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How Citizen Sleeper was inspired by tabletop RPGs and gig work

Citizen Sleeper sees players trying to survive the complex needs of their mechanical body as a worker on a run-down space station.

Joel Couture, Contributor

March 14, 2023

9 Min Read
a person with a bulky cloak around her shoulders with a ship in the background
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This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. The IGF (Independent Games Festival) aims to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize independent game developers advancing the medium. Every year, Game Developer sits down with the finalists for the IGF ahead of GDC to explore the themes, design decisions, and tools behind each entry.

Nominated for Excellence in Narrative, Citizen Sleeper sees players trying to survive the complex needs of their mechanical body as a worker on a run-down space station.

Gareth Damien Martin, the game's creator, had a chat with Game Developer about the real-world cities that inspired the game's humanist world, how they created believable futuristic folks from working-class inspirations, and how the game's systems would perfectly capture how luck can often make or break someone living on the margins of a world that doesn't care about them.

Who are you, and what was your role in developing Citizen Sleeper?

I am Gareth Damian Martin, the (mostly) solo developer behind Citizen Sleeper. I designed, built, wrote, and did all the 3D art and UI design for the game. I say mostly-solo because I worked with Guillaume Singelin on the character art and Amos Roddy on the sound and music, but in terms of the main body of the game, its themes and design, I am its sole author.

What's your background in making games?

Back in 2020 I released my first game, In Other Waters, which was successful enough for me to get to make a second game! Before that, my connection to the games industry was mostly through my work as a games critic. My day job, however, was working as a graphic and video designer for theatre, events, and exhibitions, so I came from the arts to games. I also have a PhD in experimental literature and an undergraduate degree in puppetry. So you might say I have a fairly atypical background in games.

a buff character in a spacesuit has a conversation with the player

How did you come up with the concept for Citizen Sleeper?

Citizen Sleeper emerged from two distinct ideas. The first was an intention to try to bring some of the exciting ideas in the independent tabletop RPG scene to videogames. As a GM (someone who runs tabletop games) I had seen so much incredibly smart and lightweight design in games like Blades in the Dark, and yet in videogame RPGs I was seeing the same Dungeons & Dragons-inspired design over and over.

Citizen Sleeper was my experiment in making a different kind of RPG. However, Citizen Sleeper also very distinctly emerges from my own experiences, and in particular my time working zero-hour contracts and gig work, my struggles with mental health and my journey as a non-binary person. After the success of In Other Waters I knew I had been given a "golden ticket"—the chance to make any game I wanted. Because of this, I wanted to make something personal—something that I felt connected to the experiences of my generation and the bigger themes of what it feels like to be a person now.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Citizen Sleeper was built in Unity using Playmaker for the majority of the game logic. It also uses FMOD for sound and music implementation.

What thoughts went into the creation of Erlin's Eye, the game's main location? What ideas infused the place and how it came together?

I have a deep love of urban sci-fi, especially the early work of William Gibson, and so from the start I wanted to create a dense, complex, and multilayered urban space station. But, more particularly, Erlin's Eye was inspired by real world architectural "no man's lands"—places that, for various reasons, ended up falling between the cracks of nation-building and governmental projects and found themselves in the position of being unregulated: lawless and self-governing. These places are often thought of as dangerous and dirty, and in sci-fi are usually overrun with immorality and violence.

But in real life, that isn't what happens. Without an overarching authority, people organize, build self-sufficiency, and craft networks of support. Sometimes they replicate the authoritarian structures they know, sometimes they build new structures—usually both. The infamous Kowloon Walled City was one such place, and has often been depicted as a lawless hellhole in media. However I did extensive research to understand how the Kowloon Walled City functioned, organized, and existed as a real place, not just a fantasy. A lot of this research, and research into other similar places, fed into the building of Erlin's Eye with the intent to make it a real and believable place with a humanist spirit.

the player's skill tree, with an illustration of a person

How did you work to make this place feel alive with its characters and their personal schedules and activities? What ideas went into the characters and the things they do?

Part of crafting Erlin's Eye as a believable place was filling it with believable characters. As someone who ended up working in many different jobs while trying to survive in London (where I still live now) and as an eager observer of all the different layers, schedules, and lifestyles that make up a city, I drew liberally from my experiences and the people I have met and spoken with when building out the occupants of the Eye.

I often get bored by the militaristic focus on most videogame sci-fi, so my intent was to create a game about the characters that are usually pushed into the background but who actually I find to be the most relatable. Bartenders, chefs, dock workers, mechanics—these were the kind of people I wanted in my game. There's a few mercs and bounty hunters in there, too, but I tried to use those characters to question established tropes around those classic sci-fi archetypes.

What ideas went into the various things the player could do in the run of a day? The activities and events they could take part in? What did you want this freedom to evoke in the player?

Much like with the characters, the activities in Citizen Sleeper are focused around the everyday work that happens in a city. Obviously there's a sci-fi spin to it all, and things can get a bit more out there with the Sleeper's hacking abilities, but it was important to me that building a life on the Eye meant taking on bar shifts, babysitting friends' children, repairing old tech and picking up contract work.

I also love the idea that, when running a tabletop RPG, your task as the GM is often to make the story happen no matter what the player chooses to do. I wanted that same feeling in Citizen Sleeper—a broad range of activities, all of which could lead to interesting characters and meaningful stories, allowing the player to really choose the kind of narrative they wanted to invest their time into.

While I called it freedom, the players are beholden to the needs of their artificial body. What design ideas went into creating your body's needs?

The Sleeper's bodily decay and need for stabilizer draws from both my experiences and things I have observed. Anyone who has ever had a chronic condition or has had to take medicine on a schedule long-term will recognize the rhythms Citizen Sleeper is trying to evoke. On top of that, I wanted the dice system—the one where the dice you have for the day are all rolled at the start of each day—to really capture and represent something we all feel: the idea of waking up and being very aware of the limits of what you can offer in a single day, and then trying to square that with what's in front of you.

the character Sabine, in a large coat, conversing with the player

The art style brings together the stories and emotions beautifully, tying everything all together. What thoughts went into designing the art style? What made it feel right?

From the beginning, I wanted Citizen Sleeper to have a simple but evocative style—one where you are asked to fill in the details rather than having everything described to you. This was a delicate balance to strike, as the Eye needed to be ramshackle without being overly-detailed and punky without feeling stereotypical. Working with Guillaume, we focused on the lived-in aspect of the world as well as the fashion and the characters, discussing the realities and practicalities of life on the Eye. Simultaneously, we also looked at classic anime like Ghost in the Shell and Cowboy Bebop for their strong aesthetics which perfectly marry stylized colors and designs with very believable and run-down worlds.

The game runs off of dice, clocks, and your skills. What went into the creation of these systems? What drew you to make these the core of the entire game?

These ideas were inspired by mechanics I had encountered in tabletop games, especially in the game Blades in the Dark. A TTRPG about risky heists in a dark fantasy Victorian city, Blades in the Dark excels at design elements which drive interesting, challenging stories. Clocks create a sense of dread, mystery and anticipation as they tick along. Meanwhile, dice rolls that deliver "success at a cost" mean stories are full of twists and complications. I loved the kind of games these mechanics resulted in, and so I experimented with my own versions for Citizen Sleeper.

Luck is a massive part of living a precarious or marginalized life. When the systems and structures around you don't care about you, good or bad luck can make or break you. In Blades in the Dark, you are exposed to luck because you are a criminal running dangerous heists. In Citizen Sleeper you are exposed to luck because you are a refugee from an oppressive system—marginalized and chronically ill. I saw the way in which I could use these mechanics to express the themes of my game and I ran with them.

What challenges did you face in bringing a tabletop roleplaying-like experience into a video game? How did you overcome these challenges?

Honestly, I feel that working with abstracted, thematic mechanics like dice rolls and clocks solved way more problems than it created! Having a single system for interacting with the world that could describe anything from fighting a gang member to babysitting a child meant I could tell a vast variety of stories with the game, offer interesting consequences, and give the player a lot of agency when it came to choosing their path through the game. I feel like TTRPGs are a vast untapped resource for video game design, so for me this is just the beginning of building these kind of games!

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