Dan Birlew is the author of more than sixty published video game guides. It’s hard not to feel a little envious when you learn that he started off writing FAQs for fun, submitted a sample and cover letter to a major publisher, and then was hired the same day.
Dan has a really cool job: he plays games and writes about them. He was nice enough to answer some of my questions on the important things in life: gaming, writing, and zombies. You can also check out his website at danbirlew.com/ for more information or to read his thoughts on various games.
Amy: I’ve read a bunch of your guides for games/series like Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid, Parasite Eve II. I love these games but I can’t imagine trying to play through and take in all those details, and even the best gamers can’t figure everything out. Do you get help or documentation? Are you some sort of super-gamer and it comes more easily to you? (I would’ve pulled out all my hair if I hadn’t had these guides to help me with some of those!)
Dan: Great to hear that, glad the guides help! Regarding the four titles you mention, I did not have any documentation and figured out the solutions myself. However, I wouldn’t say that I’m a super-gamer or anything; I certainly haven’t played and mastered every game in the world and I wouldn’t want to try. In fact, sometimes being bad at a game helps me write a better guide for it. But I have been playing video games my entire life, and I’ve dealt with almost every situation developers have thrown at players, and those memories help me solve new games when I see similar puzzles in them.
As a video game author guy, you are undoubtedly aware of that stuff Roger Ebert said about games not being art a while back. I think this is crap. Just like movies, many aren’t art, but some are, and the potential is there. What are your thoughts on this? Can video games be art? A lot of people, myself included, think of Silent Hill 2 as a very good work on interactive art. I’ve played some independent games I consider art.
I am aware of his comments, and I think it only shows that Mr. Ebert: a) has never played a good video game, and b) has never attempted to create or mod one. Art is defined as “something produced as an artistic effort or for decoration.” Video games are a purely entertainment art form, they serve no other function and can’t be lumped in with other computer programs that perform functions like word processing, graphics generation, et al. Some video games are educational, but those are probably better off grouped with computer programs. The video games you and I have been discussing can only be classified as artistic simply because their sole endeavor is to entertain. What other function can Super Mario Bros. possibly serve? The intention of video games is to create an entertainment experience for a mass audience, which is no different than the intent behind movies, television shows, plays, musicals, fiction, poetry, music, paintings, sculptures, etc, — all the things we can subjectively call art. And the results of video game development have an effect that the audience perceives as “good” or “bad,” just as a movie critic claims that a film is good or bad, plays are good or bad, etc. The prevalent discussion among the media and public generated by video games qualifies it as an art form alone. Whether games are art is up before the Supreme Court currently, and judging by the opening remarks the justices are certainly willing to view the medium as an art form and a reasonable form of expression. If that’s not enough to qualify it, then I suggest we talk to the thousands of graphic artists who draw, paint, and sculpt these games in digital formats. The painstaking hours required to draw a character, a building, a background, a tree or any other object, and then on top of that to render those objects in 3D: that is a time-consuming process that the greatest artists are all-too familiar with. So if games are not art, then they are most clearly comprised of art. Luckily Mr. Ebert is a film critic and not a game critic, because (there’s no nicer way to say this) but he’s way out of his depth with such comments.
You’ve written about games in various genres, do you have a favorite genre or a favorite series to play? Do you get horribly sick of a game or series once you’ve played it so much, or does the work remain fun? Do you still have the time and energy for playing other games that you aren’t writing about?
Answering in order: I love horror video games, and play those whenever I get the chance. The work is always fun, it’s very difficult to get jaded about working with video games. However I do admit that after I’ve written a guide for a long game like Final Fantasy X-2 or Fire Emblem, I’m usually glad the project’s over and I’m not likely to revisit the game for fun or any other reason. And yes, I play other games all the time. Like right now I’m working on a fire drill project (due in a short time frame) but also playing Black Ops on my newly purchased PlayStation 3. My Christmas list is full of PS3 games I’ve been missing out on this entire time, and I hope to get some of them as gifts. I also played Deadly Premonition recently and I’ve been championing it on my blog and on Twitter, telling anyone who will listen that it’s a great game in spite of the graphics.
I remember seeing your Silent Hill plot guide online in ’99 and printing most of it out at the library (I didn’t have internet yet) and then poring over it at home. I lost a lot of sleep over that game. What made you decide to start putting together guides for SH? It’s been my favorite series since the first one came out. What did you like best about the series? Have you followed the later games and movie at all?
I certainly hope my narrative was helpful, and that it helped you come to some resolution about the first game. That was certainly its intent; to analyze the dialog and events, put them all together, and come to some logical conclusion about what happened. I loved Silent Hill as soon as I played the demo, and bought the game the day it came out. It was hard to believe that other people were playing it and hating it just because they couldn’t make sense of the story or the endings. I wanted to change people’s mind and spread my love of the game, and attempted the plot guide with that goal in mind. I liked how generally scary it was, and the use of darkness and needing a flashlight. The first game was so terrifying because of that, and though the graphics weren’t the greatest sometimes you’d see a vague shape in the dark and it would scare the crap outta you, but it would turn out to be nothing. Other times, you were staring at a skinned corpse. That was a wild, unapologetic game. I was glad to write the official guides for SH2 and SH3, but after playing SH4 and feeling really confused afterward, my enthusiasm faded a bit. I played Silent Hill Origins on PSP and enjoyed it, but the games were starting to feel a bit contrived, especially in story. And story is what I always liked best about the first few titles. I bought Silent Hill Homecoming and was so bored that I recently traded it without finishing. That’s the first SH game I’ve done that with and I guess it’s a sure sign that my interest waned. My wife and I enjoyed the movie and we own the DVD, and we still watch it every once in a while.
I think the graphics limitations of the time helped it look scarier and I think the visuals were handled very well. I nearly soiled myself the first time I played through the alternate Midwich Elementary. It remains my favorite game ever, despite the blocky graphics. You said you replayed that one recently, does it still have the same impact on you?
In talking about Deadly Premonition recently, I reflected on Silent Hill and realized that it’s a fantastic example of someone taking lemons and making lemonade: here’s a game that requires a sprawling town for the player to explore and encounter monsters, yet its presented on a platform that is severely limited. At that point the developer’s options are to either copy what someone else has done with the platform, i.e., make a game like Metal Gear Solid or Resident Evil where the maps are chopped up into small single rooms to explore, or you think of reasons to explain why you can’t see all the way down the street, why the street abruptly ends. So the developers decided that the town is enshrouded in fog, allowing them to reduce the map load and visibility within parameters that will run on the PlayStation. Then they make the monsters, and they’re not very good looking, especially not when compared to some of the computer games coming out at the same time. By giving the character a flashlight as the only means to see, the details of the monsters become less important given the fact that you can barely see them at all, and they’re creeping up right behind you. And I agree, the overall effect of this dark, mysterious environment is excellent. I remember being in a rapt state of terror the entire time I first played the game. And yes, recently when I replayed it on handheld, again I was in a heightened state of fear throughout. So much so that I jumped (again) when that loud noise occurs when the first sewer crawler notices you and makes a loud noise. I hate that part, it always gets me!
As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? What was your first game system? Did you ever envision yourself actually writing about games professionally?
For a long time I wanted to be an astronaut, and then I wanted to be Darth Vader, and then I wanted to be a writer. As a teen I wanted to be an actor, and also pursued it in college. But I’ve always been a better writer than an actor, and returned to it pretty naturally. I really never thought I would write about games professionally because the chances of landing a gig like I have are pretty slim. But my writing managed to grab an editor’s attention at exactly the right time, and I did everything I could to make the most of the opportunity.
My first home console was the Intellivision. I wanted an Atari. But thankfully, that’s the last time my parents bought the exact opposite of what I told them to get.
My parents wouldn’t get me an Atari, either. I had to play it at the neighbor’s house. Do you ever go back and revisit the older games/systems? I still have a functioning NES, though I get bored with it quickly.
Some skeptical people have told me the Wii is a bad system because it has no games. I disagree because it plays all of the Wii games and all of the GameCube games, which is actually a huge library of great stuff. Plus for next to nothing you can download most of the best NES, SNES, and N64 games. And if they’re not available now, they soon will be. The best thing about Nintendo is that they agree that tomorrow is important, but yesterday was just as good. And it’s great to be able to play them on my HDTV in better resolutions, too. Short answer yes, I play old games all the time!
How do you feel about the ways that the gaming community has changed over the years? The internet has made it possible to get a lot more information quickly and easily, and to form communities around gaming, as well as making multiplayer online gaming possible. And it’s now more normal for adults to play video games. Does the internet hurt the game guide publishers a lot? I still like having an actual book in my hands.
Has the community changed? I know it’s grown, especially since as you mention more adults continue playing and more kids pick up controllers every year. But multiplayer’s been in gaming more than 15 years now, yet the online experience has only moved forward in tiny steps. When you’re online in a shooter it’s still about dominating the roster, just as it always has been. When you’re in an online RPG it’s still about trying to convince other people to go over the hill and slay the big monster with you. In my experience, it’s been the same for 15 years with only a few notable additions, such as leveling up in a shooter, or 128 players on the same server; frankly, those are the only recent multiplayer game innovations I can think of. People think Farmville is innovative; I say, “Gee, ever played StarCraft? WarCraft? Farmville is those games without explosions.” And if gamers aren’t playing, they’re still zinging each other on messageboards and squabbling about plot threads or who finished a game faster or what’s the better way to level up. People were posting the same things 15 years ago. No, it really hasn’t changed.
Regarding guides, a lot of people feel the same way you do and that’s why it’s still a thriving business. Though text documents and websites can provide you the same information for free, the layouts, maps, and use of screenshots all presented on the same page proves far more helpful. It’s also more common for two or three authors to work on one book, combining variations on the same experience and providing a greater range of strategies. We also get extra information from the developers and they review the guides for accuracy, whereas FAQs can remain online with outdated or wrong info, or the description of what to do without pictures can be mind-boggling to read. It’s a choice the player has to make, and he or she can save themselves a lot of time by picking up the guide. Even if someone thinks they don’t need it, we include as much side information as possible and some great high-resolution artwork, so the books have a collectible aspect as well.
I enjoyed the article about the popularity of zombies on your site.
Some of the fascination with zombies is to see what kind of disgusting stuff they’re going to do, that much I admit. But that kind of fascination takes just a few minutes to satisfy, and really doesn’t explain an enduring popular culture that’s been going on and gaining popularity for more than fifty years.
That’s exactly what I say about reality television! See what disgusting stuff people are going to do.
Especially on Jersey Shore, right? That show seems like such a monkey cage.
Are you a fan of the older zombie movies, then? With real zombies? Or horror in general. You’ve written a lot on survival horror games. (I like horror but I’m getting sick of the whole “zombie” trend in both games and movies. I even changed my URL because the old one had “zombie” in the name.)
Love the old Romero movies! Night of the Living Dead remains the best zombie movie, in my opinion. That’s why I love The Walking Dead on AMC: the zombies are interesting yes, but they better serve as a mechanism to keep the plot going. The real focus is on the way people react to the zombies and each other under pressure, and that’s always richer than focusing on the horror. Although, there’s some exceptions: like in Land of the Dead I thought the focus on the “leader zombie” provided the most interesting moments in an otherwise crap film. I get a bit tired of Hollywood enacting the same cycle with zombies: make lots of serious zombie films, then make lots of comedies making fun of zombie films. Back in the 80′s it was the Return of the Living Dead series, They’re doing the exact same right now with Zombieland and other zombie comedies, or zom-coms. Yeah… zombies can get old, I certainly agree with you.
Do you have a favorite console? What have you been playing lately?
Like I mentioned I just bought a PS3, and though it certainly isn’t the first time I’ve played one it’s the first time I’ve had my own to enjoy. So that’s my shiny new object of the moment. I’m playing Black Ops on it, which is the only PS3 game I own yet. The consoles I’ve logged the most time on recently are the 360 and the PSP: I really love replaying PSOne Classics on a handheld. The small-resolution graphics certainly look better on a smaller screen. I also like the new PSP games. I just finished Ghost of Sparta and I’m still trying to unlock everything, and I played Peace Walker before that. I’m now playing the PSP version of Final Fantasy I, which might be my favorite RPG of all time since I’ve played it like 10x now, and also playing the handheld Dungeon Siege. I recently got each of those old games out of the bargain bin at Fry’s, so that’s why. I suppose I’d have to admit the PS2 was my all-time favorite console: I have four of them in my office right now. Two of them are bricks, I played them until their disc drives burned out. I still have one old system and one slim. I really like the slim version and still play my old PS2 and PSX games on it.