When Riot Games Inc. announced the Netflix series Arcane, based on the well-loved and well-despised video game “League of Legends,” skepticism abounded amongst both ardent fans of the game and casual Netflix viewers. Their circumspection was valid — video game adaptations have a penchant for bastardizing the source material. Arcane, however, establishes a meritorious precedent, proving that when creators prioritize fastidious detail, a lack of officious management and a generous production timeframe over fleeting profit, a cinematic narrative based upon a video game universe can genuinely flourish.
Arcane was a collaboration between Riot Games and French animation studio Fortiche Production, developed over six years. The series consists of nine episodes in three batches — categorized as Act One, Act Two and Act Three — that premiered on Nov. 6, 13 and 20, 2021, respectively, crafting masterful cliffhangers that maintained a fanbase rabid for more.
Despite taking its premise and many characters from the source material, Arcane delves into new territory. Familiarity with “League of Legends” is by no means a prerequisite for viewing and enjoying this series, which enhances the existing lore while establishing itself as its own entity.
The lore establishes an ongoing conflict between the thriving steampunk utopia of Piltover and the subterranean cyberpunk hellscape of the Undercity, nominally conjoined as one metropolis but severed by classism. This rich/poor dichotomy ruptured between sister cities may be a well-worn trope in media, but Arcane utilizes it to vivid and engaging effect.
While the story is told in many interwoven perspectives, Arcane’s narrative predominantly revolves around Vi and Jinx, young sisters from the Undercity who each undergo a tragic metamorphosis due to material conditions that tear them asunder. They form respective “found families” with other Undercity denizens — a dynamic that forms a prominent feature of Arcane and permeates several transecting character arcs.
Arcane has received critical acclaim for its queer representation, with one of the few explicitly romantic relationships being an innocent, yet undeniably sapphic, dynamic between Vi and Piltovan aristocrat Caitlyn.
The characters are also compelling to follow, subverting expectations with evocative flaws and complex layers. Binary delineations of good and evil rapidly dissolve into gradients of morality, with tropes obliterated in the irrevocable turning point at the end of Act One.
The main antagonist, Silco — while initially introduced as an archetypical one-eyed, sinister villain — unfurls into layers of unanticipated vulnerability. He harbors very admirable motives that spur his unsavory deeds and is, in my opinion, the best written character. Arcane includes devastating violence and trauma, but it portrays them with the gravitas they deserve.
Besides its narrative complexity, Arcane enraptured many with its stunning animation. Each frame is a mosaic of pastel colors, resplendent with revolutionary swaths of symbolic light and shadow. The art style and intricate 2D matte backgrounds are so aesthetically woven that pausing every second will yield a perfectly picturesque screensaver or poster.
The main visual draw of Arcane lies within its character animation. Their faces display startlingly human nuances with infinitesimal microexpressions that imbue a scene with dense emotion. Each character design, formed from a unique fusion of 2D painting on 3D models, captures lifelike detail and energy.
The synergetic collaboration between Riot Games and Fortiche created a development timeline that gave the show room to breathe. Fortiche infused its own creativity and interpretations into the project, imbuing even moments that the script barely noted with immense artistic complexity.
Alexis Wanneroy, Lead Animator at Fortiche, explained in an interview with SyncSketch that the studio sought to create something visceral.
“It was not what you would see in other animated projects; they often are watered down,” he said. “They wanted the characters to feel very graphic, to have imperfections.”
From the design of the characters to the painting of each background, the animators aimed to non-traditionally create visual appeal with graphic texture and design.
Further, the soundtrack is inimitable. Every track was developed exclusively for the show, incorporating a number of renowned musicians including Ramsey, Denzel Curry, Sting, Imagine Dragons, Ray Chen and more. The music is tailored to every scene and synchronizes with on-screen movement and edits, running the gamut from hip hop that pulses with invigorating energy to melancholy ballads that compound the emotions of the scene.
Arcane is seminal in its resounding contribution to mature animated series, a genre lamentably neglected by the Western world. It is a luminary in its field and will undoubtedly prompt studios to attempt to replicate its “formula,” which will likely yield a slew of soulless cashgrabs that fail to recreate the show’s methodical writing.
Arcane isn’t a frivolous binge-watching serotonin fest, soon to be forgotten in the depths of Netflix’s archives. Instead, it is a virtuosic passion project suffused with pathos and profundity, an evocative experience with stunning authenticity.
The devastating crescendo of the finale is fraught with tension and ambiguity that incited fervent demand for season 2, which is already in production. The fanbase is still abuzz with theories, fanart, fanfiction and memes as a coping mechanism to temper their tsunami of emotions and withdrawal. Overall, Arcane is an indelible experience that — although rife with tragedy — crafts its story with a fluidity, artistic aesthetic and passion that hopefully can be replicated in subsequent seasons.
Isabella DiLizia is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].