Digital scholarship blog

Enabling innovative research with British Library digital collections

02 September 2023

Huzzah! Hear the songs from Astrologaster live at the Library

Digitised archives and library collections are rich resources for creative practitioners, including video game makers, who can bring history to life in new ways with immersive storytelling. A wonderful example of this is Astrologaster by Nyamyam, an interactive comedy set in Elizabethan London, based on the manuscripts of medical astrologer Simon Forman, which is currently showcased in the British Library’s Digital Storytelling exhibition.

Artwork from the game Astrologaster, showing Simon Forman surrounded by astrological symbols and with two patients standing each side of him

On Friday 15th September we are delighted to host an event to celebrate the making and the music of Astrologaster. Featuring game designer Jennifer Schneidereit in conversation with historian Lauren Kassell discussing how they created the game. Followed by a vocal quartet who will sing madrigal songs from the soundtrack composed by Andrea Boccadoro. Each character in the game has their own Renaissance style theme song with witty lyrics written by Katharine Neil. This set has never before been performed live, so we can’t wait to hear these songs at the Library and we would love for you to join us, click here to book. We've had the title song, which you can play below, as an earworm for the last few months!

Simon Forman was a self-taught doctor and astrologer who claimed to have cured himself of the plague in 1592. Despite being unlicensed and scorned by the Royal College of Physicians he established a practice in London where he analysed the stars to diagnose and solve his querents’ personal, professional and medical problems. Forman documented his life and work in detail, leaving a vast quantity of papers to his protégé Richard Napier, whose archive was subsequently acquired by Elias Ashmole for the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford. In the nineteenth century this collection transferred to the Bodleian Library, where Forman’s manuscripts can still be consulted today.

Screen capture of the Casebooks digital edition showing an image of a manuscript page on the left and a transcript on the right
Screen capture image of the Casebooks digital edition showing ‘CASE5148’.
Lauren Kassell, Michael Hawkins, Robert Ralley, John Young, Joanne Edge, Janet Yvonne Martin-Portugues, and Natalie Kaoukji (eds.), ‘CASE5148’, The casebooks of Simon Forman and Richard Napier, 1596–1634: a digital edition, https://casebooks.lib.cam.ac.uk/cases/CASE5148, accessed 1 September 2023.

Funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Casebooks Project led by Professor Lauren Kassell at the University of Cambridge, spent over a decade researching, digitising, documenting and transcribing these records. Producing The casebooks of Simon Forman and Richard Napier, 1596–1634: a digital edition published by Cambridge Digital Library in May 2019. Transforming the archive into a rich searchable online resource, with transcriptions and editorial insights about the astrologers’ records, alongside digitised images of the manuscripts.

In 2014 Nyamyam’s co-founder and creative director Jennifer Schneidereit saw Lauren present her research on Simon Forman’s casebooks, and became fascinated by this ambitious astrologer. Convinced that Forman and his patients’ stories would make an engaging game with astrology as a gameplay device, she reached out to Lauren to invite her to be a consultant on the project. Fortunately Lauren responded positively and arranged for the Casebooks Project to formally collaborate with Nyamyam to mine Forman’s patient records for information and inspiration to create the characters and narrative in the Astrologaster game.  

Screen capture image of a playthrough video of Astrologaster, showing a scene in the game where you select an astrological reading
Still image of a playthrough video demonstrating how to play Astrologaster made by Florence Smith Nicholls for the Digital Storytelling exhibition

At the British Library we are interested in collecting and curating interactive digital narratives as part of our ongoing emerging formats research. One method we are investigating is the acquisition and creation of contextual information, such as recording playthrough videos. In the Digital Storytelling exhibition you can watch three gameplay recordings, including one demonstrating how to play Astrologaster. These were made by Florence Smith Nicholls, a game AI PhD researcher based at Queen Mary University of London, using facilities at the City Interaction Lab within the Centre for Human-Computer Interaction Design at City, University of London. Beyond the exhibition, these recordings will hopefully benefit researchers in the future, providing valuable documentation on the original ‘look and feel’ of an interactive digital narrative, in addition to instructions on use whenever a format has become obsolete.

The Digital Storytelling exhibition is open until the 15th October 2023 at the British Library, displaying 11 narratives that demonstrate the evolving field of interactive writing. We hope you can join us for upcoming related events, including the Astrologaster performance on Friday 15th September, and an epic Steampunk Late on Friday 13th October. We are planning this Late with Clockwork Watch, Blockworks and Lancaster University's Litcraft initiative, so watch this blog for more information on this event soon.

.