‘Astrologaster’ Review: Reach for the Stars

A few months ago, I downloaded an astrology app. I can’t say exactly what drove me to it — I have no religious connection to astrology and no interest in it as a hobby, but something about the novelty of a computer reading my fortune appealed to me. I almost never check it now, and when I do, it’s only to report the ridiculousness of its commands to my friends: Avoid cucumbers. Don’t go to the laundromat. Come up with your own wrestling name. They’re funny, but their vagueness detracts from their charm — when I look at them, I can’t help but wish the stars had been read with me in mind.

I thought of these lists when I started Astrologaster, a comedic visual novel that follows Simon Forman, a historical contemporary of Shakespeare who practiced astrology in Elizabethan England. As a horary astrologer, Forman takes questions from the querents who come to see him about their sicknesses, pains, and investments, and reads the stars to determine the correct answer. The player is tasked with combining the information in the stars — a combination of zodiac signs, their corresponding planets, and their general meaning, presented in a series of charts — with the conditional information your patients reveal to you in order to make a diagnosis. When a wealthy noblewoman complains of a sore stomach after a dinner party, you must decide whether her poor cooking or a stomach bug is the cause. When a cleric asks whether he should invest in a voyage to India, you have to weigh the signs of Libra and Scorpio, and perhaps your own historical knowledge that this particular voyage might not end so well.

As you treat more and more people, their cases become entwined, and you have to start making guesses that sound like they’re from an episode of CSI: is the mysterious widower with bad intentions trying to woo the child actor you just cured of lead poisoning? Does the bishop know his successor is sleeping around? Since you are rewarded with letters of recommendation for making your patients happy, you’re forced to make the decision between telling the patient the truth and what they want to hear, and you never know who will hear about your latest diagnosis.

Astrologaster

Observation Plus Performance

If this process seems removed from those lists of vague, seemingly random predictions that we might think of as astrology today, that’s because it is. Horoscopic astrology actually began its life as a science, one that was a key part of how people understood their bodies in relation to the world. Astrology could be used to predict the future, but was far more commonly used in medicine: the time of your birth, the time of your illness, and even the current season impacted your chance of getting sick, and your path to getting well. This approach to medical treatment is epitomized in the Zodiac Man, a figure found in almanacs that maps the cosmos onto the human body, as well as other manuscripts that deal with astrology and astronomy. The idea that there is an intimate connection between the planets and stars and peoples’ lives on Earth remained powerful in Elizabethan England, but was also subject to skepticism. If the stars ruled human behavior, what did that say about free will? And who was qualified to read them in the first place?

Forman’s ultimate goal, and your own, is to get enough recommendations to obtain a medical license to practice astrology as a credible doctor. As Julie Orlemanski notes in her book Symptomatic Subjects, medicine in England before the early modern period was largely diffuse and individualized, and there were few formal credentialing processes available to doctors. The Royal Academy of Physicians, established in 1518, was the first time such a process existed on a national scale. The equivalent College of Physicians serves as your enemy in Astrologaster, a force dedicated to formalized medicine as it should be practiced, and with a suspicious opposition to astrology.

Zodiac Man, British Library Egerton MS 2572

Indeed, despite its extensive past, there was a fair amount of suspicion towards astrology in early modern England. While most people tended to believe that astrology was a useful way to make sense of the workings of the body, many viewed astrology as a superstition or an act. In fact, Astrologaster shares its name with John Melton’s 1620 satire on astrology, Astrologaster, or, the Figure-Caster, which determines that astrology is just simple observation plus performance, and that astrologers are primarily out to get your money. This is just what you are charged with, and what you are working against: in order to get credentialed, you not only have to prove your medical success, but that your whole field of study is credible.

Astrologaster the game is also a comedy, and it would be easy to think that its punchline is early modern astrology. Forman himself is far from a sympathetic character, and the image of him as a shifty con man comes naturally. The arrangement of readings, which involve solving an individual’s problem through deductive reasoning by seeing which of the stars best explains their predicament, also implies that astrology is far from a legitimate science. When I started playing, I was quickly forced to make a claim that my querent was pregnant that wasn’t based on the stars at all, but on her slip-up reveal that she was suffering from morning sickness. This seemed in line with less generous ideas about astrology: that any medical practitioner using it is really using deductive reasoning and observation to make a diagnosis, rather than reading the stars.

Astrologaster

However, there are other moments in the game where your knowledge of not only the stars but their associations is key to making a deduction. Early on, the game teaches you that Saturn is associated with black bile, which is dry and cold; later on, this information might help you choose Saturn as the more likely cause for a bad head cold over Mars, which is ruled by choler. At various points, you have to prove your knowledge through a series of tests about humoral theory, which hints at the complex system of scientific knowledge that astrology was based around. This is limited by the necessity of not overwhelming the player — we can’t all be astrologers, after all, and the game tends to favor deduction over encyclopedic referencing. Still, astrology and its practitioners did have an understanding of what it was like to be sick, and how sickness should be approached, and in large part your treatment of patients reflects that.

All of this underlines an important fact about the practice of medicine in the premodern and early modern period: it was never singular. Physicians might use deduction from a patient’s self-reported symptoms to make a diagnosis, but they would also use astrological tables to determine treatments, and note the outward symptoms of the patient and the environmental factors that were impacting them. And while there was certainly the potential for fraud — as Forman demonstrates when he tries to flirt with a querent by telling her the stars say she should leave her husband — there was also a rigorous interest in figuring out peoples’ problems and trying to relieve them.

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Astrologaster

Getting It Right

Astrologaster works because it does not have an antagonistic relationship toward its subject. With a few exceptions, early modern medicine isn’t a punch line here or simply an occasion for reflection on how much medicine has progressed. Instead, it is treated as an important, if flawed, part of peoples’ lives. Nevertheless, it is not infallible: later decisions had me questioning not just whether my diagnosis was correct, but whether revealing it to my patient was the right thing to do. Forman isn’t just a physician, he’s a person, who will occasionally do unkind or creepy things without your input. By the end, I wasn’t so sure I wanted him to succeed in getting his license. But the amount of research that went into the project is clear: the developers used data from early modern casebooks to write the scenarios, and used the insights of historical consultant Dr. Lauren Kassel to recreate Forman and his patients.

Ultimately, Astrologaster succeeds on the strength of its writing, and by its respect and understanding for early modern medical practices and the people who used them. Forman and his patients might be foolish, self-obsessed, murderous or insincere, but the importance of their concerns and their belief in astrology is treated as genuine, even if its results aren’t always. In a pop-cultural landscape where the reach of pre- and early- modern medicine begins and ends with leeches, necromancy, and the presumption of ignorance, Astrologaster’s commitment to portraying early modern medical thought accurately and respectfully is rare and refreshing. Like a physician who knows their patient, this game knows its source material, and it presents it with love.

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Emily Price

Emily Price is a freelance writer and PhD student in medieval literature based in Brooklyn. You can find her on Twitter at @the_emilyap.

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