As a follow-up to last week’s post on Escapism, I give you Darkon (2006), a low-budget documentary by Andrew Neel and Luke Meyer that raises some of the same questions I did in my post as it looks at one particular group of LARPers (Live-Action Role-Players) involved in a game that has become its own little reality. Following the lives of a few key players in the drama, the documentary (which I watched free on Hulu after John Ottinger pointed it out, though it is also available from snag films) chronicles their in-game and out-of-game struggles, and how these facets of their lives intertwine.
If your initial reaction to adults pelting each other with foam swords is to roll your eyes, that’s probably even more reason to watch this documentary, which is a sympathetic and nuanced look at the lives of these players. Firstly, the film is presented as a real struggle for ‘in-game power’ between its two central characters, leaders of rival ‘countries.’ These competing factions of Darkon chart their progress in wars that allow them to expand across a map, and one faction, the nakedly imperialistic Mordom, has had more success at this than the rest. Feeling threatened, other countries lead by Laconia, band together to fight them.
The narrative layer of the in-game politics and fighting forms an interesting counterpoint to the real lives of the individuals involved. LARPing is something like improvisational acting with rules, so whenever these factions clash on the plain of battle (generally a soccer field) you have the sense of a spontaneous, unscripted performance. You really can’t know what will happen, and I found myself pulling for the underdog as he formed his coalition, staged a war-planning session, assaulted his foe behind an impressively large wooden castle-wall mock-up, and finally fought said foe in a duel to the death. Well, not quite ‘death,’ as, despite assassinations, fireballs, and battlefield slaughter, nobody stays dead in Darkon very long.
But as seriously as these players take the world of Darkon — and, yes, the thought that maybe some of them take it too seriously will of course occur to most viewers — those players interviewed for the documentary are very conscious of what they do, and are aware of how their hobby is viewed by the uninitiated. By their own admission, many of the players are misfits — interested in fantasy, unsatisfied with certain aspects of their lives, perhaps socially awkward. But I have to admit I think these are brave people, brave to reach for the thing that makes them happy despite the stigma, and for doing so in an honest and public way.
Many of the interviewees talk about what is appealing about Darkon, that it is a chance for them to feel like they have control over something, to actually exercise their creative urges, or to be a hero for a while (though I saw plenty of villains on display, as well), or just to socialize with their unconventional fellows. One young man talked about how the activity of Darkon was not only helping him lose weight, but giving him a degree of confidence he lacked in the real world. I can’t help but thinking he’s much better off playing Darkon than hunched over a computer screen playing World of Warcraft, even though the later is mainstream enough to be almost acceptable.
The flipside to this is Darkon has become its own little microcosm of the larger world. One can imagine trouncing someone at a video or board game and sitting down in amiable conversation afterwords — not the impression I get of Darkon rivals by any stretch, where the animosity generated seems to carry over into the real world. And, for all any of the players may want to spend some time escaping the real world, they have created for themselves in Darkon something that might occasionally itself mirror it. The politics and backstabbing, the competitiveness and one-upmanship, seem to have made a few players feel marginalized — exactly the sort of thing they are trying to get away from in reality.
Indeed, the tensest moment of the film occurs when two long-time friends fall out over the game, as one friend changes sides for role-playing reasons and defends the move as ‘it’s just a game.’ But it isn’t really, nothing ever is, but most games aren’t nearly as immersive as LARPing — in which the same face and voice of your arch-enemy also belongs to the guy down the street who you really have no good reason to dislike.
But every pursuit has its pitfalls, and for the majority of the hundreds of people involved in Darkon (and the thousands that LARP) these pursuits just seem like a fun, but absorbing, hobby. Certainly they seem no more ridiculous to the critical eye than the spectacle of baggily attired adults in gaudy football colors screaming apoplectically about a field goal. One is stigmatized, one accepted, one is ‘escape,’ the other, so-called reality. But at least those LARPers have the courage to take their pleasures beyond the mere vicarious, and at least the uniforms they wear are their own, rather than a jersey with the name of some sub-literate child millionaire emblazoned on the back.
I think in our society in which opportunities for fantastic escape become more and more possible — and perhaps also more needed — the truly free will be those that understand how to move between these worlds, how to meld them into a totality of existence, rather than only move along the well-worn paths of conformity. The players of Darkon seem to be doing just that.
BILL WARD is a genre writer, editor, and blogger wanted across the Outer Colonies for crimes against the written word. His fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, as well as gaming supplements and websites. He is a Contributing Editor and reviewer for Black Gate Magazine, and 423rd in line for the throne of Lost Lemuria. Read more at BILL’s blog, DEEP DOWN GENRE HOUND.