Arcane, Heaven, and HELL | Story Writing Web
My name is Michael and I am from St. Joseph. I like stories.
This week I’m here to unravel the web of connections in Arcane, the latest and greatest of a growing list of quality video game adapted animated features. When I say greatest, I truly mean it. The narrative of this clockwork science fantasy story is so tightly woven I almost choked on the threads. But I was saved by the ensemble cast of characters who clawed their way out, each on a desperate bid for survival. Episode 1 titled, “Welcome to the Playground” will be our primary subject of focus simply because I couldn’t find a foothold anywhere else in the series that wouldn’t have me talking for hours on end.
But be warned, each piece of the puzzle slots in so perfectly it would be irresponsible to ignore the rest of the show. For this reason I give myself permission to do a tell-all analysis full of every egregious spoiler you could ever imagine. What I will say is, like any proper adaptation, Arcane holds its head high as a stand alone production. You don’t need to play the video game source material or do endless hours of research to appreciate it. In fact, I would recommend not doing either of those things. Instead you should jump straight into the show. It is worth your time.
Arcane opens with an ominous view of a bridge clouded in smoke lit by red flames. The point of view is low to the ground, the audience looks up to the strong arms and cables that support the bridge. These first few frames tell you absolutely everything you need to know about the show. What is a bridge? It’s a connection between two places. In this case, the prim and proper aristocratic city of Piltover and the grimy impoverished industrial Undercity that fed the upper lavishness.
We are on the ground level looking up. The Undercity is below, Piltover is above. Above and below. High and low. This show is replete with duality and opposites. A behind-the-scenes interview revealed the pilot episode originally began with a scene from episode 3’s opener which saw our clever antagonist Silco drowning. In this he provided a very clarifying voiceover…
“Ever wonder what it’s like to drown? A story of opposites.”
The showrunners held true to this line and visually represented his words in the opening instead. Clouds of smoke, disunity, ambiguity. Red, rage, anger, conviction, emotion. An indiscreet explosion and the firing of a gun. Our cursed heroine Powder sang through this bloodshed a song full of near and far, up and down, strong and weak, rich and poor...
Dear friends across the river
My hands are cold and bare
Dear friends across the river
I’ll take what you can spare
I ask of you a penny
My fortune it will be
I ask you without envy
We raise no mighty towers
Our homes are built of stone
So come across the river
What did Powder and her older sister Violet find? The fruits of revolution and the completion of the prologue, their mother was dead. Violet was taller than Powder. Taller, older. Powder was shorter, younger. Vi’s hair was red, Powder’s blue. Opposite opposite opposite. When Powder finally opened her eyes she looked up to Vi. The grizzled revolutionary Vander stepped aside to reveal the fate of their mother. He knew the girls and their mother, otherwise he wouldn’t have motioned to who the sisters sought after.
As the sisters grieved their mother, light pierced through the clouds and shined on Vander’s back. He cast a shadow on the girls, now adorned with a perverse halo. The light was a silent sickening epiphany of what his violence had wrought. In this moment he gave birth to 2 orphans. He dropped both his gauntlets and lifted the girls out of the carnage. The finale of this scene is Vi looking back at the bridge and the murderous enforcers. Then, she looked up to the city above as the music swelled.
The city on a hill.
I don’t want to spend too long on the opening, but it must be said how ambitious this introduction is. Few stories are able to punch so hard right at out of the gate and earn it. You can’t start with something so tragic, so somber, and not justify it later in the story. It is very risky to toy with the audience’s heartstrings only to play a sour note. If you start with such an impactful scene then fumble the explanation or create an inconsistent tone you teach the audience not to trust you.
Why did we leave off on an image of the city Piltover? Because that’s where we’re going next. The first shot is Violet climbing up a wall. She was ascending from her low place. The next shot is of her feet. A hand held high next to her head was up, her feet were down and one foot slipped.
Another low perspective shot, we are Powder looking up at our older sister looking down on us. There’s been a time skip so the kids were a bit older, but they’re still young. Powder’s name is first revealed as the band of bandit children climbed onto the roof of a rich building. On the roof. At the top. Why is her name Powder? For two reasons, one is obvious one is not.
Powder is what you make bombs out of and eventually she becomes quite the demolitions expert. Powder, on a deeper level, is the essence of potential. Buildings are made out of brick which is made out of rock, or, the dust of the earth, powder. Later she becomes the cornerstone, not of a building, but of an entire nation. Cornerstone being synonymous with a savior or messianic figure. Religious symbolism, especially inversion, is very present throughout Arcane.
“It’s nice getting above it all, huh?” Said Vi to Powder.
A wonderful establishing shot follows to introduce Piltover at a glance.
“I’m going to ride in one of those things.” Said Powder, concerning the flying airships which sailed even higher still.
“And one day, I’m gonna shoot one of them down.” Replied Milo.
This is a fun little bit of foreshadowing, as Powder eventually fulfills the dream of both her and Milo later in the show.
“Everybody follow me. Just, don’t look down.” Said Vi.
Violet had an affinity for up and down didn’t she? Cupcakes on a balcony are a cheesy bit of foreshadowing as well. Why is the first challenge for the group to jump over a gap? Well, it’s because there’s no bridge connecting the two buildings. The delinquent children weren’t supposed to be here in the first place. They were imposing their will by crossing the divide. Powder stood atop the building on the other side of the chasm, afraid.
This is the first time we see her face clearly and her eyes are gray. A blank slate, looking down. She could be anything. At present she was separated from the group. If you’ve watched the show surely you see the connection? She was far away whilst her sister Violet called her back from the edge.
“Powder look at me. What did I tell you?”
“That… I’m ready.”
Powder successfully made the jump but would have fallen into the chasm if it weren’t for Violet saving her. And how was Powder saved? By Vi catching Powder’s left arm with her right hand. Vi was right handed, Powder was left handed. Powder hovered over the abyss and stared into it. All of these interactions are a microcosm of later conflict.
“What if Vander finds out we’re up here?” Asked Claggor, worriedly.
This line serves many purposes. It establishes Claggor’s character of caution and apprehension. It confirms Vander was not only relevant, but also would be the one to discipline the children if their antics were discovered. Thereby hinting at his role as an adopted father figure. And because Vander was their father, being older, it set the stage for another tension of opposites. Young and old.
“This is exactly the sort of job Vander would have pulled when he was our age.”
“Vander’s gonna’ kill us.” Continued Claggor.
“Only if we screw up. So don’t screw up.” Reasoned Vi.
Spoiler, they screw up. Their prize was on the top floor of the next building, of course, at the top.
“Keep a look out for anything that looks valuable Powder… Before Milo fills the bag with junk.”
In this line we have another opposite, valuable and junk. Right after this is the main MacGuffin revealed. The arcane blue gemstone. The use of the MacGuffin in this story is really well done because it does not completely consume every possible reason for an action, event, or sequence. Instead it is a tool among others used to give substance to the narrative. It is a powerful motivating device but not so powerful it overwhelms any other reason a character may have for making a decision in the story.
“Wait Vi, how the hell did we find this place?” Asked Claggor who now stealthily established himself as the main inquisitor of exposition.
“It was a tip from Little Man.” Replied Vi.
“Little Man!?” Exclaimed Milo.
I love this snippet of dialogue. It’s a fun display of character personality but more importantly it introduces another plot thread. Who is Little Man? The audience is left in the dark despite all the characters present being very aware of who Little Man is. This is a breadcrumb we’ll get to later.
Powder separated from the group again. Her investigations revealed 6 more gemstones in a chest. Her eyes reflected the energetic blue as she brought one close. The owner of the apartment returned and threw the 4 thieves into a race to escape with their plunder. In her rush Powder dropped the unlucky, or, dare I say, evil 6th gemstone and it rolled across the polished floor. The unstable crystal hit the exterior wall and exploded. The inciting incident is complete. And it’s only right it was Powder’s fault.
She jinxed it.
The enforcers chased them out of the city from behind, and even from above on a bridge. Another main drawbridge that connected Piltover to the Undercity was being pulled up. The connection between the high and low was being severed. The group managed to cross this gap again. Their final escape was through a literal crap chute. What better way to journey down into the Undercity than through a sewer?
“What was that?” Asked Claggor, the champion of plot progression.
Milo turned to blame Powder but ignorance of her blunder made for quite a convincing alibi. How, in less than 10 minutes, have the writers been able to establish these 4 childrens’ personalities so richly? Through animation of weight, movement, emotion, and expression. But also through how they speak to each other; Claggor the well-intentioned, Vi the leader, Milo the sly, and Powder the inexperienced.
The group adventured back. A cut is made to a young boy smoking a pipe. Or, at least, he’s trying to. He coughed out his puffs. What does this signify? He’s trying to act older, like a tough adult. This connection will be made more clear as we continue. We are shown another young man sitting with one foot propped up the other planted on the ground. He’s playing with a coin in his left hand.
Why does all this matter? Because the introduction of this boy tells you everything about him. Sitting down in a seat of supposed authority. His feet show control of above and below. In his left hand he toyed with a coin which could be construed as a symbol of power. But in his left hand it tells us something else. He’s greedy. And his greed would get the best of him very soon.
He threatened them for their treasure. No honor among thieves.
“Hear that Deckard? They don’t want any trouble.” Spoke one of the thugs.
This is a very clever way to slip largely unimportant side characters’ names into the story. When writing you have to make a choice as to how many named characters you’ll have and how many are nameless background figures. Deckard functions as the avatar of the nameless group of thugs. He’s just barely important enough for the plot to justify him having a name. He only wanted a taste of the action.
“Just a taste?” Asked Vi as she smacked Deckard across the face with the bag of treasure.
This smack interlaces threads of the web. Deckard received a blow to his face, the device of his punishment was, ironically, the treasure he sought. He got a taste in a very literal way. But this punishment was only a shadow compared to what he received later on account of his greed. Vi tossed the treasure to Powder.
There is a beautiful and sickly fight scene that plays out. My interpretation of this scene is it’s Powder’s informal initiation into the real world. Vi said she was ready. She slid down the face of a closed stone door as a light from above illuminated the fight. Sliding down, she’s slowly descending to the same state as the Undercity. The closed stone door archway was the path to salvation which was closed for her. The light was her realization.
The music emotes passionately with string instruments, airy and pleasing even though what we are witnessing is gruesome and unsavory. This is the same sort of experience Vander had in the opening and it is this interplay of the sacred and the wicked that Arcane loves to explore. Deckard pulled a knife after his gang had been beaten fair and square. This knife upped the ante considerably. Vi called his bluff…
“Wanna’ see how that ends?”
Deckard’s knife and Vi’s response prefigures the savage rematch these 2 have in episode 3. It also, arguably, tells you which one of them was going to die. Live by the sword, die by the sword. Who pulled the blade? We shift over to Powder who made 3 more mistakes in quick succession. She alerted the thug to where she was, her makeshift bomb didn’t work, and to escape she sacrificed the treasure into the water.
“I tried to fight him off with Mouser, but… she didn’t work.”
Pay attention to how Powder addressed her failed gadget. She didn’t call it an it, she called it a she. Children speak to their toys as if they’re alive and I’m always impressed when this is reflected in the writing.
“Who saw that coming?” Asked Milo sarcastically.
“We never should have gone over there.” Lamented Claggor.
“Doesn’t matter, the stuff’s gone.” Said Vi.
I really love Vi’s expression here. Her dialogue was interrupted by a huge sigh used to release her disappointment without chastising her little sister too harshly. Powder’s hands were folded together and held close to her heart quietly supplicating for mercy.
“At least you’re okay.”
In one final descent the kids took an elevator down to the the Undercity. On this descent we have the most obvious foreshadowing speech from Milo complaining about how Powder’s mere presence jinxed every mission. We pick back up inside a bar that pumped the lifeblood liquor into the underground, The Last Drop.
A fun technique I see here and in many other fantasy or science fiction settings is the intermingling of legible script with illegible script. This is done to maintain a sense of otherworldliness without drifting too far into the unintelligible. Like how everyone seems to speak English in every fictional world. It would be cool to have something as far away from Earth as possible but the foundation of every story is communication. Some concessions must be made.
Speaking of concessions, the first frame is strong Vander cheerily serving a drink to a wimpy merchant. The merchant was concluding business with two outsiders who were trying to shaft him on a deal. After receiving threats from the outsiders, Vander stepped in to protect his insider no matter how weak he may be. This establishes the reformed character of Vander, his position as the one in charge, and a tension of 2 opposites.
The first opposite is insider and outsider. The second is young and old. Signified by the woman’s disappointment with how old Vander was and her inability to handle the strength of his pipe. This is a direct connection to the thug boy from earlier who coughed on a pipe too strong for him. The young were trying to take their seat of power but they weren’t ready yet. And yes, I know she referenced him as a hound, which connects to Warwick and blah blah.
The beaten band of bandits made their quiet entry into the bar trying their best to avoid any unwanted attention, especially from Vander. After the group took a seat Powder felt compelled to defend herself from Milo’s accusations.
“I tried, okay? You don’t get it. You’re older, you’re bigger.”
Two more opposites. Vander walked into the scene and began the conversation casually as he did moments earlier during the merchant dispute.
He directed his chastisement primarily towards Vi because she was the leader of the other 3. Everyone looked away and covered their face.
“Where did you even get this tip?” Asked Vander.
“We just heard it at Benzo’s shop.” Replied Powder.
The mysterious Little Man is brought up again, this time with a new name Benzo. Vi stood up to confront Vander and justify her actions. He reminded her of his command that the Northside was off-limits.
“How’d you get this?” Asked Vander referring to Vi’s injuries.
“Some idiot was following us.”
“On our side? Who?”
Vander, being the leader of the underground should know all the goings-on. He seemed a bit surprised that someone on their side would mess with the kids clearly under his wing. But also, why were the kids being followed in the first place? What about the treasure?
“We lost it.”
“All of it?”
Vander wanted confirmation that there was nothing to tie the kids to the crime. He brought Claggor, the champion of plot progression, with him to investigate their informant Little Man. Vander asked him for all the details because Claggor was a boy who considered things very carefully and probably had a keen memory. He also, I imagine, was not very good at lying.
Powder was busy scavenging more scrap for her gadgets. She slipped one piece into the same pouch where the remaining 5 gemstones were stored. She forgot about them. Her putting the piece of gadget into the same pocket as the gemstones shows us what future the gemstones had in store. Powder would combine them with her tools.
Excitement overtook her because up until this moment she thought she was a complete failure. She thought she’d lost all the treasure. But there was still some treasure left. She could prove her usefulness to Vi and the others. She rushed back inside to show off her success but overheard Vi and Milo lamenting Powders inability. This is a miscommunication that, thankfully, does not become a huge foundation in the plot. Nobody likes when much is made from nothing, especially when a quick conversation can clear up confusion.
We shift back over to Vander and Claggor as they arrived at Benzo’s shop. Vander set Claggor to guard the door while he entered to meet Benzo with a classic case of trash talking a close friend. The two wanted to speak privately. They cut Ekko’s grandfather clock repairs short and sent him along. When he stepped outside we hear Claggor greet him as Little Man.
“The younger folk think it’s the right thing to do.” Said Benzo concerning Vi’s antics and the greater sentiment of the Undercity.
“Someone was following them. Not enforcers, someone on our side. There’s worse things than enforcers out there. We both know that.”
When Vander said this we’re shown him place a hand on his arm that had a leather-strapped brace. This scene connects Vander to the antagonist Silco who sliced his arm open in a conflict between them years ago. Vander didn’t want an old enemy resurfacing. Benzo understood what he meant.
“Hey so how’d you find that place anyway?” Asked Claggor.
“This weirdo came into the shop, bought a whole bunch of stuff Benzo only keeps there for display, he paid in gold and didn’t even haggle. I charged him double price. Sucker.”
“But how did you know where he lived?”
“Followed him, how else?”
Who could this ‘weirdo’ be? The obvious answer is Jayce, the owner of the apartment introduced in episode 2. In my overthinking I thought it could have been our villain Silco who did some trinket shopping while Benzo was away… But Silco made it very clear he was unaware of Jayce’s experiments and did not want interference from Deckard at this time.
Two enforcers showed up at Benzo’s door. Claggor hesitated because Vander said not to let anyone in, but there’s a chance the enforcers would recognize his involvement in the crime so Ekko sent him away. The enforcers wore masks to separate themselves from the disgusting air of the Undercity. On a practical level it made sense, but symbolically it shows a deeper level of separation they had from the underground. They wouldn’t even breathe the same air.
Vander spoke to his love for negotiation earlier in the episode. We see that front and center as he welcomed the two enforcers into the shop. To no one’s surprise one enforcers was older and wiser. The other was younger and hot-headed. Officer Grayson, the superior, told Marcus to go take a walk.
“Don’t mind the kid. Doesn’t know when to pipe down.” She explained.
“Some things are the same topside and bottom.” Agreed Vander as he passed her a drink. They weren’t enemies, sharing a drink tells us they’re friendly. This whole exchange we see through Ekko’s eyes as he looked through a spyglass. He had a knack for eavesdropping. He’s also looking through the eye of a mask he’d wear later in the show.
“We had a deal Vander. You keep your people off my streets and I stay out of your business.” Reasoned Grayson.
This conversation is a really good display of the complicated nature of politics. Especially when family is involved. Vander couldn’t give up his adopted children even if the Piltover council needed a scapegoat. He was willing to play ball for the safety of the Undercity but this was a price too steep to pay.
“If you change your mind, this will reach me. And only me.”
She handed him a messaging cylinder, the kind like you send through a pneumatic tube at your bank. This item is a minor MacGuffin useful in the first Act of the series. While the gemstones get all the attention, there are other items of narrative importance sprinkled throughout.
Such as, a stuffed toy rabbit. An archetype that is seen throughout many stories, including the anime Ergo Proxy I analyzed a couple weeks, is the rabbit. Vi gave Powder a pep-talk to raise her spirits from their low place of uselessness. How did she do this? By telling stories of the group’s failures, concluding with a failure of her own. Someone took Vi’s favorite toy rabbit and threw it up into the powerlines.
“I used to come out here at night and stare at it, hoping maybe the wind or a bird might knock it down.”
The rabbit was caught high above. Vi hoped for something even higher than the rabbit to deliver her toy back to her. The wind. A bird. She wanted a miracle. No miracle ever came. The rabbit was her reality check. In subsequent episodes Vi does retrieve the toy and give it to Powder. The rabbit is a recurring character who almost always shows up at a climactic moment, especially in episodes 3 and 9.
“Oh, I forgot. These were in my pocket. Should we show Vander?” Asked Powder.
Vi quickly responded with a resounding ‘no.’ To dissuade further question or concern from Powder she re-framed the refusal as an innocent secret between two sisters. If Vi decided to tell the truth, the story would have been much less bitter.
“One day, this city is going to respect us.” Said Vi.
This is the second time this episode Vi reflected the sentiments of the main antagonist Silco. First in her chastisement of Vander’s compliancy, the second in a demand for respect. Both things Silco told to Vander’s face in episode 3. Where do we transition to after Vi’s demand for respect? To the underwater lair of villains.
Why underwater? Because in the depths is where monsters lurk. Also, Silco had a very intimate relationship with water. He underwent a dark baptism and was transformed. It was this same ritual he administered to Powder later in the show where she received her anti-christened name of Jinx. The first frame is a half-destroyed chair and the dark waters behind. Deckard was thrown into the seat forcefully.
A sleeping cat woke up and brushed against Deckard’s leg. The cat was asleep, a type of death. It touched Deckard’s leg. The cat is killed at the end of the episode. The cat brushing his leg connects the two of them. You could say, it placed a curse on Deckard. A bad omen. A sea monster swam by and we’re slowly shown the villain Silco for the first time. He held a strange device and combined two separate pieces.
“You were supposed to follow them and not interfere.” Silco, just like Vander, never began a conversation with his direct intentions.
“I’m sorry, they just caught us by surprise.” An obvious lie from Deckard.
“Now his accomplice is asking questions, about you.” His (being Vander) accomplice (being Benzo).
Ever so slowly is Silco revealed. The eerie music, the hardened thugs, the isolation in the murky depths. The first shot of Silco is a profile shot of his silhouette. Seeing half of someone’s face is duplicity, darkness is his disposition. He’s tapping the strange device to mix the solution within it. This tap tap tap is like the ticking of a clock. His impatience with Deckard reached it’s peak. Deckard’s life was ticking down.
“The kids… It was their fault! The explosion in the upper city.” Pleaded Deckard.
“That was them?” Asked Silco.
This is the line that told me it was not Silco who was the ‘weirdo’ Little Man Ekko referred to. This, and the general modus operandi of Silco at this point in the story was lying in wait for his opportunity to strike. Deckard and his group of adolescent thugs were one of the strings in Silco’s information network. And if Deckard was a weak link, he would cut him off. But this tidbit of info about Vander’s kids might be Deckard’s saving grace.
“Vander’s in trouble.” Reflected Silco.
A new opportunity presented itself. Silco turned to face us and a glowing red eye is revealed from his hidden half. A classic use of the evil eye. It also was his left eye, left often being the path of evil. As Silco swaggered across the room the camera rotates around him to settle on his left profile. The directors are very cleverly never show the entirety of Silco but only show bits and pieces. They are using horror-movie techniques to associate this otherwise thin, frail man with monstrosity.
“Our timeline has moved up.”
The timeline for what? For creating monsters. His mad scientist comrade prepared a demonstration of a terrible transformation drug called Shimmer. This was when the cat that cursed Deckard was killed by a mouse who used the drug to overpower an otherwise deadly predator. The mouse is symbolic of the Undercity, or, Silco’s destined nation of Zuan. The cat is Piltover. Shimmer would be the tool of the underdog to defeat its natural predator.
We see Silco’s complete face for the first time. His natural eye-color is blue. His evil eye is red. He is a synthesis of red and blue. The bridge between opposites being half-disfigured. This in-between, this middle, this half-commitment is present within the narrative. Though Silco is certainly the villain of the story, he is not an irredeemable or unsympathetic character. He’s half good and half bad. Vi is red. Powder is blue.
“Do you have a subject in mind?” Asked the doctor.
“Someone just volunteered.”
Who is that someone? The last frame of the episode tells us. Center-scene is the chair where Deckard was thrust. He would be the perfect unwilling ‘volunteer.’
I’ll be honest with you, I had a major concern after watching the first episode of Arcane when it aired. I was worried this show was only going to be a thinly veiled allegory of the age old played out battle of rich vs poor. That isn’t to say the topic is without merit, but I was hoping for something more. I was so pleasantly surprised when the more I watched the deeper Arcane explored high vs low, up vs down, and right vs left. Rich vs poor was but one part of a larger framework.
The cherry on top for me was the use of religious symbolism. If my thoughts on Powder’s name and her inverted baptism weren’t enough to convince you… Consider the grand finale. The main cast of characters were gathered to participate in a final meal. And what happened at this last supper? Jinx sought to expose a traitor, a type of Judas, and a sacrifice was made at the table. What did this sacrifice produce? A new nation, a new kingdom.
I would be remiss to exclude the very obvious Judas, that being Officer Marcus who betrayed his superior literally for a sack of coins. Or how Mel Medarda functioned as a sort of spirit guide for Jayce just as Silco did for Jinx. Or the overarching idea of combining technology and magic. Or a host of any other insightful connections.
There is so much more I could get into but I’m content to cut it here. If you made it to the end, congratulations and thank you. You have the same level of fascination for niche weird stories, animation, and writing as I do. If you want more from me do please like, share, subscribe, and comment your thoughts. You can read this script and much more on my website, michaelofstjoseph.com. Links will be in the video description. When it comes to storytelling, the end is never really the end. I’ll be back soon with another peculiar topic to explore.
Until then, spin on.