The following is intended as a joke. Joel VS Games intends no offence to anybody involved. It regularly intends offence to others, but not to anybody in this article. It makes for a nice change, I’ll tell you that.
I don’t know if this will ever be read. I hope it will. There are things happening here, things that need to be known, and we don’t know how to leave. When we look out of the windows, we see only vast expanses of desert, and none of us have seen anything else for the last five years. Bill Evans struck out two months ago with as much water as he could carry, telling us that he’d come back, that he’d get help for the rest of us.
But like I said, that was two months ago.
While I don’t know where in the world we are, I do know that this place is called Facility 17, and referred to by those kept inside it as “The Offices.” A grey complex of heartless concrete buildings, arranged in a disordered cluster amongst the sands. The strange thing is that everybody thinks the real offices are in America somewhere… Washington state, I think? The name Bellevue keeps coming back to me… I’m sorry. It’s hard to remember, it’s been a very long time since I was part of civilisation.
Facility 17 exists in service of The Project. It was made for that single purpose, made for that function. It holds five thousand people within its walls, some of the greatest technology ever made, vast databases of information. Everybody here understands how important it is. We know that when it is done, when the Project is shown to the world the next age of humanity will dawn and that everything would change. Empires would rise, culture would become unrecognisable, our very souls would ascend into something greater.
And two days ago, it was finished.
We couldn’t believe it. We ran every test we could. We checked and double-checked our research, we submitted it to every exam we could think of. They all came clean. It really was what we thought, terrible and awe-inspiring and fascinating all at once. Even those who weren’t aware of it being there still felt a chill as they entered the room, and none of us could pick it up for long without feeling dizzy and light-headed. It was a humbling thing to hold the future in your hands.
But we knew what we had to do. The procedure had been drilled into us from the very beginning, and the motions came smoothly and naturally. As one, the top five workers of which I was one, all drew our keys and went to the main computer, a vast tangle of microchips and screens that thrummed with energy. In the centre of the console were five locks, arranged in a star shape, with a button under glass at their centre. We twisted our keys as one, all feeling the same fear and anticipation. Alarms started blaring, lights started flashing. The rest of the work force held each other close. The glass barrier segmented into four parts, which sank seamlessly into the panel, leaving the button unprotected. The others looked at me. I knew what my duty was.
I pressed the button, sweat running down my forehead, and something rose out of the console. A small phone, albeit one with no buttons or numbers. It didn’t matter. There was only one place it could call.
My hand trembling, but my voice steady, I raised the receiver and spoke into it, staring straight ahead.
“Yes, this is Jeffrey Miller from Research and Development. I need to speak to the CEO. The project is finished.”
There was no response, but at the front of the room the elevator, which never moved at all, silently sprung to life, and the doors opened expectantly like the maw of some great monster. I and the other four workers silently looked at each other, not knowing what to expect, but I solemnly took the finished project in my hands and went to enter with the rest of them.
As the doors closed behind us, we could see the rest of the team saluting us, tears in their eyes.
The doors sealed shut, completely airtight, and the lift began to ascend to the top floor, the offices of the CEO. I am aware that the man has managed to maintain a sympathetic appearance in the outside world. He must have more spin doctors than hot dinners.
At any rate, we could feel the tension rising in that steel box. Sweat was building on my palms where I held the project tightly, and yet this building in the middle of the desert somehow seemed to be getting colder as we ascended. My colleagues were staring up at the ceiling or at their shoes. Several of them were praying quietly.
It took several minutes for us to reach the top, and as the doors opened we stepped out into a gorgeous waiting room, with a set of massive oak doors ahead of us. To the left of them was a desk with a receptionist behind it.
She was huge, at least seven feet tall and still proportionately broad even for her size. Even sitting in her chair she was at eye level with all of us, and as she shifted it gave a mournful creak of protest. Her face was a mass of scars sat upon a broad, scowling mug with a cleft chin and a broken nose. Her hair was brown, tied into a tight bun at the back, and she wore a tight floral dress that bulged against her muscles and wasn’t quite low enough on her forearm to hide the KGB tattoo. As we approached her, she rubbed her chin and glared suspiciously at us, and we could all hear the scritch, scritch of facial hair against her calloused palms.
We looked at each other, nervously, and I spoke quickly before she might consider us rude or just attack us out of pure aggression. “We, uh, we have an appointment? About the project?”
Her eyes narrowed, and she picked up a phone on the desk and tucked it under one ear. “You wait, stay quiet.” She growled as she typed in a number. We all nodded like kindergarten pupils. After a moment, she spoke into the mouthpiece a stream of Russian dialect.
“Yest’ tri idioty zdes’. Oni govoryat, chto oni imeyut naznacheniye, chto-to delat’s proyektom. Vy khotite, chtoby ya s nimi borot’sya?” There was pause, then she gave a booming laugh and a predatorial smile, exposing three gold teeth. We looked at each other. This was not a good sign.
“Ponyal. Ya dam vam spravit’sya s nimi. Vsya khvala klapan.” She put the phone down, and smirked at us. “You go in.” She rumbled, and pressed a button under the desk. From the massive oak doors there was a clunk of a bolt being shot back and we approached it like rabbits approaching a foxhole. It might have been what we had to do, but it would never be what we wanted to do.
The doors were so heavy, it took all of us to push them open and they closed again with a mighty rumble when we let them go, leaving us trapped in the main office.
It was everything you’d expect. A cavernous, rectangular room with bookshelves on one side split by a roaring fireplace, and a massive fish tank in the opposite wall, in which several sharks swam in lazy circles. There was a window at the far end of the room, from which the whole of Facility 17 was visible beneath us. The walls themselves were made of varnished wood, and the floor was covered in a thick burgundy carpet. Beneath the window, facing us, was a desk with a seat behind it. The desk itself was the epitome of neatness. A single computer, with the mouse at a perfect parallel to the keyboard. A single stack of precise papers in one corner, five identical pens on the desk. Again, they were all parallel to each other, straight to the degree. A phone was there too, the same make as the one in the office, and a crooked table lamp hunched over it like a vulture.
There was a high-backed leather office chair behind the desk, turned away from us, but we could feel the presence of the person upon it. As we approached, there was a growl from the shadows in the corner of the room. Something with long claws and yellow eyes watched us approach.
“Excuse me, sir.” My voice was shaky.
There was no response from the chair.
“We, uh… We have the project, sir. It’s finished.”
Still nothing. The sharks were still circling, but now closer to the glass, their soulless eyes watching us without emotion. The thing in the corner made a noise that sounded like sniggering.
“If you like, we could leave it and come back later.” I knew how desperate I sounded, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to leave.
There was a pause before we heard the response, as though the listener was considering every syllable in our dialogue. When he did speak, it was in a quiet, low tone, almost a murmur.
“What does it say on my desk?”
“I’m sorry?” I was unbalanced by the question, I’d been preparing myself for enquiries on the project, not this strange segue. Especially when you took into account that there wasn’t a…
I recoiled slightly. There was suddenly a nameplate at the front of the desk, perfectly centred and facing us. Lord knows where it had come from. It hadn’t been there a moment before, but now it was just calmly sitting there, as though it had always been.
“I-I don’t…” I stammered. The creature in the corner was laughing again.
The voice interrupted me, cutting through my words with smooth precision. “What does it say?” He repeated softly.
I looked at it again, resisting the urge to wipe sweat out of my eyes. There was no name, only three letters. “It says C.E.O, sir.”
Suddenly one of the men standing behind me, a balding man named Walters, burst out in frustration and misery. “For god’s sake,” He cried, “What does this have to do with-”
There was a click, and the floor beneath him opened up. He dropped into the trapdoor without a word, and for a second I could see the shock in his eyes, the utter realisation of what was coming. He vanished, there was a brief scream, and the hatch smoothly closed itself again. It was now indistinguishable from the rest of the carpeted floor, and we all suddenly pulled away, feeling scared and insecure about our relationship with gravity.
There had been no movement from the chair, no press of a button or throw of a lever. But now the voice spoke out again, still calm and in control, but stronger than it was before. “It says C.E.O.” It rumbled ominously. “To be the C.E.O is to be in control, wouldn’t you say?”
Cue frantic nodding and clucking of agreement. We weren’t going to over-analyse what he was saying, he could’ve told us that we were made of aluminium and tennis balls and we would’ve smiled and gone along with it.
“And to be in control is to have people follow your orders.” It continued. “That is the system that has kept mankind going. That is what is necessary.” It lowered in tone slightly, thrumming with suppressed hunger. “And speaking of necessary… Let me see the project, please.”
“Yes, sir.” My voice was a hollow whisper. As if in a dream, I walked forward and placed it on his desk and as I did so the chair rotated to face me. For a moment I met the stare of the man sitting there.
Nobody could hold their gaze to those cold eyes. The sharks looked friendly by comparison, and I looked away, stepping back into the group.
The project was a large, open topped box made of beautifully varnished mahogany, and inside lay a velvet cushion of the richest scarlet, soft as a cloud and without a single crease, stain or scuff mark. Lying on top of that was an orange binder, filled with neatly pressed paper. Among the “top secret” and “for approved eyes only” stamps littering the cover were five simple words. Or rather, four words and a number bisecting them.
HALF-LIFE 3 DESIGN DOCUMENT
I looked up, my voice trembling. “Mr Newell.” I said hoarsely. “After all these years, it is done. The project is complete.”
“I will decide that, Miller.” He said sharply, but his eyes were flicking over the folder, absorbing it. With a watchmaker’s care he lifted the folder from the cushion and laid it carefully on the desk, studying it for a moment before he opened it and started to read, peering over the intricate matrix of words, pictures and graphs.
The group bustled nervously about, trying to get a read on his expression and working out if we should make a break for the door. Our deductions didn’t come to much. He was completely inscrutable, a perfect poker face, adding a layer of uncertain confusion to the already prominent terror.
But then we were shocked by something even more unlikely. He didn’t look up at us, but he spoke again, and his voice was was tinged with… Satisfaction? Contentment?
“This is… Quite good.” The last two words seemed forced, but we lit up as a group. We’d take what we could get. “Really, sir? You mean it?”
“I do. I definitely can’t say it was rushed,” he added in a dry tone, “But it does seem to be of a high enough quality that I think we could-”
He stopped suddenly. If there had been any look of positivity in his features, it vanished from them in a moment.
“What’s this?” He whispered. It was almost inaudible.
My own delight faded. “I’m sorry, sir?”
“What… Is… THIS?!”
The last word was a booming roar that made us all draw back in terror. Even the sharks moved to the other side of the tank and the yellow-eyed thing in the corner withdrew further into the shadow, no longer laughing. Nobody was laughing any more.
He lent forward and laid both his hands flat on the desk, looking up at us through eyes tinted with cold anger. “Perhaps one of you,” he hissed, “Could be so good as to explain this to me?!”
He picked up the folder and slammed it in front of us, one finger pointing accusingly at a paragraph halfway down the page. At the sound of the impact half the group came close to fainting, but the fight-or-flight adrenaline won out in the end and kept us all standing, albeit with a fair amount of facial twitches and damp trousers. We moved forward as one, all trying to stand at the back simultaneously and looked down worriedly at the offending section.
Mr. Newell’s hand shot out across the desk and grabbed Irving, the man next to me, by the collar, pulling him close, inches from his own face.
“Read it.” Mr. Newell rasped, and thrust the frightened man back before turning to stand with his back to us, looking out of the window with his hands held behind his back.
Irving made a whimpering noise and looked at us, pleading with his eyes, but there was nothing we could do. I nodded slightly. Our best hope at this point was to appease him, to placate him. Go along with it, I urged him silently. Remember what happened to Walters.
Nodding back and wiping the sweat off his brow, Irving lent over the paper and cleared his throat. It sounded dry as a bone.
“Having made his daring escape from the Aperture vessel Borealis, Gordon Freeman uses the newly discovered technology to upgrade the Gravity Gun, allowing it’s design to incorporate a new feature that enables the player to-”
“Stop.” Mr. Newell did not turn back to face us, but the hands behind his back clenched into tight fists. “Read the bit about the Gravity Gun again.”
Irving nodded weakly. His voice was now no more than a terrified wheeze. “Gordon Freeman uses the newly discovered technology first to upgrade the Gravity Gun, allowing it’s design to-”
“‘IT’S DESIGN?'” Newell span round to face us, slamming a fist onto the desk and bellowing at us in a vicious rage. Irving actually fell back onto the floor in his terror to get away, only to remember that he was no safer there and leaping awkwardly to his feet.
“Sir, what is the matter?” I almost begged him. “I don’t see what’s the problem!”
“You fools.” He spat with venom. “You bring me this, this thing and you dare to suggest that it might be sufficient? We’re not some two-bit indie company, we are Valve. Don’t think to insult me with this garbage.”
“Sir, I still don’t see what’s so-”
“THERE IS A MISUSED APOSTROPHE!”
The statement fell upon us like the sword of Damocles, and echoed around the room as we stared at him. A vein was throbbing in his temple, and suddenly he looked very tall. Very tall and very big.
“Surely not.” I said hoarsely.
“Oh yes.” He snarled at us. “Indeed there is.”
I looked down, and of course I saw it. How could I not? It was so obvious, so glaringly clear that it might as well have had a page all to itself. And yet we’d missed it. And now our mistake was coming back to haunt us.
I tried to speak, but Mr. Newell beat me to it. “Don’t you people understand?” He said in a voice flooded with pure hatred. “We have made two of the finest titles ever to hit the market, critical and commercial lightning, and we have made Portal, Team Fortress, DOTA 2 and Counterstrike. We have the greatest distribution system for PC gaming every created. We have lead the way in this medium since 1999 and we have never stumbled. AND I WILL NOT SEE US STUMBLE NOW!”
He sat back into his chair, his head bowed low and glowering at us from beneath his eyebrows. For a long time he said nothing, but then he spoke with no emotion at all. “We will destroy it.” He said quietly. “Start again, from the beginning. I want to see nothing reused, do you hear me? This is tainted, it is insufficient. No recycled concepts. Retry, from page one.”
There was a moan of horror from the group. “Sir, not again!” I wailed, begging explicitly now. “That’s the fifth time you’ve made us restart this project!”
“Well,” he thundered back, “Perhaps if you didn’t keep submitting this trash then I wouldn’t have to keep putting it in the fire where it belongs. First it was run-on sentences, then the Comic Sans font, then you used that paper with the watermark on it. Failures, every time! This will be gotten rid of, it is the only way to purge ourselves of its inadequacy.”
And with that, he took it to the fireplace and threw it onto the flames. Within seconds it had merged with the inferno, and we watched it burn with the eyes of the truly damned.
“Go back to the Offices.” He said brusquely, sitting back down at his desk. Suddenly he was all business again. “Perhaps next time you can make something that is more acceptable.”
We trudged out of his headquarters, not even bothering to fight him on this. We knew it would make no difference, but as we left, we heard him speak again.
“Better late than never, people. Perhaps someday you’ll all work that out.”
Then there was a pause, and a decisive tone arose within him.
“Actually, Irving can stay. I want to talk to him.”
The poor man froze, but summoned all his courage and walked back to Mr. Newell. As the door closed behind us, we heard the boss say one final sentence. “What do you know about making hats for Team Fortress 2?”
We never saw him again.
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