Alice’s Adventures In The Shivering Isles: Part 1
We’re All Mad Here
The Shivering Isles is an official expansion for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. It’s a significant add-on, throwing a whole new landmass into the game. The Shivering Isles is also famously mental. Those Isles are a bizarre place ruled by the god of madness, Sheogorath, whose rules are about as sensible as you’d expect from a god of madness. Sheogorath is in need of a mortal champion – you, of course – but you aren’t the first person who has been drawn to his surreal home, so the entire place is full of people who have been dragged in previously and driven mad by the place. There is not a single person in The Shivering Isles who isn’t batshit insane, apart from you.
The only sane person in a capriciously surreal fantasy land full of frightening whimsy? The perfect character to play through this was obvious: Alice. She must feel like having a holiday after being stuck in all those American McGee games, right?
Oblivion lets you choose from classes like Thief and Spellsword or create your own, as I’ve done in making Alice here. I’ve called my class ‘Winsome Ingenue’ and chosen a set of appropriate skills, including Speechcraft (for remaining polite when talking to gigantic smug caterpillars and eggs who sit on walls being annoying), Blade (in case I find a Vorpal Sword), Acrobatics (she’s probably had some ballet lessons, yeah?), and the magical school of Alteration, which is all about changing the physical properties of things (because after having your size altered as many times as Alice has, something must have rubbed off). As for Race, I choose ‘Imperial’ as is appropriate for a citizen of the British Empire, and then we’re done with character creation.
I have never been more sure of anything in my life.
The game begins with a letter explaining that a strange portal looking like a mouth has opened on an island in Niben Bay, and is drawing people of a certain disposition towards it. That disposition is “insane”. When I arrive on the island there’s a crazy cat-lady already here, by which I don’t mean someone who owns 15 kittens and eats pet food on toast but a lady who looks like a cat and is crazy.
You look unwell, Dinah. Is it “the crack”?
There’s also a guard – not to stop people from entering this dangerous magical portal, but to slay the deranged loonies who make it back out. One such loony emerges from the portal as we arrive, and Alice lends the guard a hand in a lady-like fashion by stabbing the maniac with a sword. At this point the voice of Sheogorath, Prince of Madness, booms out of the portal.
He’d very much like someone more worthy than the crazy chap he just spat back out to help him “wade through the entrails of my enemies”, which sounds unhygienic more than anything. Even so, where there are entire nations populated by extravagantly insane characters, that’s where Alice goes. Ignoring the guard, she steps through the horrifying giant mouth.
What could possibly go wrong?
On the other side of the portal is a small room. In that room is a man wearing a collar that makes his bald head look like a pumpkin. His name is Haskill and he’s a servant of Sheogorath. The voice actor playing Haskill balances smarm and condescension perfectly. He could very easily have sounded annoying – this is Oblivion, the odds were good – but instead he has this world-weary snooty Jeeves the butler thing going on.
(The quality of voice acting right across The Shivering Isles is a cut above that found in regular Oblivion, even though it shares a lot of the same actors. Being allowed to ham it up with exaggerated personalities and voices suits them much better than the generic fantasy olde worlde seriousness of Oblivion.)
Haskill offers Alice the chance to visit Sheogorath’s royal court, although she’ll have to cross the Isles to get to his palace by herself and the Isles are full of people who have been entering via Sheogorath’s portals for years. Traversing a bizarre landscape full of crazy people to meet royalty? To Alice that’s a regular Friday. She accepts, lets Haskill stamp her passport, and watches as the room’s walls suddenly dissolve into butterflies.
To think I almost went to Brighton for the holidays instead.
The butterflies scatter into cloudy air and Haskill has vanished, leaving Alice sitting at an empty table in the grey, rocky landscape of The Fringe. This is where mortals await Sheogorath’s Blessing – which is a fancy name for going stark bugfuck insane – without which they’re not allowed inland. Walking down the hill, the first creature Alice meets in this strange place is a frog-man called a Grummite. Does he want to engage her in a frustrating dialogue about the malleable nature of language or the question of dreams versus reality? No, apparently he’d rather just die on the end of her sword.
Next, she meets someone chattier. In the grey town of Passwall she encounters two gentlemen who are on their way to some manner of entertainment.
Passwall is a settlement in the shadow of a huge wall – hence the name – which separates it from the Isles. Here in The Fringe, people entertain themselves by watching those adventurers too impatient to wait around for Sheogorath’s Blessing try to pass through the Gates of Madness and then die at the hands of a burly giant called the Gatekeeper. It’s a messy job, but you get the sense the Gatekeeper enjoys his work.
Just run at him in a disorganised mob, that’s the ticket.
One of the two gentlemen watching the show is Passwall’s mayor. He warns Alice not to approach the Gatekeeper, so of course I ignore that. Can he possibly be any worse than a talking egg-man who sits on a wall being a wanker? Crouching, I sneak up to the spot where the adventurers died, pausing to quickly loot a new sword and a full set of steel armour. Heaven knows where Alice keeps it since it just vanishes into her inventory. The Gatekeeper hears all this metallic clanking and doesn’t appreciate it, turning to run towards us with ground-shaking steps. Alice decides to also go for an evening run, back to Passwall and away from the giant, who fortunately won’t travel far from the wall and lets us escape.
It’s quite dark by now, but in Passwall I find an inn. The innkeeper, a narcoleptic, explains in between micronaps that like the rest of Passwall the inn was already here when the first mortals arrived through Sheogorath’s portals, and was fully stocked but eerily empty. Right now there’s only one other guest, a witchy old crone named Relmyna who is the only person to approach the Gatekeeper and not be turned into jam. Alice heads upstairs to find out why.
The Gatekeeper is my child, the consummation of Sheogorath’s wisdom in the womb of my genius. It was a painful and bloody birth, but well worth it.
I am never having children. Not ever.
Relmyna refuses to talk about the Gatekeeper after that. However, she has an apprentice who is more talkative, so Alice approaches her instead and we get to experience the joy of Oblivion’s Speechcraft minigame.
For those unfamiliar with it, imagine a circle split into four slices like a pie. Each slice represents a conversational approach – admire, joke, boast, and coerce. In the circle’s centre is a number that represents how much the character being spoken to likes you. The four individual slices are filled with different amounts of colour; the fuller a slice is the more the number will be affected when you click on that slice to use its approach.
Each NPC likes some approaches and hates others, which you can tell by the way their expression changes as you hover over the slices, sneering if they hate jokes and grinning if they like hearing boasts, for instance.
But when you select a slice, the colours rotate so that each filling is now in a different slice. The big filling that was in coerce is now in boast, and the tiny bit of colour that was in boast has spun around to admire. The aim is to match the fuller slices to the approaches they like and only use the smaller slices on the approaches they dislike, because you have to use each of the four approaches for some reason. All you choose is which order to click on them in. If somebody really hates jokes you still have to tell them a joke, but I guess only a little one? Then you do the whole thing again, and again. If you’re confused by all that then good, because the whole thing is as nonsensical as a conversation with Humpty Dumpty and really it just makes me think about how nice some pie would be right now.
Also, there’s a time limit. The number in the middle representing how much they like you slowly drops as you make your choices, meaning that the best tactic is to quickly click on all four of them in the cleverest order. Each click results in a brief conversation bark from the NPC, but because you’re clicking so quickly you rarely hear more than two words and the conversation goes like this: “I don’t – How funny – You mean – Oh, you.”
(If you want a fuller explanation of how the Speechcraft minigame works, the nice people at the Elder Scrolls wiki have done the heavy lifting on that.)
You occasionally need to play this minigame to unlock specific conversation options, but luckily you can bypass the whole business with bribery, paying cash to unlock the conversation options you want. That’s what Alice does to find out about the Gatekeeper from the witch’s apprentice.
I’d like to tell you, but… really, I shouldn’t say anything more.
Her Gatekeeper is flawed! Her tears hurt him!
It’s very silly, yes. But now we know the Gatekeeper’s weakness, so I might be able to get past him without being driven mad. Which would be nice.
Outside the inn, we meet one more local oddball: a hunter named Jayred. He’s obsessed with bones and innards and his goal in life is to gut the Gatekeeper. Everybody should have an ambition and Jayred’s meshes nicely with ours because it turns out that the keys to the Gates of Madness have been sewn into the Gatekeeper’s insides. Did I mention that? That is an important detail.
You just know that’s his O face.
Jayred has a plan. There’s a place in The Fringe called the Garden of Flesh and Bone where the Gatekeeper’s dead brothers are buried. If he has brothers that means Relmyna the witch gave birth to more than one of those giants, which doesn’t really bear thinking about. Anyway, Jayred thinks that he could fashion a set of arrows from their bones and use them to kill the Gatekeeper. Actually, everything Jayred says involves bones in some way. I suspect he may be compensating.
On the way to the Garden of Flesh and Bone, Alice spots Relmyna leaving the inn and takes a detour to quietly follow her. Relmyna approaches the wall to visit her big ugly Gatekeeper son and sobs about his deformity and generally rubbish life, what with having to sit next to a wall murdering people for a living. She leaves behind a tear-stained handkerchief. Remembering the apprentice’s words – that the tears of the Gatekeeper’s mother can hurt him – Alice sneaks over, trying not to alert the brute this time, and nicks the poison hankie.
Jayred is waiting for us at the Garden of Flesh and Bone. There’s a gate here as well, protected by a simple lock. This is why Jayred needs us – he can’t pick the lock. Neither can Alice, because she is a proper lady, not some common thief who would go around stealing handkerchiefs to choose an example at random. But remember the Alteration skill I chose for her during character creation? That means she can cast a low-level spell that simply alters the properties of the lock so it’s open. Good thing everybody can cast spells in Oblivion, hey?
The Garden of Flesh and Bone doesn’t sound like a pleasant holiday destination, though. Maybe Brighton wasn’t such a bad idea.
Come back soon for part 2, in which we enter the Garden of Flesh and Bone, then finally get through that damn wall and into The Shivering Isles.
Part 1: We’re All Mad Here
Part 2: Splitsville
Part 3: The Fork Of Horripilation
Part 4: New Sheoth, The Town So Nice They Named It Once
Part 5: The Duchess & The Duke
Part 6: A Question Of Eating & Drinking
Part 7: Putting Him Together Again
Part 8: End At The Ending