The Fifth Element Effect

Posted on September 13, 2007 by psu

I don’t recall when I watched The Fifth Element for the first time. However, I distinctly recall that I didn’t think it was that great. Over the years, however, my wife and I happened to catch the movie from time to time on HBO or whatever, and a funny thing happened. After watching the film the equivalent of five or six times, suddenly it became the one of the best films ever made. Repetition made it better.

I pondered this phenomenon after buying the Blu-Ray edition of the movie for the PS3 and enjoying it all over again. We sat through all of our favorite moments again, and they were all just as fun, but at a higher resolution. The reason, in my mind, that the movie is great is not because of the dialog, the plot, or, in particular, the characters. What is great about the film is that it establishes a pleasing rhythm in your brain, and doesn’t let go of it until the movie is over. The main technique that Besson uses to establish the feel of the film is through editing, dialog, and music. He cleverly interleaves multiple shots from multiple locations during expository dialog to keep you from getting bored. He also takes multiple pages from the MTV school of hyperactive jump cutting to make the action sequences into violent little dance numbers from a music video. I really like this.

Finally, there is the irresistible scene where Bruce Willis gets cold cocked by Ian Holm. This shot is brilliant on so many levels that I don’t have room in one post to go over it all. You have to watch it for yourself.

Another one of my favorite “rhythm” movies is Ocean’s Eleven. Again, this is no masterpiece of storytelling and deep characterization, but from the very opening scene of the movie, the beat of the awesome David Holmes soundtrack and the nonchalant gait of George Clooney melt together into a kind of uber- coolness that you can’t help but enjoy. After that, the movie just flows effortlessly over your eyeballs at just the right pace, with just the right beats. How many movies have a shot of a guy riding up an escalator that you can’t take your eyes off of?

Coincidentally, right after watching these two films again, I picked up a game that I have played repeatedly, and played it again. I refer to Resident Evil 4 on the Wii. Yet again, this game sucked me in and made me run from one end of that damn island to the other and not rest until the zombies were dead. Also coincidentally, I found that what I enjoy in RE4 is that the game sets up and maintains a rhythm that is comforting and enjoyable to return to. When you get good at RE4, you realize that the way to survive the mob is alternate your shooting with your moving so that you can keep everything visible and far enough away that you have the time and visual range you need to target the next few zombies. The best fights have a sort of blam!, shuffle shuffle, blam! meter to them that is not entirely unlike the pleasing dance beats of the O11 soundtrack.

Most games that I have finished more than once, or played obsessively for some period of time, have this nature. Madden, Counterstrike, Halo, and most recently Bioshock. The rhythm was hard to find in Bioshock, but near the end of my first time through I finally discovered the Zen of the Wrench. Bioshock also has some set pieces that are set to swingy music that give the whole experience a sociopathic edge. You wouldn’t think that would hold up to repetition, but the wrench is fun.

I find this experience with repetition in gaming interesting. The conventional wisdom is that games create “replay” value by providing a lot of variety and avoiding repetition, but my experience is just the opposite. The best games provide enjoyable repetition. Repetition makes them better, and makes you want to play them more.

Of course, the flip side of this are the games that provide frustrating or boring repetition. Sometimes the the game is too hard so you have the wonderful experience of simply failing over and over and over again. That’s never fun. Sometimes the game is just annoying and boring, so you are annoyed or bored for ten hours, which is no fun. The single player parts of the Ubisoft tactical shooters are notoriously annoying and repetitive for me. Finally, there are the games that do nothing horribly wrong, but they do nothing really right either. For me, Far Cry on the Xbox was like this. I slogged through it, but the mechanics just never clicked.

It’s hard to say that there is any objective difference between a great game and one that is just repetitive. I suppose if I understood that I’d design the games rather than just playing them on my couch. In practice though, it generally doesn’t take that long for the game to make its impression on me. If things click and I can find a pleasing rhythm in the game, I’ll usually pick it up again tomorrow, and the next day, until I’m done. More often than not though, this doesn’t happen. And unlike The Fifth Element you can’t sit through a game five or six times to discover that you really liked it all along. These games go back on the shelf, and generally become the eternal queue of unfinished business. We all have one. Now it’s clear that it’s nothing to be ashamed of.