Every game tells a story. This may not seem evident in primitive video games featuring bricks and paddles, but those making the game aren’t the only ones telling its story. Players spent hours (and days, and summers) to nudge a bunch of pixels just the right amount at precisely the right time. To convince ourselves that these repetitive actions meant something, we arbitrarily picked heroes and villains, sided with characters, made up save-the-world motives. We believed we knew which PacMan ghost was the most dangerous.
By the time the Nintendo fabulists gifted us actual storylines in the 1980s — where, say, Italian plumbers stormed sewers and castles to rescue a Princess — we were starved for story. Modern games come with sprawling mythologies, with their own cultures, languages and laws of physics.
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A remarkable episode of television shines a light on a storyteller who writes games. ‘Backstory!’ is the sixth episode of the second season of Mythic Quest (Apple TV+) — a workplace comedy set in the gaming industry — and it is so immaculately crafted that I implore you to watch it even if you haven’t heard of the series. It may naturally work as gateway drug, but that is a side effect. Consider ‘Backstory!’ a movie.
The year is 1972, and our hero is a young man in a brown suit. Carl Longbottom enters the offices of Amazing Tales, a revered science-fiction magazine, and immediately befriends two enthused fans. They’ve won a contest to be junior copy editors, and, peeping into the conference room, they gasp: inside sit Ursula K LeGuin, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov. Titans of the imagination, heralds of visions, builders of worlds. The gods themselves.
The starry-eyed recruits — one girl and two boys — consider this a poetic foreshadowing of their own shining futures, and decide to work together as writers, encouraging and critiquing each other. Carl, convinced of his own greatness, falls behind. He writes passionately and prolifically, but evidently without merit. Grand ambitions make way for vindictiveness and envy, as his colleagues first get published, then start dating. No one can even pronounce the title of Carl’s novella.
Thus he takes the ultimate creative plunge. Shrugging off his diffidence and spinelessness, he strides into the conference room where Isaac Asimov sits autographing a stack of magazines, and asks him to look over his work. He is handing over his baby, a book only he believes in, to one he considers a god.
What happens next is fantastic. (Tune in to the episode itself to find out.)
Created by Rob McElhenney, Megan Ganz and Charlie Day, Mythic Quest is about a kooky bunch of people who make a massively popular Massively Multiplayer game. In its hilarious first season, it immediately stepped away from workplace comedies like Silicon Valley by aiming the humour not at the ones making the game but at the ones playing, addicted players who compulsively spend on useless digital trinkets and obey reviews streamed by preteen boys.
This year, the show explores the characters, letting us into their insecurities and relationships, ambitions and anxieties, treating the characters less like a joke even as the punchlines remain savage. A solid approach, since the delightful British series Dead Pixels already satirises consumed gamers sacrificing life at the altar of the loading screen. Mythic Quest is now about more than either game or workplace.
Played by the legendary F Murray Abraham, CW Longbottom is an amiable, boozy blowhard who says problematic things and remains ever eager to dream up backstories for new characters and game expansions — which are in turn mostly dreamt up by marketing executives. ‘Backstory!’ is a lovingly made flashback, cutting away from the current chaos to give us CW’s origin story.
CW is all bombast, resting on very old laurels and far from finishing his long-overdue trilogy of books. Knowing him better now, I believe he actively solicits meaningless assignments in order to avoid going back to the books. The 1973 Longbottom (played by Josh Brener) has both likeable and sinister sides. The 2021 Longbottom is toothless.
Directed by McElhenney — who also directed last season’s lovely standalone episode ‘A Dark Quiet Death,’ about the life and death of idealistic artists — Backstory!’ also wrestles with creativity and compromise. Young Longbottom looks up to the great Asimov, and I would argue what this fictional Asimov does is fundamentally wrong, even if that may not be immediately apparent. It is, in a way, the kind of thing the greyed Longbottom of future episodes may well have done.
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When watching ‘Backstory!’, the self-important squirt appears doomed to fail. Yet, because the older CW carries his Nebula Award around like a security blanket, we already know Carl is destined for momentary greatness, at the very least. We know he’ll get there, but how? This guy? His path to the top is confounding — but then isn’t it always? Mythic Quest has proven to be an increasingly self-aware series, and this episode illustrates the power of the origin story.
In the next episode, the present-day CW revisits an erstwhile colleague, both having spent lives vastly different to those they’d envisioned after spotting the literary giants. William Hurt plays the other novelist, and it is special to see these Oscar-winners thrust and parry, revealing more in common than they — or we — imagined. In some ways, all writers are the same.
The world-builders who write games do not find literary adulation. We don’t gasp at the sight of them, or even know their names. We do, however, surrender to their imaginations and inhabit their characters. They write parts for us to play.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.