Why Half-Life 2’s Ravenholm Is the Perfect Horror Level

15 years after its release, Half-Life 2's Ravenholm remains one of gaming's greatest horror experiences.

Horror has long been somewhat free from the contempt that familiarity brings. At worst, the genre’s oldest trappings (dark and stormy nights, pearl white ghosts, bats, witches, and vampires) usually put a smile on your face as you recall your earliest memories of not only being scared, but being treated as if you were old and brave enough to be scared. We’re reminded of that feeling every Halloween.

However, if you’re an adult and someone does something like wave a paper bat in front of your face with the intention of scaring you, not only will you not be scared but you might feel insulted. The cliches of horror are typically only appealing so long as they are treated like something that is fun. The moment that someone actually tries to use them in a genuine way is usually the moment when you may start to feel contempt towards them.

There have been few examples of horror over the years that manage to feature comfortably familiar horror tropes and be, at least at times, genuinely scary. Bloodborne accomplished something similar in terms of the gothic horror genre. Creepshow (and the similar Tales from the Crypt) blended fun and frights remarkably smoothly. You could even argue that at least the first season of Stranger Things managed this rare feat.

Yet, when it comes to balancing the fresh and familiar in horror, there is really nothing quite like Half-Life 2’s Ravenholm. It not only boldly attempted to both celebrate and effectively utilize the familiarity of the horror genre, but in the process, it defined the legacy of a 15-year-old title that many still consider to be the greatest and most important game ever made.

Ad – content continues below

The Old Creepy Town Road

Ravenholm is a town with two stories, and you need to know both of them to fully understand what makes it so special.

The first is the story of the town itself as presented in Half-Life 2 and related supplementary materials. Before the events of Half-Life 2, Ravenholm was a small village that consisted mostly of shabby wooden houses. It was seemingly founded as a mining town, but when the Combine (the invading antagonists of Half-Life 2) took over much of the area around Ravenholm, that rustic mining town soon became one of the last safe havens from the technologically superior Combine and their evil intentions.

Whatever peace Ravenholm offered was shattered when the Combine bombarded the town with Headcrab Shells. Essentially a biological weapon, the Headcrab Shell is an especially cruel instrument of war. It looks like a bomb, but instead of exploding upon impact, the Headcrab Shell unloads hundreds and hundreds of headcrabs upon a populated area. These headcrabs then burrow into the area just waiting to find someone to attack, infect, and effectively enslave.

It’s not clear why the Combine decided to use so many of these shells on Ravenholm given the relatively rare uses of the weapon outside of this instance, but it’s possible they felt the idea of enslaving a town whose residents resisted them for so long was too poetic of an opportunity to pass up. In any case, the result was harrowing. The resilient residents of Ravenholm were essentially turned into zombies by the headcrabs, and any rebels who were lucky enough to live outside its boundaries at the time of the shelling began to only speak of the town in whispers as they warned the curious to stay far away from it.

The second story you need to know about Ravenholm is the story of how the level came to be in the game in the first place. While elements of that story are up for debate, the popular consensus is that Half-Life writer Marc Laidlaw, who has stated in the past that he’s a big fan of the Thief series, at least partially based it on a section in Thief: The Dark Project called “Sealed Section.”

The Sealed Section of Dark Project referred to a quarter of a great city in the game that had become infested with undead creatures. Much like Ravenholm, many of those who knew about the nature of the Sealed Section didn’t go near it. The Sealed Section was also a dilapidated corner of the world that stood in stark contrast to the advancements that surrounded it.

Ad – content continues below

However, in terms of design and execution, there’s one key thematic difference between Ravenholm and Sealed Section. Before you arrive at Sealed Section in Dark Project, you’re aware of the more traditional horror elements in the game. You’ve fought zombies, you’ve heard stories of the occult, and you’re aware that those elements are part of that game’s universe.

But when you get to Ravenholm in Half-Life 2, there’s very little that prepares you for what you’re about to walk into.

We Don’t Go To Ravenholm

In our retrospective on Fallout 3, we spoke about how the game’s effectiveness as a work of horror can partially be attributed to the fact that you don’t entirely expect the game to go so far out of its way to scare you. Even in that instance, though, the general tone and nature of Fallout 3 and the Fallout series strongly suggests that such outright horror elements are possible.

Ravenholm is a bit different. While Alyx, Gordon’s partner in Half-Life 2, speaks the infamous line “We don’t go to Ravenholm anymore” prior to you ever stepping foot in the town, that warning can be interpreted in so many ways given the nature of the game until that point. After all, Half-Life 2 exists in a world of oppression and hopelessness. You’d be more surprised to learn that there’s a place in that world that people recommend you visit.

Still, the odds are strong that you didn’t expect to walk into Ravenholm for the first time and hear some traditional horror music, see a pair of legs hanging from a tree swinging softly in the breeze, or to be greeted by what certainly seems to be a bonafide zombie.

While those headcrab zombies were featured in the original Half-Life, they were treated much more like the by-product of a science experiment gone wrong. The zombies of Ravenholm feel more like…well…zombies. They more closely resemble the humans that the headcrabs have assumed control of, they move in a more obvious lumbering fashion, and, oh yeah, they occupy a dilapidated village illuminated by waning moonlight and inhabited by a crazed preacher who sometimes speaks like he’s been transported directly into the town from a Hammer horror film. The suddenness of this detour into pure horror will certainly unnerve anyone who doesn’t usually fashion themselves a fan of the genre.

Ad – content continues below

For horror fans, the sudden change in tone means that the game is going to try to scare them and they need to now be on their guard. Such vigilance is quickly rewarded, as Ravenholm reveals itself to be more than a collection of horror cliches. Between the poisonous headcrabs that drain your life with surprising ease and the more aggressive versions of headcrab zombies that are agile and able to quickly overwhelm you in close quarters combat, Ravenholm is easily the most dangerous part of Half-Life 2 that players will experience up until that point.

It’s that combination of genuine danger, strong atmosphere, and surprise that makes Ravenholm such a memorable horror level. Players didn’t go into Half-Life 2 expecting to take a detour into something that feels like a haunted house. Once there, they probably didn’t expect it to be so effective. Make no mistake that Ravenholm is a genuinely effective piece of horror gaming whose appeal extends well-beyond the joy of experiencing its familiar trappings in such an unfamiliar way. Yet, it’s these familiar aspects of Ravenholm’s horror that allow the level to effectively convey Half-Life 2’s defining trick and one of the most revolutionary gameplay mechanics of all-time.

The Gravity of the Situation

It’s been widely suggested that the design of Ravenholm changed quite a bit over the course of the game’s development. While some of those changes are well-documented (an infamous E3 demo of Half-Life 2 referred to a very Ravenholm-like area as Traptown or “phystown” in the game’s files), others seem to be based on information mined from a leaked version of Half-Life 2 as well as early data files. You can see reported videos of gameplay from the rumored early version of Ravenholm via videos like these

While the details of these changes are largely speculative, they’re fascinating nonetheless. For instance, it seems that an early build of Ravenholm featured Combine soldiers and zombies as enemies instead of just zombies (we see this in the aforementioned E3 video). It’s also been suggested that the original build of Ravenholm focused much more on its mining town history and even let you take control of a large digging machine. Some even theorize that the original version of Ravenholm occurred before you got to Eli’s lab and acquired the gravity gun. 

What a difference that would have made. For those who don’t know, the gravity gun is a weapon/tool in Half-Life 2 that lets you pull items to you from around the map and shoot them back at your enemies. It’s the highlight of Half-Life 2’s revolutionary physics system which allowed players to manipulate the world around them in ways that few games had allowed before.

Prior to acquiring the gravity gun, that physics system was primarily used to show bad guys falling into barrels and other obvious parlor tricks. It made action feel lively and was the basis of some neat puzzles, but until you got the gravity gun and were able to effectively use your surroundings as weapons, few people truly appreciated how the implementation of physics in gaming could fundamentally alter how developers approached video game action. It was a rare instance of a technological advancement in gaming not just leading to better graphics but entirely new gameplay concepts.

Ad – content continues below

As it turns out, the horror-inspired world of Ravenholm was the perfect platform to showcase just how the gravity gun was going to change our expectations of what action gaming could be.

Our shared knowledge of the horror genre’s tricks, and the superiority that knowledge offers, is part of the reason why movies like Scream were such a hit in the ‘90s. That shared knowledge is especially true of zombie-based horror. Remember that Half-Life 2 was released about a year after the publication of The Zombie Survival Guide. It was around the time when everyone was talking about their zombie plans and celebrating the fact that they “knew” what to do with zombies when they saw one.

So, when Half-Life 2 shows you its version of a zombie standing next to some saw blades, you don’t even need the well-placed impaled gentleman hanging out on the nearby wall to understand you need to use those sawblades (and anything else you can find) as makeshift ammo for the gravity gun. Half-Life 2 used the cultural shorthand of zombies and horror to immediately inform the player that they needed to find some way to decapitate these zombies even if they’re low on (or out of) ammunition. It’s a brilliant way to reveal the possibilities of a new mechanic without forcing the player to endure some prolonged traditional tutorial period.

At one point during your Ravenholm run, you’re offered a shotgun that most players likely chose to ignore. Sure, the shotgun is an iconic zombie killer (and a symbol of player power in video games ever since Doom), but using it just feels basic compared to the joy of using an incredible new tool to dispatch familiar (but dangerous) foes in exciting new ways. The gravity gun not only empowered you in an area defined by death and decay, but it showed you that even horror and FPS genres’ old dogs could benefit from new tricks.

Ravenholm was an incredible blend of such contradictory ideas as old and new, comfort and discomfort, and familiarity and discovery. It’s a shame, then, that our first visit to Ravenholm will seemingly be the last we ever get.

That Familiar Feeling

We don’t get to go to Ravenholm again during Half-Life 2‘s campaign and the town isn’t featured in Half-Life 2: Episode One or Episode Two. Given the current state of the Half-Life franchise, it’s highly doubtful we’ll ever be able to run through it again outside of replays of the original game.

Ad – content continues below

Did you know, though, that a new game featuringRavenholm was once in development? Half-Life writer Marc Laidlaw revealed that Valve was working alongside Dishonored and Prey developer Arkane Studios on a Half-Life spin-off called Return to Ravenholm. While that sounds simply amazing, Laidlaw says that he’s pretty sure the project fell apart because the timeframe of the idea (it would have occurred before the end of Episode 2 in order to not significantly interfere with the main story) would have placed chronological creative constraints on Valve and Arkane. He also suggests that key elements of Ravenholm (such as headcrabs and zombies) were “pretty much played out” by that time.

It’s easy to feel a little bitter about that sentiment, but maybe there is some truth to it. Maybe Ravenholm just happened to be the perfect idea released at the perfect time. To be fair, replaying the level today does reveal some minor design flaws, such as an over-reliance on narrow platforms and other platforming hazards, and the level certainly doesn’t feel quite as groundbreaking as it did at the time.

A return to Ravenholm may not have been quite as revolutionary as our first visit, but just as we feel a strange sense of belonging whenever we’re surrounded by ghosts, ghouls, and goblins every Halloween, it’s hard to deny that another visit to Ravenholm would be worth it just to experience a little more of what may be horror gaming’s greatest level.

Matthew Byrd is a staff writer for Den of Geek. He spends most of his days trying to pitch deep-dive analytical pieces about Killer Klowns From Outer Space to an increasingly perturbed series of editors. You can read more of his work here or find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014