backbone of this old-and-growing-older station. A guy has a kid who has never seen rain, and he wants to change that by working on a generation ship that’s about to launch out into the furthest reaches.

Citizen Sleeper is built around clocks and drives, which are borrowed from the tabletop gaming space to express the passage of time and the fulfillment of goals. Actions beget opportunities for more actions. Costs and benefits present themselves. The capability to do things in this world is represented by dice, and placing those dice into actions (a six might represent a success at finding matsutake mushrooms; a one might allow you to fail at unloading scrap at the dry dock) is the key decision-making process at the heart of the game.

This all works, and is compelling. Citizen Sleeper is fundamentally about managing UI, and it has the clicky draw of a mobile game—meters fill up with a subtle pop, clocks slowly count up as anticipation builds, and augmentations for your artificial body allow you to know hidden information, like the actual results of a dice placement, or to reroll those dice entirely. It is a beautiful science fiction game that has passed through the operating logics of the Facebook game systematization, which I say here not to take it down a peg but to be clear about how much that generation of games ate up design space and corralled it into specific forms.

These clocks and timers and actions all funnel into what sets Citizen Sleeper apart from other games, and neatly places it into a lineage with both In Other Waters, the developer’s previous game, and the stable of story-focused games that publisher Fellow Traveler is known for. All of these systems are there to help get a player invested into the story of this artificial person, what they have lost, and the new things they find on the station that give their life meaning.

Our main character, the sleeper, could be anyone. They’re mostly an amnesiac. They emerge from the cold heart of space and are introduced to the denizens of the space station one-by-one, slowly becoming acclimated to the human kindness that appears along the way. There is cruelty, too, although less about the social difference of the automated human and more around the corporate systems that control them. The bounty hunter Ethan, here to collect a contract on the sleeper’s head and to return them to their corporate creator, or the domineering corporate controller Harrdin, who has hidden in the shadows since the space station was wrestled from the hands of its previous controllers, both show the hard, controlling powers that lay in wait for innocent people.

This fixation on living in a ruin, hounded by power, struggling in bounds for a better tomorrow did solidify some thoughts I have been having about game narrative over the past few years. Citizen Sleeper makes a tight conceptual trilogy with recent standout Norco and the now-canonized Disco Elysium, if only because the former two are some of the only narrative games to capture the narrative vibes and moods of the latter.

Together they make up what I have been calling melancholy realism, borrowing a term if not an explanation from Ian Baucom. These games present characters who are grounded in a material condition and whose aspirations and goals are tightly wound up in that material condition. In a different mode, these games might have grand gestures, with characters who have the possibility of escaping to better conditions or better worlds. For the most part, videogames live in a spectacular space where some kind of utopian impulse is right over the horizon. Think, for example, of the gestures that Tacoma makes in its last moments around the possibility of humans and AI coming together to overcome an interplanetary Amazon. This is a restoration fantasy, an idea that the world might be brought back into order, and that justice could prevail over the conditions of the present for one and all. Science fiction videogames have lived on this narrative loop, from Halo to Gears of War, even if this resolution only holds until they need to release another sequel.

The work of melancholy realism in videogame narrative borrows heavily from the mood of Mark Fisher’s now-classic Capitalist Realism, a book that made a short, compelling case about how capitalism forecloses the future by asserting itself as a natural, given parameter in all of our lives. Fisher’s book, incredibly influential among the millennial set who encountered it on-and-after its publication in 2009, holds onto a kind of undefeated hopelessness in the face of the operations of global capitalism. Your local economy might be fucked, and the global systems of economic violence you live in might be as well, but you, your community, your friends, and your loved ones still exist. There’s something there. There’s something sweet and special and, in a world without real hope, that’s where it exists.

Citizen Sleeper holds the party line on the Fisherism, consciously or not, but what joins it with Norco and Disco Elysium is a specific implicit argument that cannot be found in Fisher and is its own particular outgrowth of this small, burgeoning approach to genre: the inhuman weird as a backstop.

In all of these games, melancholy realism is afforded on the back of some kind of numinous, inhuman thing that goes beyond the understanding of the human (or human-like) characters. Norco’s warped technological productions in swamplands; Elysium’s cryptid and its Pale; Citizen Sleeper’s network and the obscure and (un)natural machinery that feeds the mystery of what actually undergirds human life on the space station. The realism of these games is that this strange existence will go on after you, that the world fundamentally does not need human life to succeed; the melancholy is that you will never understand it, will never be fulfilled in it, even if you can be stunned into wonder by the numinous mystery that borders on Mystery.

There is a kind of schematic truth effect that is produced by these games (and, in many ways, In Other Waters): go about your life, struggle to get what you can, knowing that you cannot access or exhaust the world. Some things are beyond human ken, and you might learn snippets without context. After all, the ending that I got for Citizen Sleeper, which is merely one among a few, was the slow dissolution of the self as my sleeper’s body turned off, function by function, as my friends on the colonization ship died due to the natural effects of aging. The world will keep on trucking, and these people will live a life beyond the sleeper on some far-off planet. The future is closed. Credits roll.

I don’t know if melancholy realism is going to keep doing it for me. I am concerned that it is becoming the lilting poet voice of videogame narrative, the plums in the icebox, the wonderment that we could be so small and finite. The wavering feeling that our best hope is for the conditions of a long, bleak winter to let up for a few moments so that we can see the stars for the powers that they are. And then the cloud cover comes back, because that is the way things are, and we’re supposed to take that occlusion for beauty. It’s a beautiful trick that undoubtedly works, as the praise and sales for these games demonstrates, but I am unsure that I want to experience it too many more times.

Citizen Sleeper is a treasure. I really enjoyed it. It hits all the posts that it aims for, and it appears that longform updates are coming through this year to expand the space station and its people. But I hope that it expands conceptually alongside the word count, that we might see other ways of being and knowing that are not the echoes of the howls of us, all of us, caught in a bear trap of capitalism.

Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman.