The mushroom at the end of the universe: feeling Citizen Sleeper
Dr. Joost Vervoort is an Associate Professor of Transformative Imagination at Utrecht University. His work focuses on connecting games and creative practices, politics and action to create better futures. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @Vervoort_Joost
A circular space station hangs in the void. A relic of corporate collapse. But there is life here. Community. Fungal growth and ecology. Resistance. This is Erlin’s Eye. And it has become my home.
I’ve just finished playing Flux, the final DLC of Citizen Sleeper, a move-based role playing game by Gareth Damian Martin (Jump Over the Age) and their team. Days after finishing it I’m still resonating with its quiet melancholy and hope. Its sense of warmth in the coldness of space and greed.
Citizen Sleeper has been described by excellent podcasters Gary Butterfield and Kole Ross as one of the first Disco Elysium-likes. And I think this sums up a fair bit, but it’s also a useful counterpoint. Both are incredibly well written narrative games with strong play mechanics. Both ooze character, melancholy and warmth. But where Disco Elysium countered its bleakness only with wry humor and a basic humanity, what is so fascinating about Citizen Sleeper is its focus on community, on resilience, on flourishing against the odds. Its tone and focus are something I haven’t seen in games yet, and I think it is important for all of us interested in games as a medium of creative expression around fighting for a better world.
There is an important and very powerful resonance here between Citizen Sleeper and another text. I first heard about this game when I visited Clash of Realities in Cologne with my friends Mae and Nicky — an international conference ‘on the art, technology and theory of digital games’. A great community meeting. My friend David Farrell, a games researcher and designer who was also at the conference, strongly suggested that I should listen to Gareth Damian Martin’s talk about Citizen Sleeper. The talk immediately peaked my attention when GDM spoke about an important inspiration of theirs — The Mushroom at the End of the World by anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. It’s a beautiful exploration of the strange economies and lives that exist around the Matsutake mushroom — a valuable mushroom that grows in human-disturbed forests in the north of the world. Tsing uses this mushroom’s world to discuss life in capitalist ruins. ‘What if, as I’m suggesting, precarity is the condition of our time — or to put it in another way, what if our time is ripe for sensing precarity?’ There’s a vibe in this book that tangles its way through Citizen Sleeper. And vice versa — I’ve been reading through the book slowly while playing the game, and listening to Amos Roddy’s amazing soundtrack, and it’s like an Earth-based version of Citizen Sleeper has sprung to life among the mushrooms on Tsing’s pages.
The resonance is not just thematic. It’s also quite literal. There are Matsutake mushrooms on Erlin’s Eye, along with a number of other species. Fungal cuisine is important to the vibe of the station; and fungal ecology becomes much, much more important. You are an avatar of precarity: a Sleeper, a cloned human mind in an artificial body entirely dependent on support from your former corporate masters. Alienation marks your daily experience. And yet, as you meet the people on Erlin’s Eye, you become more and more human — your resilience building up through a network of human relationships. Your life is defined by money, materials and scarcity at first, and the urgency of survival is strong. But eventually you can find true alternatives to a gig economy life. In the meantime, this small, sometimes starkly divided community of stragglers at the end of the universe are facing the threats of outside forces — coldly capitalist groups looking to expand their influence. Somehow, though, life persists, to ‘resist collapse in ways that seem inexplicable to many’.
Citizen Sleeper as a game is truly unique because it focuses not on dystopia or utopia alone; and it doesn’t focus on individualistic heroism. Instead, it focuses on the struggle to create something better in a broken time, and the immense value of community solidarity. The whole game breathes a vibe of connection against the darkness, of fragile life emerging through ecologies of care. In research that I have been involved in for the CreaTures project it has become very clear that care is a powerful anti-capitalist move. Everything about Citizen Sleeper — the writing, the art, the music, the sound design — emits this sense of connection and care in contrast with darkness and heartlessness. It is an energy that seeped into my very being in a way that does not happen often. I think those considering games as an avenue for change should really pay more attention to vibes, to resonance, to the way game worlds grow into our systems. I think it’s an important pathway for transformation.
An amazing collaborator of ours, sociologist Erika Summers-Effler, has written one of the best papers I have read in recent years, about the role of emotional energy in the success and failure of emancipation movements. It describes how feeling accepted by a community in your dark emotions opens up the possibility of shared critical consciousness and subversive action. The paper has changed the way I look at the world, and I see that emotional energy coming from a sense connectedness and mutual acceptance is crucial to change.
I’ve mentioned in another recent blog about Terra Nil that I was surprised by how well that game’s vibe conveys the joy of letting life flourish. Citizen Sleeper offers that sense of connectedness and ecology along with a more complicated vibe — and it offers a melancholy hope. It’s a game that seems to say ‘I see your sadness, your hopelessness. Let’s make a life together in the ruins. Perhaps together we’ll find the energy to fight for a better world.’
Anticiplay is an NWO Vidi-funded research project that aims to establish a new design paradigm for the gaming sector in collaboration with CreaTures EU. You can find our mission statement here! In short: we’re all about Games For Better Futures and Futures for Better Games. Follow us @anticiplay on Twitter, and feel free to engage us with any questions, games that you think are inspiring, and anything else!