I first came across Kieron Gillen’s insightful and brilliant five-page analysis of the atmospheric Robbing the Cradle level from Thief: Deadly Shadows. Since then, it has enabled me to play more games and pay deep attention (as well as appreciation) to the aesthetics and details of level design. Robbing the Cradle is considered one of the scariest levels in video games. In a game where stealth and steampunk is king, this level comes out of nowhere and completely catches the player off-guard, with what its survival horror feel, jump-scares and tense atmosphere. The level quickly became a fine example of excellent level design and as of 2015, it is one of the only two to have its own Wikipedia page (the other being Green Hill Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog). One of the primary designers of the level, Jordan Thomas, went on to create the equally unforgettable Fort Frolic chapter from Bioshock.
My Level-Up series was meant to be a direct response to Gillen’s opinion that Robbing the Cradle was “probably the scariest level ever made”. I played (and in many cases, re-visited) several non-horror games to find my own equivalent of “probably the scariest level ever made” and use that as the debut to my series, “Level-Up”. This way I would’ve addressed my intention and the source behind the fruition of the series in the first entry itself, and then carry on in peace with the other entries. While pursuing that perfect candidate I came upon plenty of examples, but they all seemed to be lacking in a certain something. I wanted my debut to be bombastic, and while the likes of Metro 2033 and Fallout: New Vegas more than fitted the bill - both titles have their fair share of atmospheric and creepy moments - I wanted to pick a game from Thief: Deadly Shadows’ contemporary timeline for want of better comparison and analysis.
And this is where Half-Life 2 steps in. The answer was so obvious, so ready-made that I feel stupid for not thinking about this game in the first place. Join me as I crawl at a snail’s pace through the world’s scariest digital playground where buzzsaws are your toys and zombies are your playmates. This level is my understanding of “probably the scariest level ever made”. Ladies and gentlemen (and that includes you too, Mr. Gillen) - welcome to Ravenholm!
A narrative-driven game with a strong emphasis on the action, there’s very little to suggest in the opening hours of Half-Life 2 that it would abruptly - and briefly - switch tracks to something far removed from its established pattern: something akin to the loud-soft dynamic perfected by The Pixies. In a way, Ravenholm conforms to these two models but its dominating element is one that is never once seen throughout the game, before and since: horror. Sure, a good number of the later chapters of this game and some of the earlier segments from Episode 1 and Episode 2 can be classified as tense, atmospheric, thrilling - but they weren’t specifically designed to scare you. Taken individually or in context, every segment of Half-Life 2 feels like it belongs to the game. Ravenholm is that rebellious outcast in the classroom.
The first time we’re made aware of Ravenholm’s existence is through an off-hand remark by Alyx Vance - “That’s the old passage to Ravenholm. We don’t go there anymore.” Unassuming players could be forgiven for believing that the game’s trying to whip up its own Boo Radley or Ricky Linderman - feared social outcasts in their respective suburban neighborhood and high school, respectively, whose people have created pervasive myths around them. The slight tone of fear in the otherwise strong Alyx’s voice acts as prelude to the harsh reality of Half-Life 2.
For the first time in the game, the player feels a surfacing wave of terror. But of course, all this is quickly alleviated with the introduction of the greatest weapon of the game, the Gravity Gun, and Alyx’s pet, D0g, a robot made out of scrap metal and one of the few comic-relief characters from the series. The introduction of D0g is not a coincidence: the game knows you’ll be shitting your pants in awhile, so it throws a comedic diversion your way to cool things down. Well, the tactic works, because when you step into Ravenholm and see burning buildings and zombies inching towards you, you know shit just hit the fan.
The first gruesome sight that awaits you in the hellish town is a half-mutilated body hanging from a tree. Underneath the corpse is a zombie. A few steps into the town and a Fast Zombie makes its first appearance on a distant rooftop. The nightmarish screams that tear through the night is mightily unsettling, to say the least. As their name suggests, these are extremely fast and agile, being able to jump great distances and inflict serious damage. At this point into the game, players have seen just about everything: claustrophobic hallways, dilapidated buildings, alien and domestic threat, and tense moments.
What’s different about Ravenholm is that it nullifies the “fight or flight” feel of the other chapters, where one can get around without killing 100% of the enemies. Here the player is hard-pressed to take out every shuffling zombie and jumping headcrab due to the very Silent Hill vibe it produces and the irrational fear it injects into the player. While Ravenholm does indeed haunt the player after they’re done with it, another thing that will linger over them like thick fog is the unresolved fate of perhaps the most powerful, resilient and greatest character of the series… after the mute hero himself, of course.
Father Grigori. A preacher with a shotgun, a philosophical tongue and a mind possibly deranged, is the town’s only human occupant. He enjoys killing zombies and generally puts on a strangely pococurante demeanor when confronting them - a clear contrast to that of the mindset of the player whose first instinct is to run amok and shoot wildly. Father Grigori explodes into the screen very early into the level via religious imagery that is hard to miss: silhouetted against bright golden light in an open window. His timing is immaculate, as you’re suddenly cornered by a horde of burning zombies and of course, raging fire. The game wastes no time in displaying his marksmanship and amiable, if rather eccentric, nature. He quickly takes on the role of a fairy godparent to the player (albeit one with a shotgun). Throughout the level Father Grigori keeps you well-stocked with ammo and weapons, all the while offering wise advice and rambling eccentric dialogue that makes you question the man’s sanity.
Voice-actor Jim French does a stellar job in breathing Father Grigori to life, and truly elevates the character’s status from that of initially interesting to genuinely memorable. In fact, so powerfully the character connects to the player that his dramatic exit (which also marks the end of the chapter) leaves a profound and everlasting effect, and makes one wonder: just how cool it would be if Valve or Gearbox (who developed the excellent expansion packs for the original Half-Life) were to create an episode or expansion where you get to play as Father Grigori. I say if you’re not going to make Half-Life 3, then at-least alleviate our suffering with Half-Life: Annabelle. For those who are in the need to know, Annabelle is the name of the rifle used by Father Grigori.
The genius of Ravenholm is in how it masterfully embeds what is essentially an elaborate gravity gun tutorial within the gameplay in a chapter that, though feeling other-worldly, blends within the established context of Half-Life 2. The numerous buzzsaws and booby traps that are to be found in every crook and nanny of the town are justified by the developers as the work of Father Grigori. Sharp players may see through this facade, but even if this weren’t the case, Ravenholm remains one of the greatest horror levels AND a strong tutorial sequence that is times scarier and effective than any Danger Room simulation the X-Men have ever gone through. One could argue that the opening 50% or so of Portal - basically one giant tutorial exercise in disguise - is perhaps the best example of the so-called “invisible tutorial”, Half-Life 2’s edge is that it did it first.
Article by Hamza