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I Still Wish I’d Never Gone to Ravenholm
Half-Life 2. The very name itself brings to mind many, many memories in the minds of fans everywhere and will forever share a place on the list of the most highly acclaimed first-person shooters of all time. And it’s for good reason, too. With its tight mechanics, brilliant design, and storytelling that can only be described as epic, Half-Life 2 is a game that is, in a word, special.
And while I hold my own set of memories of the game near and dear to my heart, there’s still one place, one section of the game that haunts me to this very day.
The very thought of the place makes me tense up a bit inside and glance behind myself just to make sure I’m not about to become the unsuspecting victim of a headcrab.
Theoretically, Ravenholm should just be another level that Gordon has to get through. It’s just another area, just another place filled with enemies that have to be disposed of. So why has it left such a lasting impression? What is it about Ravenholm that causes it to stick out in my mind more than any other section of Half-Life 2?
For those of you who either need a refresher or have never played Half Life 2 (shame on you), allow me to give you a brief rundown of Ravenholm. It’s an eastern European mining town that had once housed refugees from the beseiged City 17, but fell into nightmarish ruin after the Combine attacked the place and turned parasitic creatures called headcrabs loose on the escaped citizens.
Headcrabs might be one of the most nightmarish creatures in the Half Life universe, as they literally attach to the head of a host and enslave its body, reducing the person into a zombified state. They’re bloody, they’re eerie, and the way their zombies scream in agony at you all the time is nothing short of terrifying.
Typically, headcrab zombies are encountered on some of the more subterranean areas of Half-Life 2, along with Antlions and the long-tongued Barnacles. But it’s another story with Ravenholm, a level whose infamy is first foreshadowed by Alyx Vance’s ominous warning of “We don’t go to Ravenholm.”
Indeed they don’t. That is, until a break in sees Alyx pushing Gordon into the mining town in a desperate attempt to help him escape. After that, a tunnel collapses behind you , and you find yourself in a yard, facing a small cabin in the dark of night.
That’s where the nightmare of Ravenholm begins. The entire level takes place at night, allowing darkness to take over the environment and shield the unseen from you in a formidable way.
On top of that, you’re combating a sensation of total and complete isolation, which, when coupled with the overwhelming feeling of dread and an atmosphere that has you jumping at every creak and groan within the world, makes for a terrifying experience in the same vein as games such as Resident Evil or Silent Hill.
While jump scares make up the majority of frights throughout the level, the environment design itself also lends a lot to the level’s scare factor. While fighting the zombified remains of the Ravenholm refugees, you’ll take Gordon from open, airy streets where zombies crawl out of dark corners to attack you from behind to the small, tight corridors of homes and alleyways where limited space forces you to get up close and personal with the tortured undead. I had to fight my way through this level both in the game and outside of it, as the traversal alone scared me enough to warrant putting down the controller for good.
Still, you’ll find something worth fighting for when you’re trying to escape through Ravenholm by way of Father Grigori, the sole survivor of Ravenholm who aids you from afar by giving you a shotgun and providing some small amount of comfort in the way only another human presence in such a nightmare could. Despite his madness, seeing him appear on rooftops and talking to me from afar always gave me a small sense of security, helping me make it through the following section in an effort to meet up with him and eventually escape the hell that is Ravenholm.
The level not only saw you fighting the typical, shambling zombies seen in the game previous to the level, but also introduced fast and poisoned zombies, throwing them into the fray of confusion that already baffled your terrified mind. The first time a fast zombie came bounding toward me over the rooftops, I distinctly remember my pulse jumping to unhealthy speeds and my hands growing sweaty with anxiety. It wasn’t enough to simply create a terrifying monster that both threatened you and tempted your sympathy. No, now they needed to be fast. And in the case of the poisoned zombies, they were also tank-like creatures who flung poisonous headcrabs at you from afar while eating copious amounts of damage that would have seen any other zombie drop nearly instantly.
Interestingly enough, I think part of what makes Ravenholm so successful as a level is the fact that it is so very different from all other parts of Half Life 2. It’s darker, it’s infinitely more terrifying, and it’s more reminiscent of a survival horror game than a sci-fi shooter. Creepy atmosphere, ingenious level design, a looming sense of dread and isolation, and a scarcity of resources made for one of the most tonally inconsistent levels of Half Life 2 that stood out more than any other section throughout its entirety.
Now, it’s true that I’m an adult baby who can’t stomach the likes of classic horror films and most things scarier than Scooby-Doo. And I’ll admit that I had to have happy music playing in the background in order to make it through this level and still sleep at night. But Ravenholm is something unique and special in a game that has already proven itself to be one of the most inventive and ingenious creations in the gaming sphere, and the fact that I still remember it clear as day after all these years speaks to its ability to impact the player in interesting ways.
Still, I wish I’d been able to stick with Alyx’s sentiment to never go there in the first place. Because of its impact, it will forever be a place filled with memories of desperation and terror the likes of which I’ve never experienced in a game since.