Darkon is a live-action role playing game in which hundreds of people dressed up in medieval garb fight for imaginary chunks of real estate in an imaginary world, taking on the persona of anything from a knight to an elf to a bar wench. In Darkon, you can be a mighty hero, a treacherous villain, or an opportunistic neutral force, selling your services to the highest bidder. The world is made up of several factions occupying “hexes” of land, with complex laws, a bustling economy, and a fragile balance of power that is constantly threatened and contested on the battlefield. In the minds of players, the events that occur in Darkon are just as important – if not more so – than the events that occur in their everyday lives.
Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel, the directors behind this documentary, spent years earning the trust of a group of Darkon enthusiasts, chronicling their lives both in-game, and at home, with an emphasis on two players in particular: Skip, a stay-at-home dad still reeling from the loss of his father’s gaming business to a shady relative, and Kenyon, an arrogant businessman who credits his Darkon persona, Keldar, for getting him to where he is now in his field. Skip’s alter ego, Bannor, is the leader of a small “nation” that, until recently, stood in allegiance with Keldar’s “empire”, but now Bannor and his people see Keldar as a merciless dictator, and Bannor wants to persuade like-minded nations into bringing Keldar to a war crimes tribunal. Of course, Keldar is not going down without a fight.
“Darkon”, the film, alternates between footage of Skip and Kenyon talking about the positive impact of the game on their lives, and scenes of them in full-on role playing mode, delivering stirring speeches to their followers, before engaging in battles fought in cardboard and plywood forts, with color-coded, foam-padded swords, spears, axes, and arrows. While Kenyon seems to be fairly well adjusted to life outside of the game, Skip never seems to leave Darkon at all, drawing up plans for battle while his kids watch TV, obsessively polishing his armor and sewing his uniforms. We get the impression that Darkon has somehow improved Kenyon’s life, while devouring Skip’s. Interviews with family members and friends support this, as we see Skip’s long-suffering wife pine for the weekends lost to her husband’s gaming, while his friends and family hint that Skip needs Darkon to cope with the loss of his father’s gaming business. Conversely, Kenyon’s family (his wife is also a player) talk about how Darkon has made him a more confident person in the real world, and how his in-game dealings have positively affected his business acumen. While documentarians aren’t supposed to pick sides, it’s obvious that Meyer and Neel developed something of a soft spot for the film’s affable hero, Skip, as he’s made out to be the “everyman”, with his obsessive dedication to the game masked as a sort of therapy, while Kenyon is painted in a decidedly villainous light as some sort of power hungry elitist. Every film needs its heroes and villains, but it can be argued that Skip’s willingness to put a silly game before the needs of his own family is far more despicable than Kenyon’s drive to be a successful provider.
Other players are profiled in brief, with everyone from a former stripper to a Starbuck’s worker all offering examples of how the world of Darkon gives them a reprieve from their otherwise humdrum existences. The one word you hear more than anything, here, is respect, as many of these players don’t feel they command enough of it in their day-to-day lives. By dressing up and becoming someone else – a character of their own creation that embodies everything they want to be – they feel a sense of control in the world of Darkon that eludes them in the real world. It’s both a testament to the power of imagination, and a sad indictment of the state of mind of these mostly white twenty-something men and woman that they can’t be bothered to funnel some of the enthusiasm and effort they put into the creation and maintenance of their imaginary alter-egos into their everyday lives.
Darkon is at its best when Meyer and Neel focus on dissecting the complexities of the film’s titular fantasy gaming world, but stumbles when it lingers on the supposedly unbearable real world existences of the films’ subjects. With the exception of a few people (most notably, an Iraq war veteran who has seen what real combat looks like), many of the players profiled here come off as either selfish, arrogant, or just plain lazy, and, while I imagine I was supposed to identify with their reasoning for wanting to escape from their lives, I, instead, found myself wondering why it was that they couldn’t simply make whatever changes necessary to make their real lives more livable, rather than retreat into a fantasy world. In the end it just seemed as though they chose this path because it was easier than getting a real job, or finding a real relationship, or doing something – anything – to command the real respect that they say drew them into the game in the first place.
I don’t doubt that there are hundreds – if not thousands – of Darkon players who are well-adjusted folks who are participate in the game for the action and theatricality of it all, rather than use it as the emotional crutch that those depicted here seem to see it as, but those people wouldn’t make for very interesting filmmaking, and it’s easy to see why Meyer and Neel chose to profile the subjects they did. Still, while Darkon may not be as true a representation of the game as it could have been, it’s still a strangely compelling film that triggered an emotional response from me, albeit probably not the one the filmmaker’s or their subjects intended.