Last February, one of the most enjoyable sitcoms of the last few years slipped onto Apple TV Plus. Created by Always Sunny in Philadelphia cohorts Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, and Megan Ganz, Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet pours the oddities of life in game dev — from boorish auteurs to crunch to loot box debates — into the workplace comedy mold.
McElhenney stars as Ian, the egomaniacal creative director behind the world’s most popular MMORPG. Beneath him are a crew of flailing teammates, including his meek EP David (David Hornsby), Brad, the cutthroat head of monetization (Danny Pudi), failed sci-fi-writer-turned-game-scripter C.W. Longbottom (F. Murray Abraham), on-the-fringes game tester Rachel (Ashly Burch) and Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao), the lead engineer working overtime to bring any of Ian’s stray, bizarre, often violent ideas to fruition. Between vengeful teenage streamers and world-collapsing glitches, the game — and the team behind it — stays afloat. And with that simple premise, McElhenney, Day, and Ganz have carved out 10 episodes that would easily fill the Parks and Recreation-sized hole in a viewer’s heart.
While McElhenney’s rock-star nerd energy is a hoot, Nicdao is the real treat of Mythic Quest. A relative newcomer in the states, the Australian actress does it all thanks to the elastic dramedy of the series, from wacky splashes of physical comedy to harder-hitting material involving the recognized pitfalls of the gaming industry. Hoping to relish in the success of season 1, which is out now on Apple TV Plus in full, Polygon sat down with Nicdao to talk about working with comedy veterans on her first big sitcom.
Polygon: Season 1 is a roller coaster for Poppy. She’s at war with Ian over her place in the creative cosmos, tired of animating decapitations day in and day out, and she feels pushed away by a company that she’s basically devoted herself to. Without spoiling too much for people who are about to dive in, how would you size up this first season for Poppy, and where she’s headed in season 2?
Charlotte Nicdao: I can’t say much, but one of the last shots [of season 1] kind of indicates that maybe Poppy is getting the happy ending that she always wished for. But of course, life really doesn’t work like that, especially when you live in a workplace that’s a little bit toxic. And I think she has toxic tendencies of her own! Season 2 really explores further this relationship between her and Ian. They both are sort of brilliant and they both kind of terrible.
That’s one of the most interesting aspects of the show. While it illustrates the toxic tendencies of a male-driven industry, all the characters have their quirks and abrasive qualities.
I think we have a tendency to look at characters like Poppy as sort of the underdog. She’s the only woman in the team of leads at the company, so she must be a saint. We root for her, so she must be perfect. And when you look at a lot of her behavior, she’s really not — she treats her own staff as terribly as Ian treats her. She’s pretty selfish in the way that she goes off to the things that she wants, and she’s blind to all the same things that the rest of the team are, in terms of larger problems in the company, which are issues that the gaming industry in the real world is facing as well.
And so I think it was important for Megan and Rob and all of our writers to tell a story that wasn’t just about “this wonderful woman that should get promoted, and then she does, hooray.” It’s a lot more about the complexities of perhaps being a genius who cares so deeply about their work and is in other ways blindsided in how to be human.
There are a lot of sides to “gaming” and Mythic Quest tackles them all. Where were you coming from in terms of knowledge of that world, and were there people on staff who were in deep?
It was an intimidating thing to approach for me because I wouldn’t have really considered myself a gamer before the show. But it was the most fun job to research I’ve ever done. I bought a Nintendo Switch and just sat on the couch for days.
It was really cool getting to explore that world because I had a kind of one-dimensional idea of what it was. After I started reading a lot more about it, I realized that the thing that’s so appealing about gaming is really what’s appealing to me about acting, which is you get to put yourself into this imaginary world, you get to play a character that isn’t yourself, and then you get to see what making decisions in that world brings you.
We also had Ubisoft as a producer on the show. So obviously, the amazing people that were involved that came from Ubisoft had a lot of knowledge and we had people on set every day consulting to make sure that we were getting things right. And one of our cast members, Ashly Burch, who’s also a writer on the show, is really in that world. She’s been part of the gaming world for a long time. She is huge celebrity in that space, and it was really cool to have her on. I would go harass in her trailer and be like, “Tell me more.”
What did Ashly tell you?
There were a couple of things that I found really valuable. One of them was that she got me onto this game Stardew Valley, and now I’m obsessed. And that was great because I found a game that I really liked, but maybe less great in that it ate up a whole lot of my time while shooting. I would sit around on set playing Stardew Valley instead of learning my lines.
But then the other thing that she said that really stuck with me was that ... I think unfortunately there’s a little bit of a tendency to think of the gaming community as being passionate to a fault, sometimes. And she was talking to me about how her experiences in that world had really been that people just love games, and they love the people that make them, and they love people that champion them. And we went out to the PAX convention in San Antonio, and she was like, “Just you wait, this is the first time we’re going to be in a space full of people who love games, and you’re going to be blown away by the sort of enthusiasm and positivity in that space.” And I absolutely was. I’m almost sort of ashamed to admit it, because perhaps it wasn’t what I expected. But she was absolutely right. It’s just the most enthusiastic community and I found it really special to be a part of.
Did you work with someone directly at Ubisoft to figure out more about Poppy as a character?
I got to chat with a woman who is a programmer, and she was really instrumental to me in forming the character because ... I really didn’t understand what coding was. Like I think I had like a picture of the green and black screen in The Matrix in my head. “That’s coding, right?”
She was really, really helpful in not only explaining what that job was to me, but also why someone might choose to do it. She told me a story about how when she was growing up, she loved fixing cars, but it was kind of an expensive pastime. And then in her teen years, she got a computer and started coding things. And she was saying that it’s kind of the same thing: You build these tools, and then you can take things apart and put them back together, and basically create anything that you want, and all you need is a computer and your brain. You don’t need to buy anything. And I thought that was really cool. That was a big part of what helped me find Poppy’s enthusiasm, that a job.
Rob and Charlie go way back, having created Always Sunny together, and they do it all on that show. Megan worked with them, too, so was stepping into that collaboration challenging? Were the scripts tight or were they looking for input in the same way they might on Always Sunny?
It was definitely collaborative, and right from the beginning. The casting process was a long one for me, and toward the end, we were really just trying to figure out how to make me work in the Poppy character. They invited me into the writers’ room to read some stuff and bounce off some ideas and do some improvisation, and I’ve never been given that kind of an opportunity before. I was terrified. But it was also such a great precedent for how the rest of the show went. The door to the writers’ room is always open. Of course, I was super intimidated by Rob, when we started working together, especially because the dynamic of our characters was meant to be that we butt heads a lot, and I was just like, “You’re my boss!” But he’s one of the most generous artists I’ve ever been lucky enough to work with, and he made my job really easy, honestly.
Similarly with Megan, I knew how work, I was a huge fan, and when I went into my first couple of auditions where she was there, I was just, like, avoiding eye contact, because I liked her so much. And it’s really cool to now be able to like, come into season 2 and feel like all these people in my mates. I think we found our stride in season 1, but I think it’s really exciting to feel like we’re coming into season 2, and everyone’s got this confidence and really knowing what we’re doing. I really know the character.
You get a bunch of physical comedy bits in season 1. Do you have a favorite moment that was particularly daunting in order to go as wild as you needed to?
A particular scene in the motion capture studio was so much fun. All they had written in the script was, at some point, Poppy does a weird little dance, which I think is very much based on ... I do a lot of weird little dances on set. And I kind of took that and was like, Oh, so she’ll just keep doing this weird little dance for the whole scene, and made that choice. And by the end of it ... it takes hours to shoot this stuff, and I was in this skintight bodysuit dancing around. I’m very unfit, I’m totally out of breath and sweaty. Rob was like, “You chose to do this in this scene.” I was so tired. That was completely my own fault.
Disclosure: Polygon gave permission for its name to be used in Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, but did not otherwise have any editorial involvement with the show.