In the first episode of Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, a new Apple TV+ comedy set in a video game development studio, lead engineer Poppy Li (Charlotte Nicdao) conceives a new feature for the titular MMO she helped build: a shovel. In Poppy’s mind, the low-tech tool would give players agency over their environment, allowing them to leave their marks on the digital landscape. More important, perhaps, the shovel would be the one mechanic in Mythic Quest, the highest-grossing game of all time, that Poppy could call her own: the rare one-person project in a collaborative creation designed and maintained by dozens, if not hundreds, of programmers, writers, and artists whose individual contributions are assimilated into the studio’s monolithic moneymaker.
There’s one problem with Poppy’s plan: The shovel isn’t fun. (OK, two problems: Players use it to dig penis-shaped holes.) There’s something there, though, and Mythic Quest’s visionary yet egomaniacal creative director, Ian Grimm (Rob McElhenney) pinpoints the missing ingredient: violence. If the shovel were a weapon as well as a tool, it could become the game’s signature accessory. “I just know that this thing can be the coolest item in the game, and they will love it,” Grimm muses. “I don’t know why I know that. I just do.” After Poppy tweaks the redesigned item’s physics to make it more satisfying to swing, the shovel becomes the most popular addition to Raven’s Banquet, Mythic Quest’s new expansion. It’s no longer 100 percent Poppy’s. Nor is it entirely Ian’s. It’s a combination of both of their visions, and thanks to that blend, it’s fun.
Granted, the shovel Poppy and Ian team up to create is neither novel nor innovative: Hundreds of games have featured shovels as digging implements, weapons, or both. Beyond that, though, the shovel episode is mostly true to the exasperating alchemy of making a game—and not just in terms of players’ proclivity for doing damage and forming penises. In Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, his 2017 book about video game development, Jason Schreier of Kotaku—a site repeatedly referenced in Mythic Quest—points out one of the most maddening aspects of game design: “It’s impossible to know how ‘fun’ a game will be until you’ve played it.” As a Naughty Dog designer tells him, “You make these intricate plans in your head about how well things are going to work, and then when it actually comes and you try to play it, it’s terrible.”
Mythic Quest is a fairly faithful depiction of that process, presenting game design as a series of crises and crunches punctuated by moments of magic. But just as the fictional shovel doesn’t click with players because it perfectly simulates what shovels are really like, Mythic Quest doesn’t succeed because it accurately documents daily life at a game studio. In gaming, what matters more than anything is whether the finished product is fun. In comedy, what matters more than anything is whether it’s funny. Mythic Quest is funny, deliciously satirical and, at times, touching. It’s probably the best live-action TV series ever made about video games, but at its core, it’s a workplace comedy where the workplace is new but the comedy is time-tested. There may be a shovel, but this isn’t shovelware.
Like Poppy’s shovel, Mythic Quest is a creation of multiple minds: McElhenney’s, and those of his It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia colleagues, Charlie Day and Megan Ganz. The series, which was renewed for a second season before its nine-episode first season launched all at once last Friday, revolves around the chaotic collaboration of a diverse cast that encompasses Poppy, Ian, and several other key figures at the studio that makes Mythic Quest: wishy-washy executive producer David (Sunny’s David Hornsby), his assistant Jo (Jessie Ennis), head of monetization Brad (Danny Pudi), head writer C.W. Longbottom (F. Murray Abraham), game testers Rachel (Ashly Burch, a frequent video game voiceover artist) and Dana (Imani Hakim), programmer Michelle (Aparna Nancherla), and HR director Carol (Naomi Ekperigin).
Ian, who’s reminiscent of Russ from Silicon Valley, has an intuitive feel for what makes the game good, but he’s pathologically self-centered and quick to take credit and bask in public acclaim. Poppy is perpetually put-upon and chafes at standing in Ian’s shadow; David is indecisive; Jo, who glowers like April Ludgate, is drawn to power; Brad prioritizes money over morals; and C.W., who loves an elaborate backstory, is stuck in the ’70s, when he won a Nebula Award but somehow missed seeing Star Wars. Most characters grow richer and rounder as the season proceeds, their behavior evolves, and we get glimpses of their lives outside the studio. But those forays outside the office rarely last long; as one of the testers notes, it’s tough to take breaks when the studio is tracking your eyeballs.
In the sixth and final season of Felicia Day’s influential web series, The Guild, which ended in 2013, Day’s character Codex starts work at the studio that makes her favorite World of Warcraft knockoff, The Game. It’s not quite the dream job it sounds like it should be: The studio is in the middle of making a troubled expansion, and her boss is a tyrant. “Season 6 was supposed to be the TV pilot I was going to sell to make the show a TV show,” Day said in 2017. “It was going to change the dynamics of the show to make it less insular and inside and more about a girl who worked at a gaming company.”
Mythic Quest is based on a similar premise. Its studio seems so dysfunctional that it’s hard to imagine a masterpiece emerging from the disorder, but that turmoil mirrors the real-life horror stories behind many great games. “It’s a miracle that any game is made,” an exhausted designer tells Schreier in Blood, Sweat, and Pixels. Whether they’re built by one person or hundreds, many games run on opaque code cobbled together on deadlines so tight that some features may still be broken or untested weeks or days before the final build goes gold. As Schreier notes, “Every single video game is made under abnormal circumstances.” Mythic Quest’s circumstances may be more abnormal than most, but the series finds humor in a heightened version of actual development hell.
To some degree, the makers of Mythic Quest court dedicated gamers: McElhenney showed off the series at E3 last June, and the show’s script drops DOTs and OPs, loot boxes, and vanilla versions without stopping to explain every instance of specialized lingo. But most of those terms are clear from context, and the appeal of the series doesn’t depend on extensive experience with games or MMOs. Mythic Quest’s comedy comes from conflicts familiar to anyone who’s held a job, and it doesn’t require intimate knowledge of games, any more than Silicon Valley or The Office require intimate knowledge of the tech or paper industries. McElhenney told The Hollywood Reporter that the writers’ room was split between gamers and non-gamers to ensure that the series would serve both audiences.
Refreshingly, the show doesn’t waste time poking fun at gamers or going out of its way to justify why anyone would want to play Mythic Quest. Aside from a slide in a studio presentation that shows revenue from video games dwarfing that of film, music, or TV streaming, the series trusts that the viewer will take the cultural relevance of gaming for granted. Even last year’s Dead Pixels, which sought to portray gamers in a flattering light, still drew clear contrasts between gamers and non-gamers and made gaming seem like an insular, isolating pursuit. Mythic Quest reflects the reality that most people play games, although they don’t all play MMOs. Even in 2017, Day noted the ascendance of other gaming genres may have made an MMO-centric series seem outmoded, but Mythic Quest doubles down on online RPGs instead of embracing MOBAs or battle royales, perhaps hoping to ensnare older gamers who grew up on WoW (or recently returned to it). MMOs also offer more opportunities for the fictional studio to craft campaigns and C.W. to churn out his hackneyed, florid lore.
Mythic Quest is most earnest—and sometimes semi-sappy—when it touches on the transformative, empowering potential of games. “I feel like Beowulf after he slew Grendel,” C.W. declares after the first time he picks up a controller and beats a boss. (Abraham, like his character, learned a lot about games while making the show.) Rachel, who’s trying to convince him that emotional moments flow from organic gameplay, not prewritten cutscenes, responds, “We just made a story together, and we were more invested because we were a part of it. All that shit Ian says is right.” Later, we see the two crying over a cutscene from Red Dead Redemption 2. On Mythic Quest, disputes often end in productive, cathartic compromise based on a shared commitment to their task. These people are prickly, but on some level, they love what they do.
For all its frivolity and celebration of the medium, Mythic Quest finds time to explore the industry’s faults, from toxic enclaves of white supremacists and doxing-prone trolls to studio gender disparities, sexism, and unhealthy crunch, the last of which fuels a late-season story line about game developers unionizing (which hasn’t happened yet at a major studio, but could be about to). The darkest corners tend to yield the loudest laughs: Asked to craft an apology in response to a public report about the Nazi player presence, C.W. asks, “Are we apologizing to the Nazis, or on their behalf?”
The series is at its strongest when it dwells on gaming’s uneasy alliance between art and commerce: Brad never meets a microtransaction or sponsorship opportunity that he can’t cram into the game, and the series’ pubescent streaming celebrity, Pootie Shoe (a not-very-veiled reference to PewDiePie), highlights the love-hate relationship between developers and the influencers who promote their products.
Mythic Quest is itself a product of a partnership between creative and corporate. The series was suggested by Ubisoft, a massive French developer and publisher that founded Ubisoft Motion Pictures in 2011 to make movies and TV shows based on its franchises (including 2016 flop Assassin’s Creed). Ubisoft approached McElhenney and Day with the idea, coproduced the series, and consulted on some plot lines. That advice may have helped lend an air of authenticity to the show, but it didn’t come without a cost.
Although McElhenney recently stressed that “we are not doing a commercial for Ubisoft,” the series does sometimes seem like Ubisoft sponcon. Some fake footage of Mythic Quest produced for the show is very clearly repurposed from Ubisoft series such as For Honor and Assassin’s Creed, and characters frequently reference their corporate overlords’ location in Montreal, where one of Ubisoft’s studios just happens to be based. It’s nothing a non-gamer would notice or be bothered by, but for anyone who’s played or been bombarded by marketing for Ubisoft titles, it’s pretty intrusive.
It’s fitting, then, that Mythic Quest’s artistic climax comes in the episode that most directly reckons with the corrupting effect of the pursuit of profit. Episode 5, “A Dark Quiet Death” (directed by McElhenney and written by his sister Katie, another Always Sunny vet) tells a self-contained story that guest stars Cristin Milioti and Jake Johnson. In that midseason installment, which plays out over a period of more than a decade, a husband-and-wife developer duo gradually gives into meddling from marketing and feedback from focus groups and compromises the principles that made their game special. First they kill the quiet, then the dark, then the death, a cautionary tale Ian takes to heart. Although “A Dark Quiet Death” is distinct in tone from the rest of the season, which hews closer to Community (another Ganz-assisted series), it’s indicative of the thoughtful series inside the sitcom.
When Netflix’s acclaimed Castlevania series came out in 2017, I wrote that the show could encourage a copycat wave of small-screen video game adaptations. A gaming gold rush on TV is even likelier now. If Netflix’s numbers are to be believed, The Witcher enjoyed one of the largest launches of any series on the streaming service in 2019, and many more storied video game franchises—including Resident Evil, Halo, Devil May Cry, and Final Fantasy—are slated for TV versions. Once TV started turning to video games for material, it was only a matter of time until it turned to game development. Mythic Quest finds the fun in that often-painful process. It may not be the megahit Apple TV+ lacks, but it does deserve an expansion.