The tagline for the documentary Darkon is, "Everybody Wants To Be a Hero," which succinctly sums up the main message of this film about a group of people involved in the full contact, live-action role playing (LARP) wargame of the same name. As one of the players puts it, "If you could watch Brad Pitt or be Brad Pitt, which would you rather do?" For these Baltimore area gamers, the answer is easy — they would rather pretend to be the heroes they wish they were.
I have watched LARP-ers from the sidelines, and occasionally joined in on a few games (different game system — no bashing with padded swords for me), and from a theatrical perspective, I can understand the appeal. It is theatrical improvisation with a specific set of rules combined with imagination and force of will. As the documentary shows, there are some who have a healthy perspective on the gameplay and are able to separate non-gameplay from what happens on the field, but there are also others who blur those lines in a way that allows the gameplay to consume their lives to their detriment.
Just like how kids make up their own realities, fantasy role playing games for adults allow them to explore aspects of themselves in a way that "normal life" does not permit. However, as with kids' games, even the fantasy world has its in- and out- crowds. In the realm of Darkon as shown in this documentary, the in crowd is the Greater Mordomian Co-Prosperity Sphere, aka Mordom, and the out crowd is anyone they fight, since more often than not, their opponents will lose and be absorbed into their ever-expanding domination of Darkon.
The central story of the gameplay shown in the documentary is a challenge to Mordom's expansion by an alliance of other countries led by Laconia. In essence, it becomes a battle of wills between Keldar (Mordom's leader) and Bannor (Laconia's leader), with a bit of treachery and dramatic staging thrown in. Outside the gaming world, we see Kenyon Wells (Keldar) presenting himself in much the same way his character is portrayed — thinking himself lawful good, but often acting as lawful evil. On the other hand, Skip Lipman (Bannor) is presented as a stay-at-home father who has little ambition in the real world and is instead focusing his desires on the outcomes of the gameplay. The filmmakers have set this up so that the audience is rooting for Lipman, while at the same time pitying him.
Several of the players speak of Darkon and their gameplay as a way of providing a purpose greater than "real life," but at the same time, they have a skewed view of the reality of the events they play out in-game. Constant war with swords and small projectiles is much more bloody and cruel than getting bashed about with padded sticks and over-sized bean bags, and not everyone gets to be a hero. However, the players do provide an apt commentary on our modern lifestyle that leads to living thoughtlessly. One player, Mike (Halcon of Albion), points out that, "…you role-play your entire life. You role-play being the clerk at McDonald's. You don't want to be there — you're just playing the role 'cause you're trying to make money." Is that really any different than spending your day off pretending to be an ancient Greek warrior?
The cinematography is a combination of sweeping visuals and intimate conversations with the players. For the battle scenes, the camera cuts from jerky, 'vomit-cam' shots amid the mêlée to crane shots from above and on the sidelines. Although the action is not scripted, the characters spring to life for brief moments, and are presented in a dramatic, 'major motion picture' sort of way. Combined with the thrilling soundtrack composed by Jonah Rapino, the visuals shift this documentary from being just about these quirky people and their hobby to something magical that draws the viewer into the fantasy story the players are living out.
The film was shown on IFC in November, and it is now available on DVD. Interested viewers will want to pick up the DVD at some point, even if they have already seen the film at a screening or on IFC, because the commentary by Lipman and Wells adds a perspective on the events depicted that shed a different light on them. In the final cut of the film, Wells (who admits to being reticent about participating) is shown as not much different from his character, Keldar, whom he says is "something of an ass." However, the commentary track he recorded with Lipman shows him to be a sensitive man with much more humor and humility than Keldar, in addition to having a more realistic perspective of the game than Lipman. Lipman, seemingly the underdog in the film, ends up displaying much less of an ability to separate reality from gameplay, and comes off as less of a sympathetic character than the filmmakers portrayed him to be.
The DVD also includes the director's commentary, deleted scenes, and the original theatrical trailer. The deleted scenes add very little to the whole, but may be of interest to some who would like to see more of the behind-the-scenes activities of the players, as well as the full duel between Keldar and Bannor.
Darkon could have been a 'let's make fun of the gamer geeks' film, but instead it is able to pull off the fine balance between looking at the gamers as an outsider and drawing the viewer into their worldview. The film is sensitive to the individuals shown, and for the most part, they are portrayed as three-dimensional people rather than caricatures to be laughed at. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about live-action role playing and/or as an example of a documentary done well.