By Penny Theodorakopoulou,
On October 29, 2009, a new company under the name Riot Games released the worldwide-famous video game League of Legends — also known as League or LoL. For those who are unaware of what I am talking about, League of Legends is a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) video game, in which you play a champion of your choice, match with four other people, and team up. Your goal — to destroy the enemies, or, in League lingo, the enemy Nexus, and emerge victorious.
Ten years later, on October 16, 2019, on League’s 10-year anniversary, Riot Games made quite the announcements for future changes in their base game — League of Legends — and their secondary “game” — Teamfight Tactics, also known as TFT. However, those were not the only subjects that were discussed. On that day, during Riot Games’ live stream on Twitch, the development team announced their future projects for not just League and TFT, but also for upcoming games and projects (for further information, check the link here). To the day you are reading this article, quite a few have been accomplished: now, Riot Games can have that “s” at the end of the word “games”. Legends of Runeterra (also known as LoR), Valorant, LoL: Wild Rift, as well as Riot Forge (Hextech Mayhem and Ruined King) are now part of the Riot Games’ family — and there are more to come!
However, as the dev team mentioned in the live stream, Riot Games wanted to go beyond that. They did not want to be just a company for games — because their fans love and appreciate Riot Games for their projects, even though they have made a plethora of mistakes. No, Riot Games wished to do something unique, something that will please their fans even more. They wanted — especially the fans and players of League — to learn more about the lore of the world that League takes place in — Runeterra. So, two years and a month ago, they announced that Riot Games would be releasing an animated series called Arcane (2021-), in which fans would dive deeper into the world of Runeterra and learn more about their favorite champions. So, in this article, since Arcane finished two days ago, we will talk about the show that kept its promises and was just as prominent and promising as the trailers.
Before we talk about Arcane, I would like to mention that, after Squid Game‘s massive success in over 90 countries, Arcane quickly became Netflix’s best-rated and most-watched show worldwide after its premiere. In fact, it is so popular, it is all over the gaming world — from the in-game event in Riot Games’ games (LoL, TFT, Valorant, LoR), RiotX Arcane, to collaborations with other popular games, such as PUBG Mobile, Fortnite, and Among Us. The conclusions are yours to make regarding how big Arcane is.
Arcane first aired on Netflix two weeks ago — on November 6th, to be exact. It is divided into three Acts, each one including three episodes. Act I, with the first three episodes, was aired on November 6th, Act II, with Episodes 4-6, was released on November 13th, and the final act, Act III, includes the last three episodes of the series — at least for the time being. Friendly reminder: you do not have to have played League in order to understand the lore behind the champions that are projected in Arcane. In fact, what Arcane does is show its viewers how those champions were before.
In this article, however, we are not going to talk about the series and the events that take place in it. What I aim to do is give you some starting intel about how life used to be between Piltover and Zaun, what huge improvement of one part of the city affected the other part, and how the events are relevant even for the “real” world. But, if you want to know the plot in a couple of sentences…
The plot of Arcane
Vi and Powder are two sisters from Zaun whose parents were murdered by Piltover’s police officers (the Enforcers). Being in the custody of Vander, Vi and Powder, along with their friends, Claggor and Mylo, try to survive by searching for scraps in Zaun or stealing valuable possessions from Piltover. The four of them go on a mission in Piltover, but Powder finds a mysterious stone, which explodes the building and thus ruining the operation and losing all the possessions they took from the building. In the meantime, while an ambitious young scientist, Jayce, with the help of Viktor, wishes to cultivate magic with technology, Silco, a criminal kingpin in Zaun also dreams big for the so-called Nation of Zaun, which will be liberated and independent from Piltover, is also experimenting on a new substance called Shimmer, with the help of Singed. However, in Episode 3, a terrible incident takes place and changes the course of the events of Arcane and its characters once and for all… For more information, you can watch the 9 episodes on Netflix.
The politics of Arcane: A brief history of Piltover and Zaun
Zaun previously sat on an isthmus between two oceans so it was decided that chem tech bombs would be used to create a channel to unite the two oceans. However, something went wrong and the isthmus was destroyed and sections of Zaun sank. Following the recovery of Zaun, the Sun Gates were constructed to regulate oceanic passage between West & East. This engineering project led to disastrous consequences. The blasting and excavation went horribly wrong, the lower parts of Zaun were fatally undermined, and the explosions triggered a series of cataclysmic earthquakes. Oceans rushed into the caves and mines, collapsing industrial plants and spilling toxic chemicals in enormous amounts, creating huge saltwater chemical swamps. An extremely on-the-nose metaphor for capitalism begins to emerge, with the poor stuck in filth, misery, and darkness in the lower city, which keeps the name of Zaun. On the other hand, the rich, the powerful, the influential, and the privileged build a shining city of copper and brass in the sun up above, which in time comes to be called Piltover. The canal river through Zaun is called The Pilt, so it is literally “pilt over”, “over the pilt”.
Piltover and Zaun, as a setting, are based on class struggle and class warfare. It interrogates the legacy of the industrial revolution and asks some pretty pointed questions about the cost of technological progress, perhaps especially relevant to a world currently being slowly cooked by the consequences of our own rapid industrialization. In the story of Piltover and Zaun, a central theme is one of social-political, and economic inequality. It is also about environmentalism, industrialization, and the impact of technological advancement, but economic inequality is, in my point of view, the central idea being explored; hence the steampunk quasi-victorian crystal palace glories of the empire aesthetic of Piltover; hence the explicit, industrial, and punk aesthetic of Zaun calls back to classic imagery of class division. Piltover is the middle and upper class and Zaun is the working class. The tension between them is the tension of class warfare. Zaun suffers from economic deprivation and exploitation. Its labor builds the glorious city of Piltover, and it is then saddled with the pollution of that meteoric rise. In Zaun, children scavenge through chemical swamps for scraps that they can trade for food; orphans live on the street at the mercy of gangs and chem barons and die from the fatal poison smog that rolls through the Lanes.
I could talk about Arcane for days. But if I had written an article about what happened in Arcane, you would not watch it for yourselves. And really, it was a great show and I will definitely rewatch it anytime soon. The plot, the animation, the voice actors, as well as the variety of messages behind the series captivated me and many other viewers. As a person who has been playing League since 2012 — and still going —, watching Arcane made me understand the champions who are in it better since I do not like reading about the lore and prefer watching it instead — and that is exactly what happened with Arcane. What astounded me more than anything while watching the series was the distinction between Piltover and Zaun — not just as cities, but in a more general and spherical view. No matter if it is a video game’s animated series or real life, injustice, unfairness, and malice in all forms (be it socio-political, eco-political, historic-political, etc.) is the common and vile ground. It is reality, and everybody is for themselves. As the featuring song of the series says by Imagine Dragons, “Everybody wants to be my enemy”…