Cinematic Indulgences: Missing the Point of Les Misérables

So, I saw Les Misérables (a couple weeks ago, by the time this posts). And, while the film had a lot to recommend it, most of the strengths were due to the material itself and the quality performances. In other areas, however, the director dropped the ball.

In this post, I mentioned Film Crit Hulk’s discussion of the errors in the cinematography of the film. In particular, Hulk mentioned how the director “FILMED THE ENTIRE THING IN CLOSE-UP AND HAND-HELD. DESPITE THE FACT THAT THAT WAS INAPPROPRIATE FOR ABOUT 90% OF THE MOVIE.”

And boy was it true. The director is almost always in extreme close-ups, where you only see the face of the actor, and the rest of the scene is out-of-focus. When he does go to some other shot, it’s almost always for a brief flash barely long enough to register that something else happened.

It’s bad, for all the reasons Film Crit Hulk mentioned. You have all these great actors, delivering powerful, moving performances (and they were), and yet you’ve cut off their heads. There’s no bodies, only disembodied faces. There’s no body language, no movement, no gestures. Why have actors, if you’re not going to allow them to act?

Another thing that bugged me about the Xtreeem! Close! Ups! was that you seldom got a sense of scene, and an actor’s movement within it. Surroundings ground the action. Picture Luke Skywalker, swinging over the chasm, or Indiana Jones, running from the boulder. The scenery places their acting in context. Without a sense of surroundings, the action is taking place in a vacuum. You have no idea what is going on. It’s hallucinatory, like a 2-hour dream sequence, not intimate.

[Obligatory gaming reference: GM’s, describe the characters’ environments, and give them a concrete sense of place. You can use scenery and miniatures, scrawls on a map, or just vivid descriptions. But let them know where they are, so they can envision it in their minds. It will make your game world seem more real.]

There was a deeper problem, however. Tom Hooper just doesn’t understand Les Misérables. This is most obvious in the finale of the film. It’s a grand spectacle of a massive barricade, the apotheosis of the tiny pile of chairs and tables erected earlier in the film. The characters bravely stand atop, waving flags and declaiming how successful the revolution will eventually be.

That isn’t Les Mis.

Les Misérables (the play) is about one man’s redemption from bitterness and hatred. Done wrong, he becomes angry and vengeful. Given a chance to do otherwise, he turns to faith in God and spends his life serving others as best he can.

At the end of his life, he’s earned his redemption by bleeding for others: Serving faithfully and justly as mayor. Raising Cosette. Saving Javert. Saving Marius.

He sacrifices and he suffers to help them. He’s old. He’s bent down by burdens. And Fantine comes to him, and says it’s time to rest from his burdens in Heaven.

The song’s finale isn’t about a political victory over the temporal forces of a government or king. It’s about the promise that, when we die, there is something better.

Fantine says “Come with me / Where chains will never bind you / All your grief / At last, at last behind you. / Lord in Heaven / Look down on him in mercy.”

It’s a very private, personal moment. It’s about the hope of the eternal.

In the movie, Jean Valjean rises in spirit from his body. To match the theme, he should be the youthful, vigorous self before his imprisonment. His burdens are gone, and his appearance should reflect that. Instead, he’s his old, stoop-shouldered, grey, dying self.

Fantine appears to him. She should be her beautiful, long-tressed, joyous self. Instead, she’s the shave-headed, despairing prostitute.

Then all the other fallen appear. And, instead of seeing them free of Earthly burdens and free to experience joy, we see them obsessed with very temporary political concerns.

In this sequence, he got everything wrong. It evinces a deep ignorance of the themes present in the material, a capital failing (even more than the failed cinematography).

What is “Simming”?

You may have seen this word used in my several Understanding RPG’s posts. Most roleplayers aren’t familiar with the term, so here’s a definition.

Simming is a new term that has come to refer to collaborative fiction writing in an online environment, originally in a play-by-post setting. Each player is a Narrator, sharing responsibility for an ongoing story with other Narrators, each of which contribute narration in turn.

Typically (though not always) it is either rules free or very light on rules. Obviously, it can involve each participant having ownership of their own character, but it doesn’t have to.

Simming is thus the Storygame equivalent of “roleplaying”. (Or rather, many Storygame processes are indistinguishable from simming.) Of course, there exist sim-RPG hybrids. In fact all Storygames could be considered simming/roleplaying hybrids, because of the introduction of rules to an essentially freeform activity.

Simming is a term used in the collaborative fiction community, but not in roleplaying circles because even people who view roleplaying as collaborative fiction writing approach it from a mechanical perspective, and aren’t typically conversant with the very large simming community and their techniques (which exist largely in isolation from RPG’s).

There’s a vast potential for improving Storygames, were they to investigate and adapt the techniques of simmers. (RPG rules are not the best structures to build shared narrative creation around.)

Simming isn’t roleplaying. It isn’t better or worse than roleplaying, but it isn’t the same thing.

Infinity Design Notes: Skills

One of the goals in design is “to make mechanics that can easily be understood and described in relatable terms”. The idea is to give labels and information which can easily be compared to people’s real-life experiences.

This begins with the Attributes, which are described with labels people can easily grasp. (Not unique to this system, fairly common in fact, but critical to my approach.) We all know what Average is, we know Exceptional people, we know people who are Very Weak in something.

It’s relatable.

This idea is carried into the skill system. We’ve all been Unskilled in an area, right now in fact. We’ve studied and become Minimally Trained, when something is new and even the basics are a struggle. We know of people who are Proficient and even Expert at what they do.

We can relate the abstract numbers to real world experiences. This makes the game feel real.

The Skill Rating labels and descriptions serve the same purpose. But, as they are a combination of Attributes and Skills, there’s some internal logic to how the two relate.

The bonus for an Average attribute is +2. With Minimal training, 1, Average people have a Skill Rating of 3, Novices. An Average person with Minimal training is a Novice.

This is a common-sense, easily understood measurement. People with minimal training/experience are Novices. (Even the very talented but minimally trained are Novices: Skill 1 +3 bonus = Skill Rating 4. Everyone, even those with potential, have to start somewhere.)

Average people (+2) with a Beginner’s training (4) are Skilled (Skill Rating 6).

Average people (+2) with demonstrated Proficiency (9) are Professionals (Total Skill 11).

Average people (+2) with Expert training (14) are Accomplished (Skill Rating 16).

Average people (+2) with a Mastery of the subject (19) are World Class (Skill Rating 21).

Again, all of these are straightforward and make sense. You can easily understand why a Master of a subject would be World Class.

The rest of the Skill Ratings follow similar internal logic, as do the Challenge Ratings. Challenge Ratings are defined by how challenging they are, in relation to specific Skill Ratings. Difficult Challenges are apt for Professionals, for example.

The idea is that not only can players and gamemasters relate to the mechanics, but gamemasters can translate mechanics into real-world equivalencies and vice versa. How this works will become clearer when I post Skill Challenges.

Infinity Relative Skill Ratings

The Skill Rating can be used to gauge how competent a character is in a specific skill:

2-4 is a Novice, a raw recruit or an inexperienced beginner. Part-time employees, like the teen who flips burgers at a fast food joint, are Novices, as are interns.

5-9 is Skilled, someone employable in a field at an entry level. Telemarketers and Tech Support employees are typically Skilled, as are people just graduating college with a Bachelor’s degree.

10-14 is a Professional, possessing a post-graduate degree or equivalent in on-the-job experience. Your general physician is a Professional, as are the vast majority of movie sergeants.

15-19 is Accomplished, a standout in the field, cited and respected by their peers, but typically unknown to the general public. Writers of specialized books (such as textbooks or reference works) are usually Accomplished.

20-24 is World Class, one of the best in the world. (As the name implies.) Olympic athletes, for example.

25-29 is a Grand Master, “The Best There is at What I Do”. Grand Masters are luminaries in their field. Physicist Stephen Hawking, as a real-world example.

30+ is Legendary, one of the best who’s ever lived. Legendary figures are those who dominate history. Their works live on long after they die and their names become synonymous with their field of expertise. Shakespeare, Robin Hood, Einstein: these are all Legendary figures.

Infinity Skills

Skills

There are probably going to be 20 basic skills or so. These cover combat, technical abilities, social interactions, and miscellaneous uses. (Typically, FX powers have their own unique skills.)

Skills are rated in Skill Points, which determine how trained a character is. The Attribute bonuses are added to the Skill Points to get a Skill Rating.

Example 1: A character with an Influence of 11 has a bonus of +3 for all Influence skills. If they have 1 pt. in charm, their Skill Rating is 1 +3 = 4.

Example 2: A character with a Dexterity of 4 has a bonus of +1. With a 5 in firearms, their skill level is 5 +1 = 6.

Skill points indicate how well trained a character is (including book learning and experience).

0 = Unskilled. You haven’t even the slightest hint of training in this area, and no experience either.

1 – 3 = Minimally trained. You have learned the very most basic concepts of the skill. There are large gaps in theory and application.

4 – 8 = Beginner. You have mastered the basic concepts of the subject, but struggle with intermediate techniques. You make mistakes that other beginners or amateurs won’t catch, but anybody who know what they’re doing will.

9 – 13 = Proficient. You have a solid grasp of the theory and practice of the skill. Advanced concepts can be challenging. (The oft-cited “10,000 hours of practice”.)

14 – 18 = Expert. You are very skilled, thoroughly conversant with even the most obscure subjects in your field. If they know of it, your skill impresses people.

19 and higher = Master. There are few more knowledgeable than you.

Infinity Design Goals

The Infinity Gaming System (Infinity for short) is my own little omni-genre action movie system. Infinity is:

  • Omni-Genre. Not universal or generic, but flexible enough to handle magic, guns, car chases, psionics, cyberware, and much more. Infinity campaigns can be set in fantasy worlds, cyberpunk worlds, the real world, and any other place the GM can devise.
  • Action Movie. Infinity is an action-movie system. The mechanics allow characters to emulate the daring feats of an Indiana Jones, Ethan Hunt, or Evelyn Salt. They encourage and reward players who do more than just shoot or punch; witty banter and rapier-fast retorts are often more useful than bullets or blades.
  • Heroics. Player Characters are the heroes of an Infinity campaign world, larger-than life characters who seem marked for greatness, those with the bravery to confront evil and the abilities and drive to accomplish awe-inspiring deeds.

System Design Philosphy

To the maximum extent possible, Infinity mechanics are intended to be simple, direct, and obvious. It is as streamlined and fast-playing as I can make it.

My design motto is: “Simple rules that allow for innumerable situations, limited only by the Players’ and Gamemaster’s imaginations.”

The purpose of streamlining the mechanics is to focus on in-character play and vivid world descriptions. The point is to get the mechanics out of the way, so the players can play their characters and the GM can portray the world in an interesting and colorful manner.

My goal is to make mechanics that can easily be understood and described in relatable terms. Success at using a skill is broken into “barely made it”, “good job”, and “great Shot, Kid, that was one in a million!” Gamemasters can use that mechanical result to vividly describe what happened to the player.

At every point, the system should provide relatable and describable feedback to gamemasters and players. Subsystems, like hacking and hand-to-hand combat, should be built so as to vividly reflect the feel of the activity. Not a point-for-point match to their real-world equivalent (which can bog play down), but the experience of using the mechanic is similar to the experience of the activity in the real world.

When mechanics model the world in concrete terms, and when gamemasters can easily describe what happens, players feel closer to their characters and more grounded in the reality of the game.

That’s my goal.

Infinity: Tell Them the CR

Tell Them the CR

Players, to understand the game world, need the GM to describe it. But descriptions can be enhanced by just telling them the CR they are rolling against.

They want to pick a lock. The character should know approximately how difficult that should be. The easiest and clearest way to let the player know the same thing their character should, is just to tell them.

“What kind of lock is it?”
“It’s a thick padlock, probably CR 15.”

Some caveats:

  • Don’t skimp on the description. Just because you’re giving the CR straight out, doesn’t mean you are absolved of the need to describe the world. Tell them what things look like, smell like, feel like, then give them the CR. It’s your job.
  • If they lack the skill, tell them squat. They haven’t earned the knowledge, the character wouldn’t have that information, so the player doesn’t get it.
  • Always give yourself some wriggle room. Sometimes, circumstances are different than they appear. In such cases, things are more difficult than they seem. Instead of giving the players the true CR (information they can’t know) or lying to them, just say something like “You think it’s a CR 15.” “It appears to be pretty standard, CR 8.” “It should be pretty easy, CR 5.” Do this all the time, so they don’t know when you’re giving them the straight CR or when you’re hiding something unpleasant.

Infinity is all about in-character immersion and vivid description. CR’s, used right, can be a critical part of that.

When it comes to CR’s, don’t be coy. Tell them, and a lot of potential misunderstandings will be cleared up or avoided entirely.