All the same, it’s great to see Bethesda shifting away from the straight fantasy world it created for Oblivion and towards the less conventional world of Morrowind. Oblivion was classic high-fantasy stuff, mined from the Tolkien/Eddings/Feist vein, though with darker leanings visible when you ventured through the Oblivion gates into the Daedric netherworlds beyond. The Shivering Isles seems informed by a different sensibility. There’s a touch of Lewis Carroll in the giant mushrooms and nonsensical dialogue and the influence of Michael Moorcock in the baroque fantasy trappings and the twisted psychological overtones. With Oblivion, Bethesda showed that they could build a leading-edge graphics engine and use it to render the most gloriously lifelike and beautiful high-fantasy world ever created for a video game. With The Shivering Isles, it’s showing what that engine can do for something more dreamlike and imaginative. What’s more, this approach carries over beyond the look to the overall feel. There’s a real sense that, in Sheogorath’s realm, any rules there are are made to be broken. If you were growing tired of Cyrodil, don’t worry – this is something new.
The same goes for the personalities and creatures that occupy it. Even the lowly cannon fodder critters are new to the game, while the supporting cast is smaller but also richer for it. Madness is very much the theme, with enough deranged witches, paranoid nutcases and lunatic substance abusers to fill bedlam. One woman keeps a tame zombie in her bedroom and calls it ‘Uncle Leo’, another weeps for her colossal, Frankenstein’s monster of a child, while another man begs you to kill him in a way he can’t see coming. Mania is ruled by a narcotic-loving bon viveur, while Dementia is ruled by Lady Syn, a paranoid aristo who is convinced that her subjects are conspiring to get rid of her (and the fact that she’s right doesn’t make her any less crazy). Basically, this isn’t your usual elves and goblins setup.
These themes have even worked their way into the missions. At first, you’re pretty much clueless. Sheogorath has summoned you to his realm and wants you to make yourself at home, but it’s several hours in before you discover your main task. In the meantime, you’ll be kept busy wondering through weird, insect-filled tunnels while addicted to a strange narcotic with a fiendish comedown, cruelly testing fellow adventurers with trials designed to take their lives or their sanity, then torturing the local populace as part of a high inquisition. It’s Oblivion, but not as you know it.