“In the pursuit of great, we failed to do good.”
They say few things in life are guaranteed – among them, however, are at least three certainties: death, taxes, and video game adaptations being utter garbage. Though I admit I have absolutely zero experience with League of Legends (I’m completely unfamiliar with the gameplay, story, and champions) I was blown away by Netflix’s Arcane. Though I hadn’t planned to watch it initially, my boss (of all people) recommended it to me. I was hooked from the first episode – the story, and more importantly, the character work was impressive. While I don’t necessarily want to do a full review of Arcane (or try to judge how well the game lore is translated), I do want to ramble for a bit; I’ll touch on what I thought the series did well, and the potential hope for video game adaptations of the future. Also important to note that this discussion is NOT spoiler free, and is intended for those who have already seen the show.
A lot of video game shows/movies get bogged down in lore – they need to fit so much information into such a short period of time that they end up feeling bloated. Exposition heavy. A lot of setup is needed in order to establish certain narrative points, and introduce the world and characters. However, Arcane neatly avoids this pitfall – though I’m sure the world of League of Legends is highly intricate, the show focuses exclusively on Piltover and Zaun. Piltover, the “city of progress” is portrayed as a prosperous, wealthy city immersed in a culture of emerging technology and scientific discovery. Zaun, on the other hand, is the ‘undercity’ – awash in crime and poverty, the citizens struggle to survive, all the while under the watchful (and brutal) rule of the Piltover enforcers. Though both cities are governed by the Council of Piltover, the undercity and its plights go largely ignored in favour of the concerns and interests of Piltover. Naturally, this causes some discontent among the Zaunites, who ultimately wish to be independent. This setting, while fleshed out and beautifully rendered with stunning animation, doesn’t get bogged down in the lore of the greater world. Aspects of international trade and conflict are hinted at (especially with the introduction of Mel’s mother from Noxus) but never addressed at length; in doing so, Arcane keeps its story grounded in a smaller setting, with recognizable politics and a conflict the audience can understand and become invested in.
This narrow focus goes hand-in-hand with the way Arcane presents its narrative – most of the overarching story is cleverly grounded by the main cast throughout. While there are earth-shattering crises going on, we experience them through a small group of characters that you can’t help but grow to love (even the villains). Sure, Hextech is taking off and making speedy global trade a reality, but I’m more interested in Viktor and his illness. Silco has streamlined the manufacturing of Shimmer into a full-blown enterprise (and effectively taken over the undercity in the process), but what kind of impact has this had on Jinx? How will it affect Vi?
By filtering this narrative through the lens of its main cast, Arcane cultivates an immensely impactful, and surprisingly heart-wrenching tale. It’s because we, as the audience, are so invested in these characters that we care about the world and its trajectory as a whole. In my opinion, this is Arcane’s greatest strength – instead of trying to engage an audience (who are potentially unfamiliar with the game and its world) with a massive, history-rich fantasy world, it stays focused on the champions and their origins. While a MOBA game, with its focus on the individual characters arguably has an easier time with this style, it’s still conceptualized and executed to perfection.
Even as someone with no knowledge of these characters, it was gratifying to watch them grow, and how their circumstances changed the course of their lives. Vi was easily my favourite – though her sister’s story is arguably the more tragic of the two, I found Vi’s more interesting. She’s got the makings of a great leader, with a big heart and a surprising sense of responsibility for someone so young. She’s even willing to sacrifice herself for the greater good of the undercity, and her foster father, Vander, by giving herself up to Enforcers after the Piltover heist goes horribly wrong. There is so much pressure on her shoulders – to live up to Vander’s legacy, to lead her team and keep them safe, and of course, to protect her sister at all costs – and she ultimately crumbles beneath it. She loses her team and her father, and snaps at her sister – which, though not her fault, sets Powder on the road to becoming Jinx. It’s heartbreaking to see her get out of jail, years later, and try to reconcile with a world that’s hostile and completely unrecognizable.
I had a harder time with Jinx as a character; though I can sympathize with her circumstances, and would still consider her a favourite of the series, the sensationalism with which her obvious mental illness is portrayed was off-putting. It felt like, for the sake of creating a quirky, Harley Quinn-esque character, they sacrificed the reality and relatability of her suffering. While unfortunate, it didn’t entirely take away from the other aspects of her character that were handled well – the lessons (good and bad) that she learns as Powder, her engineering prowess, and skill with a gun all contribute to her characterization. Ultimately, I found her secondary foster father, Silco, to be the star of their entangled show. His “rivalry” with Vander and the ensuing bitterness is nothing revolutionary, but his genuine affection for Jinx and the way he handles his rule of the undercity is honestly just *chef’s kiss.* Despite his objectively sinister nature, his knowledge of the inner workings of Zaun, and his ability to inspire loyalty to keep the undercity wolves at bay (you know people are gunning for him and his position) is impressive. He was utterly fascinating, and I was surprisingly sad to see him die.
On the other hand, some characters were a bit more of a miss for me. Jayce first and foremost, while not terrible by any means, was simply boring. His arc was fairly stereotypical, in the naive-but-well-meaning-scientist-who-wants-to-make-the-world-a-better-place-and-gets-in-way-over-his-head kind of way. There wasn’t anything to dig into with this character – no tragedy, and very little peril. Though largely in the background for most of the story, I found Jayce’s assistant, Viktor, to be much more sympathetic. If not for his intervention and aid, Hextech would never have existed in the first place. To see Viktor grappling with his illness while desperately trying to engineer a breakthrough with the Hexcore was unbelievably sad. I really just want the best for him – he deserves it. Viktor could slaughter the entirely of Piltover and I would still love him (and yes, I will die on this hill, thank you).
Caitlyn’s lack of presence was probably one of the reasons I didn’t particularly care for her. She’s rich (so she’s automatically awful, don’t @ me) and while she’s a well-to-do cop, I wasn’t that interested in her story. She just didn’t have the same on-screen weight as some of the other main characters. The romantic undertones of her friendship with Vi felt forced to me, especially because they had known each other for all of 5 minutes. I wasn’t interested in the romantic element of Jayce and Mel’s relationship either – it felt out of place with everything else going on. Though the romance elements were a miss for me personally, every other character, whether a main focus or secondary support, was handled exceptionally well. Ekko, Heimerdinger, and Sevika were other highlights for me. Even if certain background characters weren’t a main focus of the show, many of the visual designs were fantastic on their own – I’m thinking of Finn especially.
Setting a precedent
So I’ve spent about seven paragraphs rambling about these fantastic characters, who all manage to ground an otherworldly story, but so what? Is Arcane a one-off hit? Could other video game adaptations do the same? Theoretically, yes – though Arcane’s significant budget and rave reviews (along with the ensuing hype) gave it an immediate leg up, I think there are some lessons to be learned here. Namely, that characters are of the utmost importance – how else do you ease a general audience into a world rich with lore that they know nothing about? Easy: you make them love the cast. Arcane’s focus on the smaller aspects of its narrative building blocks created a story that, while full of Easter eggs and nods to the game for people who recognize them, is equally as welcoming to a new fanbase. It lends gravity to the plight of the twin cities, by focusing on the emotional weight of the choices faced by each of the characters. Arcane is a great example of not needing to reinvent the wheel – nothing about the show is exceptionally unique or new, but every element gels together perfectly. It’s why Jinx, choosing to sit in that chair, and forsake Powder forever is so heartbreaking. It’s why Viktor’s actions in tinkering with the Hexcore feel justified. It doesn’t necessarily feel like we’re watching heroes and villains – just people who are faced with the heavy burden of consequence.
I didn’t even mention the phenomenal visual style and flawless animation of the show, nor did I touch on the incredible soundtrack. Regardless, Arcane easily stands out as one of the best video game adaptations I’ve ever seen, and I hope it’s proof that future attempts based on popular series’ might be able to thrive. It has set the precedent that it can be done with careful work, and even more importantly, it can be successful. Needless to say, I cannot wait for season 2, and to see the fates of these characters I’ve grown extremely attached to.