The following contains spoilers for Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet.
Through its first four episodes, Apple TV+’s gaming comedy Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet hums right along to a familiar sitcom beat.
The show, created by It’s Always Sunny’s Rob McElhenney, Megan Ganz, and David Hornsby, introduces the titular MMO game, the studio behind it, and the idiosyncratic cast of characters charged with keeping it up and running. It’s all familiar, yet superbly executed sitcom stuff. And then episode five rolls around.
“We came up with this idea of doing something in the middle of the season that seems unrelated to what you’ve just experienced for the first four episodes,” McElhenney told Den of Geek at the Winter TCA press tour. “And then slowly but surely it starts to sink in what you’re actually watching. Then it plays thematically through the entire story.”
“Dark Quiet Death” marks the midpoint of Mythic Quest’s nine-episode first season and it’s a departure to say the least. The episode is a mid-‘90s flashback to a seemingly unrelated story about the gaming industry that doesn’t even feature any of the principle Mythic Quest cast (at least until McElhenney’s Ian Grimm briefly pops up at the end). Instead the episode follows “Doc,” played by Jake Johnson (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) and “Bean,” played by Cristin Milioti (Black Mirror).
“I’ve known Jake from over the years on the Fox lot and I’ve known Cristin for a long time as well,” McElhenney says. “When we started discussing who we thought would be right, Jake was brought up and we all collectively agreed that he would be great and I just texted him. Sure enough he was. Turns out he’s America’s sweetheart.”
Doc and Bean (which are the pet names the two unnamed characters give to each other based on the 1993 game Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine) are video game nerds who fall in love and decide to create the gritty, authentic horror game they’ve always wanted to see in the world. “Dark Quiet Death” tracks the pair’s creative, professional, and romantic relationship for the better part of a decade as the balance between their art and commerce blurs.
For McElhenney and the writing staff, “Dark Quiet Death” was not only a stylistic flourish but a way to experiment with comedic storytelling in ways that they might not be able to on It’s Always Sunny.
“There’s been so many shows in the last five years that have just really challenged (convention) and done something completely different,” McElhenney adds, “We’ve done small versions of it on Sunny, where we wanted to just explore different ways of telling stories, but ultimately Sunny is what it is, and there’s a paradigm that’s been created and its hard to shatter that.”
Recent seasons of It’s Always Sunny have indeed featured some experimental episodes including an installment shot in one take a la Birdman, a black and white detective noir, and a very Sunny take on a clip show. But Mythic Quest allows McElhenney and company to experiment with comedy in a much different, more emotionally resonant way.
“Traditionally sitcoms have followed a very specific formula, which is we bring a bunch of characters together, then put them through their trials and tribulations and it’s kind of the same week after week after week,” McElhenney says. “So how do you then challenge yourselves and figure out ways in which you can stretch creatively, like some of these other shows that we really love and respect?”
Mythic Quest is the latest in a long line of half-hour comedies that try their best to break the usual format. Just last year HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones also featured an extended, surprisingly emotional flashback story for its fifth episode of a nine-episode season. Mythic Quest was in production well before Danny McBride’s comedy even aired so this isn’t a case of anyone cribbing from anyone else but rather creative minds thinking alike and appreciating the value of a simple trip to the past.
“Dark Quiet Death’s” own trip to the past works not only because of era-appropriate gaming in-jokes and references (though a video game employee blowing into a Super Nintendo cartridge is so on point that it makes the “1993” subtitle redundant), it works because the story of Doc and Bean’s struggle between art and commerce is integral to the story of Mythic Quest at large. Doc and Bean’s “Dark Quiet Death” begins as an indie title in which the the only weapon is a flashlight, the monsters are metaphors for fear, and it’s impossible to actually win the game (just like life, as Bean is fond of pointing out). It’s a bold, aggressively unmarketable game…that eventually becomes anything but.
“Eluding the inevitable is what our entire game is all about,” Bean says, and in many ways that becomes the meta story of the game as well. First it loses its “Quiet” as a shotgun is introduced, then it’s “Dark” as the game ditches the flashlight altogether. Finally, “Death” is the last to go thanks to furry CGI creep Roscoe and the studio’s decision to actually give the game an ending.
The season finale of Mythic Quest finds Ian Grimm and lead engineer Poppy Li doing their best to elude the inevitable and learn lessons from the past. Ian points out the “Doc and Bean” graffiti Bean carved into the office of the studio that was once their’s but now belongs to Mythic Quest. Ian finally realizes that a house (or gaming studio) divided against itself cannot stand and offers Poppy the job of co-creative director alongside him. And that’s how a seemingly unrelated trip back to the mid ‘90s becomes a crucial part of Mythic Quests’ own lore. Those who don’t learn from Dark Quiet Death are doomed to repeat it, Roscoe and all.