It’s 2005. War is looming in the suburbs of Baltimore. Alliances are being forged; armies are being consolidated; weapons are being sharpened; armor is being refitted. Scattered fighting and skirmishes are erupting all along the line, as the opposing states of Laconia and Mordom gather their forces in anticipation of full blown hostilities.
It’s a war which will be fought out on the open rolling plains (soccer fields), or deep in the mysterious woods (state parks), or within the walls of a great castle (school gymnasiums), and it will decide once and for all who has the upper hand in Darkon. Will Keldar, Emperor of Mordom, continue his march towards global hegemony? Or will upstart Bannor of Laconia turn back the Mordomian tide in favor of freedom and independence?
No worries if you’ve never heard of Darkon, or its epic conflicts. No one outside of its borders has, either. A quick search of various news databases from 2005 and 2006, when this particular war was alleged to have taken place, yields no results. Nor will you find any maps locating Darkon near Baltimore, or anywhere else in the United States, or on the planet, for that matter.
Yet this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, nor that what is portrayed in this respectful, if a bit bland, documentary, didn’t happen. Try telling Skip Lipman, or Kenyon Wells, or Rebecca Thurmond that Darkon is just a figment of their imaginations. They were there, they remember, they know what happened. Their histories have been written, their exploits spoken of around camp fires, and now their stories will be handed down as legend in the annals of Darkon.
See, the problem with Darkon is not that it isn’t real, but that, for its participants and enthusiasts, it’s all too real. An intricate and complex fantasy world brought to “life” every two weeks by a legion of dedicated Baltimore area Live Action Role Players (hereafter, LARPers), Darkon has become, for many of them, as much a real world as the mundane workaday world around them. What began as a game, as a harmless hobby, has evolved into an alternate reality, an escape hatch to the fantastic.
The appeal is hard to deny, as Skip, who plays Bannor of Laconia, puts it in the opening of the film, everyone wants to be a hero. Or as single mother Rebecca says “At home, my mother is in control. At work, my boss is in control. But in Darkon, I’m in control”. Who doesn’t want to control their own fate, who doesn’t want to determine the course of their own story, to take charge and be a leader of men? Who doesn’t want to be the hero?
And yet, at what point does this role playing, this losing oneself in another world, become unhealthy? At what point does the immersion in the fantasy transition from harmless diversion to pernicious delusion? And does it have to?
Take the cases of Skip and his counterpart/nemesis Kenyon (Keldar), the twin foci around which the film revolves. When we meet Skip, he is a likable enough guy, if a bit self-serious. For him, LARPing is a natural progression of a life playing war games (which had long been a family business under his father) and Dungeons and Dragons. His character Bannor is everything he never could be in life: strong, determined, a fighter and natural leader.
After being shut out of the family business, he struggled in employment and is now a stay at home dad. While his life is not completely centered around Darkon, it seems to take up the preponderance of his time (and especially weekends), much to the lament of his hard working wife.
Skip always comes across as reasonable, yet over the course of the film, it becomes more and more apparent that, for him at least, Darkon has done more harm than good. One telling scene in the middle of the film—actually, the key scene of the film itself—involves him confronting a friend of his who has always been his strongest ally in Laconia. This friend has decided, within the game, to sever their alliance, to change his character and switch sides, essentially betraying Skip.
Their argument spills over and out of the game, into the “real” world, Skip unable to accept this betrayal and taking it very personally, his friend repeating futilely, over and over, “It’s just a game. To Skip, this doesn’t register, its plain nonsense. There’s no separation—the micro world of Darkon, the macro real world, they are one and the same to him. And this is the crux of the problem with losing oneself too deeply in a character and a fabricated world, this inability to differentiate reality from fantasy, anymore.
Contrast Kenyon, who both in and out of game comes across as much more pragmatic and levelheaded, if a bit ruthless. He is very matter of fact in saying that he got into LARPing because (like many participants) he was a social outcast, and Darkon was the only place he felt accepted. “Keldar was who I wanted to be”, he says. And by investing himself in the character, he was able to carry his new found strengths over into real life. Though he seems to take Darkon seriously, he knows exactly where the divide is, and has parlayed his success there as a leader and negotiator, into real life success in business.
Though it’s not made explicit in the film, and I may be way off with this, but the war between Bannor and Keldar seems mostly to be about these competing world views, about the exact nature of Darkon, about what it is and isn’t, about what it should and shouldn’t be. Though ostensibly fought over imperialism and hegemony, the war is really a fight over the lines between reality and imagination. Thank God Keldar wins in the end.
Darkon is a hard film to figure—it is short on thesis, and really is just one of many in a long line of “unusual people doing unusual things” documentaries, which, although generally fascinating, tend to all be pretty much the same in the end. To its credit, the film plays it straight, and always treats the LARPers with respect (and maybe too much—the film’s cinematic style, complete with long swooping overhead helicopter shots and booming orchestral score, is almost parodic at points), which is very much a good thing, since LARPers tend to invite so much inadvertent mockery.
But the film would’ve served its subject better by laying off the protracted and painfully dull “battle” scenes, and followed up more on the curious fact of grown adults playing dress up in the middle of the woods. At one point, Rebecca muses on the nature of gaming, and how it’s acceptable for kids to do exactly what they in Darkon are doing, but once you hit a certain age, it’s frowned upon by normal society.
Have we lost our capacity for imagination and wonder, for the pure joy of playing make believe? At what point does childhood die? These questions, quickly raised, are never answered, and never asked again, but to me it’s the most fascinating thing about the popularity of LARPing. Though it’s easy to dismiss these folks as maladjusted, socially awkward misfits, there’s something a little noble and admirable about this defiance of the world, of their refusal to grow up. As far as escapism goes, you could do much worse.
Darkon arrives on DVD with the usual outtakes, trailer, and commentary tracks. Unfortunately, my review copy contained none of these, which is a shame, since I was quite looking forward to the track containing Kenyon and Skip watching and commenting on the film, seeing if they would delve any deeper into their motivations and philosophies of Darkon, of what it all means, and its real significance.