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INTERVIEW - GF! Exclusive Dan Birlew Followup
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posted by: GF! Back Catalogue 10/2004 => 1995
date posted: 12:00 AM Tue Aug 1st, 2000
last revision: 12:00 AM Tue Aug 1st, 2000

Interview by Shawn Rider

This interview is a followup to an interview we posted with Dan Birlew, author of many strategy guides for BradyGames and their main SquareSoft guy. In writing strategy guides, as with writing reviews or coverage of gaming, certain aspects of the gaming world become very interesting. Birlew obviously has thoughts about more than just strategy guides, and we wanted to pick his brain a little more. If you haven't seen the initial interview, click here to check it out.


GF!: I'm curious about how or if your understanding of games has changed by writing guides. Have you gained any insight into different genres or the gaming world in general (I mean, beyond learning the conventions of the different genres like the back of your hand)? It seems that you have a strong desire for narrative in games, and I'm wondering if this is because you play them so thoroughly and you write about them?

DB: My interest in games has definitely been shaped by the experience of writing guides. Your feeling about my personal need for narrative is keen; the better a game's story is, the easier it is to write the guide. As I've said before, I strive to have my guides take on the tone of the game. Following that, the more interesting and complex the game is, the more interesting guide I can produce. Before working with BradyGames, I wasn't as interested in RPG's as I have become. I've learned that RPG's have much more developed stories and characters than, say, your First Person Shooters or your Third-Person Action Adventures. The two series that prove exceptions to this rule are Resident Evil and Metal Gear, mostly because of the fine development of ongoing storyline that is happening between games there. But RPGs are a more complete package, in my opinion. You get an entire novel's worth of story in one game, without having to support a whole series. The complexity of RPGs can be perplexing at first, but after you've fought a couple of battles, won and lost a little bit, the combat system and game engine become familiar enought that you really don't have to think about it, and then the fun kicks in like you wouldn't believe. What makes RPG guides nicer to write than others is the ease of following the developer's cues in the game; the story and characters are so well developed and have such a distinct tone, in many cases, that it's obvious what the themes and layout of the guide should be like. By focusing on certain story or mood aspects in the game, the developer is basically telling you as a strategy guide author what to develop in your writing for the guide. Square is the most distinctive producers of RPGs in my opinion, having honed RPG creation into a fine art. Chrono Cross, Vagrant Story, SaGa Frontier 2, are all so unique in presentation and in the overall tone of the game. If I were to churn out every guide in the same format, it wouldn't do the individual game justice.

GF!: Have you had any breakthrough realizations, such as what a game _must_ have or how to build the ever soughtafter emotional involvement?

DB: I think every game must have an equal balance of elements in its presentation in order to produce the emotional involvement desired in a game. There are titles out there (I won't name) where the characters are too silly to really cause the player to be concerned for their well-being at any time. There are other titles where the deveopers have employed the cute little spritely RPG characters we've all come to recognize as standard for the industry, yet there isn't a joke in the whole game and it's obviously missing. Humor is a great thing in a videogame, I'm seeing that right now in Chrono Cross. But the great thing about that game is the serious treatment of the overall story and the villain; the whole mood switches over to a different tone when the situation is appropriate. I think Square has achieved a brilliant balance of moods in Chrono Cross. I haven't finished my first game yet, but already I'm desperately hoping that certain characters succeed and that others realize the folly of their ways. I can't wait to see what the outcome of the plot is, and to have the answers to the dramatic questions of the game revealed. And the extent to which I'm involved in game emotionally right now means that I'm going to produce one of my better guides to cover the game.

GF!: You mention in your bio and again during the conference that you play games with your wife. I'm glad to hear that. Sarah, my SO, is a reviewer for GF! and gaming has always been a part of our relationship, so I can sympathize with what a good deal it is. :) But I know that my interactions with Sarah have informed the way I look at another of the big trends in the gaming industry these days: gender specification of titles. We now have an entire niche market of "girl" games, and companies are increasingly spinning new titles as a "girl" game, and the underlying assumption seems to be that all other games are _not_ for girls and that all previous games weren't for girls either. Do you agree or disagree? What are your thoughts concerning what the different genders desire from a game? Is gender specification necessary for marketing? Does a really good game transcend gender boundaries? Does your wife like very different games than you do, and do those differences in taste seem to be gender oriented?

DB: I disagree. My wife Laura loves to kick my butt in Soul Blade, Syphon Filter 2, and the older Mortal Kombat games. We also love to play co-operative mode in games, but there just aren't enough of those. Some example titles of co-operative mode are: X-men Arcade, House of the Dead, Terminator 2, Aerosmith Revolution-X, Time Crisis, etc. We would much rather fight together than fight each other, but the important word here is FIGHT. Laura likes action games, and I think that anything "for girls" would probably insult her gaming prowess. She likes the same kind of games I do, except she has no desire to play RPGs. She often goes by my taste in games, and looks for excellence in titles the same way men do, in my opinion. Gender specification should not be a marketing concern. The girls who will play games want the same kinds of games as guys. The only exception I think my wife would make is that I believe she would love to see a Powerpuff Girls game, as long as it involved fighting and defeating badguys. She wouldn't want it to be too cutesy, either. At E3 2000, I saw more guys than ladies trying upcoming titles like Dance-Dance Revolution or whatever, and I observed generally a distinct lack of interest in those types of things. I believe that all people turn to videogames for action, story, and escapism; I say leave the dancing in the nightclubs and the roller-coaster simulations in the theme parks, where they belong.