When solo developer Gareth Damian Martin started teasing they were working on another project together with Citizen Sleeper's composer Amos Roddy and character artist Guillaume Singelin last month, I didn't even dare to hope that it might be another Citizen Sleeper game. I adored the first one - and even picked it for May's RPS Game Club - but the prospect of a sequel seemed almost too good to be true. Happily, tonight's PC Gaming Show brought the news I was waiting for. After a dramatic animated trailer reveal, I'm happy to report that Citizen Sleeper 2: Starward Vector is indeed a real thing, and I spoke to Damian Martin earlier this week to find out all about it.
Citizen Sleeper 2 puts you in the shell of an all-new sleeper in an all-new part of the game's wider Helion System: the asteroid laden Starward Belt. They share a similar backstory to the sleeper we played in the first game, in that they've escaped a life of corporate servitude, but they haven't been quite so lucky in where they've ended up. After making a break for it, they've fallen into the hands of Laine, a nasty gang leader who takes them in under the guise of charity, providing them with the vital stabilisers they need to keep themselves alive, but soon twists the knife and starts to control them.
"At the start of the game, you make an escape attempt with Serafin, who's another person who's in debt to this gang that Laine runs," Damian Martin tells me. "And that escape attempt goes partially well, in the sense that you escape, but also partially badly in the sense that your attempt to rewrite your body to no longer require stabiliser leaves it only partially functional. That's what you see in the trailer, and now you have this malfunctioning body. You've lost your memories of the time since your escape, so you don't even know Serafin's just risked everything to help you get out. You don't remember who they are, or what to think about them, but both of you are together on a ship, trying to get away. And that's where we kick-off the game."
It's a much more explosive and dramatic start than the first Citizen Sleeper, and this drive to get away and live a new life on the run will form the backbone of Starward Vector's early story beats. Rather than being centred around a single location such as The Eye, Citizen Sleeper 2 will pivot around your ship, which you can use the travel around the Belt and visit different ports and stations. These locations will be a variety of different sizes, says Damian Martin, with some being almost as big as The Eye itself, while others are as small as a single hub zone on the Eye.
You'll also need to build a crew to help you get there, but Damian Martin is keen to stress that this character recruitment is "not in that kind of Mass Effect way of you go around and hoover up all the useful people from the universe and take them with you." Rather, they liken it to being in a flat share, "or a squat in space". Your crew will be a group of people who live and share the same space with you, and who you'll constantly be getting into conflict with as a result. "It isn't being Commander Shepard and running your nice, neat business ship," they say, and honestly, I'm pretty down with that. Brushing up against the niceties of close quarters living and carving a space for yourself on the Eye was exactly what made the first Citizen Sleeper so compelling for me, and I'm keen to see how the sequel will translate these frictions across a much larger canvas - and if Damian Martin's key inspirations are anything to go by, we could be in for one hell of a ride.
"For me, I've always loved Firefly, I've always loved Cowboy Bebop, I've always loved these stories that are about a crew on a ship. And I've often felt that games don't actually serve those stories very well. They often become quite formulaic, and they don't have that character agency intention that makes, say, a good episode of Firefly. Usually a good episode of Firefly is because somebody's gotten into trouble somewhere, and somebody else is pissed off with that person getting into trouble, and the main characters are getting dragged into different situations by different things."
These situations will still be couched in the familiar language of the first Citizen Sleeper, though. The drives, clocks and dice that fuelled your life on The Eye will all be present and correct as your journey across the Belt, for example, but Damian Martin also teases that there will also be new systems in place to bring players out of their comfort zone.
"It's a true sequel in the sense that it's a continuation of the same kind of mechanics, the same structure, the same focus and gameplay as the first game," they say. "You'll still be filling clocks and using your dice on a daily basis. But there will be a new system which dictates how you lose dice, or how you maintain dice, which I'm not going to go into the full details of yet. But basically, it revolves around the idea that your body is malfunctioning."
Indeed, rather than repeat the gradual health decline we saw in the first Citizen Sleeper, it sounds like the sequel will be a lot more tumultuous. Damian Martin hints there will be a "sudden turn of events that you have to deal with" and that you'll need to build yourself back up from it, suggesting that the core loop and rhythm of the game will be a lot more unpredictable. "The overall theme of the game is about precarity and about crisis," they continue, "and that manifests very much as you have a body which is in crisis, which is falling apart."
It's not just your own personal crisis you'll have to navigate, though. The Starward Belt, and the Helion System as a whole, is also undergoing its own kind of crisis in the form of a corporate war - which you'll have seen hints of if you've played all the way through to the end of Citizen Sleeper's trio of free DLC episodes. Citizen Sleeper 2 takes place some years after the events of Episode Purge, which means the warring corpo powers are now coming to collect what they're owed, says Damian Martin.
"That sets off a whole new phase for the [Helion] System, and Citizen Sleeper 2 takes place not in the middle of that crisis, but on the border of that crisis. A massive, System-wide crisis is happening, you're out here on the edge of the System in this new environment. […] You're much more transient in Citizen Sleeper 2 because you're moving around a lot more. You have this home, but this home comes with you, and therefore it's always under threat. There's always a potential crisis there."
This feeling of being on the tipping point of impossibly large global events was very much driven by the landscape of today, Damian Martin continues, citing the pandemic and the war in Ukraine as having had a "big impact" on the way they've come to think about crises as a whole. "It's always interesting to me how these things feel closer to some people and not close to other people," they say. "How you can have people who are all having the same experience, but actually how they perceive what a crisis is and how a crisis manifests [is different]. These things seem really rich to me, especially the balance between the idea of a global or large-scale crisis, and then a crisis in the community, and then individual moments of crisis. We use the same word for all those things, and I think there's interesting ways that they interact with each other."
Indeed, it's the here and now that Damian Martin feels is "the lifeblood of Citizen Sleeper" and they tell me they "didn't want to make a sequel where I've established this universe and now I don't have to think about the real world. I feel like an important part of Citizen Sleeper is that it's about now, and it always should be about now. It should never just be about itself."
Damian Martin isn't just going to plonk us into the middle of this corporate war cold, however. Over the course of the next year, they'll be filling in the time gaps through a free newsletter series over email known as The Helion Dispatches (which you can sign up for here). "It will be a monthly text-based narrative series that will have stories from different parts of the system as the corporate war starts to build up," they say, "and that will carry the universe into the new state of the sequel world."
They say they've chosen this route over more DLC because they wanted to create more of a journey between the two games. "Generally, when I'm making games, I think a bit like I'm running a tabletop game, and how am I going to get the players of Citizen Sleeper 1 to Citizen Sleeper 2," they explain, and the Helion Dispatches will be geared around "trying to get people to zoom out, and get people thinking not just about The Eye, but the Helion System as a whole, what else is happening there, […] and just starting to bring a bit more colour to those places."
Alas, Damian Martin says they likely won't be showing any of the game itself until 2024, so we'll have to wait a little while longer before we can see Citizen Sleeper 2 in action. But based on everything Damian Martin has told me about the sequel so far, I have no doubt that this could be something very special indeed when it eventually launches.
"I'm trying to give myself space to make and to tell stories that couldn't be told with Citizen Sleeper 1," they say. "The systems [in the first game] couldn't really tell those stories, and I wanted to try and develop the intimacy with characters by having them be more implicated in your lives, rather than it just being like, 'Can I help them? Or will they help me?' [Now], if they're literally a crew member that you need to do something [on the ship], and you're saying, 'Well, I'm not gonna help you', then they may leave your ship, and then that leaves you in a situation. So I want to get players into situations that are interesting and compelling as much as possible, and I'm trying to build tools that allow me to do more of that."
Damian Martin is also exploring ways of creating more distinct story branches as well, allowing players to experience different plots and characters depending on where they choose to go. "Maybe you will loop back around and go to that other place," they tease, "but you might not, […] and it means that I can still surprise the player when they arrive at a place and decide to get involved with this thing, or that thing. […] It allows for more of a gradient to the experience and more of a highs and lows experience where players can choose more aggressively what they're interested in."
It won't be like FTL, though, Damian Martin points out. Travel will be "expensive and difficult to maintain" and you'll need to manage and build up your resources before heading out to your next destination. But not too much. The impression I get is that it will be more like Opus: Echo Of Starsong, which had a very light management bent as you hopped from waypoint to waypoint in its large, freeform galaxy.
"Some people would say that Citizen Sleeper is a management game, and you could very much say that it is. But I'm trying to keep that same feeling of you're not really a manager - you're a manager as much as we're all managers in our own lives, and I tried to keep that human aspect of it. So you're not picking up a crew member and putting them somewhere and that's what they do. You're going to have to negotiate with them. Crew members are human, they have agency just like the people in Citizen Sleeper 1, and so they'll have their own things that are helping them make decisions. Again, you're not Commander Shepard going around the office and checking on all your employees. It's more that situation of what is it like working with other people? What is it like living with other people? What do those experiences feel like in real life? Those are the things that are leading me."
Indeed, if nothing else, Damian Martin views these resource lulls simply as a way to draw players into another story. "It matters whether you work at a bar or whether you go and work as a salvager or if you go rob a place or if you get a loan from your friends - and all of those, for me, are what I get excited about, because those are ways for me to get you involved," they say. "I always want there to be those options, because then that is what becomes the story. I don't want it just to be shifting resources around without there being any narrative elements to that."
Needless to say, I'm very excited to see where our sleepers will end up in Citizen Sleeper 2, but I close out our chat with one final, all important question. Are we still going to be eating mushrooms every minute of the day?
"There's gonna be more foodstuffs than mushrooms," they chuckle. "There's more places, there's more bits of technology that people can use, so people might have different varieties [of sustenance]. In fact, I just came up with a signature food that the bar will have in the game. I don't know why, but I do love to come up with fictional signature foodstuffs for bars and things. It's something that I always bemoan in space games, when you arrive at a space station and they have the same shop that every other space station has and they have the same food. I want the world to feel like The Eye where the people in the low end go to this bar, and the people in the docks go to this bar, but have that spread over a bigger space. So I hope it still has that same human quality."
NotE3 and Summer Game Fest 2023 is over for another year. You can find out all the latest news by visiting our E3 2023 hub, or you can catch up with our round-up posts of everything that was announced at Summer Game Fest, the Xbox Games Showcase, the PC Gaming Show, Day Of The Devs, and our top highlights from the Wholesome Direct.