The closest Judge Russell Engebretson came to a LARP experience was being menaced by an aggressive Armadillo during a campout.
It is a time of unrest in the realm of Darkon as Bannor of Lacadonia seeks to bring Keldar, leader of the Mordomian Empire, before a War Crimes Tribunal.
Ostensibly a documentary about live action role playing (LARP), Darkon forges together a low budget theatrical fantasy and a social commentary on how the game of Darkon impinges on the workaday lives of the players.
Facts of the Case
The film opens with a gathering of dark elves in full medieval regalia performing a quick elven sacrifice before marching out of a cave to the surface. Their motive is to profit from the upheaval brought on by the latest conflict in the realm. The screen goes black; the movie title appears then fades out as the camera scrolls over a parchment-like map covered with hexagons, which in turn dissolves into a high aerial shot of a large suburb in Baltimore, Maryland.
As the camera pans down and zeroes in on a two-story home in a cul-de-sac, we hear a voiceover. The narrator is Skip Lipman—known as Bannor in the game world—who begins to explain his involvement in the Darkon LARP. So begins the documentary directed by Andrew Neel and Luke Meyer.
In the real world, Skip is a stay-at-home father who cares for his children and takes care of the house chores. It's a logical choice since his wife is the greater wage earner and the cost of daycare, commuting, and so forth outweigh the extra income from a lower-paying job. Skip's home status also gives him more time to indulge in his passion for the fantasy world of Darkon.
As the movie progresses we are introduced to more characters, the next most important being Kenyon Wells who plays the role of Keldar. The film alternates between interviews and battle scenes, with minimal explanation of rules or any history of the Darkon LARP game. The documentary focuses on how the gamers integrate the alternate universe of Darkon into the prosaic world of work, budgets, and family life.
Remember playing Cowboys and Indians as a kid? Bring that same physicality and sense of play into the realm of adulthood, and then add scoreboards, rules, maps, and elaborate costumes. In the end it's still Cowboys and Indians, but with a rigor of purpose and an elaborate structure that children could never sustain.
The commingling of gaming fantasy and adult responsibilities establishes the documentary's thesis and poses its central question. Is the game a meeting place for dysfunctional adults living out an escapist fantasy, or a get together of average people indulging in an amazingly elaborate but harmless—perhaps even therapeutic—pastime?
As the movie progresses, the dreams and failures of the dull workaday world are loosely woven into the motives and passions of the Darkon universe. Now and then a scene reminds the viewer that it's possible to take a game—and in fairness that should include everything from chess to football—far too seriously.
By way of example, about half way through the film there is a genuine altercation at a Denny's restaurant between Skip and a friend that's brought on by a broken allegiance in the LARP world. It's the most uneasy moment in the film, and a reminder of how easily one can allow an artificial construct such as the Darkon game to negatively influence one's perspective.
There is also a running theme of real-world conflict that neatly dovetails with the concerns of the Darkon LARP. Near the end of the film, bad blood between siblings is revealed when we discover that Skip cold-cocked his brother during a heated argument and ended up losing power-of-attorney over his father's gaming business. The business was then cashed in by his brother.
The documentary succeeds fairly well at what it set out to do: contrast the reality of working class suburbanites with the fantasy of their unusual gaming subculture. However, the film could easily have been cut by half an hour with no loss to the points being made. There are too many battle scenes, or perhaps the battles we see just go on too long. One scene shows a young boy, dressed in his knightly Halloween costume, repeatedly slashing a plastic sword at the air and threatening death and destruction to his enemies for almost two minutes. Fifteen or twenty seconds would have sufficed.
Also, it would have been nice to see LARP in the larger context of role-playing games (RPG). How many people watching this documentary have played a table-top fantasy game, or a role-playing board or computer game? Where are the game mechanics of Darkon? Yes, the filmmakers were aiming for another target—the social underpinnings of the game and its players—but a short featurette would have cleared up many of the mysteries of RPG for the non-gamers in the audience. The detailed hexagon map at the film's beginning is not just for show. A quick scan of the Darkon rule set will convince anyone that there is a depth and complexity to the game that is barely conveyed by the film.
There are two commentaries, one from the directors and the other from Skip Lipman and Kenyon Wells. They are both good, but the actor commentary is the more enlightening. Besides hearing the film's major adversaries parse the movie, it's an insightful take on how the observer alters events. The affect of cameras and crew on people's reactions is something easy to forget when watching a documentary, particularly one that borrows techniques from the "reality TV" genre. The best example of playing to the camera is when Skip comments on the epic battle between the two kingdoms depicted in the film. As he says, it was probably a premature move, game-wise, to instigate hostilities between the two armies, but the directors were looking for battle footage and there was little action going on at the time (a major war having just ended).
Because Lipman and Wells are not professional actors, they have no need to engage in the usual back patting and movie industry schmoozing one hears in most audio commentaries. Their candor about themselves and their willingness to critically analyze the documentary is refreshing.
The original music score by Jonah Rapino is suitably rousing for a mock epic and sounds as decent as one could expect in Dolby stereo. The picture quality varies. According to the directors some of the early battle footage was captured on a consumer grade handycam, rather than the higher quality DV camera used for most of the scenes. The picture is decent on a medium size monitor, but blurriness and lack of detail on medium to distant shots is quite noticeable on a larger display. Picture and sound are more than adequate for a documentary, although the battle scenes sometimes suffer a bit. The attempt to create a staged, more cinematic experience highlights the deficiencies of the video. I must admit, though, there were some fine cinematic moments: sweeping aerial shots, a wooden castle burnt to the ground, and in-the-thick-of-battle video sequences were fun to watch.
Darkon is a decent documentary on a subject rarely covered in any depth on film. However, more explanation of the game's rule set would have helped round out the film and made it more accessible to those not familiar with RPG gaming. It might also have allowed the viewer to see the gamers in a more sympathetic light. Some players are into fighting and camping out, while others—such as the dark elves—are about skullduggery and Machiavellian politics. The complexity of the game mechanics and the variety of roles indicates that Darkon is much less simplistic than it comes across on this documentary. Still, the DVD is worth a rental if not a purchase.
It is clear to the court that it is always a time of unrest in Darkon, where violence and dirty deeds are a way of life. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Porchlight Entertainment
• Darkon Trailer
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