Video game to movie or series adaptations don’t have the best reputation.
Warcraft, the movie adaptation for Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, received a low 28% rating from Rotten Tomatoes critics. It’s not hard to see why. For a movie that had a rich amount of in-game lore to draw from, Warcraft failed to provide a compelling narrative — something it could have easily done even if we just go by Hearthstone card flavor text.
We’ve seen this happen time and time again. It happened to Prince of Persia, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Assasin’s Creed. It’s gotten to the point that when many gamers hear about a video game being turned into a movie or show, the first thought is, “Okay, how bad is it this time?”
If you’re not a video game fan or you’re still part of the crowd that keeps passing on animated shows solely because of the medium, you’re likely expecting it to be a kid-friendly show (read: too childish for you).
You won’t feel that way about Arcane. This animated series is a gritty mashup between Game of Thrones and Narcos set in a steampunk world that features a tense political atmosphere, the societal effects of a drug crisis, and a class war that produces extremists.
Seriously, it’s so good the critics at Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 100% rating.
What Is Arcane?
Arcane is an animated series set in the world of League of Legends. For the ones who don’t know or, like me, haven’t played much of the game, League of Legends is a multiplayer online battle arena (or MOBA) game that lets you pick from a character from over a hundred champions that you can use to fight in 5 v 5 match. Arcane features a few of these characters, notably Vi, Caitlin, and Jinx, as part of its leading cast.
Before 2014, League of Legends lore was pretty boring. The players were, in a way, self-inserts who acted as political leaders in the game called “Summoners.” The whole gist was that you called these champions to fight for you and defend your interests which are pretty bland considering a world as vast as that of League could easily become a sprawling, vibrant world of conflicting factions and heroes (or villains) struggling to make their way in the world.
So they changed it and by September 2014, they had rebooted the world of Runeterra to make the game meatier lore-wise. Of course, this isn’t so easy to see in the game given that a character’s lore reputation may not quite match how powerful they actually are in gameplay terms. But it was enough — the lore reboot, which involved Warhammer writer Graham Mc Neill, allowed Riot to expand into other media.
It’s a move that’s helped them reach a wider audience, gain more players, and increase the paying part of their player base, a vital component for a free-to-play game that relies on big spenders.
What does this mean for you? Well, considering that League-associated IPs are intended to draw more players in, you can bet Riot made Arcane the same way you dress up in your Sunday best.
What Is Arcane About?
At its core, Arcane is a political drama where citizens of Zaun and Piltover struggle for power to protect their best interests. Whether those interests are for the sake of all of Zaun or Piltover or just their individual desires is up to you to discover.
Piltover is a city founded on ideals of progress and innovation. “Topside,” as characters call it, shuns magic for the chaos and destruction it has caused elsewhere in the world. Both Piltover and Zaun are overseen by a council of oligarchs whose main concern is caring for Piltover inasmuch as that allows them to make a profit.
Zaun is tired of living off of Piltover’s dregs and Piltover couldn’t care less for what happens to the people of Zaun. Given later events in the show, they’re actually so far removed from the lives of Zaunites that it doesn’t even register with them that they’re harming these people.
The anger and dissatisfaction in Zaun give rise to ideological extremists who will stop at nothing to destroy Piltover and establish Zaun as an independent nation. Tensions in Arcane explode when a pair of scrappy young inventors figure out a way to use harness magic safely through technology.
Okay, but Why Will I Like Arcane?
1. You Don’t Need to Know Anything About League of Legends
There’s always one primary concern for non-video game players watching a show that’s based on a video game: not knowing anything about the game itself.
While your typical show or movie takes the time to explain the basic premise of the world that it’s set in, video game shows fail to do this. They just expect you to know because they assume that their viewers are already fans of the game who would know exactly what’s going.
If you’ve read a book and watched a movie adaptation, you already know that prior knowledge turns it into a “When is so and so going to do this and that?” fest. It’s more of a “when and who” experience than a viewing experience.
Arcane doesn’t leave its viewers with no choice but to pull up a League of Legends wiki in the middle of the show. It starts off by giving you a clear idea of the world of Piltover, the glimmering city of progress, and Zaun, the impoverished city right across the bridge from Piltover.
Right from the get-go, you know that it’s going to be political in nature. The show also does a great job of communicating who its characters are, what their motivations are, and why they turn out the way they turn out.
2. It’s Insanely Immersive
The fact that Arcane doesn’t rely on presumed prior knowledge of League of Legends means that the show actually puts energy into making its setting seem like a living, breathing city that you can believe the characters lived in.
There’s an intense level of attention to detail put into creating an atmosphere that doesn’t just tell you how different life between citizens of Piltover and Zaun is but also shows you that through its landscape. You can hear the sound of new tech being made in Piltover with every clank of metal and ticking of a gear. In Zaun, that sound turns to the squelching noise of boots trudging through muddy, garbage-filled streets.
Arcane‘s characters, whether they’re pre-existing League heroes like Jayce and Viktor, or newly created ones like Mel Medarda and Silco, are all larger than life, but never larger than their setting.
They never feel like overpowered, ultra-special people. They’re just individuals who are shaped by the environment they live in and their attempts to survive in it change them, their environment, and the people around them. It’s a very organic world that will remind fans of Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire how the HBO series felt like before, well, let’s not talk about it.
3. The Characters Are Well-Written
You can typically tell which characters in a show or movie adaptation are in the original source material because of the disregard it has for characters outside its original game or book cast. Arcane isn’t one of those shows.
As much as it makes sure its non-League of Legends player viewers aren’t left wondering what’s going on, it also creates an air of mystery and excitement for viewers who already know the game’s story.
Arcane doesn’t shy away from changing the source material in order to build on it. It outright rewrites portions of certain video game characters’ lore to add more nuance and depth to them that the dated in-game lore fails to do.
I mean, they managed to turn Walmart Harley Quinn, an extremist transhumanist, and a more or less generic piece of male eye candy into complex characters that are more than what their stereotypes suggest. You can’t help but feel a bit of sympathy for them as they struggle to do what they think is right in a world where everything you do has unintended consequences. In short: they feel like real people.
The original characters are amazing as well. Arcane doesn’t mind giving them screentime so both League fans and non-League fans can get to know them more. And yes, they do make some terrible decisions or come off as slimy politicians, but in the end, the show doesn’t make them a scapegoat for the League characters’ mistakes so they can still be likable to the audience.
4. The Visuals and Cinematography
You don’t have to be an artist to see how good Arcane looks. Unlike many video game adaptations, it doesn’t resort to cheap-looking CGI or the easier way to do it: a live-action version.
Arcane isn’t just a story told in an animated medium. It’s a story that couldn’t be told if it weren’t an animated series. It takes full advantage of the creative freedom that an animated medium allows for, especially in scenes where Arcane shatters the boundaries between reality and delusion as well as the present and past.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t realistic.
In the first few minutes where we see Piltover, it takes a while before it sinks in that what you’re seeing isn’t a real landscape.
3D artist Zeyu Ren explained why Arcane manages to look this great: the backgrounds for Arcane are all handpainted. The characters themselves are added onto the scene after the backgrounds are painted. It’s a technique that League players are familiar with due to Riot’s prolific use of it in their cinematic trailers.
“I think something that is easy to miss when you’re caught up in a story…is how everything that you see is a labor of love,” Alex Yee said in Arcane‘s /dev diary preview, “Every background, every prop, and every character. Someone spends their time focusing on making it the best thing it could possibly be.”
Apparently, Riot worked with French animation studio Fortiche to bring the world of Arcane to life. Fortiche is the same animation studio behind POP/STARS, the first music video of League‘s K-Pop girl band, K/DA. If that still doesn’t ring a bell, Fortiche has also worked with GORILLAZ.
5. The Soundtrack Is Killer
Don’t let “Our Love” fool you: every song you hear on Arcane is made specifically for the show which is a surprise because Curtis Harding and Jazmine Sullivan’s “Our Love” sounds like it could have played on the radio back in the 60s. Just listen to The Temptation’s “My Girl” and “Our Love” back to back and you’ll hear what I mean.
Imagine Dragons, a staple of League‘s cinematic trailers, is also back with a new song for Arcane‘s opening sequence. Does “Enemy” sound like almost every other Imagine Dragons hit song? Absolutely. But it fits and Imagine Dragons never fails to be catchy.
If you do end up watching Arcane, don’t miss “Dynasties and Dystopia” by Denzel Curry, Gizzle, and Bren Joy playing during the bridge scene in Episode 7.
But seriously, go see it. It’s one of those rare shows with a tight-knit plot, fast-paced storytelling, and breathtaking everything else that will leave you staring at your screen, wondering what did you just watch.