What Apple TV+'s 'Mythic Quest' Gets Right About the Video Game Industry
Hot on the heels of the end of HBO's Silicon Valley, a new comedy series is dead-set on mining the video game industry for all the laughs they can muster. It's Apple TV+'s Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet, the first season of which recently dropped to the fledgling streamer and is already leaving an impression among the video game crowd.
Various TV shows and movies have been mining tech and video game culture for comedy for years to varying degrees of success (Grandma's Boy, good; Dads, yikes). While Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet falls into the familiar narrative formula of a workplace comedy, the show delivers a pretty honest -- although not entirely accurate -- look behind the veil of the much-maligned, often-misunderstood gaming industry.
Mythic Quest, which was created by It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's Rob McElhenney (who also stars in the series) along with Charlie Day and Megan Ganz, comes at a time when the popularity of the competitive world of e-sports is exploding. In Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet, the focus is just one title, leading us to the obvious comparison between this fictional company and the likes of Riot Games, which is known for its highly successful MMORPG, League of Legends.
League of Legends is a monster in the e-sports world, with new expansions being introduced to the game on a regular basis. There are tournaments focused just on this game (not unlike old Halo tournaments of yore or sold-out Overwatch events held in the same arenas where NBA teams play), making the Riot Games title one of the biggest out there. The comparisons don't stop there, though, as the company has recently been involved in a barrage of harassment allegations -- with 1,000 plaintiffs currently involved in this case -- that gives insight into the male-dominated industry and the gender discrimination that is still commonplace.
As someone who has worked in both fields -- video games and TV -- I can firsthand acknowledge that, with all this innovation and success, the issues of the day, which range from toxic masculinity and gender representation to the ever-frustrating battle of art versus commerce, have always bubbled up to the surface. And while progress has been made over the past decade, movement in a positive direction has been rather glacial.
Let's start with the latter: Online platforms like Twitch have emerged to offer viewers a prime viewing experience into gameplay, giving support and marketing for these games -- which result in huge paydays for the streamer, the sponsored influencers logging on to professionally play these games for hours on end, and the various companies whose titles are being featured -- all while supplying representation for both the players and the audience.
In the pilot episode of Mythic Quest, the lead engineer in charge of the Raven's Banquet expansion pack, Poppy Li (Charlotte Nicdao), proudly introduces a shovel tool to help players change the open game world. Altering the landscape sounds cool, and all, but the shovel quickly digs up common problems game developers face: creative director Ian Grimm (McElhenney) questions the "cool factor" of the item while it becomes a mission for Brad (Danny Pudi), the company's monetization expert, to use said shovel to make as much money off the game's players as possible. This is just one of many examples exhibited throughout the series of the constant push-pull dynamic between the artistic heart of a game and its potential commercial value.
A big part of that value comes via every word uttered by prepubescent influencer Pootie Shoe (Elisha Henig) -- whose reactions to Mythic Quest could make or break the company at the drop of a hat -- who immediately uses the shovel to, well, draw dicks. And while we're talking about the obnoxious young streamer, who lives in his mother's basement but also has her on a salary, is representative of the powerful, yet oftentimes problematic personalities like, say, PewdiePie.
"Making fun of the fact that a billion-dollar enterprise hangs on the words of a 14-year-old boy… that’s where we found most of the comedy," Ganz explained during the show's panel at the 2020 Television Critics Association winter tour. "So, although they are angry at him, we’re not trying to make him look like an idiot. It’s more the joke of the power that he wields."
The melding of game culture and the oddball realm of Internet influencers is just one way in which Mythic Quest represents the current state of the video game industry correctly. Given that this is a professional field that can turn a 16-year-old Fortnite competitor into an overnight millionaire, it's not that tough to see the bonkers nature of the whole thing. The comedy almost writes itself.
But, see, that's where Mythic Quest differs from other like-minded entertainment. While this is a sitcom, with the tried-and-true joke formula of setup/payoff happening regularly throughout an episode, the series does a good job of showcasing the pros and cons of the industry without turning this fictional company, its employees, and the players of the game, into a flat-out punchline.
All that said, the ensemble cast of characters are a hilarious hodge-podge of big egos struggling to co-exist in this mostly-male ecosystem -- from David Hornsby's (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) emasculated executive producer David Brittlesbee and F. Murray Abraham's (Amadeus) aging weirdo writer C.W. Longbottom to Caitlin McGee's (Bluff City Law) Annie Wilkes-style H.R. Manager, Sue, and David's assistant Jo, who is brilliantly, and maniacally, played by Jessie Ennis (Better Call Saul).
That leads us to the ever-present elephant in the room: Gamergate. The issue, which is utterly submerged in layers upon layers of toxic masculinity, might have more social awareness than ever, but this sort of harassment is nothing new when you consider that 14-year-old boys, the world over, have been pwning newbs for decades online -- whether it's sniping a player as they immediate respawn into a mission in any number of Call of Duty games, to whatever the heck is happening in Fortnite. And honestly, you've never had a true video game experience until you've had some random 12-year-old beat you online at 2 o'clock in the morning and proceed to tell you how much you suck before explaining all the things he'd like to do to your mom.
The male-ness of the culture is as pervasive here as it has been in the world of comic book entertainment for years. All you need to do is watch the very first episode of Mythic Quest to see a hint of the immature nature of it play out; that, basically, if you've got a game to play -- be it Minecraft or Skyrim -- it'd be instantaneous for gamers to find a way to draw a penis. There's even a term for it: TTP, or "Time to Penis."
Mythic Quest does tackle the issue of gender, but not directly. Instead, it's just another facet weaved into the culture being represented. That said, gender disparity becomes a main focal point in Episode 4, titled "The Convention." It was established, early-on, that Poppy's brilliance is what keeps Ian Grimm's bombastic personality, and all the bravado that comes with it, intact. She's the brains, he's the brawn -- literally, and figuratively.
"I think it’s unusual that Poppy is a lead programmer and the other women… they’re much lower on the totem pole in the company," Nicdao said during the show's TCA panel. "And I think it’s dealt with really well in terms of looking at the ambition that they all have and what they need to do to get to where they want to be."
We have to give the show credit, though. Diversity in the gaming world may be sparse, but the series does broaden the scope a bit with the inclusion of Imani Hakim and Ashly Burch as Dana and Rachel, the two lone testers on the Mythic Quest crew. The blossoming romance between them, along with the eventual high profile promotion one receives, is an empowering plot point worth applauding.
"I feel like it’s really important to have representation in this field because we don’t really see shows that put women in these positions," Hakim said during the show's TCA panel. "Especially playing a young woman game tester and a person of color, we don’t get to see that being highlighted as well. So I think this is a very special project that we have all these women in the cast and on the show that are represented positively."
It feels like ages ago that I worked in the Quality Assurance trenches at the now-shuttered video game publishing company, THQ. When the studio eventually dissolved in 2012, Ubisoft, purchased many of its assets. As a consultant on the series, the Montreal-based game studio was heavily involved in keeping Mythic Quest, as well as the fictional game, as authentic-feeling as possible. Aside from incorporating industry lingo throughout the series, there are references to popular games outlets like Kotaku, and Ubisoft-tapped Red Storm studios (who helped bring the Far Cry, Rainbow Six, and Ghost Recon franchises to life) to build out original assets for this fake game to exist and operate in.
Attention to these details was key to bringing Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet to life. From exploring the trials and tribulations of the gaming industry's past, and the progressive, yet destructive commercially viable nature of its present state, Mythic Quest bridges the gap between the retro sensibilities of older gamers and the always coveted younger demographic. As off-beat as things may seem, at times, the show has an emotional core that does a great job of keeping things grounded, no matter how out-there, the story gets.
Once the series returns for its already confirmed second season -- or, should we say, new expansion -- here's hoping McElhenney and crew will keep that momentum going. Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet has yet to achieve the comedic brilliance of something like Silicon Valley, but in this industry, all it takes is some loot and experience to unlock such an achievement.
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