Game Reviews: Astrologaster. Nyamyam, 2019. Elsinore. Golden Glitch, 2019.

In-game screenshot showing Ophelia awakening.

Astrologaster. Nyamyam, 2019. Steam (Windows, Linux, MacOS, Nintendo Switch); Elsinore. Golden Glitch, 2019 (Windows, Linux, MacOS).

“Bookish” games are nothing new, but nor are “game-ish books”.  To play with – to intervene in, or, etymologically, to ‘exercise’ or ‘busy oneself about’ – a pre-existing text seems to be intrinsic to literary engagement.[1] Such interventions take many forms. Global rewrites, such as the transformation of Arthur Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet into Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, constitute one sort of play (no pun intended). Borrowings may be slightly smaller in scale, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy adopting the figure of Virgil; smaller still are the frequent excerptions of literary texts, whether in an early modern commonplace book, a modern-day political speech, or indeed when “To Brie or Not to Brie” is inscribed upon a cheese knife. Readers may also seek to involve themselves in a text more directly, yet without co-opting it as their own, such as when they strive to correct, censor, or expand upon its content. In this sense, readers have been gaming for a long time. The transfer of such readerly practices into the new media of video games is therefore particularly suggestive.

While precious few games do not require any sort of reading, there are some genres for which it constitutes a particularly central activity. Digital literature, in which a fictional tale unfolds while a player witnesses but minimally intervenes in its progress, is an obvious example. Yet a particular subset of games – christened ‘literary games’ by Astrid Ensslin— take this move between media further in that they ‘combine poetic and narrative techniques with serious, self-critical game design’.[2] In one sense, these games seem to be further away from the majority of printed fictional narratives (with the notable exception of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style texts such as the popular Goosebumps series). Yet, on the other hand, such literary games also combine both passive and active modes of reception, so that engagement with the text is both reading and response at one and the same time. 

Two games which invoke early modern England, Elsinore (Golden Glitch, 2019) and Astrologaster (Nyamyam, 2019), and which are both anchored upon the central motif of a book, are especially self-conscious examples of such bookish play – and ones which may challenge SHARP members and their students to see reading and its concurrent activities anew.

I have attempted to write the following reviews to be as spoiler-free as possible, but readers: consider yourself warned…

Astrologaster

Born out of a collaboration between the research of the University of Cambridge’s Prof. Lauren Kassell and the game studio Nyamyam, Astrologaster engages with the diaries of the sixteenth-century astrologer Simon Forman.[3] Set in 1592, with the aforementioned astrologer’s London recovering from a plague, the game consists of his run-in with the College of Physicians and subsequent endeavor to earn a medical license. To do so requires eight letters of recommendation. Luckily, Forman’s colorful clientele is more than happy to assist – or, at least, will be if he proves his astrological efficacy…

Screenshot of a gameplay screen, showing an early modern woman at the center surrounded by figures of a goat (above), a lady (left), and two figures walking (right). The caption above the image says "choose one zodiac to diagnose the condition. What caused my strange behavior at dinner?"
Simon Forman consults the stars for a client.
In-game screenshot showing a caption at the top that reads, "Should Forman use this reading? The querent has been bewitched." The image under the caption shows a goat figure  on top of which is written, "Aries, ruler of the brain," with an X and a checkmark to its right and left, respectively. Text surrounding the image reads:"The Moon, this suggests the illness is temporary," "Pluto, this suggests the possibility of death," and "Uranus, this suggests witchcraft."
The stars provide three possible diagnoses.

Playing in the person of Simon Forman, the player is confronted with a series of patients, including such figures as Emilia Lanier, Robert Devereux, and John Whitgift. Each of these characters has a tale to tell, which the player must piece together in order to advise them correctly on the course of action they should take for their predicament, be it medical or otherwise (with the “help” of the stars, of course). The traces of these tales left by Simon Forman are thereby dramatized, complete with humorous dialogues and originally composed ballads.

In-game screenshot showing the character of Emiliar Lanier standing in front of a Tudor-style house, with a town behind her. It's nighttime and the moon shows above her. At the top center of the time, text reads: "this woman has a gift for words, if only she had writ these words, they'd prob'ly be much better words, though written by a lady." On the bottom right an indicator shows which button to press on the gamer's controller to turn the page.
A custom ballad of Aemilia Lanier, seventeenth-century poet.

This immersion in the sixteenth century is not only a source of great amusement, but also points to several ethical issues (beyond the dubious medical practices of Forman himself) concerning the period and its historiography. A particular stand-out is the appearance of its women: Emilia Lanier brings into focus the question of female representation within history and traditional conceptions of the early modern period, while several of its other narratives center issues of consent and coercion. Having used this game in my own teaching, I can attest that this medium usefully provokes thought about the literature of this period through rendering such figures and issues more immediately visible.

From the perspective of book history, Astrologaster is an interesting artifact for quite another reason. It is exceedingly bookish in its design: with each progression in the narrative, an animation shows a “page-turn”, implying that the game itself is structured as a text. Yet the relationship between books and the game is not so simple, either conceptually or in terms of their respective mechanisms. For one, Astrologaster transforms and dramatizes a collection of manuscript notes into a continuous and interactive narrative. A diary, of course, already contains elements of both of these qualities (although the cryptic nature of Forman’s may leave larger gaps than most). Yet these are amplified by Astrologaster, prompting reflections upon questions of (intended or unintended) audience, longevity, and legacy inherent to the form. The mechanisms through which the user engages with Astrologaster raise further questions about what constitutes “bookishness”: the automatic saving mechanism means that it is impossible to go back on a choice without starting all over again, perhaps closer to the lived experience of a diary-writer than of the readers of the diary as an artifact. As well as a useful case study of how research can be successfully translated into a public outreach experience, then, Astrologaster invites its users to think again about early modernity – and the way that we traverse the records which it has left us.

Elsinore

Elsinore is, of course, an engagement with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Yet, true to its title, the game focuses on the place and not the play’s eponymous character (or indeed his father).  The player is given control of Ophelia and is able to roam around Elsinore’s castle and grounds as the play’s events unfold more or less canonically – with ample modernisation of the play’s dialogue and invention of the unstaged bits in-between – while a timeline lays out the next four in-game days. The first sign of disruption is a dream vision, through which Ophelia prophesies the events to come: her father’s murder, the Queen’s death, and her own drowning. When she awakes, the player is directed to attempt to warn the other inhabitants of Elsinore of the tragedy to come. Such interventions are to no avail: Hamlet nonetheless kills Polonius, and the story progresses as Shakespeare wrote. But the gameplay is abruptly interrupted when a hooded figure approaches Ophelia, informs her that the world will believe that she drowned, and murders her.

It is here where the game really begins, as Ophelia awakes once more. But the time is out of joint: she is back to where she was immediately following her vision. The player now has the chance to truly intervene in the events to come, as well as to avert her own murder. With limited time, and without knowledge of the effects of each intervention, Ophelia’s (second) death is inevitable. But Ophelia will wake up again, and again, and again.

In-game screenshot showing Ophelia lying in bed. Her bedroom has two windows with curtains, a table with an open book and a quill on top, two chairs, and a dresser next to the canopied bed. A dialogue screen layers over this image with Ophelia saying "here we go again...'
Ophelia awakes, at the start of a new time loop.

In this Groundhog Day-esque loop, the player is invited to experiment with different courses of action with the goal of saving not only Ophelia, but the entire castle (and, by extension, Denmark). Every action has a consequence, cumulatively leading to one of thirteen different endings. Each of these is recorded in the ‘Book of Fates’, so that eventually the player must choose how they wish to re-write Hamlet.

In-game screenshot showing the Royal Gallery. The gallery contains portraits hanging on the wall and one portrait is visibly missing. At the center four characters stand, including Ophelia. One character reads for a page and a dialogue bubble indicates he is saying, "Nothing. Just words. Words, words, words."
Polonius confronts Hamlet, reading.

Elsinore is very far from the first video game to engage with Shakespeare’s Hamlet.[4] In its efforts to center the would-be heroine of the play, Ophelia, and to amplify her perspective, it is also among good company – as attested by, for instance, John Everett Millais’ eponymous painting or the film Ophelia (2018). It stands out from prior such adaptations, however, in several ways. The player’s ability to control the events – with many possible outcomes – grants them an unusual amount of agency, while the repetition intrinsic to its time loop creates an unusual intimacy with the characters and setting of Hamlet (and a concurrent appreciation of its domesticity). Such looping also permits expansion of the play’s premises, so that the engagement with Shakespeare does not only consist of providing a new perspective on events from a character within the play, but of boldly imagining the world outside Elsinore. A central strand of the game is an intrigue plot whereby we are invited to imagine Fortinbras’ activities during the events of Hamlet. Ophelia and her family’s background are equally queried, as is the basis of Horatio’s friendship with Hamlet. More boldly still, a neighboring town and its characters force players to engage with conflicts surrounding gender expression and race, while Hamlet’s imagined voyage on the play’s pirate ship brings up explorations of sexuality. Each alternate ending offers players the chance to rewrite the play, and challenges them to choose the ending which they think is best – while being forced to acknowledge that each has its downsides.

The question of agency is the unifying thread between these two games, and the one which makes them especially interesting to scholars of the book. As each game insists that players intervene in prior literary stories, they prove useful for thinking about modalities of engagement made possible by different media (and by transgressing the boundaries a medium imposes). The affordances and disturbances of video games push against those of the page – whether manuscript, print, or indeed digital – in ways which usefully problematise both media’s boundaries, users’ engagement, and own content. They are also, thankfully, great fun, neither taking their source material too seriously. With both being relatively cheap – hovering around $10 apiece, although regularly on sale for half of this amount – and quite quick to play through, either game provides ample fun to fill an evening, yet equally proves stimulating enough to make their way onto a class syllabus.


[1] Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1966), 1198.

[2] Astrid Ensslin, Literary Gaming (Cambridge, Mass. and London: The MIT Press, 2014), 11.

[3] ‘Press Kit’, A comedy written in the stars, accessed 20 November 2023, https://www.astrologaster.com/press.

[4] For an overview of Hamlet video games from 1983 to 2013, see Matthew Harrison and Michael Lutz, ‘South of Elsinore: Actions That a Man Might Play’, in The Shakespeare User, ed. Valerie Fazel and Louise Geddes (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 23–40.