imageThe droplets of rain on the window create dark shadows across the pages of the magazine spread across Gabe Newell’s desk. This is not the first time he’s gazed at the review, poring over every word while sulking in the darkness. He’s done it at least once a week since the game had hit the shelves. Over and over again he looked at that number. 9.5 out of 10.

Ding! A sudden chime reverberates from his pocket. For a moment Gabe feels his heart leap. An e-mail! Could she have finally answered him? Feverishly his fingers dig into his pants pocket, squeezing into the tight confined space as he grips onto his iPhone. Maybe she had put it all behind her! Maybe she’d return! With a delightful smile he gazes onto the lit touch screen.

“rlease episode 3 u fat fag!”

Just another e-mail from some anonymous troll. That made fifteen for the day so far and it’s not even noon. A sigh eased from Gabe’s body as he eased the iPhone down. He stares at the review again until his eyes lose focus, hearing nothing but the silent whispers of rain upon Valve’s offices. One by one he traces the shadows of the rain drops across his desk, illuminated from what little light could pierce through the dense cloud cover overhead. Upwards his eyes drift until they finally meet those of a young woman encased in a picture frame. A photo of Kim Swift standing with the rest of the Portal team, eager and excited about their first shipped product. She was gone now. Working with Airtight Games.

9.5 out of 10…

Where did it all go wrong?

It was just a year ago when he had hatched what he thought was an ingenious plan. None of these so-called game “journalists” understood what was required in development time, and these fanboys all imagined making a game was as easy as microwaving a Hot Pocket sandwich. Does a Hot Pocket count as a sandwich? Worthless trivia. What mattered was that Gabe Newell was sick of these pundits demanding Half-Life 2: Episode 3. It’s not like he could just crap a quality product out in the afternoon. It took time and effort! Not to mention all of the careful balancing of content.

He had been sitting in his office on a day like today, reading another insulting e-mail demanding the sequel when the project lead on Left 4 Dead 2 entered the office. He reported that the sequel was going at a good pace and may be ready to hit shelves in 2010. They just needed to do the usual rigmarole of balancing and cutting unnecessary content out of the game.

It was then that Gabe Newell had the brilliant idea to skip those stages of development. Creating maps, weapons and characters, that was one thing. Making sure it all worked together was something else entirely.

“We’re going to ship it this Fall,” Gabe told the project lead. They thought he was mad. There was no way they were going to have it ready in time. “That’s not the point,” he explained during a staff meeting. “We’re going to deliver an unfinished product and charge them full price. It doesn’t matter if there are too many special infected showing up at any given time, or if some of the items are absolutely worthless in the long run. All that matters is that the gamers aren’t happy.”

It was crazy. No one had understood why Gabe was suddenly turning his back on the fans. Was he really going to charge sixty-bucks for this game that he was intentionally leaving incomplete? Yet they all went along with it. When they revealed the game at E3 they kept pushing all of the new content, speaking against their inner beliefs just to sell the lie. They even flew the heads of the Left 4 Dead 2 boycott group up to their offices to see it. They were convincing everyone the game would be worth it.

Launch day finally came and press sites and magazines began unleashing their official reviews. Usually everyone on the team was nervous about a product being torn to shreds, but Gabe Newell was gleeful of this. He anticipated it. Forums would be full of gamers complaining about how frequently they’d run into special infected. It was true, they added more without balancing the code to reduce their spawns. They showed up too frequently, and at times you’d see up to three of the same creature in a row. It was especially a problem during some of the campaign finales. Competitive players would note how many levels left open spots for Chargers to just kamikaze players into oblivion, providing an unfair advantage.

Oh how joyous it was to remember the looks on his programmer’s faces when he suggested realism mode. Sure it only required a couple of variable switches, but to suggest it as its own mode was genius. Merely shutting off a few colorful auras would work as a great justification for the game’s cost. That is, until the reviewers would call him on this. He couldn’t wait until everyone complained about how useless the salvage mode was, how no one found it fun at all.

What of all the new items? Well, Gabe had to admit the new weapons were actually pretty useful. The boomer bile was also pretty effective in certain situations. Still, there’s no reason that couldn’t have just been DLC along with the new maps. Which, of course, was the beauty of it all. Even if the defibrillator and adrenaline ultimately prove less useful than having a health pack or pain pills, they would have been better off as a simple download instead of an over-priced retail package.

Fans would bitch and moan, demanding that Valve answer to this injustice. Reviewers would flog the game for trying to ride the coat tails of its predecessor so soon. More time was needed! More care!

Then Gabe Newell would hold a press conference. He would stand before gathered members of all the major gaming outlets, and he would laugh. So jovially would he laugh at them. Yes, at them. They were the victims of his cruel joke.

“Unbalanced do you say?” He would lean forward on the podium, wooden panels creaking beneath his weight. “Worthless items? Rushed to completion?” Another obnoxious outburst of laughter would echo the halls as the press looked to him in confusion. “Yet you would have me released Half-Life 2: Episode 3 as such, would you not?”

The realization would slowly begin to sink in, now. Even these so called “journalists” couldn’t be so thick as to not get the point.

“Of course it is unbalanced! Of course it was over-priced and rushed to completion! If you want a game that is polished and clean, free of bugs, glitches and the smallest of design oversights, then you must be willing to wait!” Yes, of course, they would see it now. “We gave you a sequel to Left 4 Dead that met your speedy qualifications, but it did not satisfy you! Instead, it left you with rage! So now, when you eagerly want a sequel, you will see why it may take so long.”

Then finally, at long last, they would just shut the Hell up about Episode 3.

imageExcept that’s not how it went. The project lead had stepped into his office the next day with a grin and the latest issue of Game Informer in hand. He was not aware of the master plan of Gabe’s and had been worried sick of this project. Yet he at least had found relief in those thin pages of what some dared to call “writing”. Gabe opened it expectantly, waiting to see a big fat six plastered across the page. Or maybe lower!

Yet the twinkle in the plump man’s eye had suddenly dwindled out of existence. His delightful grin sagged into a frown.

“9.5 out of 10?” He looked up at his project lead quizzically. The foolish man nodded.

“Isn’t it amazing?” He exclaimed. “Despite how many problems there were, all the things we should have changed or cut out, they still love it!

The pleased look on the man’s face transformed to fright as Gabe bellowed out a mighty roar, lifting up his desk and flipping it, spilling its contents across the floor.

“You son of a bitch!” Newell cried, lunging over his desk for the man. His girth could not carry him and he tripped over the desk, landing onto the floor. The project lead quickly fled as a sailor’s worth of curses exhumed from Gabe’s lips into the air.

Each review was as bad as the previous. Nothing but praises and delight, nary a score lower than nine hitting his desk. Fans across the Internet exclaimed their love for Valve with each passing day, claiming they had done it again. Despite stiff competition with Modern Warfare 2 and New Super Mario Bros. Wii, they were still a commercial and critical success.

“I’m sorry, Gabe, but I’m leaving,” she said to him.

“You can’t leave! I found you! I discovered you!” There was scotch on his breath again. His hair was disheveled. There were stains across his shirt. Gabe had been drinking non-stop.

“I’m sorry, Gabe, but I just can’t work here anymore,” Kim said, eyes welling with tears. “I need some place where the developers love their fans. Where they make games for the sake of making them, not for…well, I don’t even know why you’re doing it anymore.”

“I’ll tell you why!” Gabe slurred, almost tripping as he leaned on his swiveling office chair. “Because none of those stinking pricks know what art is! They’d wipe their asses with Picasso’s work if some Professor in their weed-smoking-liberal universities didn’t tell them otherwise!” A tear drop finally descended Kim’s cheek.

“I’m leaving for Airtight Games,” she said, looking at her twiddling fingers. “I have some friends there. They invited me in. They…love what they do.” She looked up one last time, and she saw the pain in his eyes. He had helped care for her, nurture her into who she is. “Goodbye, Gabe.”

“Don’t go!” He cried, falling over his desk once more. She turned and walked out of the office as he stretched out his hand. “Please don’t leave me!”

The days rolled by and the holidays came around. Everyone was in good spirits but Gabe. He unloaded a whole bottle of rum into the punch bowl and drank most of it himself, getting into a drunken stupor. Standing on one of the office desks he yelled out his hatred of all gamers and press. Every one of them was just a parasite. They didn’t understand art! They couldn’t comprehend good design! Not a single one of those bastards at Game Informer knew what it meant to be a real critic! Left 4 Dead 2 was a piece of shit and everyone at Valve knew it!

The cold days continued to pass. Gabe didn’t drink from the well of Jack Daniels or Captain Morgan as often these days, but he could never go to sleep sober. Not without thinking of Kim. She hadn’t contacted him since leaving for Airtight Games. Well, good riddance! Those damn reviewers apparently aren’t too pleased with their Dark Void title. That’ll show her!

He sighs. Where did it all go wrong? All he wanted to do was get everyone to understand why you need to work on games for so long. That those months and even years of development time were all to finely sculpt a perfect experience for players. Yet even an unfinished and over-priced product such as Left 4 Dead 2 could get rave reviews from the rabble. They had missed the point.

Thereis another chime from his iPhone, but Gabe doesn’t have to look at it to know what it is. Just another gamer calling him an obese man and demanding Half-Life 2: Episode 3. The very fact that Left 4 Dead 2 released so quickly only makes them wonder why Gordon Freeman’s latest adventure is taking so long.

None of them understand. Not yet, at least. He would make them understand. Even if they did finish Episode 3 he wasn’t going to deliver it to them. Not for a good, long time.

Then they’d finally be forced to understand.

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