Astrologaster Review25 Jun 2019 1
Released 02 May 2019
Astrologaster is an odd bird. A sincere quack doctor dispenses both medicine and life-coaching lessons by consulting the stars and thereby inferring from astrology the true state of affairs. Born from a close, if selective, culling from Simon Forman’s writing, this game is, to put it in cinematic terms, ‘based on a true story’. The ‘medical’ dilemmas showcased are funny and insightful, and with each one Simon pulls close to his ridiculous acquaintances with affection.
The game also has a healthy dose of mockery, sailing through historical references with a modern-day sensibility and verve. The voice acting, plotting and overall characterization are leagues ahead of most games, but it is admittedly a niche offering: a wickedly amusing historical storybook with mildly branching paths. Yet the total package transcends genre, for Astrologaster is not to be missed.
Dr Simon Forman is a medical practitioner with a self-diagnosed heart of gold. Through luck or foolhardy genius, he has survived the plague, and credits his miraculous turnaround with a cure he dreamt up on death’s door. Now, he seeks to grow his practice and obtain a medical license, in that dubious order. The game’s story is linear with variant outcomes for each of Simon’s patients.
First, a quick account of the mechanics and flow of play. He treats, at the player’s direction, anyone who comes through his doors, listening to their sorrows at length. One is distraught at the thought of Papist neighbors and wonders whether they are, by nature, treasonous. Perhaps she ought to report them and protect the crown? Another wishes to know, ever-so-sweetly, whether her betrothed is long for this world. Ought she marry at all if heartbreak be right around the corner? There is a monkey sidekick for one visitor, of course. These querents are the game’s lifeblood, and they are a varied group but uniformly delightful. There are men and women, young and old, of various professions, personalities and beliefs. A motley crew, whose lives are full of twists that would be just as home in a soap opera.
So each ‘medical’ consultation is divided into four parts. The customer is introduced with a quick ditty, musically summing up their situation and character. As an aside, the songs alone are gems worth the price of purchase, packing a punch with melody & rhyme. Secondly, the guests are greeted and chat at length with Simon. When the game-flow pauses, the client's star chart is displayed, along with some interpretations. The game deliberately futzes with ‘astrology’ as such, lifting the same terms but tweaking their import. So a Libra dignified in Neptune could mean anything, in-game. One section of the stars points to a corruption of the blood, another to a weakness of the mind, for example. Luckily, the game translates the chart into somewhat plain advice, so the player simply chooses between outcomes.
This is where things get dicier. The ‘best’ answer is the one which pleases the customer. This is not always the most truthful, or accurate, interpretation. Some prefer flattery, most everyone has ulterior motives, and others will not heed good sense. Follow your intuition based on the dialogue, essentially. The stories of these characters will advance across multiple consultations, with their approval meters sliding up and down depending on Simon’s prowess. His ultimate goal, and yours by extension, is to obtain a critical mass of letters of recommendation from these patients and use these testimonials to obtain a medical license.
But the game is amusing even in abject failure. The story length is the same whether or not you succeed in winning people over, though it might feel better to ‘win’ a license at the end. Astrologaster offers the player an ahistorical, eagle-eyed perspective to know and learn, but mostly to judge. The game is juicy and gossipy as much as it is informative. Yes, if one knows a bit about El Dorado or the Spanish Armada, a few consultations will have their proper choices jump out, but beyond some rather nifty nods to Elizabethan history and culture, the historical immersion of the game is pretty minimal. All the better to create ironic distance.
The first great pleasure of Astrologaster is its sense of intimacy and disclosure. Simon is priest, cabbie, bar-keep and shrink all rolled together. He is privy to these people’s tantalizing stories because they are trusting or desperate. Other games like Gone Home or VA-11 HALL-A also offer close glimpses into people’s (fictional) lives, heightening the sense of drama by mixing in the mundane. Astrologaster feels fun and silly, but also lifelike and lived-in, which is a difficult atmosphere to capture. It puts you in a position to know and then decide fates, based on laughably muddled astrological hints.
The game’s second great pleasure is its potential for satire. I say ‘potential’ because all-to-often satire is conflated with naked malice, lazy mockery, or sincere atrocity. No, the game’s tone itself is decidedly not neutral, but it leaves the japery and merriment up to the player. I’d give choice examples but would mangle them in the telling. Some diagnoses are inherently funny for their mixture of graphic description and antiquated language, like ‘purging from the fundament’. There are plenty of fools, luckless souls and prejudices on display here, but instead of serving up ham-fisted commentary, the whole affair is refreshing and light. Levity cuts deeper than argument. It’s not a particularly subtle game, but the brand of jocular dialogue leaves plenty of room for interpretation and imagination.
Now the game is relatively brief, I suppose, running around five hours for a playthrough depending on whether one listens to full voice-lines or skips through with subtitles. But it has a dedicated throughline, both as a whole and individually within its characters. For a fraction of the price of a blockbuster film, you can experience more wit and ingenuity across a greater length of time, all the while wondering at the fact that this game is only possible because of the fastidious case notes of the real-life historical figure of Simon Forman, whose own life and patients are, by all accounts, just as bonkers.