So a couple weeks back we talked about the depiction of science in Half-Life 2. We talked about how the game centers scientists and the scientific inquiry, and how the bad guy is essentially a scientist who obscures the truth. This week I want to come at things from the opposite angle, and consider how Half-Life 2 deals with religion. If science is the way forward, and superstition and ignorance hold us back – where does religion fit into that? Let’s go to Ravenholm.
If you’re not familiar with Half-Life 2, Ravenholm is one of the great horror levels of video game history. It’s an abandoned mining town, with all of its occupants turned into zombies. There’s a bunch of body horror, some freaky new monsters get introduced, and there’s even a crazy Russian priest ministering to his zombie congregation with a shotgun. On a narrative level, there are some classic Gothic elements – for example, a big part of the Gothic is this idea of something from the dark, irrational past breaking out into the present day. That’s why you have this frequent association with crumbling ruins, the marker of a past that is abandoned, but never really gone. In Half-Life, the village of Ravenholm serves as that ancient ruin. You descend into this horrific place, exploring elements of its dark, repressed past, and eventually overcome it. You defeat the horrors and leave, returning to the rational, scientific world, albeit permanently changed by the knowledge of what lies beneath.
And the actual horror of Gothic horror can be a bunch of different things. In Carmilla, it’s a fear of lesbian sexuality. In Castle of Otranto, it’s the Catholics. Well – I mean, it’s not just the Catholics, but twenty years before the book came out, England had seen yet another Jacobite revolt attempting to restore the Catholic Stuarts to the throne. The book’s obsession with the medieval, with chapels and medieval castles, could easily be attributed to a concern about England’s Catholic past, and the instability of the current Protestant rule. You can violently repress the Catholic insurrection, but you know it’ll never really go away.
In Half-Life 2, the horror is – well, we don’t want to jump the gun, but as a starting point, it’s fair to note the strong association between the horrors of Ravenholm and religion. It’s where we find Father Grigori, who I mentioned before – our shotgun-toting Russian Orthodox priest. He runs around cackling and quoting made-up Bible verses (“For it was said they had become like those peculiar demons, which dwell in matter but in whom no light may be found”), and shoots a bunch of zombies, who he describes as his “congregation”. He also refers to his zombie-shooting as “the work of salvation,” as if he’s liberating the souls of his previous comrades by killing them. At the climax of the level you fight through a church graveyard, which Grigori describes as “hallowed ground,” and then as you escape you see him set off a propane fire and run cackling through the flames, firing his shotgun at the zombies.
So you can see the classic Gothic arc here. Half-Life 2 is a game about science and enlightenment, and you descend into an abandoned ruined town, where you encounter a spectre of the dark, irrational past. It would be easy to say that religion is the spectre and end the conversation, but I don’t know that it’s so simple. It’s true that Ravenholm is where we get the clearest and most sustained references to religion. The level uses religious imagery and ideas to heighten the sense of Something Evil From The Past. And yet Grigori, who embodies that religious spirit, is not a villain. He’s not Dracula. It’s implied that he’s insane (“although they call me crazy, I care not, for thou art my helper”), but he’s also kind of a badass. Father Grigori fucks shit up. He’s like this cool Old Testament motherfucker. Half-Life revels in its depiction of Grigori even as it’s clearly uncomfortable with some of the implications of his worldview. He’s awesome, but he’s also not the future. He’s suffered through this awful place, and arguably has lost something as a result. He’s reverted to a pre-scientific language in order to find meaning and offer some sort of closure to the people he used to live with. You experience the horror that caused him to revert in such a way – so you can appreciate what he’s feeling – but it doesn’t consume you like it does him. That is, while he’s maybe not entirely correct, the game doesn’t say he’s totally wrong either.
When you eventually leave Ravenholm, you leave Grigori and his congregation behind. You return to the scientific modern world, where the central problems are disinformation and political repression. Grigori isn’t really relevant to those issues. There’s no overarching message about how religion is a type of disinformation just as evil as the Combine’s repressive regime. Grigori just fades into the background, along with the themes he represents. Traces of religion or spirituality are scattered throughout the rest of the world – for example, in the third level, Route Kanal, one of your alien Vortigaunt allies tells you “We serve the same mystery.” But it’s not clear if this is just poetic language, if it’s a metaphorical reference to some very tangible force (such as the G Man and his employers), or if it is a genuinely spiritual, religious statement. Half-Life 2 doesn’t commit to one reading or the other. It spends a level with Grigori, really leans into the religious imagery, and then it moves on. All we’re left with are a bunch of questions and the memory of our time in Ravenholm. We’re not supposed to go there, but we can’t keep ourselves away.