Friday, March 28, 2008

Darkon Review

Darkon is a documentary about a live action roleplaying (LARP) group, focused on wargaming with padded weapons. This is commonly known as "boffer LARPing," but the film never uses either the terms "boffer" or "LARP." Basically, people dress up in armor and act out characters. In non-combat oriented LARPing, this generally results in negotiation rather than battle. Negotiations in boffer LARPing tend to lead to combat since, after all, the chance to strap on a sword and whack at your enemies is one of the main reasons people join these groups.

The film follows just a few of the participants, and in one case looks extensively into his home life. The tag line, "Everyone wants to be a hero" also describes the theme. The film tends to focus on the "lovable loser" type -- the stay-at-home dad, frustrated that his brother took control of the family's tabletop gaming business; the former stripper, now a single mother yearning for marriage and a home of her own; the heavy-set virgin young man who is exploring his first romantic relationships through his character, trying to gain the self-confidence for real-life relationships.

Though the film treats them respectfully, you never quite shake the feeling that the critique of Darkon (and by extension, LARPing) that it is for losers. Skip Lipman, for example, seems to live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood. He seems involved in his kids' lives, and seems to have developed a variety of skills for Darkon (such as sewing and woodworking). At one point near the end of the film, he gives a very thoughtful, well-articulated monologue on Darkon's appeal. In other words, he could have been depicted as one of life's winners, but instead the film chooses to focus on the times he has lost. Again and again I thought, "This looks expensive ... not EVERYONE can be living in their parents' basement!"

What the film does best is catch the visceral quality of the boffer wars. It wouldn't take much to make them seem ridiculous, but the camera runs out in the midst of the battle as it goes, and you feel the struggle -- all sweat and grunts and curses and shouted orders. I've never thought much of boffer LARPing, but the battle sequences made me want to be out there with them, thwacking away. Even without the justifications given by the participants, you could see why they would want to be out there, why it made men feel like heroes, why the virgin felt he might be able to talk to girls, why the stripper felt her life might just be OK after all.

My biggest frustration with the film is that I wanted a bit more explanation of how Darkon works. I wondered who created it, and how it is funded. The rulebook on their website is daunting (98 pages), but a little more detail would have been nice. How are countries formed? Who determines which side has won a battle? They obviously have some kind of in-game economy -- how does that work? What about this language the dark elves speak? How developed is that? I felt that the film needed more of the nuts & bolts.

I do recommend Darkon, but the film is not without its weaknesses. If you are into boffer LARPing, you might take offense at the way the participants are depicted -- but then again, you might just want to move to Baltimore to join in the fun.


  1. Ah, you got to Darkon before me! I'll try to netflix it before I leave the country. My last day at the Chronicle is next Friday (gulp).

  2. The best thing about the blogosphere is that even though you're leaving the country, you'll be just as virtually connected with us as before!