Video games are a hard thing to love. The medium rarely translates well outside of its own little island — think of all the bad video game adaptations we’ve seen, or how “video game” is usually used as a shorthand for “shallow” when used to describe stories in other media. Games culture does not advocate for itself terribly well. So it’s natural, then, to cringe when you hear of a show like Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, an Apple TV comedy about a fictional video game studio that produces a World of Warcraft-esque online game. Will it work out? Will people who know about games like it? Will people who don’t? Is it even funny? You get jaded. But instead of another painful serving of Grandma’s Boy-style nonsense, Mythic Quest is legitimately good on its own merits, and one of the first big TV surprises of the year.
The nine-episode first season, now streaming on Apple TV Plus, follows Ian Grimm (Rob McElhenney), creative director of the wildly popular online role-playing game Mythic Quest, and his fellow developers as they prepare to release their first big expansion, Raven’s Banquet. There’s Poppi (Charlotte Nicdao), the lead developer; Brad (Danny Pudi), the sociopathic money guy; C.W. Longbottom (F. Murray Abraham), the washed-up fantasy writer; and David (David Hornsby), the co-founder who tries to corral them all — which can be difficult because they all hate each other.
This is why Mythic Quest works, even if you don’t know the first thing about video games. It’s about a bunch of misanthropes working together, with comedy derived from the dark ways their toxic relationships push and pull each other around. You don’t need to know how a studio works to recognize an office hierarchy when you see one, or an egomaniac boss, or a shitty coworker that skates on your hard work.
But it’s also very interested in video games, and it’s not overly concerned with making them look good or demanding anyone take them seriously. In fact, the show is pretty unsparing. The game studio is beholden to the opinions of a dirtbag teen streamer who rates video games on a five-butthole scale, labor is casually exploited, players are gleefully taken advantage of, and in one of the best episodes, it turns out Nazis really love the game they make.
What makes Mythic Quest so satisfying is how all of its comedy is steeped in character, not in how video games are inherently goofy or ridiculous (though they often are). Watching it, you can trace lines to the sort of comedies from which it’s descended. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is the easiest connection, as co-creators Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, and Megan Ganz all come from that show. But there’s also a little bit of Community in how the small decisions characters make — adding a shovel to their game, opening up an in-game casino, introducing a big mystery to fans without having any idea what the answer is — spiral out into small hurricanes that can result in a farce on corporate sensitivity panels or the formation of a labor union.
A video game studio makes for a good workplace comedy in 2020, and not because of the widespread industry sentiment about how it deserves its cultural due after years of economic dominance (Don Draper has a response to that). Instead, it’s the perfect place to get a clear look at what work is increasingly starting to look like now that the robber barons of tech have built their empires: largely behind screens, mostly for the filthy rich, all feeding a digital beast that only exists to further its own existence.
Video game employees are the lucky ones. They get to be exploited while contributing to something they ostensibly like. Everyone else gets all the dysfunction and none of the snacks.