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2/8/08

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The Independent Film Channel has become my saving grace for documentaries. I enjoy watching them, but they're very hit or miss, so I often don't want to waste a rental. This way I can DVR as many as I want and check them out at my leisure, and if they're not up to snuff, erase them. I've known for a while that I wanted to see Darkon, I first heard about it when it won the Audience Choice Award at SXSW.


I've never had an interest in any kind of role-playing games, I didn't play Dungeons and Dragons as a kid; but I can appreciate the fascination. Escaping into a make-believe world, inventing a new life for yourself, it sounds tempting, especially for those of us that don't quite fit in. LARPing, or Live Action Role Playing, is a little more involved; kind of like D&D meets a Renaissance Fair. I knew a couple of guys that played when I worked at an Internet company in Seattle, but again, I never had any interest;, too geeky for even for me. Through Darkon I got a good understanding of what it's all about.


The film starts out like a bad Lord of the Rings knock-off, with a group of guys in half-decent costumes standing around a fire, badly acting out some fantasy jargon about how so-and-so must be destroyed. We soon learn that these are the players of Darkon; a make-believe land run by a large group of people in the suburbs of Baltimore. There are thousands of players, each with their own role, from King to peasants; they fully immerse themselves into this fantasy. The film introduces a quite a few of them, most of them too briefly, and they all say about the same thing; they do it to escape from the dulldrum of their real lives.


Skip Lipman is the star of the film; he probably speaks well as an everyman of Darkon. Inside the game he has great ambitions; he's worked his way up through the game's ranks, becoming the leader of a large group, but still had to take orders. So he took his minions and broke off to form his own faction; which is now battling for supremacy of the land. At home, he's the stay-at-home father of a young boy and girl; it's not a terrible existence, but it's not everything that this American lifestyle taught him to dream for. The other main character is Daniel McArthur, a married businessman, who is who Skip hopes to overthrow as ultimate leader.

Mostly it is all an excuse to hit each other with large foam swords; which there is a lot of. Sure the players take some time out to make up fantastical back stories, trade fake-money for fake magical items and draw up political agendas; but mostly they want to whack each other to ten-minute-deaths. And boy do they! The filmmakers of Darkon go to great lengths to capture these epic struggles; using nearly every trick you'd find in a Hollywood production, from sweeping helicopter shots to right in-your-face hand-held fight photography. There's even an epic fantasy score to back it all up; you could almost take it seriously if they weren't fighting with PVC pipes wrapped in foam, and if the soccer goals in the background didn't keep popping into frame.

There are too many battles in the film, too many guys falling bloodlessly to the ground, it begins to grow tiresome; they don't and can't have the impact of Gladiator or Braveheart and after the little we've learned about the game, I ultimately didn't care who won or lost. The filmmakers could have set it up as a battle between good and evil, making us really root for one side over the other, but we've learned to like both the main characters; there's no Billy Mitchell to root against.

Instead I think they should have focused a bit more on the people of Darkon. I liked hearing from these self-proclaimed nerds, geeks and dweebs, about how they have so much trouble fitting into the real world; how Darkon makes them feel comfortable, that they're able to talk to girls, able to assert themselves. That is the true power of the game. Darkon is a fairly good documentary, it's entertaining and some-what enlightening; it celebrates the players, instead of making fun of them, but like the weapons and players of Darkon, it feels padded.


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