Riot Games uploaded the “Star Guardian Taliyah” Session to their music channel on the 11th of July. Essentially, its a collection of thematic songs created by independent artists that anyone can use in videos or streams without concern over copyright issues. The playlist was created as part of the Sessions project on behalf of Riot Games, which aims to provide creators with more ways to produce content using official music. This isn’t the first time they’ve done this, but it is the first time I’ve taken notice of it.
I’m no paid actor or apologist for Riot Games in any sense of those words, and would absolutely bite at the chance to criticize them over pretty much anything (and have done). But this sort of effort they put into their art, which seems to serve no other purpose than to help creators out and support independent artists, makes it extremely difficult to hold them in a bad light, generally speaking.
The video itself is a series of animations that follow a bubbly-themed Taliyah through her day off at the mall. For each song, a new part of the story. The animations are simple, and aside from Easter eggs in the background, there isn’t anything that sets itself apart as “incredible”, except for the fact that the video exists at all. The notion that Riot Games would hire a team to animate a one and a half hour video, a group of musicians to create their own unique 8-bit themed pieces, and then release the two as one project for no reason other than to give their community free stuff is pretty incredible, at least to me.
This sort of behavior points to a recurring philosophy presented in Riot Games’ policy towards treating their community. That philosophy is a tad hard to put into words, but it can be seen in their Esports events, which continually set the bar for Esports tournaments everywhere. It can be seen in the extra content created for the game, which includes the incredible Arcane and the soon to be reviewed Ruined King. And, of course, it can be seen in these Session releases.
Its a philosophy that implores the League fan base to learn more about the game, its lore, and its history, while also inversely including the fan’s creations as a platform to grow the community further. Its a self-perpetuating system where fan’s are given strong foundations to create off of, which further builds up the game’s player base, which further draws more fan participation.
Its genius, and its something I don’t think any studio has managed to do as well as Riot Games. Even a company like Valve, which is known for encouraging and rewarding player interaction outside of simple gameplay, couldn’t hold a candle to Riot Games’ efficacy in building strong relationships with its player base and creators. Even if those relationships sometimes start and end with “rito plz nerf…”
Arcane’s first season has come and gone, and those of you who’ve been following me for a while will know that I’ve been both eager and terrified to see its release. On the one hand, having a League show to flesh out a huge world the characters’ lore has set into cannon has been an idea I’ve always been on board with. On the other hand, Riot Games has some cringe-worthy writing habits in their skill set, and I’ve been afraid those skills would come to flourish non-stop in Arcane. There is a little bit of that here n’ there, but ultimately the show was very strong.
I’ll be breaking up this review into three sections, with each section corresponding to one of the three chapters of Arcane. Each chapter, for those who don’t know, is comprised of 3 episodes each, for a grand total of nine, aight? Let’s begin.
Arcane Chapter 1 | Character Development, Quality Writing
The first three episodes of Arcane feature plenty of natural introductions and strong character development which helps to set the scene for the rest of the show. I’ve been playing League since Lucian’s release and am familiar with the set of characters in the game, but if one wasn’t so well educated on who these characters might be, they wouldn’t be lost watching this show. I felt that was a strength worth mentioning, so there you go.
Having Arcane get off on the right foot was a must for me, since I was already prepared to have some poor writing in it, and it absolutely delivered. Right away I felt invested in seeing Vi and Powder’s relationship stay strong and for the two of them to live happily ever after, despite my better knowledge of their character bios. Their cast of friends, Claggor and Mylo, are characters serviceable enough to help create a realistic coming of age story for teens and young children, but still stay out of the forefront and keep the focus on our two sisters.
Vander, Vi and Powder’s adoptive father, is also a highlight in Chapter 1. His writing is just as good as his voice acting, and he doesn’t fail to deliver on that “wise and loving” character that we look for in leaders for these kinds of shows. In terms of character, he’s a mix between Tywin Lannister and Uncle Iroh. Structurally, he serves as the stories bookmark for us to remember where to world is at that point in time. Under Vander’s guidance, the Undercity, which is steampunk neon-light infested neo-LA ridden with poverty and organized crime, lives in a temperamental peace-treaty with Piltover, which is what people who have never been to LA think LA is actually like: The city of progress with a vast amount of wealth and a head start on the world’s technological forefront.
This is Arcane’s starting position for the show, and I couldn’t have thought of a better place to begin myself. Seeing the plight of the Undercity in contrast to the almost suburban-like peace of Piltover says more than you need to hear from any character about the economic differences between the two. And from here, we start the journey.
Powder, Vi, and the other two soon-to-be dead expendables are performing a heist in Piltover. After a few hiccups, the gang nearly makes it back to their home before being routed by another group of expendable schmucks. In a panic, Powder (who is a 10-year-old Jinx, or something) chucks the loot from the heist into a large body of water, and after getting out of the scuff with the expendable schmucks, the minor characters comment repeatedly on how Powder is a jinx (see what they did there?) and how she isn’t ready to come help with heists, yet.
I promise, I’ll stop explaining what happens in the show, now. I just needed to get that first bit out of the way so we have our starting position for the review.
All of that transpires, slowly, into a reveal of multiple characters. Some of the best fun I had was guessing who might be what champion in the game, and then slowly realizing that not all main characters need to be anyone in the game at all. Vander is unveiled as the father figure for the two girls (and basically everyone in the undercity), and our antagonist, Silco, is revealed as a wise, smooth talking crime-boss who may or may not be well written, depending on the episode.
The character introductions, as I’ve said repeatedly, felt natural and well deserved. Nothing felt contrived or off putting in so far as to make me go “aw, that kinda sucked.” I liked seeing Vander lead the Undercity as best he could, and Silco was an engaging enough antagonist that I didn’t mind the stereotypical ‘evil’ vibe they gave him. In fact, he was a character I could empathize with from time to time, despite his whole get up. More on that a bit later, though.
The first chapter concludes with a showing of the beginning of Powder’s transition to Jinx. Powder tries to save Vi and the gang from a trap Silco set for them, and unwittingly kills just about everyone involved, including Mylo and Claggor. In a fit of rage, Vi smacks Powder a bit and walks off. Silco finds Powder all abandoned n’ such and takes her in as his own daughter. Vi is arrested by a bloke named Marcus who was just hanging out, badabing, badaboom, contrivance, maybe, but I mean whatever, you know?
The first chapter has great character development, excellent writing, and voice acting that’s to die for (Silco’s voice, man). Solid stuff, 7/10.
Arcane Chapter 2 | What happened?
There were tons of problems I had with chapter 2. This is a strange fact, since the first three episodes were so consistently strong. My theory is that they produced the episodes in groups, since they knew they were going to release the episodes as chapters, and so if one episode in a chapter is weak, the other two were always likely to follow suit. In any case, Arcane’s chapter 2 is the worst out of the three.
The strong voice acting is still there, but the writing is weak and the choices the characters make are questionable at best.
To start, I need to talk about Silco. The first three episodes led me to believe this guy was going to be a very well designed antagonist. He was smart, brutal, clever, and had conviction that I could almost see eye to eye with, in some instances. These next three episodes do some things that make me question whether or not Riot cared to keep that promise for the character alive at all times. I vividly remember those scenes where Silco is attempting to murder Vi and he’s just giving a monologue while playfully keeping the shimmer just out of his addicted henchmens’ grasp.
It felt so… out of place. I get that Silco likes having power over people, but the second chapter does so many little things like this where our antagonist stops being a man of conviction and starts being evil just for the sake of it. He starts making dumb mistakes, acting out in fits of rage like he’s a comic book villain, and plays with the addictions of Undercity dwellers despite devoting his whole life to achieve supremacy for the Undercity. He just stops making sense for a while so that the plot can move forward, and it hurts the second chapter by a huge, huge margin.
Something else that needs to be mentioned is Jinx. I’ve got huge issues with Jinx as a character, and we’ll start with the first one: She’s way too immaturely designed for someone with such huge mental health struggles.
The first scene we get of Jinx with Silco is her hopping on Silco’s lap and helping him inject his eye medication (or whatever). This is great, in my opinion. This scene demonstrates the level of trust Silco has in Jinx as well as the suggested inappropriate nature of their relationship. Jinx is like a daughter to Silco, yet she is wearing her trademark skimpy clothing while sitting on her father’s lap, and its all terribly uncomfortable and close. Like I said, great. Silco’s a fucked up dude, Jinx has a ton of mental problems, it would make perfect sense for this suggested sexual nature of their relationship to be the only thing Jinx has that’s close to family at this point. Its a very mature take on a very real problem, and I commend Riot for having the nerve to stick it in a show knowing full well their target audience is an extremely large group of twitter wielding teenagers who will complain about anything being out of line.
That said, I have to turn around and smack Riot Games over the head for then taking that mature story telling device and combining it with Jinx, who they wrote as having what a middle school student thinks mental illness is.
I’ll write that one more time just so we’re on the same page.
Jinx’s mental illness is displayed as what an edgy middle school student thinks mental illness is.
Its absolutely cringe-worthy to see Jinx talking to herself and the voices in her head out loud just to spout exposition for the audience. Its even worse for these conversations with the voices to pop up during Jinx’s temporary reuniting with Vi just so that Vi knows there’s something wrong with her dear old Powder. Jinx’s voice is all squeaky, high pitched, and met with painful laughter that’s more or less souped with maniacal pacing that’s so cliche its painful to watch.
I get that Riot wants Jinx to be their Harley Quinn, but combining a very real problem with their amateurish design of a mentally ill people wasn’t the way to do that. You can have one or the other, Riot. Not both.
(They chose both, though, and it sucks)
Jinx is arguably the weakest part of the show, at least at times, and I think if they had just held off on making her backstory so dark, I’d have less of a problem with how embarrassing she is to see on screen. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t take any moral objection to how the show is portraying anything. Its fiction, and Riot can do whatever they want. But if you want to argue consistent writing, Jinx is not the aspect of Arcane to do it with. She has a slight Harley Quinn accent (but only sometimes), is super fucked in the head, and I’m sure every teenage girl watching Arcane was absolutely enamored with relating to her. But she sucks, and I’m sad she sucks. Tough!
Chapter 2 features some extra development into Piltover, and the characters involved are hit and miss. Jayce is fairly annoying, but that’s by design, as far as I can tell. He’s written with a fair bit of confidence and can easily be forgiven for being so quickly led astray due to the amount of responsibility on his plate, which is a lot for someone so young to have to deal with. In my opinion, Jayce’s character is one of the most accurate depictions of a character as shown on the rift as you’re likely to find in Arcane. He felt true to his nature all the way through.
Viktor is also given a lot of development at this point, and he is easily my favorite character in the series so far. Well voice acted, consistently written, and absolutely heartbreaking. Kudos, Riot, I want to main the guy, that’s how well done he is.
As for Vi, she’s a bit lesbian and has a round chin now, and Cait is given a more prominent role in the show. She, too, is a bit lesbian. And also rich. That’s about all chapter 2 lets you in on. Both characters are strong drivers of the plot line, and its a relief to see Vi, like Jayce, being written in a way that reflects her nature in the show, as well as the rift. All of Vi’s decision making and dialogue feels like natural extensions of her character, and she’s easily one of the more entertaining on-screen characters to behold (though that might be because of her kick-ass fight scenes. Seriously, they’re the shit.)
5/10. Sweet fight scenes, Riot. You could have done a better job with Jinx.
Arcane Chapter 3 | A Strong Finale
I don’t know who’s running the show-biz things over at Riot, but whoever they are, they pulled through with chapter 3. Almost all of the problems I had with chapter 2 were reigned in for the final act, and it proves to be the best chapter out of the three because of it.
Silco is back to being a driven crime-boss with wit and intellect that isn’t just evil for its own sake, Jayce starts wildly making decisions to solve the problem of the Undercity’s crime, Viktor is still just incredible, Vi and Cait are doing something I’m sure, and Jinx is… well, Jinx is actually worse in the final chapter than the other two (one?). More on that later.
The final chapter pulls Silco into his own as a crime boss. His love for Jinx as a father begins to conflict with his work in a way that’s testing the patience of his underlings, and he’s forced to make quick moves to accomplish his goals. Vi is determined to get Powder back as her sister, but is ultimately too many steps behind the curve to accomplish her goal. Cait is doing something, I’m quite positive.
Oh, also, Ekko is back, and he’s the shit. Act 1 showed him to be a curious tinkerer with a heart of gold, and act 3 shows that, despite being hardened to the world around him, Ekko still retains his heart in the way he tries to better the lives of everyone surrounding him. Sick skateboard, too.
I could go on for days about every little scene and all the pro’s and con’s of every other thing in the show, but I think its absolutely fair for me to say that the entire show’s quality would be remembered by Act 3’s performance, and it performed extraordinarily beyond expectation. I felt after Act 2 that the third would be just as bad or worse than its predecessor, but it managed to beat out Act 1, even. Incredible stuff.
There is one thing I have to talk about before wrapping this up, though. One thing that was so egregious that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to throw it at the wall a couple of times. That thing is the Powder vs. Jinx dinner at the very end of episode 9.
Holy hell, have you ever seen a writer spell it out for an audience more than that before? I understand that the result of that ‘dinner’ would dictate how Jinx decided to try and live the rest of her life. I understood that the moment I saw Vi and Silco tied up in their chairs. So why in the hell did the writers decide that having “Jinx” and “Powder” written on two respective chairs to signify the point of whole scene was necessary? Why did Jinx have to spout more expository dialogue for this scene to happen? Why couldn’t this scene just be made simpler? Jinx isn’t one to make things metaphorical, she’s a very straightforward character that doesn’t want her time wasted, not even by herself. And yet she planned out a dinner for two people complete with poetic writings and spray-paint designs to boot?
Did anyone see that scene and think to themselves, “Oh, yeah. Totally. Makes sense.” or “OH, thank god they wrote that! I didn’t know what was going on here!” Am I in the minority here? Am I crazy? Should I start talking to myself as narration for the people around me, then?
The whole scene wasn’t a flop by any means. The ending, ultimately, felt right. Silco was acting in selfish love for Jinx, and wanted to kill off Vi to keep her to himself. Jinx couldn’t let him do that, but couldn’t let go of her love for Silco. It was a very timely and realistic ending to the problem the trio faced. And despite all the horrid problems with Jinx, Silco, and their relationship, seeing Silco tell his daughter that he was never going to sell her out, even in the face of losing his life’s work, was actually pretty heartwarming, in a very weird way.
Also, Jinx used R on the city council while they were at full health, so I’m sure they’ll all be fine for season 2.
7/10, Arcane is a strong show with some glaring weaknesses. Can’t wait for the next season.
It’s become more and more apparent to me, as I’ve dug deeper and deeper into game balance and design at high levels of play, that what determines the design philosophy behind a development team’s game balance isn’t always hard data or objective analysis, rather, an overwhelming push from the community that’s often driven by unofficially elected leaders.
Streamers, youtubers, and professional players who have an opinion about an aspect of a game, whether their opinions are founded on a solid basis or an emotional reaction without much long-term consistency with game health, dictate the path of a game’s balance far more than the occasions where statistics driving a game’s direction happen to show themselves.
Even games like League of Legends, who’s developers have game balance as close to science as any studio out there, suffer from this phenomena. In fact, what I call the Aatrox effect was actually born out of League of Legends itself (go figure).
Aatrox, a champion in League, received a rework a couple years ago. His look, abilities, and overall strategies employed were changed to a huge degree. Upon his reentry to the game, players weren’t well practiced with him. They hadn’t been accustom to the mechanics he brought to the table, either. Both of these facts basically meant that the majority of the community sucked with Aarox, and as a result, the majority of the community called for Aatrox buffs. That is to say, they wanted the devs to make him stronger.
Because of the overwhelming support from the community, Riot Games decided to repeatedly buff the reworked champion, all the while players continued practicing with him. Both of these things combined meant that, once players got a hold of Aatrox’s strengths, they would have a champion that was so overtuned he required continuous nerfs to bring him in line so that professional players would stop stomping the floor with him every chance they got. He was essentially a 100% pick/ban champ. That is, you either pick him, or you ban him. You never let the enemy team use him.
This tight-rope walk of developers trying to appease their audience while also have a consistent philosophy behind game balance reminds me of American Politics. These days, it seems politicians have trouble appealing to everyone and their mother while also remaining a consistent voice of reason for the sake of their voters (and dignity, if they have any).
What I mean to say is that the average person can’t possibly know what exactly a game needs to improve in terms of balance. If they could, or if they could do it exceptionally, they’d be on a balance team somewhere, or they’d at least be an above average person. After all, an average assessment of a game’s balance is… well… average.
This is true for politics as well. The average person might know what policies might need to be in place to effect their situations for the better, but they can’t possibly know, on a consistent basis, what needs to happen for the country as a whole to get better across the board, or whether the theories they hold can truly be implemented effectively. All the same, politicians have to pretend that they have the answers, that the people’s answers and ideas are sufficient enough to implement, and that they aren’t usually pawns in a popularity contest with no real clue how to make the country a healthier one, both socially and economically.
All of this is true for the developer as well, except that their work is proof of their talents, meaning they have some idea of how to make their country (their game) healthier. And it’s for this reason that they get my sympathy vote, the poor, poor bastards.