Saturday, 23 October 2021

Mythic Quest: Season 1

Mythic Quest is one of the world's most popular massively multiplayer online roleplaying games, with a dedicated player base. However, its creators are dysfunctional and argumentative, with the desires of creative director Ian Grimm, lead engineer Poppy Li, head writer C.W. Longbottom (who won a Nebula Award in 1973) and head of monetisation Brad Bakshi frequently clashing. With a fickle fanbase to keep addicted (and paying), the company has to go all-out with the game's first major expansion, Raven's Banquet, to keep the game and the studio afloat.

You may be thinking that if there's one thing the world doesn't need more of, it's workplace comedies. But whilst workplace comedies are a dime a dozen, the well-executed, memorable workplace comedy is a rarity. The Office and Parks & Recreation are the standard-bearers for the field, and Mythic Quest surprisingly quickly measures up, if not exceeds those standards (since the first seasons for both shows, at least the US version of The Office, were spotty).

The show's writing talent is seasoned and honed from many years spent working on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, although Mythic Quest has a completely different tone and feel. The cast is also outstanding, with It's Always Sunny's Rob McElhenney leading the way as Ian (pronounced "eye-an") Grimm, the egotistical creative director who fails to realise he's subordinate to David Brittlesbee (David Hornsby, also from It's Always Sunny), the game's unassertive and ineffective executive producer to likes to overshare his cripplingly embarrassing life failures. Charlotte Nicdao (A gURLs wURLd) plays neurotic lead engineer Poppy, who wants to keep a purity of vision of the game as a place for creativity and artistry. This leads her into frequent conflicts with Brad, played by Danny Pudi (Community) playing completely against type as a profit-obsessed monster. Jessie Ennis plays newcomer Jo, David's new assistant who has distressingly psychopathic tendencies, with veteran Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus) playing C.W. Longbottom, an old-skool science fiction writer about thirty years past his best but has experienced a career rejuvenation from working on the game. Rounding out the regular cast are Imani Hakim (Everybody Hates Chris) as Dana and veteran video game voice actress (and show writer) Ashly Burch as Rachel, the game testers with a simmering romantic attraction to each other who won't do anything about it (to the frustration of the rest of the office).

Mythic Quest makes good use of its formidable writing and acting talent to tell stories about and within the video game industry that feel timely and relevant. The issues of crunch and burnout are raised, and the industry's issues with diversity and representation form plot points in several episodes. The fact that the series is co-produced and has most of its ingame footage provided by Ubisoft, who've had a lot of their own issues in these areas recently, is somewhat ironic. The fundamental problems behind the scenes on video games where the artistic, technical and financial goals are not in alignment are also used to provide tension, and laughs.

For the most part, Mythic Quest's first season works well as a funny workplace comedy, using its subject matter to differentiate itself from other shows. However, for its fifth episode the show throws out a ball that is less curved than totally bent. A Dark Quiet Death is a 40-minute standalone film which starts in the early 1990s when action game designer Doc (Jake Johnson) and moody writer Bean (Cristin Milioti) meet and fall in love. They co-produce an artistic game based around the futility of life which becomes an unlikely smash hit. However, their financiers quickly put pressure on them to make sequels with increasingly greater levels of violence, guns and explosions, to Bean's growing resentment and anger. The episode breaks down and encapsulates the wider themes of the series into a stand-alone story almost entirely lacking in comedy in favour of drama and tragedy. It's a mini-masterpiece of an episode that stands not just above the rest of the season, but most other shows as well.

This decision to do "out-of-format" specials would be repeated at the end of the season when the COVID pandemic curtailed plans for an early start to Season 2. Instead, two specials were produced. The second, acting as a season-bridging interstitial, is fine but the first of these two specials is outstanding. Shot entirely on Zoom and in actors' houses, it's funny and a little tragic at the same time, and takes clever advantage of the format and keeping the characters apart to tell us more about them. Lots of shows did "quarantine specials," including some that had been off-air for years (like Parks & Recreation) and they were mostly fine, but Mythic Quest's is probably the best for how it uses the format to develop the ongoing storyline and character arcs. The end-of-episode Zoom gag is also outstanding.

The first season of Mythic Quest (****) is funny, well-acted, well-written and entertaining, whilst also using its format to explore the video game industry from several angles (including development, the interaction with streamers and player feedback). But it's the out-of-format specials in episodes 5 and 10 (both *****) which show a willing to experiment and tell unusual stories that are the real winners, a feat that the show will match in the second year.

The first season of Mythic Quest is streaming worldwide now on Apple TV+. A second season is also available, and the show as recently renewed for two more seasons, the first of which will air in 2022.

1 comment:

mffanrodders said...

Nice review. I’ve been looking forward to watching this for some time as I adore IASIP. I’m delighted to read that this is a little different, but just as clever.