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Road to the IGF: Nyamyam's Astrologaster

March 18, 2020 | By Joel Couture

March 18, 2020 | By Joel Couture
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More: Indie, Video, IGF



This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.

Astrologaster takes players back to Renaissance London to have them practice medicine using astrology, seeking answers to your patients' problems in the stars.

Gamasutra sat down with Jennifer Schneidereit, Creative Director of the Excellence in Audio-nominated title, to talk about the real world history that would inspire their comedy game, the challenges that went into creating a sound design that would transport players to that point in history, and the nuances of creating games that aim to make players laugh.

Astrologians 

My name is Jennifer Schneidereit. My role on Astrologaster was Creative Director.

I have been making games professionally for 15 years. I got my first job as a programmer with Japanese developer Acquire in Tokyo. After 4 years with Acquire, I went to the UK to work for Rare as a hybrid programmer & game designer. In 2010, I co-founded an independent studio called Nyamyam.

Drawing from Elizabethan medicine

In September 2014, I was invited to a workshop where game developers were paired with a number of scientists over the course of 2 days. One of those scientists was Lauren Kasell, Professor of History of Science and Medicine at the University of Cambridge. Lauren presented me with her research on a man called Simon Forman who had a medical practice in London from 1592-1609. Forman used astrology to treat and diagnose his patients and left behind one of the largest sets of medical records from the Renaissance era.

Lauren and her team were in the process of creating a searchable digital archive with 35000 of the 80000 records. From this chance encounter, I had the idea to make a comedy “best of” of Forman’s casebooks. I saw his casebooks as a window into the lives of people from 400 years ago - ordinary people like you who are rarely mentioned in history books. That, and the fact that Elizabethan medicine is hilarious and Forman was the perfect anti-hero to carry a game like Astrologaster. I closely followed Lauren’s research to translate Forman’s medical practice into a fun, yet historically accurate, playable form.

Tools of the stars

Astrologaster uses Nyamyam’s proprietary engine, which we build for our first game, Tengami. Like Tengami, Astrologaster takes place inside a realistic folding pop-up book. All 3D pop-up models were built in what we call “Paper Kit” -  a tool that sits on top of Modo, developed by Technical Director Phil Tossell.

For Astrologaster I developed a tool called “Star Kit” which we used to cast astrological charts for precise times and dates (Believe it or not, all consultations in the game have a precise date and time associated with it, for which we use the correct planetary positions to tell our stories). Star Kit assisted writer and narrative designer Katharine Neil with plotting Astrologaster’s timeline and telling stories consistent with how I had designed the astrology system for the game. Katharine additionally used Progressimo, a tool she had developed, to work out dependencies between player choices and consequences.

To set up cutscenes, game data, and subtitle timings I wrote a series of VBA scripts to export our data from Excel to a game-readable format. We used Wwise as our audio middleware, and modeling and character animation was done using both Modo and Maya.

On exploring astrology-based medical work

I wasn’t so much interested in exploring medical astrology for its own sake, but it turned out to be a necessity to historically accurately portray Simon Forman’s medical practices and the Elizabethan medical encounter as a whole. And as it turned out, astrology is a system that lends itself perfectly to storytelling and as a device for mediating narrative choices. More people should explore it for gameplay.

History is wilder than fiction

It was by pure coincidence that I came across this story of Simon Forman and his casebooks. It taught me that the things people actually do in real life are often wilder and weirder than what we imagine. Working with historical events and people gives you the advantage of being able to draw from an existing universe. It means you have less world building to do yourself - you’re more like an interpreter.

Working with comedy & humor

(I asked Katharine Neil to answer this question. These are her words below.)

“True wit is nature dressed to advantage”, as someone famous once said. We stuck as closely as we could to Forman’s real story, the real stories of his patients, and the true history of medicine. We mined this material for comedic elements, then dressed them up. We were also careful to find and include elements of genuine pain and tragedy: having people feel something for the characters lends something meaningful to the comedy. Especially an anti-hero like Forman.

Another part of our approach - which is a fairly typical approach in historical comedy - was to link the problems and issues for these characters to present day concerns.

Finally, we used a tone that we call “family filthy”, inspired by British 70s sitcoms. To achieve this, we deliberately leveraged the constraints of the game’s archaic language and minimalist visual presentation. It’s amazing what level of adult humor you can get away with when a) you don’t have to show it and b) you don’t have to use modern English language to say it.

Challenging voices

The two big areas for audio design were voice acting and the madrigals for each character in the game. For voice acting, I worked with Adele Cutting from Soundcuts as our Performance Director. All actors recorded remotely in their individual home studios. Adele, Katharine, and I joined the actors via Skype. Having the performance director, writer, and creative director together in the sessions meant that my vision, the writer’s ideas, and the performance director’s and actor’s input helped with the characterization and development of the characters off the page.

Our biggest challenge was getting the actors to sound like they were recorded in the same place at the same time, as the raw samples from the studios were vastly different. Some of this work was undertaken during post production of the speech assets. Every character was recorded in a different DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), with a different recording chain, hardware, and microphone. This meant that in addition to the usual speech editing tasks, this was another level of editing that required attention.

Some of the actors’ home studios weren't good enough to start off with, so Adele worked together with those artists to review their recording chain and suggest changes to get better recordings and acoustics. For one studio, we received pictures of the booth and then systematically suggested where panels needed to be taken down/removed etc.

The idea of medicine being a “performance” was one of my core creative pillars for Astrologaster. Adele suggested adding reverb during post production; this did not only help 'bed' the voices into the same space, but also added to the idea that it was being performed on a theater stage such as the Globe Theatre.

Creating a convincing Renaissance London through song

For the music, we worked with composer Andrea Boccadoro. He also ended up creating 90% of the SFX for which we decided we wanted a musical feel. Given the real-life historical element of the casebooks, we wanted to use the music to help create a convincing portrayal of Renaissance London. The composition style of the late Renaissance in England has a very distinct identity that was perfect for characterizing the historical setting. Andrea had previous experience writing and singing in this style, so we commissioned him to include these techniques in the songs.

Storytelling in music

We were all very excited about the idea of having sung introductions to Forman’s consultations. It was key to make them feel as if they had an essential function, and they needed to have just the right length so that players would continue listen to them.The songs serve as a reminder of what has happened in a patient’s storyline so far, expose a patient’s personality, and sometimes also foreshadow events.

They were crafted in close cooperation between writer and lyricist Katharine Neil and composer Andrea Boccadoro. For me, one of the biggest challenges was to completely “trust” these two. While I was able to read the lyrics before we went into the studio to record them, I had never actually even heard a mock-up of what that might sound like. There was no budget to re-do any of it. Trusting Andrea and Katharine paid off big time and being in the studio when we recorded the songs was a truly special experience for me.

Creating a stage with visual style

The art style is the result of a year worth of iteration and exploration of Adam Clark, our Art Director. We worked a lot on getting the right kind of paper feel, since the game takes place in a pop-up book. The pop-up book served as a theatrical stage, so we made very deliberate choices with the elements in a given scene and we wanted players to feel as if they were participating in something very intimate. Adam and I discussed very early on that we wanted to go for something very stylized.

Turning astrology into gameplay

I closely followed Forman’s medical practice and his casebooks when designing the game. I saw myself as a translator/interpreter of Forman’s work into playable form.

From the beginning, I was clear that players did not have to know astrology to play the game, nor would the the game attempt to teach players how to be an astrologer. Forman himself acts as a translator of the stars. This worked well with another core aspect of the game: medicine as a performance.

For the core loop, I analyzed a single case and from there came up with a flow structure for the game. I then designed each step of the flow in detail.

A lot of time was spent designing the step where the player does the astrological readings. I didn’t know how astrology worked before working on Astrologaster. It took months of doing YouTube astrology tutorials and reading Forman’s own writing on his methods, as well as those of astrologers contemporary to Forman. I ended up designing a simplified model of astrology for the game: reducing it to a language in which stars and planets provide a vocabulary for the reading, and where houses provide the topics and themes this vocabulary pertains to. By combining any number of planets and houses one can create multi-faceted and complex stories.

This game, an IGF 2020 honoree, is featured as part of the Independent Games Festival ceremony, which will be free to stream virtually starting at 5pm PT (8pm ET) Wednesday, March 18 on GDC’s Twitch channel.



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