The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - Shivering Isles

"You don't need to be mad to quest here" yells an increasingly unbalanced Will Porter. "But it helps!"

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."

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?

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.

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