Astrologaster: Stargazing, Elizabethan-style

ELIZABETHAN medicine was a worrying affair of home remedies, guesswork, outright nonsense and sometimes – if you were very lucky – something approaching actual science.

Astrology is not an actual science, but it was one of the ways Elizabethan doctors could try and diagnose their patients ailments, and is the subject of the quirky and fun game Astrologaster, developed by Nyamyam for iOS and PC.

The game casts you as Dr Simon Forman, an Elizabethan physician who has taken to using astrology to diagnose his querents (patients) in late 1590s London, since that was about as effective as most of the other medical treatment available at the time.

To be fair to Dr Forman, his role is not just as a physician, but also a sort of counsellor, with many people seeking his advice on whether to invest in expeditions to The New World or apply for a role as a Bishop or whether they should marry a particular person.

The humorous Elizabethan-style songs in the game before each character visit really add to the atmosphere and setting in Astrologaster.

After a querent comes to you with an issue, you then consult an astrological chart to work out one of a number of answers to their question, make your diagnosis, and then give your response to the querent. They may or may not like the answer, however – even if you know from the 21st century (or sneakily looking it up on Wikipedia) how the event actually played out in real life.

What is really surprising is the game is largely based in fact. Many of the people in the game – from Dr Forman to several of his patients – really existed, the maladies were real ones people came to him seeking treatment, and the ‘cures’ he prescribed were similarly factual, all recorded in his voluminous notebooks which are now in the Bodleian Library at Cambridge University.

Astrologaster deliberately takes a light tone and it’s almost impossible not to be reminded of shows like Upstart Crow and Quacks while playing.

The graphics are fairly simple, but presented in the style of a pop-up book, and it proves a surprisingly effective way to do things.

The real star of the game is the writing, which is superbly done by Katharine Neil –  it’s very understated and quintessentially British, and also leaves some room for interpretation as to how much of the astrology the game Dr Forman actually believes and how much of it is him using it as a cover to dispense advice using information he has obtained in other ways.

The main theme of the game is using late Elizabethan astrology to divine the solutions to your querent’s problems.

Another highlight are the humorous madrigals (a type of Elizabethan song that was the pop music of its day) introducing each character interaction – each of which was especially composed for the game.

Dr Forman and each of the 12 patients in the game are fully voice-acted, which really adds to the experience over the six to eight hours or so it takes to finish the game.

The game has naturally been fictionalised in several ways, including toning down Dr Forman’s involvement in magic (and his predilection for the ladies), and one or two characters are included for comic relief, but the amount of research the development team have put into the game is staggering.

Every consultation has a date and time associated with it, and the star charts displayed in the game show the positions of planets and stars for this exact date and time, as seen from the London suburb of Lambeth (where Dr Forman’s practice was located), as ascertained used real 16th and 17th century star charts.

How much of Dr Forman’s astrological readings are inspired by the stars and how much of it is intuition, cold reading or his own knowledge is something the game leaves open for the player’s interpretation.

Astrology enthusiasts may get quite a bit out of the game, but as someone who tends to agree with the point of the Weird Al Yankovic song Your Horoscope For Today I found it still very playable from the point of view of a multi-choice narrative game with a great historical setting and an entertaining cast of quirky characters.

Overall, Astrologaster is a fascinating look at an aspect of a little-known part of Elizabethan history and once you’ve finished the game, if you want to find out more then the archives relating to the real Dr Forman and his patients are available free online at a dedicated site from Cambridge University too.

There’s a lot to like here, especially for fans of history and the offbeat – so if that’s you, then you don’t need to look to the stars to know Astrologaster is a game you’ll want to check out.

Royce Wilson is a Brisbane-based freelance games and technology writer; follow him on Twitter @RoyceWilsonAU