Starring Shane Macomber, Dave Overman, Paul Vorvick, Fern Zimmerman, Rebecca McNamee
Directed by Cullen Hoback
Expectations: Moderate. I hope this isn’t just more of the same.
Monster Camp takes another, slightly different look at the world of live action role-playing (LARP). The inhabitants of this world are just as enthralled and engrossed in the fictional world they are populating, but they go about it in a wholly different way than the fellows from Darkon. In the grand scheme of things they really aren’t all that different, but the nerd in me has to come out and say, “No, actually they are fundamentally different.” Before watching Darkon and Monster Camp I had a limited knowledge of this very distinct subculture, but I’m familiar enough with the overall genre through a strong love of computer role-playing games. Due to this, I won’t be able to really boil it down for those firmly entrenched in the LARP forest, but I’ll do my best.
Monster Camp seeks to relate the story of the LARP players of NERO Seattle, a small chapter doing its best to run games despite being woefully understaffed. The role-players in Monster Camp are of the more traditional variety that you think of when you think of LARP. People in shoddy costumes yelling “Lightning Bolt, Lightning Bolt, Lightning Bolt” or “3 Normal, 3 Normal, 3 Normal”. Monster Camp never delves into any of the specific character’s arcs so it is unclear just how deep their fiction is, but from what I could tell, the habitants of Darkon take their shit much, much more seriously.
Where the players of NERO Seattle seem focused on remembering a 250 page rulebook whilst trying to have fun, the people of Darkon push and pull endlessly in devious struggles of political intrigue and the specifics of the combat aren’t as prevalent. For instance, no one is yelling damage numbers out in Darkon, which instantly makes the players at NERO Seattle infinitely more nerdy, because there is no way you can play it off as cool when you’re yelling out “13 Nightmare, 13 Nightmare, 13 Nightmare” along with ten other people yelling out their own damage numbers. The question of people calculating and keeping track of all this damage in their heads comes up a couple of times with the target assuring the questioner that they’ve been able to keep up with it. Bullshit. There’s no fucking way. Nerds may be like calculators to some, but pulling that shit off would be fucking superhuman.
Monster Camp doesn’t benefit from a lot of the things that made Darkon enjoyable. The filmmakers never focus specifically on any one person, with the exception of the game owner Shane and his struggle with the real world stress it is causing. Shane’s struggle is interesting but not enough to keep the film moving, so the focus shifts throughout to briefly tell the stories of a variety of players in the game. Without a moving central story like Darkon, Monster Camp plays more as a look at LARP in general. It informs the newcomer about the game and how it is played and introduces some of the people associated with it.
The players here are much less sympathetic though, being a thousand times more nerdy than the nerdiest of Darkon. This lends Monster Camp a much more ridiculous and funny vibe. The mood is still unclear whether the filmmakers are seeking to educate or lampoon, but some of the situations and dialogue that naturally play out become easy parody due to their overwhelming ridiculousness. When one player in full blue-faced makeup laments the loss of the Sea Elf race in-game, she states how the game won’t be the same as trading will be affected and the ships will have a hard time getting in and out of the harbor. It’s hard not to laugh at how genuinely hurt she is by these consequences and all I could think was, “If only she cared that much about our economy.”
A couple of people in Darkon talk about how they entered the game because they could not influence the real world in such drastic ways, crushing countries and empires during weekend camp-outs. It’s sad because it’s obvious that if they put the same effort and passion into something more worthwhile, they might actually have an effect on society as a whole. You could argue that they are having an effect on the lives of the other players, but that seems more like enabling thinking than anything else. I was surprised that this theme didn’t really come up in Monster Camp, as it seems like it would be go to mining material within this subculture. There is definitely a look at skewed reality, but for all their nerdiness, the players at NERO Seattle seem to have an overall better grasp on the precepts of reality. It might not seem this way on the surface, but ultimately it feels like the players in Monster Camp view their LARP activities as a game played for fun, where the denizens of Darkon treat the game as an alternate and very meaningful reality. Maybe… It could just be the two filmmaker’s differing slant during the editing process. In any case, it is interesting to watch and consider these films as companion pieces, even though they were not produced as such.
Monster Camp is the less pleasing of the two LARP documentaries, but it’s definitely worth your time if you’re at all interested in this unique subculture.