Astrologaster, the latest project from indie dev Nyamyam, is a comedy game that takes astrology seriously.
It tells the story of Dr. Simon Forman, a real astrologist and real-ish doctor, who looked to the stars when treating patients’ physical and personal problems. Forman practiced in London from 1592 to 1608, and left behind over 80,000 patient records — 35,000 of which have been digitized and published online.
At the 2019 Game Developers Conference, I spoke with Nyamyam’s Jennifer Schneidereit about the game’s origin and what makes Forman’s life uniquely ideal for a video game.
Schneidereit first learned of the Forman during a lecture from Dr. Lauren Kassell of the University of Cambridge, who has spent parts of the past couple of decades studying the pseudo-doctor’s life. Compared with modern medicine, Forman’s practices were alarmingly unconventional. He initially was unlicensed, and he sometimes gave direction on things far outside the realm of health, like instructing a patient on their marriage or their financial investments.
According to Schneidereit, Forman’s real advantage may have been his understanding of a small interconnected community: He would serve entire families and people with business ties. Astrologaster cooks this web into its conversations. What Forman learns from one patient may be useful when meeting with another, lending Forman a sort of godlike omniscience in how he always knows a viable answer to his patients’ problems.
Technically, the goal of Astrologaster is to appease said patients so that they vouch for Forman’s medical excellence, earning him a medical license. The real Forman couldn’t afford to attend university, but received a license from Cambridge off similar letters of recommendation.
The player doesn’t have to follow Forman’s true path, though. Schneidereit says that the medical license merely exists for people who seek something to win. The game can be enjoyed just as well by meddling with the lives of patients, giving advice that will complicate their personal dramas in funny (if not tragic) ways. The story includes 14 patients, some of whom share personal connections, all of whom visit multiple times, allowing Forman to gradually affect change on their lives.
Schneidereit said the game will be openly political, using the problems of the 16th century to address modern politics. The plights of patients rub up against topics like Brexit, unionization, and equality. It has a certain Monty Python-esque vibe, each new patient session opens with an irreverent verse sung by a classical chamber choir.
Though it's a comedy game, Astrologaster doesn’t make astrology a punchline. While it doesn’t present astrology as scientifically sound, it also doesn’t mock its ideas or the people who take comfort in them. When instructing a patient, the player is given three astrological options from which to choose, all correctly based upon the actual star chart of the day of the appointment. The game, in theory, can serve as an entry point into the hobby.
Astrologaster arrives at a fascinating moment for astrology and mysticism. As Amanda Hess recently noted in the New York Times, compared with dangerous conspiracy theories and toxic forums, “retreating into the mystical internet actually feels like a quite rational move.”