'Breaking the Game: The Beauty of a Game World’s Outer Limits', by Shaun Prescott

Illustration by Benjamin Urkowitz.

A skybox is a video game illusion. It is precisely what its name implies: a box of texture which resembles a sky, and maybe within that sky there are some features, but they are not in truth there, and it is impossible to visit them.

There is a melancholy aspect to skyboxes. If the player is knowledgeable enough to recognise a skybox for what it is, they will be less invested in the game world. They will know that it is not possible to visit the skybox, and will therefore need to further suspend their disbelief in order to enjoy the game world. It will too closely resemble a game to them, and not a world. Most regular gamers will immediately know whether they are looking at an impenetrable skybox, or a location they can actually visit. This results in a strange conflict, because the player can behold and admire the skybox, but also know it signifies a limit to the expanse of the game world itself. Skyboxes depict an infinity, but in reality they are barriers. Behind them there is nothing.

For the less aware, skyboxes have the potential to make a world seem vaster and more complex than computer technology could ever handle. For someone who has never given thought to the way video games are made, skyboxes have the potential to be transcendent. They are not merely static textures gating the interactive traversable map from the nothingness that lay behind, but natural extensions to the world. It may not be possible to visit the theoretical plains beneath them, or the illusory skylines that fence them, but if players are unaware they are skyboxes it is possible to imagine they are actual constructions, and not just static images. Maybe there is a secret avenue the player might have taken in order to reach that world. Designers want players to believe that it could be possible to visit them.

One of the first beautiful skyboxes was in Doom. Doom was an immensely successful 1990s first-person shooter which pioneered a sense of elevation and real world architecture in 3D game worlds. Before Doom, it was impossible to climb a set of stairs in a 3D game world. Before Doom, there were no cliffs in a 3D game world. Before Doom, everything was flat, and ceilings were a uniform height above the player. Doom allowed variations for each of these, but also featured distant static vistas, providing a veneer of reality to the game-oriented map design. It’s possible, though not conventionally agreed, that Doom’s skyboxes were more bracing than the advances of its map design. These skyboxes were beautiful, inaccessible and slightly photo-realistic, but still not of this world.

In Doom Episode 1, the skybox is assuring because each of Doom’s levels complement the function of the game, which is basically: shoot grunts and monsters, collect three coloured keys, unlock the corresponding doors and proceed to the exit. There is no functional logic to Doom’s level design, except for its logic as a game. No location in Doom is functionally realistic. Even when Doom tries to emulate space stations or warehouses or prisons it is too game-like in its design. Nowhere in Doom resembles a feasible real world, but the occasional glimpse of the skybox—whether through a window or while standing in a courtyard—offsets the unreality of the map’s architecture.

The illusion of an expanse makes everything beneath it appear more realistic. The fact that Doom’s level design was quite stingy with its skybox vistas demonstrates that maybe the designers were too familiar with the inner-workings of the game to realise how powerful the skybox could be, as an illusion and as a context. Or maybe they knew how beautiful it was and wanted to roll it out slowly, teasingly, as a promise.

In the first shareware episode of Doom, the most transfixing and breathtaking view was of its skybox: several dark blue mountains in the very far distance. Of course, rational people might have immediately recognised that this was a mere decoration, but for the young, or the uncritical, the distant blue mountain skybox was a promise which was never fulfilled.

Why did Doom never take you to the mountains? Well, because it couldn’t. It was good enough to know that the mountains were there (but they weren’t), and it was especially fun searching for hidden access points to the mountains, which in the end were not there. The distant inaccessible mountain skybox of Doom is one of the most beautiful and enduring icons of game design because a whole generation was receptive to the illusion. Doom was such a bracing advance in game design that it was not unfeasible that these mountains were explorable, because Doom’s existence seemed to confirm that any virtual world was possible.

There is a secret access point in the second level of the shareware edition of Doom which allows the player to seemingly exit the map itself. Of course, the player is still inside the map, but they are also further beneath the skybox than at any other point in the game so far. They are closer to the mountains than ever before. From certain vantage points within this secret area, it is possible to imagine that there is nothing but the mountains ahead. The beauty of this moment is that it is a secret, and through discovering this secret the player is discovering a path to the edgelands of the game, to its blank spots, to its true unreality.

For players who endured the challenges of Doom Episode 1, the final level is the ultimate reward. A cavernous and wide yet claustrophobic arena of green slime transforms into an open air veranda once the final bosses are defeated. Here, the skybox is ostentatiously displayed. The skybox gets its moment in the sun. The game rewards you with the distant misty blue mountains, and finally allows you to believe that it’s where you’re headed. But it’s not where you’re headed; instead, you’re plunged into a tiny cavernous room full of enemies who are impossible to defeat, and your supposed ‘death’ marks the end of the chapter.

The deadzones in video games have a lonely beauty. A run through 2012 RPG Dark Souls will provide ample evidence of how deadzones hold great fascination to players. Accessing locations in maps which were designed to be inaccessible is a fixation that dedicated players of any cult game will immediately understand. Navigating the world of Lordran, the player will notice yellow messages left by other players strewn throughout the most unlikely areas: on shallow cliffs in dark woods, and on castle roofs designedly inaccessible. To the regular player happy to play by the game’s rules, none of these areas appear worth trying to access, but the fact of their being accessible through a glitch or lapse in the game design makes it all the more desirable to some, if only to behold the game world from this vantage point, and if only to witness the seams in the game world begin to peel away. And if only to prove that it is possible to discover, within carefully constructed worlds, secrets which not even its creators know are there.

If a player is receptive, dedicated, and time-rich enough, it is possible to be a pioneer in even the most restricted, linear games. Discovering a surface which the game’s designers failed to make solid can provide access to the blurry, incomplete wastelands of texture-free walls and fuzzy hall-of-mirror vistas. More pressingly, it can allow players to discover ways to trick the game into being beaten quicker. Games are more alluring and mysterious when they are broken in this sense, when they contain inadvertent access points, when they contain geography which people can imagine no one else has ever discovered. Enjoying these glitches is enjoying a personal mastery of a world, and relishing the act of breaching reality. It allows players to harbour the illusion that they—and only they—have seen this game world from this hidden point of view.

Because, unlike in the real world, places in video games that cannot be seen aren’t really there. The whole tree in the woods analogy is flipped. Even some places you can see aren’t really there. It is interesting to try to penetrate these areas of nothing, to access the hall-of-mirrors and to begin to understand how these worlds were bolted together, and when you do find somewhere in these hidden crevices, it is possible to believe, for a moment, that the game world is a living, breathing place.

In Doom, though, many quickly discovered—if they hadn’t already assumed—that the misty mountains were inaccessible. This was achieved via a cheat allowing players to walk through walls. Switch it on, run towards those misty blue mountains, and you’ll enter a disorientating hall-of-mirrors reflecting nothing but those mountains from that same, menacing distance. You can keep walking towards the mountains forever, but they will never be reached. Turn around, though, and you’ll notice the game map is a tiny dot within a vortex of mirrors: the only place in the whole world.

This piece originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #23. Get your copy now.

Shaun Prescott is a writer, and is the editor of Crawlspace Magazine and Australian editor of games websites CVG and PC Gamer.