The Dark World

There was one Christmas when I was—I don’t know, twelve years old?—and all that I remember about it is Dark World.

For all my nerdiness, for being a budding fan of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis and Patricia C. Wrede, and pretty obsessive about The Legend of Zelda, I’d somehow evaded the world of Dungeons and Dragons—was vaguely aware of its existence, but had never played and didn’t know anyone who had didn’t really feel as though I’d missed out on anything.

And then I saw the ads for Dark World.

I wonder if there may have been a TV spot for it, too, but I remember best the Toys ‘R’ US full-color pull-out flyer from the Sunday paper that featured Dark World, a board game, yes, but a three dimensional one in which castle walls and forests sprouted from the board, equipped with armies of little figurine knights and goblins and wizards. The morning I saw it--probably around Black Friday--I drafted my first Christmas wish list for the year.

An aside: I have to suspect that my parents and grandmother regretted whatever point they’d advised my sister and I to start making lists. Before long, it became an exercise in obsessive calculation and ranking. For most of my childhood, I knew my parents and Grandma to spend about fifty dollars each on gifts for the holiday, so I tailored my lists around those dollar amounts. First, more expansive lists with the items I wanted most at the top, then more concise lists in hopes nothing would go overlooked or they wouldn’t take liberties with order of preference, or settle for something lower on the list because they found it first in the store. I provided different lists to Grandma and my parents, too, both to avoid overlap and because I knew, for example, that Grandma was more likely to send away for video tapes or books using an order form I’d clipped from a pro wrestling magazine, whereas my parents would only buy what they could find at the mall.

In retrospect, this was all kind of awful--the worst kind of losing the so-called spirit of the holiday and appreciating what I had, in favor of targeted, deeply analyzed materialism as I produced multiple drafts of each list.

But back to Dark World.

Dark World topped both Christmas lists, so certain was I that this would be the game that changed my life.

And then I reconsidered.

This was also around the time that I was falling in love with music, and some of the biggest takeaways from Christmas time the past two years had been cassette tapes from my new favorite artists. When I assessed the price tag on Dark World--thirty dollars, plus tax--it would leave room for, at best, two new cassettes, and that wasn’t even taking into consideration t-shirts, books, or cash.

And for what? For all its bells and whistles, the more I thought about Dark World, the more I struggled to imagine actually making use of it. I didn’t have friends I played board games with with any regularity. My parents didn’t play. That left only Grandma and my sister, and Grandma was more of a traditionalist with games she’d known for decades, and my sister tended to balk at longer slower games, which I had to imagine this one would be. Indeed, hadn’t it been an immersion in a fantasy world that drew me in to start with?

So, my final draft of my Christmas list, turned in less than a week before Christmas, did not include Dark World. In retrospect, all of the Christmas shopping had to have been done before that date, which in turn provoked my mother asking me directly (by our conversational standards) about it--that she’d noticed Dark World wasn’t on my list anymore, and didn’t I still want it?

I gave a hesitant, half-hearted, half-true response that I did still want it, it’s just that there were other things I also wanted.

I knew before I opened the wrapping paper that Dark World awaited me Christmas morning, and did my best to smile and thanked my mother, who I’m fairly sure saw through my faux-excitement in noting that she could return it and get me something else if I didn’t want it.

After a moment of thought, I kept it.

But the question haunted me. How late was too late to return a game for a refund? Days? Weeks? As we actually opened the box and as we played our first game, I had the sense I was taking an irreversible step. All the more so as we made the decision, as the game’s instructions advised, to paint the little figurines so we could personalize them.

To my best recollection, we only played the game two or three times. Predictably, Grandma and my sister didn’t much like it, and in all truth, I didn’t really get into it either, though I’ll never know for sure how much that had to do with all of my wish-list-remorse, versus the shortcomings of the game itself. I’m not sure what became of the game in the end. My best guess is that my father either sold it when he was clearing out the house years back, or its still collecting dust in some corner there.

But I’ll always remember Dark World--not it adventures, promised or realized, and not the fun of playing the game or personalizing it, but as the last toy or game I remember asking for.

I was growing up--into a dark world, indeed.