When one-year-old Joel Green was diagnosed with terminal cancer, his parents Ryan and Amy did something completely unconventional and unexpected: They started creating a video game. More specifically, a video game to both honor Joel’s life and document his death. It’s called That Dragon, Cancer and takes players everywhere from the playground to Joel’s hospital bed, as they make the tough life decisions the Greens actually had to make in real life.
When the Greens were working on the game, filmmakers David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall decided to document the process via another medium: a documentary called Thank You For Playing. The meta-look at the process captures not just the sadness of losing a child, but what happens when grief turns into a creative process — and whether that distraction helps or hurts. It certainly helps others. In one of the film’s most affecting moments, Ryan takes a playable demo of the game to a video game convention in Boston, letting attendees sit down and explore Joel’s world. They all leave in tears.
Ryan’s thesis of That Dragon, Cancer is that you can’t capture his, Amy or Joel’s experience in a film — you need the interaction of gameplay to truly feel what they went through. But here you are, making a film about a game that’s about that experience.
Zouhali-Worrall: Ryan’s point is that there’s so much that’s new, exciting and different about interactive games. Such an interactive medium enables people; it’s a medium capable of bringing people to a point of intimate empathy with those whose experiences are being represented in a video game or interactive experience. In video games, you can stop, look around and take a moment to absorb the situation, the scene or the moment. Ryan and Amy always have been interested in how that can create a close relationship between the player and them as creators. Film, on other hand, is a linear experience that’s very edited; the part you play is decided by that editing.
How much of the movie is about fatherhood?
So much. Ryan and Amy are definitely collaborative as parents and as game creators. But both Ryan and Amy acknowledge that, ultimately, the game is predominantly Ryan’s outlet to create a form of expression. So the movie did end up becoming an exploration of his experience as a father losing a son.
Did you ever think that Ryan lost sight of Joel in real life by delving into this virtual version of Joel?
When we first heard about what Ryan and Amy were doing, that crossed our minds. We wondered to what extent it was becoming a form of escape for Ryan. But as soon as we met them, it became clear that Ryan was very aware of that potential dynamic; it’s something he talks about in the film. In some ways, working on the game was also a way to enhance the experience of being with Joel for Ryan. It could’ve helped Ryan be even more conscious and aware of every moment he spent with Joel, because he’s also simultaneously thinking about how to represent it in the game.
They’re actually still working on the game. Do you think it’s a healthy grieving process that Ryan and Amy are replaying all of these memories over and over again?
I would say so. Grieving is a complex process, but watching Ryan and Amy deal with their grief and help their other young children deal with it does actually feel very healthy. A community that’s responded well to Thank You For Playing is the art-therapy community; the theme of the film is the process of artistic expression and how it can be a good way of dealing with difficult situations.
There are no rules to bury a child, are there?
Absolutely not. Right after Joel passed away, Ryan and Amy did need to take a break from the game. But finishing it became an important part of remembering and memorializing Joel. One interesting thing was that while Joel was alive, many of the ideas for the game were about representing their experience of being parents with a dying child. After Joel died, their goals for the game changed; it was more important for them to recreate the experience of loving Joel at the end of his life. They wanted to bring players into an interactive experience of parents loving a kid like Joel. As a result, they ended up focusing more on representing Joel versus representing his disease.
Ryan and Amy are very religious Christians, which isn’t addressed until the end of the film and probably has a lot to do with their grieving process. Did you know this going in?
We did. One thing we had to figure out while editing was how to best represent our own experiences with their religious beliefs. We wanted to make sure it was clear that’s part of who they are, but we also didn’t want viewers to become preoccupied with the religious aspects of Ryan and Amy’s lives. Instead, we wanted to focus on the creative purpose of the game they were working on.
We were definitely aware that many people, especially people who aren’t religious, can bring prejudices or preconceived notions to meeting ultra-religious Christians. But we wanted people to know Ryan and Amy for who they are first: Parents.
It’s hard for somebody who’s not of the same religious background to not assume a grieving family would go, “This is God’s plan, etc.” They seemed more conflicted than that.
People think that a very Christian family is gonna deal with death easier because they believe the good go straight to heaven. Ryan and Amy do believe that, but they weren’t afraid to say that it was still difficult to process. They weren’t blindly following a faith; they intellectually and philosophically engage with every aspect of their life. And ultimately, the same questions come up whether you’re religious or factual: Why is this happening to me and my family, what’s gonna happen after my child passes away, and so on.
For me, the turning point in the film was when Ryan and his co-creator let people play a demo of the game at the Penny Arcade Expo, a gaming conference, and they were quickly all sobbing.
That scene was the moment when we realized Ryan, Amy and [co-creator] Josh were doing something that was having a profound impact on everyone around them — even the people who just played the game.
How did you feel about gaming going into the film, and how do you feel about it now?
I played video games a little, but I wouldn’t say I was a big video game fan. There are a number of other developers who are exploring similar themes to That Dragon, Cancer; those games are called “empathy games.” A lot of them are nonfictional biographical explorations of difficult human experiences — whether it’s alcoholism, depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder. They’re reinventing the conventional idea of what a video game is, using its tropes as metaphors for other things in the same way that artists in other mediums have done for decades. That, to me, really shows how far they’ve come and their validity as an artform.
You can read more about That Dragon, Cancer in this month’s WIRED.
Lindsey Weber is Deputy Editor of MEL. She previously wrote about the many faces of John Travolta — there are many.