I recently had a spirited conversation with a friend about the necessity of imagination. His stance was that imagination is swell, but what good is it without tangible results? My response was that imagination is important because it inspires change. Without imagination, the way of doing things becomes rote, entrenched, and eventually empty. Now, after watching Andrew Neel and Luke Meyer's engrossing Darkon on IFC, I'm not so sure.
The Audience Award winner at South by Southwest Film 06, Darkon is named for the fictional medieval world where live-action gamers gather to play warrior knights, evil elves, damsels, Amazons, schemers, and an assortment of other characters to propel the narrative of this fictional world forward. The plot is deeply character driven, with each character having a unique and intricate storyline. The "battles" take place at parks or weekend camp-outs at rural locations in Maryland. There is no time for idleness in this live action role-playing game. You're either OOC (out of character) getting ready to participate, or you're IC (in character), dressed, armed, and ready for action.
Although welcomed at first, when the Darkon players discovered Neel and Meyer were serious about making a film about their game, welcome turned to suspicion.
"It's important to remember that LARPing, like most other kinds of role-playing, has long been a target of ridicule," says Meyer in IFC press materials.
I have no idea what the subjects of this film think, but it's clear that Neel and Meyer wanted to take a respectful approach to the subject. In so doing, they artfully re-create the tension of the game so that viewers get a sense of the creative energy that drives players to participate. In the end, the zeal behind LARPing is not much different from sports played in intramural or organized leagues. Switch out the medieval wear for jerseys and cleats, the bats and balls with (fake) swords and cudgels, and you've got the same thing, with one significant difference. With organized sports, the game is left on the field for the most part. With LARPing, the dialogue of what it means to be heroic is ongoing. Ideas of honor, pride, and destiny seem to play in the subconscious of LARPers in a way that takes them out of the everyday mundanity; at the same time, it leaves them where they started. It's one thing to pretend you are on a righteous mission. It's quite another to enact it. Enacting doesn't have to be big and showy; it just has to happen. No one needs to witness your act of kindness to a homeless person, a child in need, or a person dying in hospice care. The act is spectacular in its smallness.
Which brings me to why Darkon intrigues me. It has much in common with the current trend of supernatural themes on TV: Moonlight (featuring a vampire private investigator on CBS) and the underachieving Sam Oliver on Reaper (CW) join that ghost-whispering chick on CBS, Allison DuBois on Medium (NBC), and those brothers/defenders of good on Supernatural (CW). These characters take their missions with various levels of acceptance. What is clear for all is that there is a mission.
What do other parts of the world make of this U.S. TV fare? Do Darkon players live in other parts of the world? If so, does it feed a similar desire to act at living, to act at making a difference, or living up to a standard that sadly seems unattainable? If all the hours spent strategizing, organizing, blogging, writing fan fiction, watching, and chattering were spent doing something less mundane, say, like working on a voter-registration drive, feeding the hungry, tutoring a child, or volunteering in our beleaguered public schools, would that energy be less spectacular than felling a fictional warlord or slaying a supernatural being? I can't help but wonder. And worry.
As always, stay tuned.
Darkon airs Monday, Nov. 12, at 8pm on IFC. Check local listings.