critical analysis

All posts tagged critical analysis

This essay will discuss two of my favorite films about wilderness survival, Carnahan’s The Grey and Iñárritu’s The Revenant, using the lens of Absurdism. While they’re two very different films, they share complementary perspectives on the existential place of man. I’ll explain some the symbolism and conflicts of each, and discuss why they offer strong lessons on Absurdist philosophy. As with all my analyses, I’ll stick mostly with the source material, but will reference other evidence when needed. There is a huge range of themes these two films have to offer, but this analysis will focus on their unique existentialism.

For me, what makes these films great is their Absurdist tone. To start, let’s define Absurdism as the philosophical view that because it’s a human need to find meaning in life, and because the universe is inscrutably complex or chaotic, we’re bound to fail in that endeavor. Hence, the pursuit of meaning is ultimately “absurd”, in the sense of being ironically futile. This isn’t to say the universe is meaningless, rather its secret logic is inaccessible to our minds.

In these two films, nature is the proxy for the universe, indiscernible to the “rational” (read: civilized western) man. To attempt to apply the rational (i.e. domination) of the modern man to the irrational and ancient natural world is to invite failure. As I’ll discuss later, in The Revenant this is ultimately a criticism of man’s unempathetic relationship with our environment, and each other. For this analysis, nature allegorizes a challenge for both film’s protogonists John Ottway and Hugh Glass. In the arc of their relationship to nature, they suppress their human mores and attune themselves to its secret logic.

Each film centers around a specific human weakness that nature is unsympathetic to. In The Grey, it is Ottway’s depression. In The Revenant, is it Glass’ vengefulness. For each, taking that human weakness to its logical conclusion will not mend their spirits. They seek an answer, which comes as a new different perspective on purpose and justice. In that perspective is salvation. It will help them embrace the Absurd. Let’s discuss the symbolism and existential crisis of each film separately, and come back to this salvation.

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MadMax_2015-07-27_22-38-08Mad Max: Fury Road has been divisive of public opinion. One faction wants to see it as an emasculation of their iconic wasteland epic by feminist forces in Hollywood. The other wants to glorify in how it seizes themes that seem near and dear to the causes of female empowerment as if George Miller himself was taking a stance in the combative zeitgeist of the post-Gamergate era. Neither, I think, are grasping the core message of Mad Max and the audience it speaks to: all of us.

Is Mad Max a feminist film? Arguably. But that’s missing the greater point, where Miller makes an aggressive critique on the state of environmentalism, on the disastrous trajectory of humanity, and challenges us with the solution. Max may not be the “hero” of the story, but he is the most important agent in Furiosa’s character arc, which underscores the movie’s message, and that’s why the its title is a worthy namesake to his character. Max, despite his personal insanity, is a beacon of the true but trying path. Before I continue, consider this critical question:

What is the single most pivotal moment / decision of the film?

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song-of-the-sea-posterAfter just one stunning theater viewing, Cartoon Saloon’s Song of the Sea became one of my favorite animated films of all time. From an island nation with a daunting pound-for-pound cultural legacy, this fiercely Irish modern folktale embodies both the intellectualism born in their poet-king pubs, as well as the supernatural climes of their landscapes.

The comparisons to Miyazaki masterpiece Spirited Away have run a bit rampant; I’d like to expound on why this film, while indeed similar in tone, art style, and theme, is more than mere Celtic Miyazaki-esque.

In this article, I’ll discuss the visual and cultural themes of the movie, and explain its message for viewers today. Despite superficial similarities, it is these themes that make it quintessentially Irish. To quote the great Irish novelist John McGahern:

“Everything that we inherit, the rain, the skies, the speech, and anybody who works in the English language in Ireland knows that there’s the dead ghost of Gaelic in the language we use and listen to and that those things will reflect our Irish identity.”

I’ll show that SotS flavors well-known tropes with directed, intentional nuance that makes it more of a continuation of the worldview posited in The Secret of Kells (Moore’s first film). You could almost consider SotS to be a chronological sequel, diving deeper into the schism between spirit and human worlds that began in TSoK. Both reflect the Irish psyche that is the product of a transformation from the island’s Celtic paganism to its inevitable assimilation of Christianity. Where TSoK indulges in the intrigue of that transition, SotS grounds it in a modern story of loss, and offers folkloric lessons as an answer.


Before we begin, I want you to take a moment and consider the single most important question to answer about SotS: Why does Saoirse choose to stay in the end? Answering this will reveal the meaning of this movie, and is the goal of this analysis, so you should have your own ideas before reading this.

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The Mass Effect 3 conclusion has been extremely controversial, and much maligned. I’d like to inductively construct better game choices for the ending based on the consistent values of the series. I do not want to comment on silly things like Indoctrination Theory and the numerous logistical plot holes. I believe the deep disappointment fans had with ME3’s conclusion comes from a violation of the values players were taught, which they may feel even if they don’t understand them…

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James Cameron is a visionary director, which is not to say Avatar was a flawless movie as much as I loved it. We use the word “visionary” because it’s not “sight”- “vision” was defined in the old days to mean a “sense of sight”, or the ability to see into the supernatural. To see the supernatural, one must see and understand the meaning behind the sight; the word “vision” may come from the Sanskrit veda- meaning “I know.”

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I’ll spare you what you already know about how great the Wall-E movie and how its strong theme is about the ravages of commercialism. I wanted to talk about the secondary theme in Wall-E, the thread of symbolism that enriches what seems like simple story-telling fabric. Forget the “hypocrisy” that one (of the very few) soulless critics pointed out about the commercial viability of the slickly designed cast against the wholesome message. That critic has forgotten his job is to review movies, not corporate greed, unless he’d prefer the movie to NOT have its message and JUST be a vehicle for Disney’s marketing.

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Yesterday's cover story on Gamasutra was an article I wrote called Designing Happiness, about combining happiness research and game design. Please check it out!

I'm very happy to see design mature from throwing opinionated spitwads at glass to see what sticks to the discipline that it is becoming. It seems like after the Silver Age of gaming in this country, the dedicated designer role disappeared for a while. It wasn't a bad thing, as it forced designers to master other disciplines, to become more technical or more artistic, to gain a more tangible role than the kind that hackers and table-top dungeon masters had. And now, armed with some dangerous knowledge, game design is seizing it's own role again. I think some practices in the past gave pure game design a bad name, but that will change.

In this evolution, I see the next step of it as attuning the plentiful principles of game design into both a science in itself, and a substrate for other sciences. Philosophical taxonomists like Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen did the former in Rules of Play, finding the core features of what games unique systems. Their book helped game designer know ourselves. My article was a small step towards knowing others. With the science of game design defined, I think we should apply them in context, find our motives and our audiences, and cross-reference the vast knowledge of other fields. As long as games are designed for a player, and that player is human, then all the other realms of science that actively seek to improve human life are relevant.

Taking the top-100 games between March 13th, 2007 and March 13th, 2008, as reported by, I did some number crunching to find some correlations. Keep in mind that the conclusions drawn are only appropriate to the games and timeframe stated, and that I did make certain assumptions along the way (like treating re-releases as different games). Plus my math isn’t so hot, but you get the idea.

Here are my findings:

And you can download the excel file here.

What I found is that there is a 0.28 correlation between daily game sales (DS) and Metacritic score. Is this alot? That I cannot tell you, but what I can point out is that this is (surprisingly) higher than the correlation between DS and the # of SKUs the game was released on, which was 0.20 based on the data.

You may notice that there is a negative correlation of -0.13 between total sales numbers and days since release. This is not a mistake. Because the timeframe ends not long after the holiday season, this season’s blockbusters actually have higher total sales than games released after the last holiday season. This goes to show how important that season is. I am aware that the # of sales decreases at an exponential rate after release, so keep in mind that DS is probably weighted higher for more recent releases.

Dividing the mean DS by 100 possible Metacritic points and then multiplying by the correlation squared, I guesstimate that last year each +1% to the Metacritic score was worth 7.67 sales per day (for the top-100 selling games). Is that worth it to developers and publishers? Without more data on budgets and per SKU revenues, it’s hard to tell. One thing to notice is that no top-100 game scored below 30%, so I would think the DS per Score would be slightly higher.

Similar to Chris Pruett’s article (except that I corrected for number of days released and extrapolated correlation) I conclude that a good score does not guarantee sales. I’d clarify his observation that there are no bad games over a million units by saying that companies who make bad games wouldn’t have the budget to attempt a million sales. Scores are important for selling blockbusters, but that doesn’t mean you need to make great games to make money. Sadly, the majority of games just need to be between 50% and 95% to sell well.

In the future, I would like to further refine this data, using platform marketshare and total SKUs, as well as including IP vs. non-IP into the discussion.

After reading many reviews of P.T. Anderson’s seminal new film There Will Be Blood, I am disappointed to see how much misinterpretation there is. Where the themes of greed, godlessness, capitalism, hatred, and revenge are certainly present, they are peripheral, and recent oil politics have led critics to miss a central theme that ties all those issues together: the loneliness of godhood. I will explain the four different meanings of the film’s title to show that that loneliness is what drove anti-hero Daniel Plainview to his tragic end.

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I finished up Bioshock and it was quite a tour-de-force in game narrative, and deserves the kind of critique usually reserved for film and literature, even from the most ardent anti-“game-as-art” critics (read: Ebert). So I gave it a shot. Here is my effort at deconstructing the meaning of Bioshock.

Read it, would you kindly?


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