Rob McElhenney isn't gaming his way through quarantine. For three weeks of lockdown, the creator and star of Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet, a workplace sitcom set in a video game studio, worked through a logistical labyrinth to put together a special quarantine episode of the show.
The episode began streaming May 22 on Apple TV+, and McElhenney tells Inverse that to tell an accurate story about game developers working in quarantine, he turned to one of the biggest video game studios around.
“We knew we couldn't do Zoom jokes for 25 minutes.”
In a virtual roundtable interview, McElhenney revealed that he consulted his producing partners at Ubisoft on how game studios are (just barely) keeping games up and running during the Covid-19 pandemic.
"We knew that we could take advantage, from a comedic standpoint, of some of the interface jokes, because it is an inherently funny way to communicate with people," McElhenney says. "But we knew we couldn't do Zoom jokes for 25 minutes. It was already hackey by the time we started writing because a number of shows had already exploited that comedy."
But unlike Saturday Night Live or the Parks & Recreation reunion special, Mythic Quest had a unique advantage baked into its premise: As a workplace comedy about a video game, the show could explore the bleakest parts of working through the pandemic with humor.
"When we were talking about the possibility of doing an episode in quarantine, we first reached out to Jason Altman," McElhenney says.
Altman is an executive producer on Mythic Quest and is the Head of Film and Television at Ubisoft. Headquartered in France, the company is best known for franchises like Assassin's Creed, Just Dance, and the Tom Clancy games. Ubisoft also helped produce the fake online game Mythic Quest revolves around.
"We all know people are at home watching television and playing video games in record numbers," McElhenney says. "It's one thing for a television series to be up and running, but video games have to figure out how they can keep servers running with new content and players signing on in record numbers. How do they do that? How are they navigating that? And what toll is that taking? Those are areas we wanted to delve into in the episode."
In "Quarantine (Special Episode)," the misfit developers of Mythic Quest — the show's fictional online role-playing game akin to World of Warcraft — are stuck at home during the Covid-19 pandemic. As social isolation drives the employees nuts, they struggle to keep their popular game online as more players flood the servers.
Filmed remotely on the latest iPhones with each of the actors in their own homes, planning the episode was its own boss battle for McElhenney, also known for his role as "Mac" on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
The episode was written in just three days, and production began almost right away to ensure the timeliness of the premise.
"It was very fast," he says, "We wanted to do that because we wanted to drop it while we were in this shared experience. We weren’t sure how long that was going to be. It really does seem to be changing on an hourly basis."
Pre-production could be best described as "Hard Mode." To film the show, each of the actors had to record their parts on three of the latest iPhone models (don't forget Mythic Quest is an Apple original series), all of which came loaded with specific software. And they all had to be sent out "in a safe, sterile way."
"At the risk of sounding like a commercial for Apple, the truth is that we could not have done it without those phones," McElhenney says. "This is not hyperbolic, the camera in the most recent iPhone is better than the camera we shot It's Always Sunny Season 10 on. It collects more information than we were able to do in Sunny."
The challenges didn't end there. Walking the actors through all of the iPhone settings and conducting "virtual location scouts" in the actors' own homes (to maximize sound acoustics) were all challenges McElhenney and his team had to overcome. All "while also asking [the actors] to perform, to communicate with members of the crew all without leaving our homes."
Adds McElhenney, "It was the hardest production I've ever been a part of, and a half-hour of television I'm the most proud of. It came together through work and ingenuity of people working remotely."
As accomplished as he feels, McElhenney hopes this isn't the future.
"The ability for us to do this is [our] desire to make something great under not so ideal circumstances," he says. "I hope this is not the future of Hollywood. I hope we can be back working again on sound stages. But I don’t know [when] and I think anybody that pretends to know is not paying attention. I respect science and I respect scientists and I'm going to listen to them."
With the episode now live and streaming on Apple TV+, McElhenney is finally eyeing some downtime. That downtime is called God of War.
"Over the last month, because we've been doing this [episode] and still homeschooling the boys, there's not been a lot of time for recreation," he says. "But very soon I will be jumping back into God of War, which I started at the beginning of quarantine and had to put down. I'm waiting on the edge of my seat for The Last of Us II. I don't want to put any more pressure on [director] Neil [Druckmann]. But I cannot wait."
Mythic Quest is streaming now on Apple TV+.