‘Arcane’ Provides ‘League’ Experience Without Needing to Play Game

TV Review

Arcane Provides League Experience Without Needing to Play Game

Josue Guinto-Veronica , Staff Writer

When I first heard about the new Netflix show “Arcane,” I was cautious. Not only is it an adaptation of a video game (such adaptations have a history of being bad), but it’s an adaptation of Riot game’s “League of Legends,” a game whose community centers on self-deprecating humor and seems to love the game as adamantly as they hate it (and by extension, hate themselves). In the past, Riot Games made story cinematics and music videos that were so well put together, that people joked about Riot turning “League” into a show. And then they actually did it.  

But having watched it, I can say it is one of the best-animated shows in a while in both visuals and story. The animation is a masterclass in what can be done with CGI. The show walks the line between its overarching message about the politics of its world as well as its characters. It manages to show the complexity of its characters without losing the big picture. And though it does take place in a video game’s universe, it manages to be one of the few video game adaptations that are genuinely good. 

My introduction to “League of Legends” was watching the 2013 Worlds Cinematic when I was 9 and thinking “This is cool, I should play.¨  And then I didn’t, which was ultimately for the better since I would have never recovered from the psychological damage. The series focuses on the backstory of a few characters who are all interconnected in how they end up in the game. It is designed to be watched by both newcomers and people who play the games, so no previous knowledge is required, but it’s full of easter eggs for those who are versed in the story of games. 

Most video game adaptations are unable to balance the expectations of both people who have played the game and those who are unfamiliar with it, often either abandoning the source material to be more appealing to a wider audience or sticking so closely to it that it is designed to be watched by those that are intimately familiar with the story and characters.  “Arcane” isn’t beholden to the rules that the “League” lore has set out. It bends or changes the story if it makes more sense to the story. It doesn’t sacrifice creativity or story to translate game mechanics into animation. 

The show is animated with CGI, yet every frame could be an oil painting. It took me an entire episode to realize it wasn’t animated in the typical 24 hand-drawn (or in this case, painted) frames. It is reminiscent of the aesthetics of studios like “Arkane” (no relation to the show) and their work with “Dishonored,” with its own highly stylized animation. 

The cinematography was by far the best part. A few of the shots are near angelic and would look right at home on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Though on rare occasions (like a scene in front of a furnace or one near a floodlight), the lighting can make the animation look strange. At times it even looked like the feel of an actual camera was being emulated; there was at least one dutch angle and a fisheye shot. The animation isn’t just pretty to look at. Fortiche Productions conveys the complexity of emotion in both the character’s minute facial expressions and in the plot’s large explosive moments. The emotional core of the show is supplemented with voice acting from performers like Hailee Steinfeield, and the pain and suffering of the characters permeate through all aspects of the show 

But by far the best part is the writing. As someone who’s watched Jean-Claude Van Damme’s 1994 “Street Fighter,” I had very low hopes for a scripts inspired by a video game, but “Arcane” pleasantly surprised me. Many shows try to pull off the whole “morally gray / nobody’s completely right” bit with their stories, but “Arcane” manages to do so coherently. I couldn’t completely write off certain characters who were ostensible villains as being in the wrong because I partially agreed with them. That’s what drives “Arcane:¨ the relationships people have with each other and the world around them. It isn’t interested in making the characters good or evil people, just people whose morals are tested through circumstance. 

Keeping with that same theme, “Arcane” also manages to do plot reveals in a way that makes sense with the story. One of “Arcane’s” main focuses is the politics of the world. Everyone has their own secret motivations and is willing to do anything to get them. It manages to weave perspectives seamlessly together. Stories often sacrifice congruence for a shocking reveal, but throughout “Arcane” they are less like plot twists and more moments that make you think “I should’ve seen this coming.” They are rarely used as just momentary plot devices and many of them offer setups that will come back in the second season 

The depth of the world’s lore and the steampunk/fantasy fusion aesthetic have coalesced into some of the best worldbuilding for a series in the fantasy genre. It has its own history, culture, and rules. The world isn’t a shallow backdrop meant to service the characters when they’re doing things. And it manages to do it with a diverse cast of characters. Fantasy has a history of being a genre meant for white men so seeing such a wide cast of characters simply existing because they can was surprising. Not only that but it also manages to have both multiple non-human races and talk about discrimination without using those non-human characters as allegories for people of color or racism, which is refreshing.

My experience with “League” consists of three matches in which my family’s honor as well as how much my mother truly loves me was called into question by my “teammates.” Having only minimal experience with “League” I was only aware that one of the characters was in the game but if I hadn’t, they would have been indistinguishable. The same amount of care and attention is given to all the characters whether they are champions or side characters in the game. Combine this with the fact that “Arcane” isn’t afraid to kill off characters, and I was genuinely worried about the fate of all of them. The story does follow typical Young Adult fiction conventions, though it doesn’t fall into cliche. It may not be anything necessarily new or revolutionary, but “Arcane” knows the story it wants to tell and does so extremely well.  

Riot Games has a history of tricking people into playing their game with good music between cinematics and ventures like the band “K/DA;” that musical trickery carries over to “Arcane,” as the music is phenomenal. Imagine Dragons managed to make a theme song that for the duration of all 9 episodes not once did I have the urge to press the skip intro button. It’s almost enough to make up for “Thunder,” It is used as the background for emotional moments but most often it is used to complement a fight scene, which often hits “Cowboy Bebop” levels of good fight choreography. 

“Arcane” is probably the best video game adaptation ever. It has given me hope that in the future, there may be more video game-inspired media that follow in its footsteps. Making you care about the characters and not assuming you already do because of the game. If  “Arcane” has left you wanting more “League” content and you’re considering playing the game, don’t. Don’t do it. Self-hatred and anger issues aren’t worth it. Just enjoy the show for what it is.