The Kickstarter campaign for Strange Sickness wrapped up with an amazing 220 backers and 132% funding support, following a focused three-week run which ended a minute before midnight on 17 December 2020.
The generous response to the campaign brought backers from Scotland and around the world to support the project. Practical support and encouragement from Opportunity North East Code Base (ONE CodeBase) has been integral to the project.
Backing for the game exceeded the initial target and the first stretch goal. This means the game will include a prologue, to precede the main narrative section of play. Here the player will be introduced to Aberdeen and its inhabitants and hear reports of frightening illnesses from elsewhere in Scotland and overseas. Player decisions made in the prologue will affect the main narrative which follows.
There are eight days remaining in the Strange Sickness Kickstarter campaign . But what does ‘strange sickness’ mean, and why have we chosen it as the title for the game? In this blog post I’ll dive into some of the sources from Aberdeen in which the evocative term is used.
In her recent book, Karen Jillings noted the association of the term with syphilis in the early sixteenth century, called at the time the Great Pox. For instance, an entry from the Aberdeen council registers in 1507 refers to ‘the strange sickness of Naples’. The disease of Naples was another widely-used term for syphilis.
Earlier entries suggest the term ‘strange sickness’ had broader applicability. Certainly, one use of the term from 1497 seems to refer to a venereal disease, coming as it does on the same day as an entry outlining cruel punishments imposed on ‘licht’ (‘immoral’) women, probably referring to sex workers, stipulating that unless they refrained from ‘vicis and Syne of venere’ (‘vices and the sin of sexual indulgence’) they would be burned on the cheek with a hot iron key and banished from the town (click on links in footnotes to see orginal records and transcriptions).
However, an entry from 1498 suggests the term was used more generally, at least at this stage. It records an ordinance of the town for the inhabitants to close the gates at the back of their properties and build up their back walls in order to keep the town safe from ‘the pestilence and ale vthir Strang Seknes’ (‘the pestilence and all other strange sickness’). This refers to the layout of the town, with the backs of individual properties effectively making up the physical boundary of the town, as can still be seen in Gordon of Rothiemay’s map from 1661.
The phrasing here suggests pestilence (i.e. plague) was regarded as ‘strange sickness’ along with other types of disease. That plague was included as a type of strange sickness is further suggested by two entries from 1500. A statute issued on 15 August 1500 stated that people coming off a ship recently arrived from Danzig (today Gdansk) should be quarantined ‘for the sawite and weilfar of the town’ fra ale sthrange seknes’ (‘for the safety and welfare of the town from all strange sickness’). Another statute, from six days later (21 August 1500), imposed further measures related to the ship from Danzig ‘for the escheving of the plage of pestilence and safte of this tone’ (‘for the eschewing of the plague of pestilence and safety of this town’). Two entries from 1506 clearly include plague under the umbrella of ‘strange sickness’.
If ‘strange sickness’ was a general term, encompassing plague, syphilis and possibly other diseases, what does it tell us about their shared characteristics? ‘Sickness’ is clear enough, but strange is a little more ambiguous. In Older Scots ‘strange’ as an adjective could mean, much as does in modern English, unusual or unfamiliar. It could also mean exceptional and, more specifically, alien or foreign.
Certainly, in the late 1490s, syphilis was an unfamiliar disease, and Karen Jillings has argued that Aberdeen was ‘the first government body in the British Isles to tackle the Great Pox.’ Aberdonians may have been well aware of plague at this time, at least in theory, but it too is likely to have been unfamiliar in terms of personal experience for most, with no evidence that the disease had struck in the town for many generations. Both diseases could also have been regarded as ‘strange’ in the sense of foreign or alien, with the Aberdeen records referring to France as the source of syphilis and the fears of plague sparked by the arrival of a ship from Danzig. They both too could have been regarded as exceptional in their severity.
The usage ‘strange sickness’ in late-medieval Aberdeen may capture all of these meanings, and it speaks to the role of uncertainty in the human experience of disease and infection. Even after months of blanket media coverage, growing scientific evidence and widespread testing, our experience of Covid-19 often remains shrouded in uncertainty, even setting aside the proliferation of conspiracy theories and disinformation. Symptoms overlap with other conditions, making it hard without a test to know if you have it (and even tests can be inaccurate). When a case is confirmed, working out exactly how it was transmitted comes with even greater uncertainty. All of this has contributed to a strangely intangible sense of threat throughout much of 2020, although for many of those who have caught the virus, and their family, friends and carers, the threat has sadly become all too tangible.
When rumours swirled of the plague and the Great Pox in late-medieval Scotland – diseases which were far more deadly than even Covid-19 – fear and uncertainty must have been widespread. The term ‘strange sickness’ resonates with this atmosphere, which we intend to evoke, and allow players to navigate, in the game.
 Karen Jillings, An Urban History of the Plague: Socio-Economic, Political and Medical Impacts in a Scottish Community, 1500-1650 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018), p. 79.
 Jillings, An Urban History of the Plague, p. 77.
Strange Sickness is a narrative game about fear, disease and community. It is also an encounter with history, through the Aberdeen council registers.
The player will take on the role of a member of Aberdeen’s burgh council in the late 1490s as a plague epidemic is taking hold in Scotland. You must decide how to protect the city against the arrival of the disease by land or sea. You navigate through the game by linking to different parts of a branching narrative, deciding when to seek further information and how to respond to the threat of plague. The narrative plays out in different ways, with different endings, based on these decisions.
The project, led by William Hepburn and Jackson Armstrong, is newly launched on Kickstarter. If the project meets its funding target, the creative team will be led by William, building upon his experience in Playing in the Archives and with Who Killed David Dun?. William will bring his skills as a historian together with game designer Katharine Neil (Astrologaster and Over the Alps) and illustrator Alana Bell (graduate of Gray’s School of Art, 2020).
Strange Sickness is a non-profit project. William and Jackson are giving their time for free. The funds raised in this campaign will recover the costs of creating the game, delivering the rewards, and ensuring Katharine and Alana’s time is funded.
All profits from sales of the game after the Kickstarter campaign will support the Lord Provost’s Charitable Trust, for as long as the Trust is fundraising for Aberdeen-based registered charities to help individuals, families and communities across the city experiencing severe financial hardship as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Kickstarter campaign has launched with a great start in its first few days, so far with some 120 backers and reaching 66% of its total goal. The campaign page for the project may be found at www.kickstarter.com.