Thursday, January 8, 2009

“Yellow! Yellow! Yellow! Yellow!”

Darkon is a game. Darkon is also a movie about Darkon the game. Darkon is a not particularly good movie about Darkon the game.

Darkon the game is essentially live-action D&D, an elaborate role-playing game. Players dress up in medieval style costumes, wield foam-padded swords, staffs, battle axes, and shields. They meet every two weeks, with weekend-long campouts once a month, to play in forests and fields around the greater Baltimore area. Playing Darkon consists mainly of going to these gatherings and spending the entire time in character (as with D&D and other RPGs, each person creates a character, complete with costume, backstory, etc.). Characters form countries and vie to take over more and more land. "Winning" Darkon ostensibly means taking over the entire realm, including conquering other countries and seizing their land. Much of the time playing Darkon seemingly consists of political discussions (whether or not to take over another country, forming allegiances between countries, backdoor dealing, etc.), and battles. The battles are when two countries fight each other with their big foam weapons, resulting in a spastic melee of wood, foam, limbs, and yelling (there is an elaborate hit-point and armor system that goes into determining which side wins that involves waling on each other while yelling colors).

Here is a video of a Darkon battle, apparently filmed by a Darkon player, that is not in the movie:

At the beginning of the movie, there is a major conflict brewing between Laconia and Mordom, two Darkon countries. Mordom has been dominating the realm for an extended period of time, and Laconia has split from their alliance with Mordom to unite the smaller countries in an effort to stop Mordom from winning Darkon (it's never clear in the movie if anyone has even actually won Darkon in the past or if it's really even possible). There's some stuff about Bannor of Laconia (real name Skip) wanting to bring the Mordom leader, Keldar (real name Kenyon), before some kind of war crimes tribunal. Mostly there's a lot of yelling in pseudo-Shakespearian-medieval-speak, building to what appears to be a massive war. The movie jumps back nine months to introduce the audience to the world of Darkon, and the specific events that lead to this confrontation.

Darkon lays its cards down pretty clearly and pretty early. The movie follows a select group of players (they never state the actual number of Darkon players, but it appears to be quite a lot), both in their real workaday lives, as well as their fantasy Darkon lives. It's immediately apparent that we are to view the Darkon players as good-natured noble misfits, reluctant social outcasts, who can only truly express themselves and find happiness when they are playing Darkon. And that's OK. They don't care if you think it's childish or silly or embarrassing. This is where they go to get away from you and all your judgment.

That's one half of the movie. The other tracks the goings on in Darkon the game, presenting it mainly as an actual fantasy movie. This sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. There is the dramatic voiceover that starts the movie, and the music that swells as the battles rages, both of which work pretty well in a silly/fun sort of way. Unfortunately there is also the attempt to film and edit the fight scenes like something out of Braveheart, which doesn't really work, seeing as these aren't carefully choreographed battle scenes. The camera tries to dramatically shoot a horde of people running around hitting each other, but it can't get close enough or in the middle of it without getting in the way.

The pairing of players-in-their-real-lives paired with the Darkon-as-real is established from the get-go, and the film never really deviates from that. Ultimately, this means that even though the movie is less than 90 minutes, it gets pretty old by the end. There is some drama in what will happen in the world of Darkon, but not enough to make the movie very engrossing the whole way through. There is a sort of second order suspension of disbelief that the viewer has to buy into that presents some problems. There is little to no drama in the players' real lives. Most of the older players seem happy, successful, married, with children, etc. Some of the younger players seem more awkward and unsatisfied with their real lives. But there really isn't any progression beyond what is immediately presented as the players are introduced (with the exception of one female player who lives in her parents' basement because the father of her child left her and hasn't been keeping up on child support, but even that isn't particularly dramatic – the father starts paying and she gets her own place).

Darkon is enjoyable in that you get to watch a bunch of nice people have a ton of fun doing something they love. Unfortunately, it doesn't make for a particularly engrossing movie.

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