Generally speaking, I don't like to participate in these "Monthly Musing" thing-a-ma-jiggers. I [blog] what I want(!), and I'm not one to grasp at that elusive, golden, front-page ring. But when I saw the word "fear", I knew I couldn't resist. As a professional coward, I am an expert at fear. I'm like Batman, but in reverse. So, as a certified pussy, there are a number of things I could write about. Like the time that Beetle Adventure Racing made me spaz out and nearly shit my drawers, or the horrors of trying to comprehend Too Human.
The Half-Life series is a series that, up until Half-Life 2, contained no real "horror" elements. Sure, technically, you could classify the games as being survival horror, as some do -- after all, you're trying to survive monstrous creatures with what little ammo you can find. But zombies were never all that prominent, up until Half-Life 2. Yet, the game introduces the nightmarish Ravenholm in the most effective way possible. Dropping you into an Orwellian, post-apocalyptic Eastern Europe, you're left to trudge through dark, dingy sewers and colorless canals throughout the first quarter of the game. After a while, you're given your second interlude, catching up with old friends in Black Mesa East.
But then, everything changes.
The base is attacked by the Combine, and you get cut off from your friends. You're left with no available option (Even with the gravity gun? Really?) but to traverse the passage to Ravenholm, a place that sends noticeable shivers down even ballsy young Alyx's spine. Within the span of less than a minute, you're ripped from your sanctuary among friends and tossed into a forboding, uncomfortable situation that you have no choice but to walk headfirst into. The moment you walk out those doors and "We Don't Go To Ravenholm" appears on the screen, you can tell that the game has changed. No more white laboratories, no more well-lit buildings and back alleys, no more canals. Shit just got real, holmes.
Out of nowhere, a videogame franchise four-and-one-quarter games deep (if you can count HL: Decay as depth) throws a curveball. What was once a sci-fi action shooter, suddenly turns into a bonafide work of survival horror. It's a transition akin to Jack Bauer stepping through a doorway and into Night of the Living Dead. The creepy atmosphere sends chills down my spine, everytime I enter the level. And as soon as you enter the first wooden building, littered with zombified corpses and bloody saw blades (including one mill-worker who will be receiving a stern talking to from OSHA) -- well, if The FEAR doesn't hit you by then ... well, you've probably played the level a few times already.
But when I first started playing through Half-Life 2, I actually lived in fear of Ravenholm. I had seen YouTube videos of it. It spooked me. Yes, I'm a huge pansy. We know this, but I couldn't not play it. After all, this was Half-Life, a franchise that I'd suddenly fallen in love with, even though I hadn't really played it before. If I didn't finish Ravenholm, the entire back-end of the game would remain unplayed. I toyed with the idea of getting a friend to play through it for me. No; I'm a pussy, but I'm a pussy with a small amount of self-respect. So, what did I do? I played through it while watching a YouTube walkthrough. Ain't no zombie gonna get the drop on me.
Admittedly, Ravenholm is pretty tame, by the standards of most zombiephiles. The zombies aren't exceedingly gruesome, and all they can do is swing at you. Poison headcrabs aside, the level is pretty easily maneuverable, for the first half. Where Valve really starts playing with the integrity of the player's bladder, is in the map's design. Walking into a courtyard littered with burning zombies on pikes, rounding a corner and seeing a shadowy figure twitching on an electrified fence, the horrific screams of the burning zombie torso crawling towards you, the rattle of an unseen poison headcrab ... All very effective. But while it's enough to shake one's nerves, there's not a lot that gets the heart pumping. At least, until the middle of the level.
Zombie convention dictates that zombies should be slow and simple. This, however, really isn't that frightening, in and of itself. So, Valve introduced the Fast Zombie. Sporting the speedier, more annoying Fast Headcrab, the Fast Zombie is an animalistic, predatory piece of undead work. Valve certainly doesn't skimp on his intro, with Gordon emerging from a building only to catch an eyeful of one of the rabid undead howling at the moon. And while they're chilling enough from a distance, they're even worse up-close -- completely skinned, they're humans powered only by the headcrab wrapped around their brain. And don't even get me started on the Poison Headcrab Zombies, easily the creepiest foe in the entire game.
Actually, yes, get me started. The zombie that wears the ever-annoying poison headcrab actually serves as a nest for a whole family of poison headcrabs. Hunched over and probably the most human-in-appearance of the zombies, they first appear as slow-moving masses of piggy-backing black creepy-crawlies. After you grab his attention, a headcrab will slowly pull itself off his back and promptly hurl itself in your direction with a squeal. While he certainly looks creepy enough, the zombie's fear factor is increased immensely by the deadliness of the headcrabs -- they reduce you to 1 HP immediately upon contact. And it certainly doesn't help that he has the most HP of all the zombies.
If the essence of a stinking, rotten corpse were to manifest itself in the form of a level in a videogame, it would be Ravenholm. Every corner is rank with death, cast in hues of green and blue beneath the eerie moonlight. Still, for most, Half-Life 2 is old hat. It doesn't hold many surprises or new experiences, for most who are well familiar with it. But if you really take a good look at Ravenholm, beneath the familiarity and repetition, you should find one of the spookiest, creepiest levels in gaming history. While I'm no longer fearful of it, it still makes me uneasy. The lighting, the colors, the sounds ... the fact that your only ally is a mentally unstable priest.
In truth, the experience has only provided one scream-out-loud moment, for me: I make my way through the open area with the platform you have to move into place via a lever. Zombies swarm the streets, poison headcrabs scatter from their undead carriers, and I decide to just get it over with and dash along the path that takes me around and to the upper-level scaffolding. I figure, if I move quick enough, the spawning Fast Zombie won't see me and no poison headcrabs will land on me. So, I make my move and don't look back, until I reach the upper-most scaffolds. For safety-sake, I decide to take a quick look behind me, and -- OH HAI -- it's a fast zombie in mid-leap directly at my face, screaming at the top of his lungs at the exact moment I set eyes on him. Perfectly timed. Epic. I peed.
Ultimately, during that first time, I was able to face my fears and clear the level with a fair amount of ease. There's no feeling in the game that's better than exiting that last mine shaft and walking into the blinding morning light. A train yard never looked so good. In the end, I've come to almost -- almost -- enjoy Ravenholm. Much like Halo's "The Library," it's good for satisfying those "mindless zombie-blasting" urges, for guys like me who don't quite have the balls to pop in a Resident Evil. So, consider this post an ode to Ravenholm: My tormentor, my challenge and, ultimately, my bitch ... except for that one time.