It made for a fun watch, though
I’ve only ever played League of Legends once in my life. Story time: I was working a small event where they were holding a tournament, but they didn’t have enough people to play, so I got roped in even though I had never touched the game in my life (I had at this point played a bit of Heroes of the Storm after my friends insisted a few months prior, and decided that MOBAs weren’t really my thing). I climbed up onto the stage and literally set up my League account right there, and then we were underway.
I truly had no idea what I was doing, and kind of started just clicking randomly. Somehow we won because the other team neglected to kill any of our minions, so their base got overrun. Afterwards, my friend who was hosting the event informed me that the game was actually streamed to the front page of Twitch, where the commentators decided to roast my obvious lack of knowledge for everyone to see.
It was somewhat of a traumatic introduction to the beloved MOBA, but honestly, I probably wouldn’t want to play League regardless. At this point it’s pretty obvious that story-focused games are my absolute favorite, and while the world of League of Legends is full of some pretty cool lore, it’s just not enough to pull my attention.
In comes Arcane, and here I was thinking that it was going to completely change my mind about wanting to play the game. Part of me dreaded it because I knew I didn’t have the free time to spare to learn and then play a bunch of League. Turns out I had nothing to worry about.
Don’t get me wrong, I had a blast watching Arcane. The visuals, the music, and the worldbuilding were all fantastic, and I hope that future shows and films can take note of all the unique things the show is doing to push visual storytelling forward. Its polish and production quality are unmatched, and it deserves all the praise it’s getting in that regard. I think using the characters from your games that players already know and love and letting us go along on a journey with them is a really smart idea, and I look forward to seeing how Riot continues to prove that game properties can flourish as other types of media.
The crux of the Arcane, though, was supposed to be its characters. Most of the marketing I’ve seen has been focused on the relationship between sisters Jinx and Violet, which in theory is the emotional centerpiece of Arcane. After watching, I was disappointed in the lack of more full character development from pretty much the entire cast of characters — the motivations were often muddled, and I found myself wondering why someone was acting a certain way rather than understanding it as the next natural step in their arc.
Plot-wise, there were so many different topics introduced, like the contrast between those who are privileged and the people they exploit, the dehumanization of drug addicts who are victims of a system stacked against them, the ethical dangers of letting scientific advances get out of hand, or hell, even what it means to be a family, an idea that had more screen time than any others. The show does a good job of setting everything up (I had a lot of hope after the first three episodes), but it lost me with its failure to say anything conclusive about its themes.
I can’t pretend to know exactly why Arcane was made in the first place. I want to believe that it was because Riot was so passionate about the story they wanted to tell, but the jaded part of me that lives in the real world knows that it’s at least in part because they wanted to promote their games.
The biggest reason that’s holding me back from giving Riot’s games a chance is their lack of focus on narrative-driven entries to their catalogue. It’s not like there’s a problem with that — it’s entirely their prerogative to make whatever the hell kind of games they want. I know for a fact that the stuff they make is awesome if you’re a fan of the given genre. But for me, Arcane doesn’t work as motivation to go and try League, because the experience of watching it is so vastly different to playing the game.
With Arcane‘s release and subsequent success, I can’t help but think of the other intellectual property that has become a pop culture monolith with its game-to-TV adaptation that also happens to be on Netflix: The Witcher. The games were already insanely popular, but the show is really what pushed it over the edge of becoming a household name to more mainstream audiences.
The Witcher is a bit of a different case to Arcane, because the IP actually started out as novels first, then went to games, then TV. The focus on storytelling was always there from the beginning, and each incarnation provided a new interpretation of its world and characters. I actually think the way the series has done adaptations is really smart — with each medium telegraphing its narrative in its own unique way, I like that they allowed the different versions to do what was best suited to how the story was being told.
Having started as a game, and a non-narrative game at that, Arcane had a different set of challenges. They had to build the story from the ground up, and while there’s a limitless amount of potential there, it’s also lacking the inherent structure that The Witcher had the luxury of working off of as a starting point. That structure is exactly what I think Arcane would have benefited from the most.
The fight scenes in the show were bombastic and dynamic, and definitely evocative of the source material, but all I could think was, “man, this would have felt even cooler if any of these emotional beats were landing.” It was a bit jarring to have a character gleefully mowing down enemies with a giant hammer/gun combo one second, only for them to be horrified by their actions the next. You can’t have it both ways.
While The Witcher‘s show, novels, and games feel like close siblings, Arcane and League feel like distantly related cousins who see each other once every few years at a wedding or funeral. I guess it was silly of me to think that Arcane’s story could change my mind. No matter how interested in the characters I may or may not be after watching, the game is always going to be part of a genre that I just can’t quite get into.
Story Beat is a weekly column discussing anything and everything to do with storytelling in video games.