Interview Gareth Damian Martin

Gareth Damian Martin, creator of Citizen Sleeper

We had the privilege of meeting Gareth Damian Martin, the visionary creator of Citizen Sleeper. In this interview, we looked at Gareth’s influences, their design philosophy and the upcoming sequel, Citizen Sleeper 2. Gareth shared with us their journey in developing a unique narrative experience that explores the themes of digital dreams, crisis and the complexities of human solidarity.

Gareth Damian Martin
Gareth Damian Martin

Point’n Think: You’ve had a long career as a video game critic, whether for Eurogamer, Edge or even Rock Paper Shotgun. Can you tell us what initially drew you to critical analysis of games, and how this passion has evolved over the years?

Gareth Damian Martin: When I first started writing about video games for Killscreen, the prevailing feeling was that, while games were exciting, there was a notable lack of critical analysis. Many, including myself, felt that games deserved a place in the wider cultural discourse, and not confined to their own niche. My primary motivation was to articulate reflections on games that incorporated references to literature, art history, architecture and other cultural elements.

Killscreen provided me with a platform to delve deeper into the politics of certain games. I vividly remember an article I wrote about The Division, which generated a lot of interest. In that article, I questioned the logic behind the game’s depiction of people in an apocalyptic situation, and why they chose armed conflict over simple survival. This exploration of deeper themes and societal dynamics became a central focus of my early work. At the time, Killscreen stood out as one of the few publications to engage in this kind of critical analysis of games, filling a notable gap in the sector. Although the landscape has evolved since then, not least with regard to Killscreen itself, filling that initial void remains an important aspect of my journey into the field of game criticism.

PnT: How has your approach to game criticism influenced your creative work as a game designer?

GDM: I’ve worked as a video and graphic artist for exhibitions and theatrical productions. At the same time, I obtained a doctorate and a master’s degree in experimental literature. Throughout these activities, I’ve always tended to rely on references. I like to explore what others are doing and combine elements that resonate with me. I think relationally, often looking at how different concepts can be combined and drawing inspiration from a variety of sources. I think this approach reflects the mindset of a critic.

When I moved on to game design, my thought process continued in this vein. It was a constant interplay of ideas, reminiscent of a critic’s analytical approach. I would recall specific quests from games, replay them for inspiration and engage in a continuous process of collecting and merging ideas. A quote from Francis Bacon, who described himself as a “pulverizing machine”, resonates with me. It sums up the idea of absorbing various inputs from the world, blending them and expressing the result in a unique way. This philosophy has greatly influenced my creative path.

In all my work, I have the impression of functioning like a filter, absorbing various elements, reshaping them and attempting to present something entirely new. This habit, which I picked up when I was a critic, consists of continually absorbing, adjusting and reshaping ideas before presenting them in a new light. Although I’m less focused on reviewing, I’m still in the habit of playing a wide range of games. This keeps me in tune with the industry and helps me discover interesting elements that can inform my ongoing creative efforts.

PnT: Heterotopias explores the representation of architecture in video games. Can you tell us what prompted you to launch this project? It’s now available in physical format via Lost in Cult.

GDM: The project began as a column for Killscreen, born out of a desire to explore the unique aspects of video game spaces that I used to write about. The term “Heterotopia” is inspired by Michel Foucault’s concept, which defines them as spaces that represent, invert and contest everyday space. Video game environments, in my view, perfectly embody this notion – they serve as representations of real spaces while functioning as inversions with entirely different rules. This perspective enabled a nuanced exploration of these virtual landscapes. After a few months and a handful of Heterotopias columns, Killscreen underwent major editorial changes, leading to its closure as a critical platform. Frustrated by this and by similar experiences in the industry, where publications to which I had contributed were in danger of closing down, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I wanted to continue exploring independently, without external editorial constraints. And so the first issue of Heterotopias was born. I enlisted the help of friends to write articles and used my graphic design skills to create visually appealing PDFs, with the aim of making criticism a sustainable enterprise.

Heterotopias Volume 2
Heterotopias Volume 2

Over the years, Heterotopias has found its audience and become a real success. Recently, I collaborated with John Doyle of Lost in Cult to create a physical copy of Heterotopias. The aim was to preserve the project in tangible form, enabling it to reach new readers, find a place in libraries and ensure its longevity. This initiative was born of the realization that content on the Internet, including my own, is likely to disappear when platforms close. Physical archives provide protection against these uncertainties. In the future, there are plans to continue Heterotopias in a slightly different physical form, and the collaboration with Lost in Cult has opened up possibilities for future projects. The aim is not only to protect this work, but also to contribute to the preservation of critical content in the ever-changing landscape of the internet. This perspective has evolved over time, emphasizing the importance of preserving not only individual works, but also the wider cultural significance embedded in these explorations of virtual spaces.

PnT: Can you tell us about a fascinating or surprising experience you’ve discovered while analyzing architectural spaces in games?

GDM: Certainly, a fascinating discovery took place during my analysis of the architectural spaces in the game Inside. In a meticulous process, I played through the entire game, hand-drawing its map on several sheets of paper as I went along, then digitizing the representation. This exploration led to a remarkable revelation: the mapping of the game’s spatial structure revealed a continuous downward trajectory. The game’s horizon, the level of the environment, constantly descends, creating a visual graph that depicts a journey in perpetual decline. This unique spatial logic became a focal point for discussing the game’s thematic elements, in particular the way it intertwines notions of progress and decline.

Inside map found on Reddit
Inside map found on Reddit

Inside is set in an industrial capitalist society in apparent decline. The unconventional spatial progression, where the game’s traditional left-to-right progression is replaced by a continuous descent, served as a metaphor for the societal decay depicted in the story. The game’s conclusion, where the player escapes in the form of a terrifying creature, rolls down a hill and reaches the sea shore, further reinforces this thematic exploration. The satisfaction derived from this discovery stems from an initial intuition that turned out to be right. Creating the map allowed me to delve deeper into the game’s theoretical structure and explore its underlying themes. The card subsequently gained recognition, with Jacob Geller incorporating it into one of his videos. Seeing others refer to and draw inspiration from the ideas presented in the analysis was extremely gratifying, a testament to the impact and resonance of critical exploration in the field of video game architecture.

PnT: Let’s dive into Citizen Sleeper. The game will be available in french, chinese and japanese on February 1, making it even more accessible. Can you tell us about the difficulties involved in offering a game in several languages?

GDM: Localizing a game into several languages presents a set of challenges which, although often underestimated, have a significant impact on the development process. While I understand players’ desire to see the game available in different languages, it’s a time-consuming task. Localization, especially for a narrative-rich game like Citizen Sleeper, involves translating around 180,000 words, and the process has to be both feasible and cost-effective. Profitability is crucial, as translating a game into a given language may not generate enough sales to cover the expenses incurred. Translation, especially for a game involving prose rather than simple dialogue, introduces complexities. My writing style contains a sometimes unstructured and poetic approach, which adds an extra difficulty to the translation. It takes professionals who understand the nuances of the language to render it.

The challenges extend to the game’s user interface, where maintaining integrity is paramount. Translation into different languages often involves using different fonts and taking into account varying text lengths. French, for example, tends to be longer than English, which poses problems for fitting text into predefined spaces in the user interface, particularly on platforms like the Switch. Despite this, the decision to localize Citizen Sleeper in French was fueled by important considerations. The positive response from French gamers and Guillaume Singelin’s notoriety in France gave meaning to the undertaking. Guillaume’s drawings play an essential role at the heart of the game, and offering the game in his mother tongue was appropriate, in line with the desire to make the experience accessible to a wider audience.

PnT: Citizen Sleeper seems to explore complex themes related to identity, survival and the human condition in a futuristic context. How did these themes emerge during the game’s creation process, and what message or reflection would you like to convey to players?

GDM: The themes explored in Citizen Sleeper are a mixture of personal experience and broader observations about the world. The process of creating the game was influenced by my own encounters and a structural analysis of societal trends. Inspiration was drawn from the gig economy (uberization), particularly in the UK and beyond, where various services are mediated by decentralized app-based platforms. This move towards freelance roles with a pay-as-you-go structure, seen in services such as Uber, poses significant risks and favors systems over individuals.

Emphis is one of the characters who best represents this gig economy culture.
Emphis is one of the characters who best represents this gig economy culture.

The thematic core of the game also emerged from my personal experiences, particularly after leaving university. I moved between different jobs, often working for employment agencies on zero-hour contracts. This meant uncertain working hours, unfamiliar workplaces and the constant feeling of being a small entity in a vast, indifferent system. The uncertainty of income and the feeling of being a cog in an enormous machine resonated with many people of our generation. The struggle to make things work within such a system has become a major theme of Citizen Sleeper.

The decision to explore these themes in Citizen Sleeper was taken after the success of In Other Waters (editor’s note: the first game developed by Gareth), which gave me the freedom to delve deeper into subjects that had long been on my mind. The game gave me the opportunity to articulate and share my sense of being a small entity in a system that often doesn’t prioritize individual well-being. The narrative aims to convey the challenges and atmosphere of being part of a vast, indifferent machine while trying to navigate through it, offering players a stimulating reflection on contemporary work structures and the human condition.

PnT: The concept of the sleepers and their relationship with Essen-Arp society raises interesting questions about technology, self-ownership and moral choices. Can you tell us how this idea took shape and how it influenced the game’s narrative?

GDM: Since childhood, I’ve been drawn to visions of the future and the contemplation of what lies ahead. This inclination led me to science fiction literature in my teens, with readings like J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

The science fiction I embraced was deeply concerned with contemporary issues and aimed to extrapolate, reflect or develop ideas about the present. I saw science fiction as a strange mirror or dream of the future, offering a unique perspective on everyday reality. This notion stayed with me and became the driving force behind my choice to work in the science fiction genre. In creating Citizen Sleeper, I sought to use science fiction as a form of escape with a specific purpose. It’s about escaping into a world that’s both strange and familiar, allowing me to look at our reality from a different, distant point of view. I appreciate science fiction more when the characters’ struggles are relatable, human and recognizable, rather than confined to militarized or colonial archetypes. Escape makes sense when it allows us to examine our own struggles through the prism of an alternative reality.

PnT: The game mechanics based on significant choices per cycle and outcomes determined by dice rolls offer a unique approach. How did you develop this mechanic to reinforce the narrative tension and implications of the player’s choices in the game?

GDM: This mechanic was developed to reinforce the narrative tension and underline the implications of the player’s choices in the game. The observations I made while experimenting with an unpredictable economy highlighted the important role of chance in such circumstances. When you’re exposed to risk, random events can have a profound impact, especially when you lack the resources to protect yourself. This exposure to chance has become a crucial aspect of game design, reflecting the real experience of navigating an unpredictable financial situation.

Although I’m deeply drawn to narrative elements, I also have a passion for designing games that integrate systems to tell stories. I wanted the game’s systems to generate stories organically, in the same way that tabletop games produce narratives from their mechanics. The influence of tabletop games and the concept of chance led me to explore how dice could work in a video game. To meet the challenge of incorporating chance without being too harsh, it was decided to roll the dice in advance of each cycle, presenting players with strategic decisions based on the available outcomes. This approach mitigated the cruelty of true randomness in video games, ensuring that players always had options while exposing them to the sensation of having to manage limited personal resources.

The dice and choice mechanics are very quick to pick up.
The dice and choice mechanics are very quick to pick up.

The idea of seeing oneself as a resource, rather than the traditional means of play such as water or electricity, emerged during experimentation with a pen, paper and physical dice. The idea crystallized during the development of a pen-and-paper version of the game, where the experience of a particularly difficult outcome, such as rolling five ones, had a profound resonance. This moment encapsulated emotions of despair and gratitude, reflecting the feeling of waking up sick on a crucial workday. The resonance of this experience confirmed the viability of the game’s unique mechanism, ensuring that it would effectively convey narrative tension and player power within the game.

PnT: Citizen Sleeper seems to transcend the simple survival game by incorporating elements of human existence and social interaction. How did you strike the balance between sleeper survival and creating these characters to contribute to the rich narrative of the game world?

GDM: The approach was to design characters with depth, offering players the option of engaging with them if they wished, or simply ignoring them. This concept grew out of my experience as a game master in role-playing games, where players often form unexpected bonds with characters, creating exciting moments in the narrative. I imagined all the characters as points in a constellation surrounding the Sleeper, each representing different genres and thematic ideas of science fiction. Whether players are interested in domestic intimacy, conspiracies or a slightly magical AI world, the characters offer varied experiences while remaining linked to the central themes. Characters have been designed to be both connected and separate, giving players the freedom to explore any story at any time.

Citizen Sleeper's characters are at the heart of the story
Citizen Sleeper‘s characters are at the heart of the story

Although the game’s mechanics limit direct interaction between characters, I wanted them to rhyme thematically, creating a sense of cohesion even if they didn’t interact directly. The aim was for players to feel that there was a thematic overlap between the two stories they chose to explore simultaneously. Citizen Sleeper‘s characters are based on real people I’ve met in various jobs, some of whom resemble versions of myself or friends. They also embody archetypes with unique twists, like Ankhita, the mercenary, who explores the reality behind the hitman archetype. Ethan, the bounty hunter, challenges perspective by imagining how a protagonist of a game like Cyberpunk 2077 might appear to someone on the opposite side – chaotic, deranged and dangerous.

Creating characters for Citizen Sleeper was an exciting opportunity to invent diverse and interesting personalities, drawing inspiration from different people, archetypes and personal experiences. This allowed me to weave a tapestry of stories and ideas, transforming the game into a space where stories and characters intersect and resonate dynamically with the players.

PnT: The game contains a number of cyberpunk themes, without falling into the clichés of more recent works such as Cyberpunk 2077. How did this trend influence you?

GDM: I was more interested in drawing inspiration from individual works rather than conforming to trends or themes. I wanted to create a game that explored cyberpunk ideas in a contemporary sense, thinking about how these concepts might evolve or be reinterpreted in the present.

One of my main points of reference was William Gibson’s early cyberpunk works, such as Neuromancer and Count Zero. I wanted to revisit these books and imagine a world where the cyberpunk genre had never existed. My aim was to take the ideas from these books and develop them differently, taking into account the changes in society and perceptions that have occurred since the 1980s. Initially, I didn’t want to call Citizen Sleeper a cyberpunk game, as I wanted to explore themes that went beyond conventional cyberpunk tropes. I was inspired by works of science fiction from the 70s and 80s which, while containing cyberpunk elements, weren’t necessarily classified in that genre. My intention was to work with themes and ideas that I found interesting, whether or not they corresponded to the cyberpunk genre.

Covers of Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive by Death Burger
Covers of Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive by Death Burger

During development, there was a discussion about including the cyberpunk tag on the Steam page. Initially reluctant, I finally agreed to add it due to outside pressure. Cyberpunk 2077‘s dominant presence in the gaming industry at the time influenced my decision. However, over time, as the landscape evolved, my perception of the term “cyberpunk” changed, and I became more open to accepting it for Citizen Sleeper. The aim was to express my themes and ideas, allowing players to interpret whether the game fits into the cyberpunk genre or extends it. Reclaiming the term from the negative influences associated with specific titles also became a consideration.

PnT: Guillaume Singelin played an essential role in the visual creation of Citizen Sleeper. How did his collaboration influence the game’s aesthetic, and what discussions did you have about how to visually represent the game’s central themes?

GDM: Our collaboration involved practical, concise communication in English, often supported by images and references. Initially, I sent Guillaume a folder of images that I felt captured the spirit of the game. To my delight, he already had several of these images in his reference folder, a sign of a shared understanding of the project. As a rule, our collaboration involves me writing a scene for a character before requesting visual work. Writing the scene helps me discover the character’s tone of voice, posture and mannerisms. Once I’ve got it right, I send Guillaume brief descriptions and key atmospheres for the character. Guillaume then provides sketches, and the collaboration evolves as I incorporate aspects of the drawings into the writing. This iterative process allows the visual and narrative elements to develop together, creating a coherent, interconnected experience.

Character design by Guillaume Singelin
Character design by Guillaume Singelin

Guillaume’s work is a constant source of inspiration. Our collaboration came about by chance, as we discovered each other’s work through mutual admiration. Guillaume had created fan art for my previous game, In Other Waters, while I was reading his graphic novel PTSD for inspiration. Our aesthetic preferences are very similar, with a shared love of sci-fi anime from the 90s and early 2000s, including titles like Ghost in the Shell. Guillaume’s meticulous attention to detail, even in fantasy settings, contributes to a certain realism that complements the quality of my writing. We both appreciate the importance of specific details, whether it’s the contents of a character’s bag or the equipment they use in the course of their work. This shared appreciation of nuanced storytelling and complex visual design has made our collaboration a natural and happy partnership.

Character design by Guillaume Singelin
Character design by Guillaume Singelin

You can find our podcast with Guillaume Singelin (in french) just below. We discuss his work on Citizen Sleeper and his latest comic, Frontier.

PnT: Keeping with the cyberpunk theme, part of the game takes place in a subnet where you’re pursued by creatures that fall somewhere between ghosts and digital entities. Where did the inspiration for this part of the game and these enemies come from?

GDM: The inspiration came from early cyberpunk works, in particular the early writings of William Gibson. In these works, the concept of digital networks was imagined as a kind of psychic dream space where the internet resembled a dream world with a different logic, filled with gods, spirits and haunted places. This dreamlike quality of technology, with networks seen as dream spaces, had a significant influence on the game. Originally, in the first version of the game, network hacking occurred while the player was asleep, accentuating the idea that the digital world was a dream. The symbol for entering the networks is an eye, signifying the transition from physical to dream space. The Sleeper, the central character, was envisaged as an intermediary between the dream world of networks and the physical world, being pulled in both directions. The Sleeper’s notion of medium is reflected in the symbol of entry into the networks – a closing eye.

The network is perceived as a magical space, a representation of a rich, chaotic spiritual world animated by entities and signals. The visual and atmospheric reference to this space includes the scenes in The Lord of the Rings where Frodo puts on the ring, revealing the spirit world as a river of smoke, clouds and howling. The idea was to evoke a space busier and more animated than the real world, filled with ghosts, signals and systems operating simultaneously. For the Sleeper, the network is a place of fantasy, dreams and escape. The chaotic, haunting nature of this space aims to evoke a sense of magic rather than a realistic representation of digital networks. The themes surrounding the network in the game involve escapism, the fantasy of abandoning the physical body and transforming oneself into something else.

The Network in Citizen Sleeper
The Network in Citizen Sleeper

The concept of digital dreams is essential to the game’s themes. The name “Citizen Sleeper” predates the game itself, as it was originally considered for another idea. However, the name stuck, and when used for this game, it encapsulated the essence of dreaming in a digital realm. As far as conveying messages is concerned, I prefer the game to serve as an atmospheric experience rather than an explicit medium for lessons or messages. The aim is to immerse players in an atmosphere that could leave a lasting impact, rather like the remnants of a scent that stick to clothes after leaving a place.

PnT: Citizen Sleeper seems to emphasize solidarity and the ability to win in difficult times. How have these themes been integrated into the gameplay and narrative, and what lessons do you want players to take away from their play?

GDM: In this context, anarchism is seen as the belief that people are more important than systems, and that they have the ability to self-organize, protect each other and function without the need for authority or punishment. With Citizen Sleeper, I want to offer players a space to explore these ideas rather than dictate a specific perspective. I’m exploring the notion that humans, despite challenges and oppressive systems, can form bonds, have relationships and influence each other in positive ways. The characters in the game, who reside in the Eye, may not all be anarchists or successful in their endeavors, but they do represent different perspectives and approaches to life.

The central tension of the game revolves around the idea that, despite the potential for meaningful connections, lives can be wrecked by outside forces, symbolized by the machine of capitalism, commerce and industry. The game asks whether this realization is the most depressing or the most beautiful aspect of life. I explore the contrast between the bleakness of external systems and the potential for human connection, leaving players to ponder the complexity of these themes. The game’s various endings and sections allow players to engage with and reflect on these ideas, without necessarily providing a definitive conclusion. I recognize the melancholic nature of these reflections and aim to evoke a range of emotions, allowing players to consider the beauty and ugliness of life from different angles. The game becomes a space where players can navigate these contrasting feelings and draw their own interpretations from the experience.

Citizen Sleeper 2
Citizen Sleeper 2

PnT: Finally, what can you tell us about Citizen Sleeper 2? You’ve created a few stories on Substack to complete the story between these two episodes, for example. What’s in store for us?

GDM: Citizen Sleeper 2 takes place in the asteroid belt around the outside of the system, and introduces another Sleeper facing the complexities of a hot and cold war at the center of the system. The game tackles themes of crisis and explores how individuals react to such situations. Crisis becomes a central aspect, reflecting the constant challenges we face in the real world and the importance of our responses to them. An important change in Citizen Sleeper 2 is the exploration of solidarity and mutual needs. Unlike the first game, where help is often unidirectional, players now have a ship and a crew, creating a dynamic where they must offer help to others and manage interpersonal relationships. The game is inspired by series such as The Bear, which features a group of people facing their own problems who find a sense of solidarity and community through work. The emphasis is on the beauty of working together towards a common goal.

Citizen Sleeper 2 introduces a ship as a central element, allowing players to offer things to others, forming temporary or more permanent bonds. The game explores questions such as how to meet the needs of others, how to hold a group together, and whether it’s acceptable for people to come and go. Narrative complexity is increased, offering more twists and turns and placing greater emphasis on the relationships between characters. The game offers players greater freedom to travel to different locations, although it’s not about a galaxy-wide adventure. Rather, it’s about owning a boat on the London canal, where travel is more localized. Development is currently underway, and promises a narrative experience rich in choices and challenges for players.

Share your thoughts