Skip to content

Journey to the West: My Trip to Valve, posted by Kevin Lew

It’s now years after the Portal 2 ARG and nobody really thinks about it anymore.  But I wanted a permanent place for my story, and so I’m posting it here.  It’s still an important time of my life, and I think this would be the biggest thing that I’ve won in my lifetime.  It’s strange thinking about it like that; my greatest achievement may be playing video games.


Originally, I picked my screen name as “Ariel Faith Plate” only a few weeks prior to the Portal 2 launch since I thought it would be relevant and a seemingly-clever pun. Because instead of “Aerial”, it’s “Ariel” and so it almost sounds like a real name? In retrospect, it was an incredibly lame joke, and later Robin Walker told me the same thing. However, my nickname started showing up in the ARG notes and such. If I changed it, then people wouldn’t be able to identify me anymore. I was stuck with it for the duration of the event, even though it was like intentionally calling yourself “Marion” or some other tacky name.

When Anna Sweet contacted me for the first time, I assumed that it was a bad troll. She asked me to call a phone number as she was from Valve. I told her that if she was really from Valve then she could e-mail me as my e-mail address was almost completely private. When the e-mail arrived only a minute later, I said, “I’m so very sorry.”

This story was repeated much later when I met the nine other members. I guess when you’re an adult in the high-tech world, you tend to be skeptical and not very gullible.

Many people have asked me what it was like after we were told that we would be part of the ARG and the private invitation to Valve. They basically said that I was going to get to go to Valve if I wanted, and that I could be part of the ARG where I would “disappear”. There weren’t very many details, and in the end they said that we were supposed to post to the IRC channels and other media, the sentence: “There’s a hole in the sky… through which I can fly.” Then we were to change our profiles to a simple paragraph. That was basically it. We were not supposed to talk to anybody or post anything after we vanished, and we were supposed to stay offline.

The special banner by our names (the plain banner with two portals) was from one of my suggestions. I asked Valve if they could put something by our names so it would be easy for people to identify who was and wasn’t part of the ARG. Valve agreed to this, although they said that some trolling was to be expected and part of the fun. In the end, people pretending to have “disappeared” without any banners still managed to fool a number of people and confuse many ARG players.

Beyond this, there wasn’t much contact with me and Valve. I didn’t ask many questions because I wasn’t sure if any of this was real and if the invitation to Valve was legitimate. I figured that at any time they could have said that I could just sit at home with the millions of other Portal 2 gamers. My contribution to the ARG was solving some of the early puzzles of Defense Grid quickly and I began showing up on the leaderboards. I also opened a thread on the general Steam User Forums on April 1 that said that it wasn’t an April Fool’s Joke and it was probably a very large ARG. This was during the time when the potatoes were not believed to be any thing significant, and everybody (even professional bloggers) were convinced that it was nothing but a joke or a promotion to sell Team Fortress 2 hats. The thread that I opened eventually got several hundred posts and thousands of views.


On Monday, April 18, I woke up in the city of Bellevue.  I had trouble sleeping and because there was a time change, I woke up exceptionally early. I decided to wander the city in the early morning hours just to get out of my hotel room and maybe explore the city.

Bellevue is certainly eclectic. Roughly across the street from the hotel was an obviously otaku-oriented store named Anime Raku. Further down the street was a Vietnamese restaurant named What The Pho. The name is amusing in-joke for those that know Vietnamese, as pho is correctly pronounced “fuh”. As a result, the restaurant title would be “What the Fu–” if you said out loud.

More importantly, Bellevue has a wide variety of businesses. Microsoft is the largest employer and they have something like four buildings in town.  Their presence is so dominant that the closest mall to the Hyatt has a Microsoft Store and not an Apple one.  From what I can tell, a Microsoft Store looks a lot like an Apple Store but they have slightly crappier products.

Bellevue has one of the Lego stores in America as well.  At the time, dedicated Lego stores were somewhat of a rarity in my home state, but they are getting more popular.  Seattle’s Space Needle celebrated its 50th Anniversary almost on the exact day that I arrived, and Lego does sell a brick version of the Space Needle.  When I looked on the shelf, there was nothing but a large empty space where the boxes would be.  An employee told me that they had sold out only minutes earlier, and those models were hard to keep in stock.  There were plenty of White Houses and Sears Towers available, however.

The Gamestop inside one of the malls made no mention of Portal 2, possibly showing their rebellion and not wanting to promote Steam.

There’s more gaming companies that you would expect here in Bellevue.  Along with Valve, the city is the headquarters of ArenaNet (both Guild Wars games), Bungie (all Halo games prior to Halo 4), and Hidden Path Entertainment.

As the city is mostly a business district, if you were to look up the highest rated attraction in a AAA TripAdvisor guide book, then the city only has one “gem” entry.  Believe it or not, it’s the Rosalie Whyel Museum of Doll Art.  The museum is said to be one of the largest doll collections in the world, and hardcore collectors supposedly visit it all the time.  On the website, the pricing for dolls can be thousands of dollars each.  It’s pretty puzzling that this is what is listed in the guide book as most of the locals had never heard of it.

I decided to walk to Valve although I had hours to go before the arranged meeting time.  I was hoping to just wait in the lobby rather than walk around aimlessly in the city.  The mornings in the Pacific northwest are brisk, and I was starting to shiver from walking around for over an hour.  I guess being from Texas makes it hard to handle cold weather for long.  As I walked toward the office, a city bus featuring a Portal 2 advertisement drove past me.

Valve is located in an office building downtown and it is very discreet.  Valve surprisingly doesn’t have a sign out front.  The building is shared by a number of businesses, although Valve clearly has a massive amount of office space.  The ground floor of Valve is the fifth floor of the building.  Anybody can come visit there, but the other two floors that Valve owns are electronically locked, including the elevators and stairwells.  These floors have Valve’s more private offices.

Probably the first thing that anybody sees when entering the Valve offices is probably the large black plaque that covers almost the entire back wall.  The anodized aluminum is covered with cutouts; the cutouts being thousands of symbols from Valve’s most iconic games prior to Portal 2.  The uncut metal parts form a negative image of the Valve company logo.  Because the logos are stacked on top of each other and are of different sizes, it’s definitely a work of art.

Of course, Valve wouldn’t be the same without its namesake.  Gabe Newell got a giant red valve from his brother as a gift for the launch of Half-Life 1, and the massive industrial equipment was transferred from their old office.  It still sits in the middle of the floor, and it doesn’t need to be anchored as it weighs so much.  Interestingly, the red flywheel on the valve is free-spinning and you can twirl it to your heart’s content.

The rest of the room is a mix of objects that would make a diehard fan squeal in delight.  There’s a life-sized barnacle alien from Half-Life by the receptionist’s desk.  Several custom-made Falcon computer cases are located by the television monitor near the couches in the waiting area.  The monitor plays Valve videos and commercials in an endless loop.  As an aside, since I was sitting in the lobby for several hours, it becomes less annoying than you’d expect and you tune it out.

Of course, the object that seems to attract fans the most is the life-sized sentry gun.  The gun is a replica of a level 1 sentry in Team Fortress 2, and it was made by the WETA Workshop.  It attracts a lot of attention from everybody that isn’t a Valve employee.  The gun doesn’t actually move or make sounds unless somebody walks past it, and it only activates once every minute or so, probably on purpose to prevent it from becoming overly annoying.  It will not activate if you stand next to it and wave your hand in front of it.  When it activates, it’ll beep a few times, turn to face where that person is (or was), and flashes the light in the gun barrel while making the shooting sound.

I sat in the lobby for some time.  After a while, I figured that I better tell the receptionist at the front desk that I wasn’t loitering in their lobby for no reason.  I told her that I was here for the Portal 2 event today.  She asked me if I was a developer, and I smiled and said no.  Then she asked, “Oh, you’re one of the champions?”

“Is that what they call us?” I said, slightly amused.  I’ve been called a lot of things in my life but champion isn’t exactly one of them.  But that’s what it said right on the guest list in bold letters: Champions.  There were nine other names with mine.

Eventually Anna Sweet introduced herself and asked me to sit tight and wait until 10am.  I said that it was cool and I just took notes while I was there.  Maybe she thought that I was crazy for coming so early.

While I was waiting, I got to see the members of Frictional Games and Dejobaan Games enter the Valve office.  I could recognize Ichiro right away because his picture is seen frequently on the website, and you can even see him on some of their promotional videos.  They entered the building and I kept to myself.

The first ARG person to actually show up was Irish.  He mentioned that he actually lived in the area and he was the person that walked all over Seattle for hours looking at the landmarks in the ARG pictures.  He figured out that the locations didn’t hold any clues themselves, but the simple map locations did.  By drawing all the points on the map, it spelled the word “NELIPOT”.  If you joined the NELIPOT Steam group to get a potato by your name then you can thank Irish for that.

Others came later. I had met Moomanibe before today and he was with his friend Jake_R.  Jake is easily the most memorable of all of the ARG players as he was the person that climbed the light pole in front of the Two Tribes office.  Jake insists that it wasn’t a big deal and he likes to climb poles.  Regardless, it didn’t matter who we met during the day, everybody knew exactly who Jake was.  Years from now, the only thing that anybody will remember from all of this will be the guy that climbed the light pole.

It was a strange experience seeing all nine of us in the Valve lobby.  I don’t think any of us had met in real life before.  It was surprising to see how different we all were, except that we all loved video games and Portal.  I won’t go into details on everybody as I’m sure that you could talk to each person individually if you wanted for a short biography.

At 10am, Anna Sweet welcomed us all and we were allowed inside the Valve offices.

As we were walking down the hallways, I noticed that the walls were covered with white sheets of paper–a rather blatant attempt to cover up concept artwork.  At this point, I could infer that the official tone of the trip was for us to see Portal 2 early and we weren’t supposed to see other things.  The hallways were cleanly labeled with paper signs with arrows marking “Portal 2 Test Chamber”.  I suspect this was helping us get to where we needed to go, but more importantly preventing us from wandering in unwanted places.  We were allowed to drop off our bags and jackets in a room filled with high-end Lian Li brand computers and some of the largest monitors that I’ve seen.  We were told that the Razer products–the keyboard, mouse, and headphones–would be ours to keep at the end of the day.

Then we were offered was coffee and pastries outside the room, and I was so hungry at this point.  All of the independent developers had gathered there also and we introduced ourselves to each other.  I didn’t get a chance to meet everybody, partly because there were so many people there and partly because I was trying to stuff as many donuts in my mouth as possible.

Before long, other Valve staff appeared and said that we could go on a tour.  At first I thought that it would just be the nine ARG players, but the other independent developers all came along also.  Judging from how the other developers followed us, I can only assume that they had never gotten a tour of Valve’s offices either.  Keep in mind that all of the developers had to have been invited to Valve’s offices in the past to discuss the ARG, so it was a little surprising to me.

The tour was short and simple, and it was a bit hard to hear in the back where I was.  It sounded like they were discussing various things like the plaster models used to come up with Team Fortress 2 faces, and apparently the offices weren’t totally complete as they want to install more display cases to show off fan-submitted work.  At least, that’s what I think they were saying.

The high point of the tour seemed to be Gabe Newell’s collection of knives.  It is true that he does have many knives and they line numerous shelves.  There are switchblades, folding knives, and daggers of all shapes and sizes.  The collection also changes over time because he gives some of the knives away to friends and such.  My guess is that Newell only allows so much shelf space to his collection and he trades out pieces if he wants to collect more.  I’ve seen pictures previously of his collection so I found it interesting but I didn’t photograph it.  However, the other ARG members seemed quite excited by it.

Valve then asked if there were any questions and everybody seemed to stand quietly but I mumbled about Dota 2.  Erik Johnson asked if somebody asked something about Dota 2.  I asked if we would be allowed to see it.  This was incredibly bold since it was a closed beta, and virtually nobody had access to the game–this included the gaming press.  Erik noticed that I had my notepad out and a pencil in my hand and asked if I was press.  I smiled and said that I wasn’t exactly…  It was sort of hard to explain that I frequently write trip documentaries when I go somewhere interesting.

We were told that we wouldn’t be allowed to see Dota 2 as they weren’t ready to show anything to us.  However, they did say that many employees went home and played Dota 2 at home on the closed beta servers, sometimes all night.  The point was that people liked playing the game even outside of their jobs, and it was likely to be a very powerful hit.  At the time, the Internet rumors believed that Dota 2 would be released in late 2011, proving that Valve Time even affects this game.

Then we were allowed to play Portal 2.  Ironically enough, the Steam Guard system actually prevented me from playing the game.  We used our own accounts when we played, but this turned out to be a problem because my e-mail server was located in Japan, sitting on the infamous server. Most people probably won’t get the joke, so you can lookup the whois information for, and then Google “Kirameki High School” and see what you get.  Yes, I used to be the biggest anime nerd when anime was considered really cutting-edge and alternative in America.  I ended up creating a Gmail account, and if anybody ever wonders why it’s called “K. Lew 2011”, well, now you know.

It took some time to get everything working, but we finally had everybody playing.  At the time, Valve updated GLaDOS@home’s webpage to read “NINE” to show nine players were playing.  It was also the first time we were allowed to login as ourselves.  I changed my profile to update that I was in Valve.  It was also very hard to play the game because I kept getting friend invites and requests to chat.  I’m also an older gamer so I play very slowly and sometimes it would take several minutes to figure out some of the puzzles.  I won’t go into details on first impressions, but I really liked the game.

To be honest, I would have been happy to just keep playing quietly all day while I just ran on nothing but adrenaline, but Valve stopped us and said that we had to stop playing and go to lunch.  Others also seemed to not want to stop playing, and I think this shows that people really liked the game.

We walked to a restaurant which I hadn’t seen earlier when I was wandering around town.  They had a glass wine cellar in the front with hundreds of bottles in it, showing that this wasn’t your typical dine-and-dash restaurant.  A burger and fries costs $16 here.  They took us in the back and everybody was asked to spread out.  I sat next to a man with an Australian accent and I heard somebody call him Robin.

“Are you Robin Walker?” I asked.  His expression briefly changed to amusement, as if I asked a really strange question, and he said yes.  I shook his hand and introduced myself.  I forgot to tell him that I had written to him last month about the Team Fortress 2 Japan charity hats, and he wrote back to me about them.  Nevertheless, this was very exciting to me.  Some people may not get it, so I’ll explain a little.  One of Valve’s most successful games is Team Fortress 2.  While it is obvious that many people work on the game, the most recognizable figure is Robin Walker.  His name seems to get mentioned any time somebody talks about any of the most controversial subjects, such as hats, weapon balance, trading, and the in-game store.  Here I was, sitting next to him, asking him for meal suggestions.  I wonder if the TF2 fans would be jealous.  If it makes anybody feel better, I’ll remind everybody that Robin Walker thought my nickname “Ariel Faith Plate” was dumb.

We all introduced ourselves and we were just here with Valve employees, and I found out that we were sitting with the developers of Portal 2 and the ARG.  Marc Laidlaw, Jeep Barnett, and Eric Wolpaw were here with us.  After we all introduced each other and I said a really stupid comment when I tried to be clever.  Then they allowed us to ask them questions, which I’ll quickly summarize:

Q: How did Valve come up with the ARG?
A: For the most part, Valve didn’t do much of the work.  They had the basic framework and they asked that specific ARG content be added into their games (for the overall “collaboration” portion) but they didn’t actually ask the developers to do things.  So any new content was developed by the indie developers and Valve only supplied a little help, like the Portal models and such. In fact, sometimes the partners had so much content that they would have to reschedule to meet later as there was too much to review.  Jeep took the photographs of the locations in Seattle.

Q: Was the ARG really planned around December and it was delayed to April?
A: Well, Valve denied that there was a delay.  I think that there was some debate about how they wanted to launch the ARG and April 1 was a great way to release an ARG and have it discovered slowly.  They were mostly afraid that people would solve it too quickly so they wanted it spread out over a few weeks.  It’s been moving on track for the most part.  For the most part, the fans solved the puzzles on track if not slightly faster.

As an aside, many people got stuck on some of the very hard puzzles, so keep in mind that several developers helped us.  The Defense Grid “Lego puzzle” was so hard that Hidden Path Entertainment developers basically offered help.  In the end, however, the puzzle was solved almost entirely by Ninjai, who is one of The Nine.  Frictional Games also provided hints and Tripwire Entertainment began to remove red herrings from their puzzles because people weren’t solving them fast enough.

Q: When people begin to follow red herrings or go down the wrong path, do you do anything to stop them?
A: Valve said that the best response was to do nothing in most cases.  Official staff commentary tends to be picked apart and analyzed as if it was also part of the ARG, and so any help often just muddies the water even more.  From what I can tell, this seems true.  If you want to see some grand moments in stupidity, when Double Oh Ess became the administrator of the NELIPOT Steam group, hundreds of people hounded him as they assumed that he was an “insider”.  He was never part of the ARG, but some refused to believe it until the bitter end.

Q: Did Ellen McLain really do all the voices in all of the games?
A: Yes she did.  It took two days to do all the voice recording.  In fact, she had to voice more lines than all of Portal 1 for the different games.  Valve did review all of the dialogue to ensure that GLaDOS’s lines would fit the character as seen in Portal 2.

Q: What’s the deal with Episode 3?
A: Valve said the usual answer, which is that they weren’t ready to discuss anything.  When we asked if they actually work on the story in advance, they quickly said that it is carefully planned years in advance.  Robin said that the previous week they had a meeting to talk about the Half-Life story.  From what I can tell, Episode 3 is one of Valve’s most prized secrets.

During my entire time at Valve, it was obvious that nobody is allowed to talk about Episode 3 and the concept art is carefully guarded.  I’ve never seen any project kept as secure as Half-Life.

Q: Are you worried that Gamestop bought out Impulse?
A: Valve gave a standard answer saying that they weren’t worried because their goal was to focus on working with developers and giving them what they need to become successful.  I believe that the gist was to say that they would continue trying to make Steam better for both developers and users, so there’s a good reason to stay with it and not worry about the competition.  I know that Spitfire from The Steamcast asked this question, and one of his shows mentioned that he was somewhat disappointed with this answer.  I personally wasn’t surprised by Valve’s answer because if you ask a loaded question then you’re going to get a biased answer.

Keep in mind that this was April 2011, and the Gamestop/Impulse merger was very recent at the time.  EA’s Origin service hadn’t even launched yet.  We all thought that Impulse could become a major player.  For those that don’t know, Impulse never gained traction even after a major corporation bought them.  American Gamestop stores now sell Steam Gift Cards currently, and it heavily implies that they have indirectly surrendered.

Q: So what’s the deal with lime green and pink paint in Team Fortress 2 (blah blah blah, weird hats, ruined art style, etc.)?
A: This is where I will supply my interpretation.  Team Fortress 2 seems to be a test bed for Valve for new ideas. For example, the introduction of an online store, backpack trading, the Valve wallet system, etc.  I think that TF2 is kind of unique in that it’s not Valve’s most popular FPS game, yet it’s one of the most iconic.  Because the game doesn’t have a very serious theme, it gives the company flexibility to basically do whatever they want with the game.  This means that even Valve employees will agree that not everything within TF2 was a good idea, but once it’s out there, it isn’t very easy to take it back.

When we walked back to Valve, I saw that they were also having other guests for a different event.  Somebody had pulled all the white paper off of the walls however, and you could see that it was concept art for a fantasy based game.  Several of the Valve staff didn’t seem happy about this and they asked us not to photograph the walls.

I stared at the walls and asked, “Is this Dota 2?”  They were so different and there were so many pictures.

“Come on, don’t look at it,” said Leveraged.  He was more mature about it, and he pulled my arm to get me away from the somewhat secret artwork.  But I could not stop myself and kept on looking behind me as I was being dragged away.

We kept on grinding away on Portal 2 for a number of hours. To be honest, I was hooked into the game like you wouldn’t believe.

Suddenly, one of the developers mentioned that they were going to play Dota 2, and he asked Spitfire if he wanted to go see it.  I heard it and said, “Can I come too?”  Within seconds the entire “Portal 2 Test Chamber” was completely empty and we were ushered down to the development area.

It blew my mind when somebody asked me if I wanted to play it.  However, I am terrible at most games without much practice so I declined because I just wanted to see it played by somebody that knew what they were doing.  They had a small couch outside of the play area and they started up a game, and it was a mix of ARG members and indie developers all staring at the screen.  The game was still in beta, so it was amusing when we were told that, “If an icon looks like it was drawn in Microsoft Paint, then it was.”  It’s true that some icons that were literally nothing but stick drawings, but it didn’t matter…  The game itself looks slick and exciting.

Valve didn’t want me to talk about what I saw.  But I will say that the game was one of the few real-time strategy games where I found it somewhat exciting to just watch.  I suspected that the game would become a major hit for Valve.

Sometime afterwards, they asked me to get in front of a camera and answer questions about what I thought about the ARG.  I am not a particularly witty person, so I’m sure that I looked like a fool in front of the camera.  At the end they asked if I had any questions.

“Well, not really, unless you can show me the Meet The Medic video,” I responded.

“I think we can arrange that,” replied Jeep.

Keep in mind that Meet The Medic video still hadn’t been shown to anybody yet as this was still May 2011.  It was a really big deal for somebody outside of the company to see the video, so I hoped to watch the video eventually.

Shortly afterwards, we were invited to dinner with the developers.  This was a nice place where the appetizers aren’t fried mozzarella sticks and more like aged cheddar on table water crackers.  It was a really nice place and I got to sit with people from Tripwire Interactive, Two Tribes, and Hidden Path Entertainment.

I got to talk to Michael “Echo” Austin from Hidden Path Entertainment, the people that make the rather good game Defense Grid.  I had got to say hello to Jeff Pobst earlier, but I didn’t get to really talk to any of the developers in detail about anything.  Michael said that he’s actually been to Texas and–true to his last name–he likes the Austin metro area and he was one of the few people that knows about my silly hometown of Pflugerville.  He said that nobody really calls him Echo, but that’s his user name on the forums and so people outside the company identify him with it.

In the game Defense Grid, the only character in the game is the A.I. computer (now named Fletcher).  If you beat the C.H.A.S. level, the last part of the ARG, then GLaDOS apparently takes over and powers him off.  I thought that this was shocking personally.  I asked Michael if that was the last thing that they planned to put into the game. He laughed and said that it certainly would make for a depressing game if the game ended on that note.  He said more things were coming for Defense Grid.  (This was long before the announcement of additional DLC and Defense Grid 2.)

I also got to sit with John Gibson, one of the co-founders of Tripwire Interactive.  He talked about gaming in general.  I said that I didn’t think that I was smart enough to do what they did. He responded that it didn’t require intelligence, but the job required a lot of work and passion.  The others seemed to agree.  However, I still think that there’s more to it.

John said that he was the fourth game on Steam (Red Orchestra) that wasn’t a Valve title.  He said that the first game was actually Rag Doll Kung-Fu.  I remember that game, and it was pretty mediocre to be honest.  However, the developer that made this game later got paid one million dollars by Sony to develop a custom game for them: Little Big Planet.  I didn’t know this, and I got the impression that the others at my table were a little sore over this fact.

Listening to the stories, I inferred that independent game companies chase after their dreams and put everything on the line.  Most people in this world seek to get a relatively stable job, clock in hours along with colleagues, and then you collect your paycheck every one or two weeks.  When you’re an indie developer, you don’t know what will come.  John mentioned that there were many times that the company was “down to the Tripwire”, as he liked to call it.  It meant that sometimes they had to work without any income, developing the game to a critical deadline–the point when the company would be bankrupt. Once a game shipped, he had to rely on hope that the game would sell or the company would have to close. Sometimes people would mortgage their homes just to raise capital to pay for staff members. This is how serious some were about doing what they do. The rewards can be extreme, but only for those that dare to risk everything.

I also got the impression that most independent game developers really hated consoles. One of the problems is that all console games require certification from rating review boards. Believe it or not, digitally distributed PC games don’t require a rating, but they voluntarily get them in certain cases to avoid complaints. Each attempt to review a game requires a lengthy audit that costs literally thousands of dollars per submission, and you have to get certified by four different organizations if you want to sell across the world. Major publishers like Activision and EA can simply throw the money like it was loose change, but the fees are brutal for a small company that’s already strapped for cash. The process is very grueling and often the review boards will make demands to change content. For example, Australia’s review board can deny a rating for a game if a title is too graphic. This is a serious issue because it means that that game can’t be sold anywhere within that continent, and that only punishes a small developer. From what I can tell, indie game developers wouldn’t go through the hassle at all except that consoles have such a big audience and the lucky can make a lot of money.

Finally, there’s been talk about how Valve doesn’t treat developers well, especially with some of the negative statements said by some sources at Gearbox Software and the like. Nobody at the table would agree to these things, and many said that Valve essentially saved their companies. I think this shows that any issue has its share of supporters and opponents.

While I was there, John Gibson was asking the folks at Two Tribes what were they planning to do next. He got so carried away with the discussion that he slipped what he was doing for his next game, and I was very surprised.

“You’re doing that game for real?” I said. John suddenly became aware that I was sitting right next to him.

“Did I say that? Ummm… Wait, I was talking about something else,” he said, shifting his eyes conspiratorially.

“I won’t tell anybody,” I said. I will say that I was really glad to hear that they were making the game.

That evening, they had a party downstairs. While Valve has been trying very hard to avoid mentioning any cliches of the first game, the folks that run the largest Valve game wiki sites made a giant chocolate cake that resembled the cake from the first Portal game. Because the cake was so large, to keep the visual appearance the same, the cake decorator replaced the cherries with cherry tomatoes.

As an aside, the cake seen in the first game was actually black forest, but this tasted like a standard chocolate cake. The cake was delicious and moist, however.

One interesting note was that the plastic utensils by the cake were made by a company called –and I swear that I’m not making this up– PotatoWare. It’s biodegradable plastic made from 80% potato starch and it’s eco-friendly. Even now, I can’t tell if this was the final punchline in the “Portal 2 Potatoes” meme or this was just hilarious coincidence.

A large computer monitor was setup and people could watch the live updates of the GLaDOS@Home page, as it counted down the potatoes and people continually tried to idle or use any other tactic to max out the power meters in the game.

As an aside, some people speculated that people didn’t really need to play the games and it was just a cheap ploy to get people to buy games. I asked this to Jeep directly and he said that the “power up” sequence was indeed tied into player activity and the potatoes and game time mattered. Over the course of the ARG, Valve did have to change the algorithm roughly four times, but each time it was to accelerate the countdown sequence to an earlier start time.

Leveraged and several others hijacked the computer to bring up the Portal 2 ARG IRC chat and they began spamming messages to fans. Several people didn’t believe him and figured that he was just a troll, but I guess that’s to be expected.

Next to the computer screen was the official Valve Launch Center. This is a rather unusually large box with three old school throw switches and a huge red button marked “Launch!”. According to Valve, the term they use is “push the red button” for any new product launch, but for a long time it was just a figurative phrase. Eventually one of the engineers built an actual box so games would go live with an actual button push.

There’s a USB cable running out the back of the box so when the button is pressed, then it sends a signal to the main Valve servers to allow a game to be streamed and gamers can download and play the game.

I’ll make a confession here: I don’t like parties and crowds usually as I’m not a charisma magnet. I had to go back upstairs to get batteries for my camera, however, and I saw that two people were still in the room. Technically this means that I got to see the first two people that ever played the Cooperative Testing Initiative on the non-beta servers.

They were playing the co-op mode rather furiously in the quiet and dimly-lit room, and it looked like a lot of fun. I debated about just opening up my Steam client again and playing the game also, but I decided against it.

I walked back downstairs and saw that most of the ARG members were still furiously typing on the IRC chat. I wandered aimlessly in the crowd, and eventually things got a little dull as I’m not talented at the mingling thing. I decided that I was going to go full lame mode and quietly sneak away upstairs to go play the game for a bit.

I had been entering and leaving the party now several times, and the only path that I knew to get upstairs was the center staircase which actually was taped off with caution tape. They had turned off the main lights as it was a dance hall atmosphere with disco balls and colored lights, and so they didn’t want people like me constantly using dark stairs.

I decided that there had to be other stairwells that I could use so I could slink away quietly. However, as I was wandering around on the fourth floor, I couldn’t find any stairs anywhere. (They are all behind magnetically-keyed doors and aren’t visible by wandering the halls).

I must have been meandering for some time because I heard a voice.

“You must have found something really amazing because you’ve been wandering back here for some time.”

I turned around and saw that it was Ichiro Lambe, the creator of Dejobaan Games. I was very shocked.

“I’m Ichiro,” he said, and held out his hand.

I shook it and said, “I’m Kevin”, forgetting that I was wearing a giant name tag. “I know who you are. You’re the face of Dejobaan Games.”

“Unfortunately,” he said. He said it so plainly that I couldn’t tell if he was sarcastic.

“But… aren’t you the owner of the company?”

“Well… I guess.” He said it with sheer indifference, as if being the owner of a game studio was not exactly a big deal.

He asked me how I got here, and I told him my “origin story” about Defense Grid and all. I said that I was a little embarrassed because I got an awesome trip and got to meet cool people and see so many amazing things, but all I did was just play video games.

“Don’t say that,” he said reassuringly. “You’re one of the first people to figure out the ARG and get the ball rolling. I think that you deserve it.”

I said that I was an older gamer and there is a bit of stigma based on older people playing games. He seemed surprised when I told him that I was 40.

“I bet that it’s the Asian genes,” he said. “I look pretty young too,” he replied. I couldn’t believe his real age when he told me. I’ll just say that he’s younger than I am.

Then he commented on the idea that older gamers shouldn’t be playing video games: “That’s just bullcrap,” he said, using somewhat harsher language than what I wrote. “Do you know what the fastest rising video game player base is? It’s actually women the age of 30 and older. The rise of casual gaming has made it more acceptable for everybody to be playing and it’s no longer the realm of teenage boys.”

I paused and said, “You know, I’m really terrible at your company’s video games.”

“I am too,” Ichiro said. In retrospect, I think that he was exaggerating, but he said it immediately with a straight face.

We were standing by a wall of artwork. This is the artwork that had a science-fiction theme and it has been photographed as a “scoop” in a German gaming magazine and other people that came to Valve earlier. Somebody had put a sticky note by one of the pictures that said, “Please remove ASAP! Super secret project!”

“Do you think that I can photograph it?” I asked Ichiro. I remember that Valve didn’t want me photographing any of the artwork for Dota 2. And I have to emphasize this: There’s a LOT of artwork that they made for Dota 2, and it was a shame because it would have been nice to look at the artwork again.

Ichiro saw the sticky note and said, “When somebody puts a message like that, then I think that people want you to look at it.”

But I decided to ask Jeep or another staff member that I knew later.

“Where were you going anyway?” Ichiro asked.

I said that I was going to go upstairs and maybe play Portal 2 again. I really liked the game.

“But don’t you want to be down here? You don’t want to push the launch button?”

“They… they are going to let me push the red button? The one that activates the Steam servers?”

“They didn’t tell you? We had a meeting yesterday…” He saw the expression on my face. “Ummm… You didn’t hear it from me.” Then Ichiro’s eyes shifted rapidly, just like John Gibson did when he accidentally said his classified game project.

“I won’t tell anybody,” I said. And I didn’t tell anybody until just now.

I went back into the crowd and I heard two Valve employees asking me if I was having a good time. I turned around and they saw that I was wearing a name badge.

“Oh wow, you’re one of the champions!” they said. They said it as if they had accidentally run into a Hollywood celebrity.

I repeated what I’ve said since the morning–that I just played games and I didn’t really do anything special. In fact, many gamers worked really hard on the ARG and weren’t here, and I was still in shock that I was invited to come to Valve.

They waved their hands as if I had said some pure nonsense. They looked at me and said with absolute seriousness:

“We had to schedule four meetings to discuss which candidates would be invited to Valve today. Each meeting we had to narrow down the candidates to fewer choices. Your name, along with the other eight, came up every time. You absolutely deserve to be here.”

That was one of the nicest things that anybody has ever said to me.

“If we did have to invite only one person,” the Valve employee said while smiling, “then we’d have to invite Jake.”

“Well, duh,” I said, smiling back.

In the crowd of people, I found Eric Wolpaw, Alesia Glidewell, and Ellen McLain in the crowd posing for pictures. For those that don’t remember, Alesia is the face model for Chell, and Ellen McLain is the voice of GLaDOS and the turrets. I took a photograph myself, but I was too embarrassed to talk to them.

The time on the GLaDOS@Home clock still read 25 minutes, but I could tell that Valve didn’t want to wait anymore. They started the launch ceremony, and Eric Wolpaw and Jeep Barnett were invited to throw two of the switches. I know that there are three switches, but I couldn’t remember who else was on stage. All I could think about was the red button. Eric mentioned that he wanted all nine “champions” on stage, and I felt butterflies swirling in my insides. As I walked up to the stage, Ellen McLain patted my shoulder to congratulate me. I walked up and my hands had to be trembling slightly in excitement, and Eric told us that we deserved to push the launch button.

I glanced at the clock and it said that there was still 20 minutes left on the clock but we all put our hands over the button. On the count of three, I felt the other person’s hand come down on top of mine and I squished somebody else’s hand underneath it. Several people in the crowd shot party poppers and streamers and confetti flew around the room. Leveraged and the others hijacked the computer again and said that the downloads were live. I think that the Steam servers ramp up slowly so it only got distributed for a few users and then it quickly ramped up after 20 minutes. Within a few hours after launch, over 20,000 people around the world were playing Portal 2 and the number was rising every minute.

I ran into Jeep in the aftermath. I asked him where was Gabe Newell. He said that Gabe had to attend his brother’s birthday party and they were having a private party on the lake. He wanted to come but he couldn’t. I nodded my head. Jeep seemed to think that my silence was immense disappointment, and he quickly added that he really wanted to make a streaming video feed, but his laptop ran out of batteries.

I asked about the (in)famous artwork on the back wall of the building. I asked if this was just something that Valve was trolling fans or if it was a real unannounced product. He looked at me strangely and didn’t know what I was talking about. I said that I would show him and I took him to the wall of art.

When we got there, he frowned and said, “Oh, it’s THAT. We… haven’t been told any instructions about what to say about that yet.” He asked another Valve employee for advice, and the other person shrugged.

“Can I photograph it?” I asked.

“If you do it then I wasn’t here and you didn’t see me,” he quickly added.

“I won’t tell anybody about what I saw,” I said. Jeep looked away as if he wanted to change the subject very badly.

At the time, this convinced me that it was a new IP that Valve hadn’t announced yet. But it was strange because nobody acted like I had seen something incredibly secret, and it makes little sense to have it on their walls in such an obvious place. Later, these images appeared on the artist’s personal website, essentially confirming that they were nothing but concept art to a game that was never made.

“Can I see the Meet the Medic video?” I asked. I hadn’t forgotten about it.

“Oh yeah, sure,” and he waved his badge at the mag reader which unlocked a stairwell. As we went upstairs, I cannot deny that I was as giddy as a five year-old that just drank too much soda: I wouldn’t just see one secret Valve project today, but technically three if you include Dota 2. This was going to be the icing on the Portal cake.

We went to the Portal 2 testing chamber and he went to my computer. However, he couldn’t start up the video. Then we went to another computer in a different development lab and he couldn’t start it either. Finally, we went to Jeep’s cubicle. A few other developers were still there working on some other project and they saw me and seemed a bit surprised that I was there. Jeep tried to start it and he couldn’t.

“I think that the servers are completely bombed because everybody is downloading Portal 2,” he said. He wasn’t kidding. The Steam servers were going full blast and barely anything was working.

I can’t say that I wasn’t a little disappointed, but I was more impressed by how Jeep seemed to wander all over the building to try to show me a seven minute video that, quite frankly, I didn’t have any right to preview anyway. When everybody got to see the video in late June 2011, I watched it for the first time too.

We did see some development art, but at the time I didn’t understand the context. There was a medic talking to a heavy on an operating room table. Interestingly, the concept art didn’t have the heavy’s chest open like in the actual video.

I think that if I had to say what I liked the most about the trip, then it wasn’t the brilliant swag or the fancy meals or the hotel room. That’s not to say that I didn’t love those things, because I did. But for me, I was blown away by how nice everybody was. I was sitting with development leads, head writers, and company founders. These were people that lived a different life from me, because they were in the entertainment business, and game development has several aspects that are similar to movie production and Broadway plays. For me, those people are like demigods because the work is so different and so challenging from what most people can do.

When you’re sitting down with the CEO of a company, then you’d expect them to just narrow their eyes and sneer at some old dude that played too many video games. But that’s just it… Everybody that I met seemed to treat me like I was just like them, when in reality they could have just laughed in my face. Even if it was just for one day, it felt really great to be called a champion.