Netflix’s 'Arcane' is Excellent – but it isn’t a Video Game Adaptation
by Ask Vestergaard
Image courtesy of Netflix Media Centre.
League of Legends is a game where two teams of five players take control of a vast panoply of characters so that they can attempt to ceaselessly butcher one another. It is a game in which these teams run down three lanes, knocking over defensive fortifications in a bid to demolish the opposition’s ‘Nexus’ (basically a goal, if a goal was a big glowing rock that you had to punch a bunch). It is a game where hordes of terminally-online teenagers call you ‘cyka blyat’ a lot. That’s a massive simplification – but it’s also pretty much exactly what it is.
Arcane is a television show about two cities: a bastion of enlightenment and the slum it looms over. It is a show about two sisters, separated by circumstance and desperate to hold each other in their arms again. It is a show about two men, whose friendship blooms in the joys of scientific invention and rots in illness and pride. Yes, the intro credits are literally sung by Imagine Dragons, and yes, that is pretty cringey (and also yes, that damn song has been stuck in my head for the past week), but once you get past that you get a surprisingly excellent science-fantasy with a wonderfully voiced cast of compelling characters and a plot that is… actually really good. And to top that off, Arcane is one of the single most immaculate and stunningly gorgeous pieces of animated media that has ever been made. It is terrifyingly pretty.
Have we finally gotten a good video game adaptation? Are we done living lives cursed by that dystopian Super Mario Bros. movie from 1993 where everyone walks around in leather jackets and fishnet tights? Need we no longer scratch our heads in bafflement over the fact that Paul W. S. Anderson has made six – six! – Resident Evil movies? Has Netflix cracked the code and successfully transferred an interactive property to a non-interactive medium, while maintaining the core of its source material?
Not quite. For Arcane is, despite its quality, arguably not a video game adaptation at all.
That’s certainly an odd assertion – after all, the show stars a large cast of playable characters from League of Legends and is absolutely drenched in loving references to the game. But, aside from that, it has nothing to do with it. Arcane doesn’t adapt the gameplay of League of Legends for television. It doesn’t take interactive mechanics and make them untouchable, zipping past at 24 frames per second. There is no teamwork of five versus five, no lanes, no towers, no crystal goals to be punched, no pubescent cyberbullies typing misspelled Russian abuse. League of Legends is about people defined by abilities and catchphrases, pitted against one another in an elaborate arena. Arcane is about people who love and laugh and grieve and beat the shit out of each other with mechanical gloves.
Arcane narrativizes League of Legends. This is an extremely common trend when video games make the move to film. It is understandable that filmmakers and showrunners would be hesitant to risk money and public interest by trying to do something as experimental as visualizing mechanics and gamefeel for a new medium, which is why they always feel the need to make plot paramount. What’s so odd, then, is the fact that they persistently seek to adapt games that have little to no plot in the first place. The joyful, musical brutality of Doom, more like dance than action, becomes a movie that is 90% Dwayne Johnson and Karl Urban spouting exposition and 10% demons. Sonic the Hedgehog, a game that is, above all else, about speed, becomes a movie that is an utter slog. And if I need remind you, the joyful game about an Italian plumber taking growth hormone-infused shrooms and bonking his head into bricks becomes a surreal crime-comedy that is completely covered in, I repeat, fishnet tights.
And then there’s Arcane, which has an excellent plot. It is a genuinely successful narrativization of a game – a game that has no narrative. All these works, whether good or bad, take aesthetic qualities from the games they are based on and add new things that not only have nothing to do with those games, but are also not actually intrinsic to the medium of film at all. Movies and television don’t need stories. A lack of plot certainly makes things more experimental by modern standards, but it doesn’t necessarily have to make them less accessible, and it certainly doesn’t make them less cinematic. There are so many other things that an adaptation could focus on – things that are much more fundamentally ‘gamey’: balletic brutality, crunchy choreography, the tense push and pull of competition and teamwork, the ecstasy and rage of communal pseudo-Russian cussing. All these things exist in Arcane (well, maybe not the Russian), and they exist gloriously, but they are given weight by something that does not factor into the experience of playing League of Legends at all: plot. People get invested in playing the actual game for entirely different reasons – indeed, they get invested in watching the game for different reasons as well, through things like eSports and Twitch streams. And with a little bit of ingenuity, I genuinely believe that the same can become true for film.
I am not saying that Arcane would be better if it sought to more closely replicate the gamefeel of League of Legends – it almost certainly wouldn’t be, and if it was, it would be unrecognizable. It doesn’t matter that Arcane doesn’t transfer the raging arena brawls of its source material to television – that doesn’t make it any less compelling. And yet, that does mean that watching it has very little in common with playing League of Legends. Arcane adapts lore. It adapts wiki articles. It adapts short stories and cinematic trailers and music videos. It relishes in fandom. It expands playable fighters into believable people. But it does not adapt a video game.
Making films and television shows out of games is a delightful problem to solve: one with so much potential for experimentation, and one that could entirely redefine what cinema can be. It is a problem that has not been solved yet, and when it is, it will almost certainly be a low-budget adaptation of an indie game that is willing to take the risk. But until that day comes, at least we have Arcane.