Where is City 17?
[CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS FOR HALF-LIFE: ALYX]
Since Half-Life 2 we’ve assumed that City 17 – the site of the Combine Citadel, their alien headquarters on Earth – is somewhere in Eastern Europe, probably in a fictional hybrid of post-Soviet styles based on Bulgaria, Ukraine, Russia, and maybe others. However, Half-Life: Alyx provides a lot of clues to suggest that City 17 may actually just be in Russia.
There are still red herrings; it is still ambiguous; but with the higher resolution textures and the ability to stick it right in front of your eye balls in VR, it’s a lot easier to examine the evidence and I think it points squarely to Russia.
Exhibit A: the globe – north of Moscow
The globe in Alyx’s reconnaissance outpost at the start of the game can be spun around. Notably, one area is circled, with several arrows pointing to it and a few crosses inside. The area is very large – probably several thousand square kilometres – but it appears to be north of Moscow and west of the Urals. It’s a bit of a logic jump, but it seems reasonably safe to assume that this was the site the Combine congregated in after wiping out the US in the Seven Hour War (North America is crossed out on the globe) to establish City 17.
Exhibit B: advertising – Vologda
Unlike in Half-Life 2, most of the notices, signs, and advertising in Alyx are in Russian. There are a few newspapers in English and a few posters in (I think) Ukrainian, but by and large it’s all Russian. Most notably here, there are several adverts for Vologda butter. Vologda butter is famous all over Russia, so this doesn’t mean anything in itself. However, Vologda is a few hundred kilometres north of Moscow, well within the area highlighted on Alyx’s globe, so let’s start there for now.
Exhibit C: telegram form – Kostroma
About half way through the game, towards the end of Chapter 5, you come across several noticeboards in a residential area of City 17. One noticeboard has a blank telegram form (for ordering a telegram, I guess – I’m old, but I’m not old enough to know how telegrams worked). In the bottom right hand corner of the form it notes the date is 1988* (perhaps 1968, it’s difficult to tell) and the city is Kostroma. Kostroma is also north of Moscow, just over half way to Vologda. It also appears to be within the region marked on Alyx’s globe.
*If the date is 1988, it may also say something interesting about the Half-Life timeline, contrary to the orthodoxy that the Black Mesa Incident occurred some time in the 2000s. Having said that, I lived in Russia in the 90s and early 2000s and the décor, technology, and culture in Alyx are consistent with that time period (although I would say no later than mid-2000s), so I wouldn’t read too much into the 1988 date. Anyway, it’s always possible to find paperwork that old lying around.
Exhibit D: bus timetable – Pskov and Luga
The aforementioned noticeboard also has a bus timetable on it. The timetable says ‘Pskov-Luga’. Pskov is west of Moscow, not too far from the Estonian border. Luga is a small town (about 40,000 people) north-east of Pskov.
I suppose if you’re confronted with a detailed bus timetable in a residential area that says ‘Pskov-Luga’ on it, you are safe to assume that you are in Pskov, right? Or at least Luga? And given how small Luga is, why specifically Luga? It must have some significance.
Maybe, or maybe it’s just another red herring. There is plenty of evidence against it too. If we go by Exhibit A, for example, we’ll find that Luga is outside the circled area on the globe. Furthermore, if City 17 is in Luga, then why is there a telegram form issued in Kostroma? Well, perhaps it was a failure of Soviet or post-Soviet bureaucracy? – they ran out of forms and shipped them over from Kostroma; it’s not too far. Okay, but even if that’s right, how do I explain all the newspapers and advertising in English? Luga is a tiny provincial town; it’s implausible that it would stock English newspapers. Besides, City 17 seems huge. It’s just too big to fit in Luga.
So it’s Pskov then? It’s much larger and closer to Estonia, where the alphabet is Latin, so this might explain some of the notices. It’s also very close to a large lake, and not too far away from the Gulf of Finland, which would explain the coastal levels (e.g. Highway 17) in Half-Life 2. Then again, it still doesn’t explain the stuff in English. Russia – especially 90s and early 2000s Russia, which is the time City 17 seems to be frozen in (see above) – was far less cosmopolitan about international signage than it is now. And Pskov is also outside the circled area in Exhibit A, although it is worth noting that the globe seems extremely out of date (e.g. it refers to the Russian Empire, to Persia, etc.).
So the only thing I will assert with confidence is that Exhibits A to D provide plenty of reasons to think that City 17 is in Russia. There is some looser corroborating evidence for this too; e.g. the cars that can be found around City 17 are recognisably the GAZ Volga, the VAZ-2101 (the first Lada) or similar, and likely the RAF-2203: all ubiquitous in Russia throughout the 90s and early 2000s. Similarly, the trains (well, the non-Combine trains) look a lot like the DR1 model,** also a familiar sight around Russia. (Although perhaps it’s best not to hang too much on this: the RAF and the DR1 are actually Latvian-made, and the other cars were widely exported).
Anyway, assuming a loose triangulation based on the four exhibits above, I’d go as far as to place City 17 somewhere within the black rectangle on the map below (circled red, from left to right: Pskov, Luga, Vologda, Kostroma).
**Thanks to AmtrakGuy365 for his superb analysis of the trains of Half-Life here.