How Citizen Sleeper reexamines a genre and why Cyberpunk 2077 is ‘dated’

Cyberpunk is a relatively new genre. Most will refer to William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer as a landmark work in cyberpunk, but its roots go further back to ’60s and’ 70s sci-fi writers like Phillip K Dick, JG Ballard, and Alice B Sheldon. (who wrote as James Tiptree Jr). Film and video game adaptations have followed suit, cementing some of the key visual cues we all recognize as cyberpunk today.

Cyberpunk 2077 is probably the most famous example in video games – Gibson himself has finished comment on the trailer, saying it “hits me like skinned GTA with a generic ’80s retro-future.”

There are, of course, countless other cyberpunk games dating back to Konami’s Snatcher in 1988, and more that are in the works right now, like Citizen sleeper. It’s a narrative RPG set on a lawless interstellar space station on the edge of society, where you take on the role of a corporate-owned escaped consciousness. We spoke to Gareth Damian Martin, the solo developer of Citizen Sleeper, about what cyberpunk means in contemporary gaming.

“Even in its early days,” says Martin, “cyberpunk was built on so many existing parts of new wave sci-fi, literary noir, and beat generation style – it’s always wrong to cut it out of history and to treat it as a single branch of art and the media.

“At the same time, I think there is a contradiction here, because cyberpunk, when used as a descriptor in games, seems painfully reductive. Indeed, as with many aesthetically striking styles, cyberpunk visuals have been cannibalized and reused so many times that they have become an incredibly basic item list. A neon-lit, rainy, techno-orientalism megalopolis, implants, corporate control. We all know these elements so well that we can recognize them instantly, and within moments the descriptor “cyberpunk” will be applied.

it always hurts to eliminate cyberpunk from history and treat it as a unique branch of art

Gareth Damien Martin


“In games in particular,” says Martin, “because we’re talking about a very aesthetic medium, cyberpunk manifests itself visually, and in particular draws heavily on Blade Runner – just look at the recently announced Vigilance 2099.

“I think it’s very revealing that Blade Runner is the major influence, because in fact this movie does away with most of the more philosophical and literary cyberpunk elements from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. He replaced them with elements of detective hokey gumshoe and a carefully honed aesthetic that together shattered the film noir mood and a new twist of orientalism and fascination with cities like Shanghai and Tokyo. This incredibly successful aesthetic, which owes much to designer Syd Mead, eclipsed any themes the film might have had and cemented its place as the eternal touchstone of sci-fi.

Citizen Sleeper cyberpunk gameplay

It’s important to note that Martin isn’t in love with the genre and they don’t necessarily want their game to be a part of it. They do appreciate Gibson’s work, however.

I see my work as a matter of hope, finding a place, a reason to continue

Gareth Damien Martin


“When I started working on Citizen Sleeper, I was rereading William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy,” says Martin. “I started to feel like I wanted to do something that was inspired by so many things I loved about those books, without doing something explicitly cyberpunk. Could I do something Gibson inspired that didn’t? Do not do justice to the genre he helped create? For me, Gibson’s books are filled with strong qualities: the sharp and intimate prose, the emphasis on those on the fringes of society, the terrifying power of capital, the decaying megastructures that are home to thriving subcultures. I think all of this makes Gibson’s early work very relevant and exciting to read, even now. “

But Martin also believes there are plenty of unexplored ideas in the genre in general, which they hope to explore further in Citizen Sleeper. “In Gibson’s Sprawl books, hackers are more like mediums, who can contact the intangible forces that influence the physical world. I’ve always found it to be a more exciting take on cyberspace, and so in Citizen Sleeper I also tried to get a bit more involved in these ideas, placing the player as an intermediary between the physical and intangible – not like a hacker sitting behind a computer, but a being who can, just by closing his eyes, slip into a dream that lurks behind the physical reality of his surroundings.

Cover of the book Neuromancer by William Gibson

“For this reason, I think Citizen Sleeper connects with science fiction as a larger genre,” Martin said, citing Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell as other key influences. Despite his admiration for Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, Martin has some reservations. “From a 2021 perspective, I think Gibson’s remix of the hard black fiction in these books is a success, but it comes with a lot of conservative baggage that doesn’t seem relevant anymore. For example, his interest in Japan as a rising power feels aligned with an emerging cocktail of fascination and xenophobia that was common in 1980s pop culture. “

So what does Martin think of the game’s most famous cyberpunk game? “Actually, a lot of what’s bad about Cyberpunk 2077 has little to do with the genre. The corporate practices of CD Projekt Red, its eagerness to promote toxicity within its communities, the hype machine – all of this created a miasma around the genre that will take time to dissipate.

Martin also believes that “Cyberpunk 2077 is quite unambitious. It takes most of its ideas from its source material, the TTRPG Cyberpunk 2020. This game was a fantasy power pastiche of cyberpunk imagery and ideas, which hasn’t aged well, so 2077 is also a genre pastiche. that feels incredibly dated and out of reach. “

A bar in Cyberpunk 2077

One of Martin’s main hopes for Citizen Sleeper is to challenge the pessimistic worldview that permeates the genre. “One of the accusations I always see made against equally dystopian cyberpunk or sci-fi is that it’s meant to be a warning, not a fantasy. We’re supposed to read these books thinking, “What a shitty place to live, I hope the world doesn’t end like this.” For me, this is nonsense. To speak of Gibson again, it is clear that he was writing about a world that fascinated and attracted him.

“I have seen my work before being accused of being gloomy, of seeing the future with pessimism. But in fact, I see my work as a matter of hope, of finding a place, a reason to continue, the importance of forming communities and bonds.

Citizen Sleeper should be released on PC in 2022. You can check out the Steam page here.

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