Do you LARP? Live Action Role-Playing is the subject of “Darkon,” a documentary about people who don costumes and characters and make believe. But co-director Andrew Neel says that LARPing, while partly escapism, is in fact a ticket to reality.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Meanwhile, all is not peaceful in the suburbs of Baltimore. [MEN SCREAMING AND CHEERING] Bannor of Laconia has declared war against Keldar of Mordom who rules the land with iron determination. MAN: -- in test of our bravery. BROOKE GLADSTONE: The sound you hear is of live-action role-players, or LARPers, battling in parks and campgrounds of Maryland for control over the fictional realm of Darkon, the subject of a documentary premiering next month on the Independent Film Channel.
Bannor is really Skip Lipman, a stay-at-home dad, and Keldar is Kenyon Wells, a business manager, both main characters in a non-fictional movie that asks, what is it we really get from our fictional entertainment? For many players of Darkon, the game offers something that life does not. [CLIP]: MAN: In the heat of battle, drawn to the razor's edge by the test of the gods! [END OF CLIP] MAN: You come to this game and you're able to wheel and deal with people, manipulate things, make things work -- something I wish I could do in real life. WOMAN: I don't really have control in this house, especially as long as Mom's home. Because this is her house, she's in control. I go to work, my boss is in control. I go to Darkon, I'm in control. DANIEL McARTHUR: When I walk out here, I'm a different person. I could act like I'm not Danny. I like Danny, but sometimes Danny doesn't have the balls to do what Danny needs to. BROOKE GLADSTONE: The last voice you heard was Daniel McCarthur, aka Trivius Gorgo, a self-described nerd who goes to school and works at Starbucks. I asked the co-director of Darkon, Andrew Neel, why Danny and so many other players express so much dissatisfaction with the real world. ANDREW NEEL: I think that the dissatisfaction that they voice about the world around them is something that I think a lot of people could associate with. We're trapped behind desks and in offices and with email, and the world is becoming increasingly virtual. And you want to interact with the world physically, face to face, and that's what Darkon offers.
And I think that that's actually one of the things that people often misread in the movie. This game is their ticket to reality, in my opinion. It's a fantasy, yes, and it's escapism, yes, but they do it to feel real. DANIEL McARTHUR: I've actually got a relationship trying to go on in character with a certain nomad, and I've been following and helping this person more than anybody else. And it's cost me several things, like my life on several occasions. But it's beautiful. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, Danny tells us that as Trivius he has spoken to girls in the game. We don't know whether he's been able to transfer that newly-acquired skill to real life. ANDREW NEEL: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE] BROOKE GLADSTONE: But there are others who claim very strongly that they have a -- specifically Kenyon Wells, aka Keldar -- he's talked about how the game changed him. ANDREW NEEL: Kenyon is maybe -- Keldar in the game, Kenyon out of the game -- is maybe one of the best examples of someone that really used the game as an apparatus for personal and social development. Through the game, he developed his own sense of self. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did it concern you at all that Darkon was capable of turning what his mother said was a very mild-mannered kid named Kenyon Wells into kind of an S.O.B.? ANDREW NEEL: Um -- [LAUGHS] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Too strong? ANDREW NEEL: You know, who he is is not, as a documentary filmmaker, for me to judge. But he used the game to get self-confidence and to achieve what he wanted to achieve. KENYON WELLS: Long before, in my professional career I was ready for a management position, I was managing a large group of people in Darkon. Long before I was ready to negotiate a multimillion-dollar business contract, I was negotiating a treaty between our country and other countries in Darkon.
And while one is for fun and the other is for money, in reality, people are people and it's still the same sort of drivers. ANDREW NEEL: So was the Kenyon that Keldar helped Kenyon become someone that was already there? Who knows? KENYON WELLS: Keldar was who I wanted to be. Over time, playing Keldar helped me become the man I wanted to be. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: You told us earlier in the week that most directors, given this material, would probably have made the self-described nerdy Starbucks kid, Trivius Gorgo, or Daniel, in real life, the focus of the movie. Why do you think they would have, and why didn't you? ANDREW NEEL: I think it's pretty easy to look at a character like Danny and boil down the activity to kind of like, you know, they're not happy with their real lives so they play this game, or, you know, they can have an alternate reality where things are better. I don't think that's what Luke and I were interested in getting into. We wanted to bring to life the inner world of the people who played the game and to get at the kind of emotional essence of what it felt like to be out there on the field. [CLIP]: [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] MAN: There are two ways that this can end -- peaceably through the tribunal, or war! MAN: We have fought many wars. We've won all of them. [OVERTALK/YELLING/CHEERING] [END OF CLIP] ANDREW NEEL: I mean, if you stand back from a battle and just shoot it in a wide shot, it can be really boring. They kind of slap each other a whole bunch of times and people fall down and then that's it. They get up and do it again. What we wanted to do was to try to get inside their mind and create a kind of Hollywood reality that we think that they sometimes live in when they're playing the game. BROOKE GLADSTONE: A Hollywood reality. ANDREW NEEL: Yeah. [LAUGHS] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, that's part of what makes this so interesting, because most entertainment, including videogames and movies, is highly mediated, meaning that other people determine the frame, the plot, the environment. The uber-creator of Darkon is absent, or at least it seems to be wholly the possession of its participants now. Is that what makes it unmediated? Does that change the experience? ANDREW NEEL: Yeah. I mean, I think it's a shared fantasy. I mean, I think television and online role-playing games and videogames, they're kind of the opposite of Darkon because they feed you the fantasy. They remove you from the process of creation and destruction. And that's one of the things that really makes Darkon so warty and idiosyncratic and, in that way, beautiful.
And so, while Darkon seems so weird, it's actually very human and makes perfect sense to me. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much. ANDREW NEEL: Thank you for having me. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Andrew Neel is co-director with Luke Meyer of the documentary Darkon, which premiers November 12 on the Independent Film Channel. [CLIP]: MAN: The one thing that I do need -- MAN: Yes? MAN: -- and will pay greatly for -- ANDREW NEEL: Mm-hm? MAN: -- is a supernatural death poison. MAN: Okay. [END OF CLIP]