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This Twitter bot tours Half-Life skyboxes to brighten up your timeline

Skybox Satellite gazes up at the Half-Life heavens

The second-best way to make Twitter palatable (after simply unfollowing sources of bad tweets) is to follow a load of curated and bot accounts which trickle niceness into your timeline. Today I'd like to suggest adding Skybox Satellite, a Twitter account which shows glimpses of the skies wrapped around maps in GoldSrc games like Half-Life and Counter-Strike. It's sometimes pretty, sometimes nostalgic, and sometimes impressive.

The bot is made by Suzanne Will, a level designer and environment artist who's currently working on Blendo's immersive sim Skin Deep. The account is masquerading as a "lost probe, drifting through forgotten dimensions", slowly spinning and looking around as it appears in the skies above many maps from Half-Life and its engine kin.

In Half-Life engine games, the sky beyond the 3D geometry of a level is a series of six low-resolution 2D images. These are essentially treated as the inside surfaces of a cube, with the level hanging in the middle to create the illusion of a world beyond. In Half-Life, these skyboxes are mostly red deserts and mesas against blue skies (plus some colourful alien spacezones), but other GoldSrc games and custom levels have explored all sorts of places. I'm glad to idly visit them in my Twitter feed.

I always liked that skyboxes were often built with technology far fancier than the game could do in real time, but this fanciness was rendered in images smaller than a texture which might cover a single wall. This low-resolution prerendering created a fascinating mix of "This looks amazing!" and "This looks bad!" I like how seeing them in low-resolution videos on Twitter, rather than hanging huge and pixellated over levels, focuses attention on appreciation.

I also always enjoyed that the scale of skyboxes was so often wildly off when wrapped around the level. Woodlands towering above the level like ancient redwood forests, houses towering like office blocks, office blocks like skyscrapers, skyscrapers like Neo-Tokyo.

Speaking of Neo-Tokyo, I'm pretty sure this skybox's city is built of a frame snapped from classic cyberpunk anime film Akira?

I like how many rolling landscapes have the telltale look of Terragen. It was a popular shareware tool for generating landscapes, and let people easily create a skybox tailored to their map and used by no others (until someone yoinked it, if it was a good one). I downloaded and played with it back in the day too because it seemed exciting, but I am surprised to still recognise the algorithm's style.

I had remembered many town and city maps having Terragen skyboxes because it was so much easier than building a cityscape sky. Watching Skybox Satellite, I am surprised by quite how many good cities were out there.

And of course I'm delighted by this city with the blocky, glossy style of 90s CG animation, like something out of ReBoot .

Or at the opposite end of fanciness, I think skyboxes built from photographs can look great if they're not straight daylight snaps, especially with a bit of filtering to push them from low-res photorealism to uncanny unrealism. Something hellish about this view over Paris.

I think the fake buildings in this Day Of Defeat skybox (from dod_avalanche?) are using the same textures as real buildings in the map—a clever trick attempting to reduce the contrast between map and sky. Though if you're conditioned to expect a striking fidelity contrast, would this only make it stand out more?

I think one key to a good skybox is a kick of fog.

Fog both builds a mood and obscures limitations of the low-resolution images, yeah?

This reminds me of the otherworld in the Phantasm movies or, honestly, any number of walking simulators I've adored.

This murk reminds me of those monochromatic holograms from the 90s? Like the hologram of the Lindow Man in the British Museum.

Clouds are often the strongest part of a skybox, some beautiful vibes.

And combining clouds with murk for night skies? Lovely.

And combining night skies with water? A dream!

Or gazing up at celestial phenomena in the night sky.

Hell, go into that night sky, just blast off to some alien planet.

Or cower beneath an alien sun.

As a fan of reading mod readme files separate from their mods, I like seeing these skyboxes in isolation. We never see the map which used the sky, only the skybox itself. Skybox Satellite doesn't even name maps, only the skybox filename. I do sometimes enjoy guessing at what their home maps might have been. From the name and view, I assume this was the view out the windows of an underwater base.

I'd be fairly confident guessing this is from one of the many maps recreating the Simpson family home:

This was surely from a Rats map, a fad for maps set around homes which were scaled to make players the size of, y'know, rats.

I'd guess this one was probably used for a Minecraft-themed map, but I would be delighted if it actually turned out someone only used Minecraft because it was a convenient 3D modelling tool to create the skybox they wanted.

But did these futurefactory innards loom massive over a map? I want to know, but I don't want to know.

Some, I... I? I. Well:

And this is just fascinating, a CGI style which reminds me of magazine adverts for... was it a computer brand? Or was this used by Nickelodeon idents? I can't quite place the style but do remember seeing a lot of it.

Sometimes I wish the bot would show me more of a skybox, not whip around or aimlessly stare but give me a good look. Then I catch the probe laying on its back gazing up at the sunset over a castle, and all is well.

Travel safe, little probe. Do keep an eye on it.

About the Author

Alice O'Connor avatar

Alice O'Connor

Associate Editor

Alice is likely in the sea.

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