Nothing beats a good skybox in a game. While it might not be the most thought-about aspect by the player, it really is the cherry on top that completes the entire feel of the game. A well done skybox will allow the player to marvel at everything from the rocks at their feet to the stars they’ll never reach.
Here are the skyboxes that have left an impression on me. As always, only one entry per series, though some of these franchises are pretty consistent with their skybox creations. With that let’s look into the horizons.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
In 2011, Skyrim was a winter wonderland to walk around from the snow-gusted mountains to the ice-capped oceans and creeks. The game begged the player to look around and take everything in but nothing can stop your heart more than getting to the top of the Snow-Throat mountain just to see polar lights flashing across the sky.
A few planets peeking out from behind clouds and light dwarfing the player, who despite being at the tallest point in the game, is reminded that they are only in a small portion of that world. In game time, days might go by where the player is only exploring caves, ruins, and castles while clouds loom overhead. However, it’s those moments of clear skies and quiet when the game completely shifts its tone, becoming a magical experience.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
The Switch isn’t the most powerful console and almost every single game on it has a tendency to look a little less than current-gen standards ,but Breath of the Wild manages to impress despite the technical limitations in a few areas. The skybox being the most impressive of them all. Whether its a sunrise coming up over the fields of Gerudo Desert or the jaw-dropping sunset over in the mountains near Akala Tower, there are plenty of moments where the sky begs to be seen.
Not to mention the weather effects like lighting and Blood Moons are constantly changing the status quo of the sky. There isn’t a Zelda game where being at the top of a mountain can make you feel as much of an adventurer while you look over a field of spear-swinging bekoblins walking through the sun-kissed morning.
I keep going back and forth for this one. There are a lot of nice skyboxes in the Halo series and that goes for all of the games. However, I think Halo 3 has the most impressive scale and diversity for its first release. There are beautiful shots of planets and galaxies in the sky, images of Truth’s forerunner ship out in the middle of a crater, or the massive Ark peering down at the player from its orbit.
Don’t get me started on when the Forward Unto Dawn drops down from space to deliver reinforcements in The Ark. Absolute water cooler moment. It all adds to that sense of finality and achievement that Chief has been able to put up a fight against forces that are so much bigger than him. If there is one thing that Halo can do well consistently it’s make a good-looking skybox.
Alright, a little bit further back in time for this one. Half-Life 2’s skyboxes are amazing in a way that is similar to Halo’s: they show scale. If there is one thing that can ruin immersion, it’s when the player is running through a game that happens in a small area with multiple sections but can’t see the next sections that are coming up because the developers had to make the walls high to avoid that. Half-Life 2 doesn’t do that.
Instead, we get to see future enemies flying across the horizon or the Combine tower shooting a blue light into the sky. Half-Life 2 uses its skies to continue to inform the player of events that are happening in the world. That’s how you make the most of your canvas.
Journey is really just one big skybox that you are running through. You start they game on the top of a sandbank and see a mountain barely visible through the haze of the desert. The rest of the game is flying towards that mountain while gliding through ruins to reach your destination.
Clouds hover over distant sandbanks and light filters through the windows of the delalpidated ruins that you are exploring. It all helps to aid in the building of this world. Without the excellent art direction, it would have felt more like you were wandering a wasteland rather than exploring a mysterious land.
What makes for a more beautiful sky than the ocean itself? In the claustrophobic and rundown halls of Rapture, the only sense of the outside world that the player can see are through the thick glass walls that showcase Ryan’s underwater achievement. The windows of Rapture offer a brief reprieve that make the city feel both alive with its neon flickering lights and dead with quiet hallways.
There is just as much to investigate outside the windows of Altas’s office as there are inside his office. The world of Rapture is begging to be inspected as a whale slowly swims by, or a big daddy is seen escorting a Little Sister a few buildings over. Isolated together in the madhouse under the sea.
Red Dead Redemption
Red Dead Redemption was the first Western style game that actually made you feel like you were in the Wild West, and a large part of that was how well done the setting was created. From the saloons to the wispy tails of the horses; there were plenty of reasons to feel like you had gone back in time.
However, nothing can compare to the contrast between the rocky desert and the blue and cloudy sky that meet on the horizon. Chasing down robbers during a picturesque day or tying up a neer do well while the sun sets over the train tracks all aids in making Red Dead Redemption feel like a complete package.
No Man’s Sky
No Man’s Sky had a lot of promise leading up to release and though it is much better now, at the time the game had little going for it. However, there were the cosmic skyboxes that helped to take the sting out of the unfinished product’s release. You can see distant planets, ships, and stars which helps to aid in the feeling that you can explore it all. It’s Breath of the Wild but in space (and not as motivating).
What makes No Man’s Sky more unique is that it chooses to lean into the cool color spectrum with pinks, purples, and blues being dominant. It can really feel otherworldly, and that is exactly what you want from your deep space expedition game.
Bloodborne, Dark Souls, and presumably Elden Ring all have one thing in common; they reveal the world through their skyboxes. That castle you see in the distance? You’ll be going there once you defeat the dragon that is blocking your path. Everything that looks monumental can probably be accessed by continuing your journey. It is the carrot on the stick for these types of games.
No matter how many times you are defeated, you know there is more that you want to see, and you will fight to see it. Bloodborne takes the cake in this regard just because its more gothic and dark tone looks more impressive to me. With towns crowded with architecture and a chilling night sky, it all makes me feel like I a in a Bram Stoker novel.
The last thing you might think of when you think of Dead Space are its sky boxes but that is where the beauty of them lies. You are trapped within the cramped halls of the Ishimura fighting hordes of Necromorphes and it can begin to feel a little too much like a standard corridor shooter. However, Dead Space loves to remind you that you are floating through space without a glimpse of help on the horizon.
Peering out of cockpits, mining windows, or the bridge, you see immediately that you are the most isolated that a person can possibly. Asteroids float around while the planet that the ship was digging into reflects the local star in a brilliant orange. Even when you leap out into the broken sections of the ship to walk around, you’ll seeing dead bodies floating quietly through space, with the soft white light giving an eerie sense of horror and peace. If there is ever a Dead Space 4, I hope they never forget the effect the sky can have on the horror element.