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What to play: ‘Astrologaster’ gets topical with Shakespearean-era alternative facts

What to play: ‘Astrologaster’ gets topical with Shakespearean-era alternative facts
Nyamyam Games' "Astrologaster" is available on iOS. (Nyamyam)

“Astrologaster,” set sometime around 1600, has no business feeling as timely and realistic as it does. A modern video game farce, “Astrologaster” ultimately shows how little things have changed in four centuries or so, especially when it comes to humanity’s understanding and acceptance of facts.

But there apparently has been one constant: our desire to believe only what we want to be true.

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Based upon the real-life diaries and actual patients of noted quack Simon Forman (correction, a wannabe doctor and psychologist who diagnoses individuals according to his understanding of astrology), “Astrologaster” taps into our endless hunger to believe in some sort of celestial force. Or, perhaps to be more accurate, to use said belief as a justification for our actions, be they noble or immoral.

Want to feel less guilty for calling off a relationship? Consult the stars. Feeling the impulse to make an unwise investment? The stars should know. Thinking about cheating on a spouse? Well, only if the stars justify it, of course. Struggling to manage an addiction but not ready or willing to seek help? The stars, again.

“Astrologaster” is easy to laugh at, at least until one remembers current fashions, namely the hope that the solutions to our problems can be found in crystals or salt lamps. Forman, a controversial figure even in Shakespearean London, is viewed in “Astrologaster” as a serious medical professional due to his ability to have survived the plague.

The goal of the game — albeit one that is presented lightly — is to try to have Forman guess right just enough times that he is able to gain a medical license. But such an objective is largely just an excuse to enjoy the drama that unfolds.

We meet a cynically observant poet, a man of the cloth with money to burn, nosy neighbors, adulterous housewives and plenty of town fools. Through astrological readings, we deduce everything from pregnancies to hemorrhoids.

And that says nothing of Forman himself, an absurd character who tries to bed his female patients — praise be the writer Emilia Lanier, who not so subtly stabs Forman by pointing out that a man who fancies a lady often gives himself away by becoming “more loquacious, plaguing her with ill-formed metaphors.”

Yet through Lanier, Forman accidentally finds himself in Shakespeare’s orbit and, like any not-quite-normal human, starts to believe his own nonsense. “How very tragical,” Forman says when one of his predictions of death proves true. Or, as a bishop tells us, “astrology is but a conduit for the word of God, as interpreted using scientific means.”

Probably not, but as comical as the game is, it treats what it mocks with reverence. Whether one knows what “Mars in detriment of Taurus” or “Neptune retrograde” actually means, “Astrologaster” (available now for Apple’s iOS devices as well as home computers) takes a studious approach to all-things zodiac. The goal isn’t to treat astrology as a punchline, but to illustrate how easily it can became a guiding light for what ails us.

Play as the real-life Simon Forman in "Astrologaster," a doctor who diagnoses patients based on star signs.
Play as the real-life Simon Forman in "Astrologaster," a doctor who diagnoses patients based on star signs. (Nyamyam)

Forman may not need to look to the heavens to discover that a patient suffers from mild depression, but if a star chart helps someone accept it, then perhaps there is no harm. Of course, for one to win the game, one must balance telling characters what they want to hear versus what is common sense, and the game uses actual daily star charts to offer both courses of action.

So one doesn’t need a background in history to know that Sir Walter Raleigh’s quests to find El Dorado, the fabled lost city of gold, didn’t end well. But one also doesn’t need a medical license to know that a man who stubbornly idolizes Raleigh and believes in said mystical place is likely to change his mind with one psychic reading. Indeed, Forman could be labeled a fraud for actually telling the truth.

No wonder, then, that developer Jennifer Schneidereit, whose London-based Nyamyam Games created the title, has said she believes the game is relevant to our current political discourse. Lending the game a bit of historical heft is the fact that Schneidereit and her creators consulted with the research team of University of Cambridge professor Lauren Kassell, who has extensively studied Forman.

It grounds the title in reality, even if characters are introduced via goofy songs sung by a choir and the game looks like a fairy tale pop-up book sprung to life. Forman’s conclusions are often nonsense — if one’s fingers are crossed, there is no lie told is one piece of advice — but sometimes what we need is not an actual prescription but simply a spoonful of sugar.

Well, unless that sugar is a so-called doctor telling you not to seek medical help because your symptoms are probably just the result of arachnid venom.

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