Archive for May, 2012

The Value of Reviews

And I mean reviews, plural.

In the past two weeks, I’ve thought about the merits in reviews while I experienced two sets of fresh reviews in wildly contrasted subject areas (none of these has anything to do with my own work). One set is from the world of video games – in which I’m a total outsider; the other straddles various art forms – something more my terrain. In no instance was I actually attending any of art events being discussed, nor, clearly, playing the game. But after reading a spectrum of reviews, in both cases I was able to glean specific insights concerning the particular item(s) under examination and the precise frame of reference adopted by individual reviewers. And both sets of reviews in fact cope with the biggest of themes in any creation.

What started me reading the game reviews was the release on several platforms of a new game designed by my son, Mike Zaimont. (“Mike Z” is a well-known tournament player in a number of fighting games.) His game, Skullgirls, was developed over quite a few years after a lot of thought about improvements that could be made to the fighting genre; he designed a completely new fighting engine for the new game and is project lead. The game looks good, too ; it has an all-female cast so far, and a retro-noir plus animé look created by Alex Ahad. Skullgirls developed quite a fan base in the two-years period as it was introduced player-by-player at game conventions, and it has been greeted warmly by the gaming community in the US upon release on April 10th. (Europe and Australia release was just two days ago, and it’s being translated into a number of languages.) Having sold more than 50,000 copies in its first two weeks of limited availability, Skullgirls is a hit; the team is back in place developing new chapters, new characters and other expansions.

I read many reviews in English, two in French, and watched an hour-long video review in German. A fair number are lengthy: they analyze every aspect, and are very specific on Skullgirls’ virtues plus certainly noting exactly requested adjustments. Even as a complete outsider — and someone who doesn’t own a game console of any kind, and who doesn’t know gaming terminology — by reading the assessments and thereby seeing the game reflected in comparative terms, I’m able to gain an appreciation of its character, its substance, its innovations and what the many reviewers believe it adds to the universe of fighting games. Over time in my reading I not only saw consensus appearing as to a general verdict but also gleaned an understanding of what gaming I itself means to those who are dedicated gamers.
These reviews were not just armament assembled solely in order to render a particular verdict – they were actually testaments to a passion for the world of gaming, and to loyalties and allegiances, along with a genuine quest for the new and the better that struck me notably. I came away with an enhanced regard for the evident emotion, immediate connection, and commitment of so many in the gaming world.

During this same period I also read two arts articles by our local Arizona Republic’s good arts critic, Richard Nilsen. (He’d effective in our locale because he often takes pains to bring a non-expert reader into the artistic conversation by relating arts event to frames of reference for a reader’s more usual experiences. ) The first arts piece was a long assessment/appreciation of Jackson Pollock and what Pollock brought to the invigoration of American painting and to the mid-century US art world in large. The second piece was his review of the Phoenix Symphony’s mid-April concert, which contained a recent work by an American composer the reviewer pretty much dismissed.
In pulling back from these two dissimilar arts articles I was struck most by what the reviewer revealed about himself: the values in the realized work and in the premises behind the creations that he most prizes, no matter the medium.

The Pollock overview closes with a reminder that “the older artists had a “heroic” vision of art, always moving forward to some difficult and ultimate target. “ This the reviewer contrasts with Pop Art’s pull-back from the heroic as well as the smaller goals for art in our own day. The assessment closes: “And in our age of diminished expectations, perhaps it might be good to recognize the heroic ambitions of Pollock and his buddies. They really intended to change the world. Our ambitions today seem just a bit puny in comparison.”

The Symphony review describes the newer composition as “full of New Age sounds and well-worn harmonies … [it] seems like the work of a well-behaved “A” student in class, who can give back perfectly to the teacher what [was] learned but has no actual insights to impart. The music is pleasant , but forgettable.” According to the review, the program “needed saving.” And indeed, the evening was saved by the concluding Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Heroism ( of a sort ) wins the day.

What do I come away with from these two sets of reviews? The huge contrast between a perceived distance that may have grown up between us and “Art” – engendering admiration, yes, along perhaps with a prevailing reverence for art as artifact – and the passionate engagement with, and enthusiasm for games evidenced in the gaming community.
I see that gaming world inhabitants believe they can have a say in the direction the gaming world will take – and that they applaud gaming enterprises which take chances. But arts acolytes may not understand they can have the same say – and an atmosphere of reverence rather than enthusiasm — which cultivates a tilt towards the backward glance — need not be the norm,.
When was it that music ceded the heroic stance to videogaming? If this is NOT true — Amen to that! — let’s realign the perspective, and get back into the mix.

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