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About a week ago, Yahtzee got on a plane to visit Valve. Seems they were so tickled by his review of The Orange Box, they wanted to meet him in person and shake his hand. Either that or shoot him and dump him in Puget Sound. The suspense was palpable. But even if they did whack him, he’d at least get to visit the US, which, as we all know, was a lifelong dream of his.

The only problem was he wouldn’t have time to prepare a Zero Punctuation review for this week. Instead, he wrote a travelogue of his experiences in Seattle, including visiting a shooting range, firing handguns with the people from Valve. Yeah, it doesn’t get any better than that.

So here it is, Yahtzee’s Travelogue. Several days ago, he boarded a plane in Australia, headed for the United States, and returned only a few hours ago. Along the way he lost some luggage, a little innocence and gained a whole new perspective on life, and what it means to be an American. Maybe. Enjoy!

– Editor

Yahtzee’s Travelogue

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007, 11:00 a.m.
Brisbane Airport Domestic Terminal, Gate 24

Realized on the train that I left my wash bag at home. Well, fuck. Things are certainly off to a flying start. Had to buy a toothbrush, toothpaste and razors at an airport shop. Came to $25. Twenty-five bucks! What, do they dispense cocaine cut with gold dust or something? Thank Christ I’ll be in America soon, where people treat each other right.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007, 11:00 a.m. (again – thanks, international dateline)
Los Angeles Airport, Los Angeles, California

Amazingly I’ve been in LA for two hours, and I still haven’t been stabbed. The airport system seems to have swallowed my biro, though. Don’t ask me how, but it went through the scanning machine with all my other personal effects, then disappeared off the face of the Earth. Am writing this with a new pen I bought at a gift shop. It has “HOLLYWOOD” written down the side and is about a half-centimeter thicker than I like.

On the last flight they gave me a free toothbrush. Feel a bit stupid.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007, 7:00 p.m.
Room 1704, Hyatt Regency Hotel, Bellevue, Washington

me sleep now

Wednesday, November 14, 2007, 9:00 a.m.
Room 1704, Hyatt Regency Hotel, Bellevue, Washington

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Conveniently Valve is practically located in the same building as this hotel, and is just two elevator rides and a brisk walk through unrelentingly posh Bellevue interior decor to get to the offices. I notice out of my bedroom window that there’s a store down the street called “Crate & Barrel,” which, considering, strikes me as a very appropriate position for either it or Valve, as anyone familiar with the writings of Old Man Murray could tell you. Speaking of which, Erik Wolpaw, one of the two Valve employees and former internet funnymen responsible for OMM is my major contact on this trip, and we met for breakfast this morning in the hotel restaurant to meet, greet and shoot the shit about his Doublefine days.

When Wolpaw first got in touch with me after my sometimes-ambivalent-but-largely-gushing Zero Punctuation review of the Orange Box, I was a wee bit star struck. The Old Man Murray reviews (and Seanbaby’s website to a similar extent) had been my major influences in those dark, pathetic days of self-teaching the internet funny-writing trade. And Valve, well, I was in there since Half-Life, and they’ve never released a game I didn’t like, so as employees of theirs, Wolpaw and his Murraymate Chet Faliszek had double respect points. When it was then suggested that they fly me over to Bellevue to visit the offices and meet everyone, I all but choked on my muesli. But it seems this is something Valve as a company do with the same casualness they use to order more Snapple for the work fridge. The enormous popularity and prestige of the Half-Life series and the nearly 100 percent profit acquired from sales over the Steam digital distribution has made the self-funded Valve wealthy enough to fly out all sorts of mouthy foreign pricks on a whim. I just hoped I could be sparkling enough company to justify the costs of the flight, hotel and fancy lunches.

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I entered the Valve reception area and the first thing that struck me was the sheer number of awards lying around the place, ranging from simple perspex trophies along the window sill and shelves of framed certificates to a big golden crowbar and a wooden crate lying on the floor, a gift from EAP Germany, according to the plaque. I notice a framed thank-you note signed by Geoffrey Rush. Things start to feel like they’re closing in over the top of my hat.

I’m given a quick tour of the offices, and the second thing to strike me is how few of them there are. Valve employs something like 150 individuals, I’m told, which considering their profile and influence strikes me as surprisingly small. I mean, to pick a name out of the air, Krome Studios, a Brisbane-based developer of my acquaintance and of considerably lower profile, employs over 180. I am fast becoming aware that there’s something altogether different about the way Valve does this whole game development thing.

Spent the afternoon being driven around Seattle by Valve employee, former Lord of the Rings animator and all-around interesting fellow Bay Raitt, one of many talents poached by Valve from the film industry. The city reminds me of England in many ways, although that might just have been because it pissed down all the time.

Thursday, November 15, 2007, 10:30 p.m.
Room 1704, Hyatt Regency Hotel, Bellevue, Washington

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One of the things I’ve always wondered about in Valve games is the credits, in that very little seems to get credited, if you catch my drift. The names of all the people involved always simply roll past in alphabetical order with no job titles or details of any kind. The reason for this, as I’m learning, is that no one at Valve has any specific title. Part of that is because of something called the Cabal System. When a job needs done or a problem needs solving, or an issue has come up in one of the hundreds of play test sessions Valve games undergo, a group of bods with random assortments of skills from all over the spectrum of game design are brought together to bounce solutions off each other and argue their merit. Anyone can propose a change as long as he gives a good reason as to why it would work. No one has a title because no one has any clearly defined role.

I witnessed the Cabal System in action today when a roomful of rowdy animators asked me to take a look at the prototype for the newest “Meet the Team” Team Fortress short, about which I’ve probably already said too much. After I was forced to admit that I had completely misunderstood the entire thing because I’m kind of thick, the team spent the next three or four hours loudly arguing possible ways that props and character movements could be subtly changed to make it easier for thickies like myself to “get.” Watching it all unfold makes it easier to understand why there’s always such a long wait time between the releases of Valve games and products, but I guess history has proved that this makes for a higher-quality output than the more conventional routine of whipping the code monkeys with leather straps to make a strict publishing deadline.

Left to Right: Jay Pinkerton, Erik Wolpaw, Jerry "Tycho" Holkins

Left to Right: Jay Pinkerton, Erik Wolpaw, Jerry "Tycho" Holkins

The highlight of the evening was a demonstration of Left 4 Dead twinned with a sort of game writers’ pizza party. There was me, Wolpaw, Faliszek, Jerry Holkins (Tycho) from Penny Arcade, Jay Pinkerton of Cracked magazine and latterly Surreal Software, and a bunch of dudes from Nintendo, some of whom apparently worked on the localization of Super Paper Mario and had seen my review of same. We saw eye to eye once they stopped pushing my head down the toilet.

Left 4 Dead – leaving aside the horrible practice of replacing words with numbers – is a co-op multiplayer game in which four players form a rag-tag group of desperate survivors in the midst of a ruined post-apocalyptic world where a bunch of high-speed marathon runners have somehow acquired a lust for human flesh. Together the last four humans must make their way inch-by-inch to an extraction point while fending off nightmare monsters and making the occasional traumatic decision between running back to fetch a fallen comrade or accepting that whatever shredded remains that could be salvaged from the hordes probably wouldn’t be much use in future gunfights.

That’s what went on in the main room, at least. In the next room, other computers were set up to control the special zombies. This was a much jollier experience in which cheerful mutants waited giggling behind corners for the survivors to show up before jumping out and blinding them with jets of projectile vomit. It seems that Left 4 Dead will be a most satisfying experience for people who want a tense, cinematic journey through a terrifying hell on Earth and equally for people who want to run up behind said people and go “Boo.”

Friday, November 16, 2007, 11:00 p.m.
Room 1704, Hyatt Regency Hotel, Bellevue, Washington

Yahtzee (left) and Gabe Newell

Yahtzee (left) and Gabe Newell

I’ve had the chance to chat with Gabe Newell on a couple of occasions so far, and it was pretty nervy for me.

“How are you doing?” he asked, the first time we met.
“Intimidated,” I replied, then immediately hated myself for it. I’m supposed to be a game industry person now, for crying out loud; this would be a good time to learn how not to get the willies around game industry people.

Newell strikes me as a very businesslike fellow. “What questions do you have for me?” he asks, rather than “do you have any questions?” since the fact that I would have questions appears to be self-evident. Certainly, having been on the wrong end of an interview desk at a number of other game companies, I wonder how Valve gets by with no traditional corporate structure, no defined roles, no orders from on high. The theory is that every employee is carefully analyzed to make sure they have both a great personal passion for the medium and that they’re sufficiently grounded in reality to see a product through to the end. But there’s got to be more to it than that. Good leadership, perhaps. The right words in the right place and making sure there are always plenty of brownies in the kitchen.

Mind you, there’s a lot of whimsy about Newell, too, at least that’s the impression I get from the anecdotes that surround him. I’ve heard things about a room full of knives next to his office. On reflection, perhaps I shouldn’t look too deeply into that.

Completed the experience of America this evening when Elan Ruskin of the Orange Box programming team took me down a firing range. I got my hands on a lightweight Glock 19 – the same sort of thing used in Half-Life 1, at my specific and incredibly nerdy request – and spent an enjoyable hour or two working my way through a box of 9 mm bullets. Fun, and not a little empowering. I feel grateful in that I am that little bit more prepared for the zombie holocaust.

Sunday, November 18, 2007, 6:43 p.m.
Seattle Airport Departure Lounge

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Customs flagged me for additional searches for some ungodly reason, so only now can I get some time out after getting unreasonably molested by men with big hands. Flight leaves in an hour. Going home.

I’ve given Americans a lot of shit throughout Zero Punctuation, with phrases like “cheeseburger-inhaling Yank” being thrown around and my personal image of the gun-toting cretin who unironically gargles words like “liberty” until they lose all meaning. But now I think I’ve undergone a change of perspective. I’ve eaten at some very fancy restaurants worlds away from cheeseburgers. I’ve rubbed shoulders with some lovely, mild-mannered people as they fired round after round into juddering paper targets. Maybe this isn’t the kind of bitter snideness I’m known for, but I really think my cynicism for the United States has tempered somewhat.

Sunday, November 18, 2007, 6:48 p.m.
Seattle Airport Departure Lounge Burger King

“Medium,” “Large” and “King Size”? What the fuck is that? How the fuck can “Medium” be the smallest? Do you even know what the word “Medium” means? This is why you’re all so fat, you bunch of road sign-shooting Yankee pillocks.

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