Powder examines inventions in "Arcane", based on "League of Legends".

“Arcane” is a Staggering Animation and Adaptation

We’ve waited for the first great adaptation of a video game. I mean the first honest-to-goodness, heart-in-throat kind of artistry that stands toe-to-toe with more traditional entries. The first three episodes of “Arcane” are out, and I think it’s safe to say that moment is finally here. We have an artistically stunning series adaptation of a video game that proves it can be done.

People who don’t play video games or who aren’t familiar with the source material might already be starting to zone out, so let me say this first. I’m not familiar with the lore of “League of Legends”, on which “Arcane” is based. It’s still a brilliant series. Have you ever seen a great movie without having read the book? It’s the same thing; it doesn’t matter if you’ve played the game or not. Great storytelling is great storytelling.

“Arcane” tells a tale of two sisters growing up in the neglected undercity of a shining steampunk metropolis. Vi and Powder lost their parents in an act of resistance years ago, and have taken up as thieves. “Arcane” shifts back and forth between the haves and the have-nots. The slightest provocation will send Piltover’s militarized police force flooding into the undercity; the slightest resistance is met with police brutality en masse.

Of course, the first job we see Vi and Powder pull off with their crew goes wrong, and sends Piltover combing through the undercity for them. “Arcane” is an action series, but it earns its action. The tension of watching police escalate a violent, occupying force is all too relevant today.

The storytelling here is phenomenal. Some elements in its universe will feel familiar, but the presentation feels genuinely new. How often do you get to say something feels new in a series? “Arcane” uses a gorgeously evocative presentation that feels like watching oil paintings move. More traditional elements of animation are used for the world itself, such as a sudden burst of dust, or drops of rain cascading down an umbrella at a lower frame rate.

The mixture of those familiar animated visual markers and that oil painting style gives “Arcane” a jaw-dropping range. Piltover is defined by its sun, pastels, and straight lines, while the undercity is a mass of neon colors, jumbled angles, and gradiated shadows. “Arcane” uses its quiet moments to staggering effect, relying on the atmosphere, blocking, and slowly developed visual metaphor to describe its characters’ internal lives.

Adaptations of video games into movies or series often fail because studios feel gamers want constant action. Yet gameplay is often defined by large moments of quiet that highlight those sudden moments where muscle memory kicks in and decisions have to be made instinctively. In MOBA games like “League of Legends”, a large amount of the gameplay relies on strategy, speculation, and team communication that can veer from orderly to panicked at a moment’s notice. Conflicts are chosen, and when they’re not, running away is often the wiser choice.

What makes games unique as a medium is the amount of player agency to explore spaces and gameplay loops however the player wants. The most memorable parts of even the most action-heavy FPS games tend to be quiet moments, the atmosphere that defines a game, or action where the player is forced to come up with a creative alternate plan after their first doesn’t work.

Some might pale at a player being proud when they rack up kills, but it’s no different from a chess player being proud when they amass material by knocking off the opposition’s pieces. The pride in either isn’t that of the bloodshed it represents. It’s pride at getting knowledgeable enough about a gameplay system that you understand it faster and translate that understanding into creative play.

Movie adaptations of video games often think they’re adapting the bloodshed or the violence. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of a player’s experience. What’s being adapted is the creative experience that results from the player agency that video games as a medium uniquely provide.

Adapting games to films and series needs to reflect these experiences. “Arcane” takes its time showing you a space, how it moves, and how its characters move through, see, and hear it – the same thing players directly connect with when they play a game. That echoes the agency to explore space. Its characters bicker about teammates’ capabilities and what role they can play, echoing the same MOBA element. Initial conflicts are told through sacrifice or running away, reflecting the strategic nature of engagement in a game like “League of Legends”.

When video games are adapted to films or series, they don’t need to be faster or more brutal or anything like that. They need to be like “Arcane”, focused on how characters each understand and move through a space, and by extension how different characters each come to understand the larger world that opens.

I don’t come to “League of Legends” with any knowledge of its lore. I do know it features more than 140 characters, each with their own backstories, each of which threads through the backstories of multiple other characters. That paints an intricate world full of conflicting motivations. The days of dismissing video games as narratively simple are over when many paint some of the most detailed worlds in any medium. You can feel “Arcane” take all these things seriously, as a real adaptation of a complex world told through various perspectives. There’s a genuine care in how this story is told, the kind of care we’re used to seeing when a cherished novel is adapted.

We’ve seen enough bad adaptations of video games to know by now that the same care, effort, and precision that makes any other kind of adaptation good is also needed here. In the first three episodes of “Arcane” that are now available, we finally get to see what that approach delivers, and it’s staggeringly beautiful.

The first three hourlong episodes of “Arcane” are available on Netflix. The second three will arrive on Saturday, November 13, and the final three on Saturday, November 20.

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