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The Gonarch is a boss enemy from Xen, who appears in Half-Life. The final phase of the lowly Headcrab, it is encountered in a protracted battle taking place in one of the last chapters of Half-Life, Gonarch's Lair. Only a single Gonarch is encountered by Gordon Freeman during the game.
Little is known about how and when the metamorphosis from a Headcrab to a Gonarch takes place, as few Headcrabs ever reach that stage. While appearing very similar to a Headcrab's anatomy there are a few differences, namely their massive size (twice as tall as Gordon), thick exoskeletons, powerful legs and the large sack dangling from its underbelly. Gonarchs are easily one of the largest and toughest known creatures from Xen. They can take massive amounts of projectile and explosive damage, taking even more explosive damage to kill than a Gargantua.
The large bag of flesh which hangs from the creature, commonly referred to as its "sack", seems to be a reproductive housing. During the battle with Gordon, it releases underdeveloped baby Headcrabs at a rapid rate. Small and soft-looking (resembling baby scorpions), these baby Headcrabs are not very dangerous, as they can deal 1 damage than a fully grown Headcrab,but they can walk a bit faster than regular Headcrabs,and are difficult to hit, and are usually found in large groups. While Gonarchs appear to be mindless breeding machines, they make loud, almost mournful sounds when a baby Headcrab is killed. Gonarchs are known to make other noises as well—most notably, when they are angry or injured, they will emit a loud cry, very similar to that of an elephant.
Just as with Headcrabs, Gonarchs seem to have an apparent lack of sensory organs, which suggests that their movement is based on touch and sensing vibrations. During the attack on Gordon by the Gonarch known as "Big Momma", it never comes close to running off the edge of its platform. This suggests that Gonarchs may retain memories of their surroundings, or perhaps lay scent markers to warn themselves of obstacles or edges. Even without any apparent sensory organs, Big Momma manages to home in on Gordon within seconds, further suggesting that perhaps vibrations and scents play a key role in a Gonarch's life (much like a spider which lays webbing and feels vibrations from the web to catch prey). Gonarchs also have an apparent lack of a "head" structure, suggesting that any brain may be burrowed deep within the armored exoskeleton for further protection. While no Gonarch has been observed ingesting any material, it does not appear to have a mouth of any sort, which brings into question its diet and method of eating. But it might be that the Headcrab eats a lot before reaching the Gonarch stage, storing the nutrients to reproduce and feed its offspring until it eventually dies of starvation.
Entering a Gonarch's lair results in immediate attack, suggesting they are extremely protective of their territory and offspring. They attack by charging at their victim, then attempting to puncture them with their massive legs. They also have somewhat of a ranged attack, by forcing yellowish balls of acidic material from the top of their shells, which they hurl through the air like mortars, raining down upon the victim. With all their traits combined, Gonarchs prove to be skilled at defending themselves and their young, and are one of the toughest enemies Gordon faces in Xen. Upon death, a Gonarch explodes violently.
 Behind the scenes
- The creature was originally known under the nickname "Big Momma". Its model is also named "
big_mom.mdl", while its entity is "monster_bigmomma".
- The Gonarch was apparently born very simply, when someone at Valve asked, according to Gabe Newell, "Why don't we put a giant testicle on a 20-foot-tall armored spider?". Therefore the name may be a portmanteau of the words "gonad" and "monarch". A "gonad" is another name for the reproductive organ of mammals, the male gonad being the testicles. The "monarch" part would refer to the "boss" status of the creature within the game.
- According to Ted Backman, the Gonarch was a strongly contested design around Valve's office during the development of Half-Life, considered by some to be too graphic, a thing Backman did not agree with. However Gabe Newell liked it, which greatly influenced its inclusion in the game.
- Strong art direction and clear goals were set for the Gonarch from the start, but the AI proved to be very complicated due to the size of the creature and how different it was from the more common game monsters of that time.
- In the early stages of Half-Life 2's development, a device used to spawn Headcrabs from a Gonarch's sack, the "Combine Big Momma Pod", was to be seen in Ravenholm.