The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - Shivering Isles
7th Feb 2007 | 15:38
As job interviews, go it'll be short and relatively painless. It's just you, a disinterested chap named Haskill, a bare room, a desk and a chair. After such an imposing entranceway, surrounded by otherworldly vegetation that's leeched through its tableau of linked screaming faces into the lands of Cyrodiil, you were perhaps expecting something a little more grandiose within.
Then, as the interview concludes, the dull, featureless walls melt away into a cloud of butterflies. And then it happens: you're somewhere slightly mad.
The setting is the torn realm of the daedric Prince of Madness, one Sheogorath, if you haven't been keeping tabs on your Elder Scrolls lore. Bethesda's stated aim
is to create a new self-contained land where the characters are more tightly defined, where dialogue is richer and where their quest designers can stretch their imaginative powers to the full, under the broad canopy of the insane, the unstable and the downright psychotic.
The Shivering Isles represent madness itself - eternally split both physically and politically between the bickering forces of Mania (wild-eyed, unhinged) and Dementia (paranoid, gloomy, depressed). Sheogorath rules over them all, but his realm is in danger - under threat from the blank conformity of the Knights of Order who have begun to appear on its fringes. And guess what? That's where you come in.
"Well it's a geographical split to start with - there's a giant ridge that runs the breadth of the island," explains Shivering Isles lead designer Mark Nelson when I quiz him about Bethesda's new psychological leanings. "The highlands are the lands of Mania and the lowlands are the lands of Dementia.
Art-wise, Mania is a lot more vibrant, colourful - almost over-saturated in parts. In the lowlands, in Dementia, it's really more of a creepy atmosphere. A lot of mosses hanging out of dark trees and stuff - it's a very claustrophobic feeling that's meant to evoke more of a hard feel to it. Obviously we don't do survival horror, but it's a creepier place in general."
MENTAL AS ANYTHING
This ridge even runs through the capital city of the isles, New Sheoth, splitting it in two in true Berlin Wall-style. The stunning fountains and impressive waterfalls of Mania's half of the city (known as Bliss) are a sight to behold, yet they drain into the half ruled by Dementia (known as The Crucible), and there the water congeals into dank, stagnant piles of sludge in the arse-end of the city.
It's a land split between Alice In Wonderland-style exuberance and the type of ancient and gloomy forests in which hobbits always seemed to be getting lost in the Lord Of The Rings movies.
"The people themselves are very different too," continues Nelson. "The residents of Mania tend to be, well, manic. You get a lot of obsessives, bizarre artists and the like, who are insanely creative but insane nonetheless. Whereas in Dementia you find the psychotics, the paranoid - people who are afraid of things they've created in their own minds." And who wouldn't be a little disturbed, for example, if you lived in the town of Split on the Mania/Dementia divide where suddenly there are two versions of each resident?
OFF TO MEET THE WIZARD
Once the fog of butterflies dissipates, you find yourself in a walled area known as The Fringe, and to escape this there's the small matter of getting past the goliath Gatekeeper that adorns this magazine's cover - a terrifying construction of the body parts of various creatures whose job description provides a fair amount of the plot later on.
Once you're past him though, you'll find yourself searching out the man of the moment: Sheogorath. And once you meet him, alongside his loyal chamberlain Haskill (very much a Jeeves to the big man's Bertie Wooster), the plot starts ticking.
"The first time you meet Sheogorath he says: 'You know what? I need a mortal champion and you're the only one who's made it to talk with me, so you're him.
You are my champion'," explains an enthusiastic Nelson. "But you don't really get an idea of what your real job is going to be. Sheogorath only gives you bits and pieces - he doles out information slowly. He's the god of madness, and he tends to speak in unintentional riddles and go off on tangents about pudding."
Right. So anyway, Sheogorath's thought is that if you're going to hold any sway in his court whatsoever, you ought to go out and start meeting people, helping them out, pissing them off and basically having a cracking role-play adventure. As with the various guilds and orders of Cyrodiil, your reputation with the houses of Mania and Dementia will rise and fall according to your actions, but there will come a point at which Sheogorath will ask you to make a final decision as to which side you will join and, indeed, of which you shall become leader.
This in turn will have ramifications in later quests and in whose support you'll have as you battle the forces of the rival daedric prince Jyggalag (mentioned once in a book in Daggerfall, and apparently hotly discussed on the Elder Scrolls lore forums), who's moseying into the madness uninvited.
He's attempting to render a genocide of sensible-ness upon the Shivering Isles known as The Greymarch, an ancient event that occurs every epoch or two that Sheogorath is naturally anxious to avoid. As Nelson points out, it's all very much created in the spirit of Neil Gaiman (author of the Sandman graphic novel series and novels like American Gods), with concepts like sanity and madness being given form and personality, and having them clash against each other while mortals like you and I toil away beneath them, subject to their every whim.
One of the key things Sheogorath wants you to do is help create another guardian for the Gates of Madness. As such, searching out the original guardian's creator and helping him fashion a new one out of body bits is an important part of the main quest, but the chirpy Mark Nelson is reluctant to reveal much more in terms of storyline - and not just to lessen the risk of spoilerification.
He's equally excited, you see, about the little people - the NPC characters lower down the food chain who may not hold the future of an entire daedric realm in their hands, but are at least entertaining in their own little mentalist ways. There's the chap you come across who's afraid to sleep in his own house in case the walls fall in and crush him, for example, who asks you to find him a truly safe place to sleep. There's the mad woman in the wilderness who is obsessed by having one of everything in the world - from creatures to objects - and whose whims you can only satisfy if you've got a couple of aeons to spare.
A more professional obsessive, meanwhile, runs and gives tours around the Museum of Oddities, to which you are asked to become a donor as the amount of bizarre and useless objects in your inventory starts to build up.
Speaking of which, more obsessive fans will be delighted to hear that Shivering Isles is due to be the first Elder Scrolls game to find a use for calipers - the heretofore useless household implements that have been found (and left) inside the barrels and chests of Tamriel for countless ages.
There's no particular good/bad divide in gameplay this time round, but more of a mottled hue of morals and loyalties. You'll come across a bloke in New Sheoth, for example, who's absolutely desperate to kill himself but can't, since topping yourself is seen as such a crime that there's even a dank, depressing place called the Hill of Suicides for their ghosts to hang out for all eternity as punishment. So it is then, if you choose to help out, that you must figure out an inventive accident to ensure that this poor chap snuffs it without it looking like he's asked you directly.
Seeing as you're climbing up the chain of nobility, meanwhile, you're also expected to grow a healthy disdain for the tiresome adventurers who keep bundling into the realm with the intention of slaying beasts, looting treasure and generally making a nuisance of themselves. As such, one of the main quests is a direct homage to the venerable Bullfrog box of fun that was Dungeon Keeper.
Sheogorath, you see, has a spare dungeon in Xedilian that he uses partly for testing people and partly for keeping unwanted mortal visitors busy. Once you've worked your way through its intricacies yourself, it's up to you and a vast array of booby-traps, pits and heavy swinging objects to deal with one such party of have-a-go adventurers who are dead-set on stealing its fictional treasures.
What's more, what happens in the torn realm of Sheogorath stays in the torn realm of Sheogorath, so you could be chief goody-two-shoes back in Cyrodiil and a filthy murdering bastard here and none will be the wiser.
THINGS THAT ROAR
And what role-playing expansion would be complete without a fresh menagerie
of monsters - and weapons to repeatedly hit them round the head with? As with
the art style and demeanour of the locals, creatures differ according to which subsection of insanity you're adventuring in.
A typical beast found in the over-the-top lands of Mania, for example, is the Elytra - a giant ant-like insect with garish oil-spill rainbow patterning, beady red eyes and furiously jabbing pincers. A similarly feared denizen of Dementia meanwhile would be its representation of Hunger - a ghastly pale figure not unlike the tentacle-mouthed zombies in STALKER, whose emaciated yet muscly figure roams through rural areas picking off livestock and farmers. Other foes that could be mentioned include the big (the Baliwog that seems to be half crocodile, half frog and more than a little Jabba the Hutt), the small (this season's goblin replacements are known as Grummites) and the ones with sexy chests ("Helloooo, Dark Seductresses!").
As for tools of smitage with which to destroy this evil (and sexiness), Nelson doesn't want to go into too much detail for fear of having to talk to me all week. He does, however, mention a sword known as Dawnfang, that gets powered up the more souls you dispatch - essentially levelling up alongside you. Unfortunately, it resets itself at night, when it also changes its name to Duskfang, but it's a great idea nonetheless. If you're a particularly magical character, meanwhile, you'll be interested to hear of the addition of what Bethesda are calling 'point-blank area-effect spells', that explode spectacularly around you when they're cast.
CONTENT IS KING
Personally, I didn't have too many problems with vanilla Oblivion. I enjoyed every last drop in fact, but I know a fair wodge of people who had one or two reservations. Some of them I have the misfortune of working with on a daily basis. First and foremost, if you didn't like the levelling system, with its insistence that when you got stronger then so did all the bandits hiding behind the trees, then don't expect a magical 'fix' in the expansion.
This add-on is all about the content, and not necessarily the belt and braces of the gameplay. Having said that, if you were of the opinion that interaction with the residents of Cyrodiil was a touch on the shallow side, then to an extent Bethesda agree with you. Nelson himself regrets that they "couldn't quite get to the meat" of NPCs in the original, but with a smaller cast list of around 60 or 70 (excluding monosyllabic guards and the like), the plan is that each will be a fleshed-out and well-rounded individual. Bar the insanity, obviously.
"We've had more time to really get into their heads, to write them up and really
be in this realm of madness," claims the Bethesda man. "Some of them are simply quirky - you'd meet them on the street and you wouldn't realise they were insane. Others are just psychotic." And thankfully, as these screenshots more than attest, NPC faces are a bit less puffy this time.
And there you have it: the realm of Sheogorath. One card short of a full deck, not quite in the pink, missing a few screws and most certainly more than slightly mad. Around 30 hours of play on a mad island around a quarter the size of the original game's Cyrodiil.
The very best parts of Oblivion were the ones where its designers were clearly given carte blanche to create something crazy - the stolen ship, the painting quest, entering someone's dreams or watching burning Alsatians rain down on a village of cats. This time, under the expansive banner of madness itself, they're cooking up ingenious and barmy quests as a matter of course. The lunatics have taken over the asylum, and long may they reign.
YOU RANG M'LORD?
Haskill - the chamberlain who does more than iron the master's socks
Every demonic overlord needs an accomplice, whether it's a helpful Igor, a cunning Grand Vizier or a blue blob whose job it is to fetch food and warily tread around a giant trapdoor. Sheogorath has Haskill, his loyal chamberlain, who, despite his own misgivings, is at your beck and call too. "He's my favourite character!" smiles Mark Nelson.
"He's almost Alfred from Batman. He doesn't think much of you to start with. He just thinks 'Another mortal, god... I've got to deal with this guy?' He's very put upon, and he's probably nuts too - but you're not exactly sure how or why." His domain isn't simply fluffing the pillows either, as to his barely concealed annoyance you'll be able to summon him whenever you get stuck while questing. If you're at a genuinely tricky bit he'll give suggestions, or if you're just wasting his time he'll make a few choice comments and leave. You just can't get the staff these days...
Bethesda and Double Fine sitting in a tree?
You couldn't get two games more different in style, format or tone, but thematically, Shivering Isles isn't a million miles away from Double Fine's brilliant Psychonauts (play it now). Compare and contrast: Psychonauts sees you entering a fevered mind and balancing out the fighting emotions and irrational beliefs contained therein, all the while fending off the censors that are trying to extinguish creative thought. Shivering Isles, meanwhile, has you adventuring in a land that's a representation of madness itself, playing in and around (if not balancing) opposing psychological forces, while fending off the tide of dreary similitude represented by the emotionless Knights of Order. Almost makes you want to write an essay on it, doesn't it? Almost.