Ryan Green didn’t know what to expect when he demoed his video game at PAX Prime 2013. The country’s largest video game conference drew crowds to the Washington State Convention Center, inviting attendees to explore exclusive exhibits and giveaways from indie developers to big budget titles. Giant overhead screens boasted gameplay of graphically intense first-person shooters (FPS) and fighting genres, the sounds of violence nearly drowning a nearby reporter’s comments about an alien spaceship display.
Amidst the cacophony of gunfire effects, Green and his team set up their demo for That Dragon, Cancer. Their station is small, with only two computer monitors and a pair of headphones sharing a single desk. Between the two screens sit a box of tissues and a picture frame of Green holding Joel: his son, the video game’s star and a 4-year-old diagnosed with brain cancer.
That Dragon, Cancer is Green’s way of documenting Joel’s battle with terminal illness and how it affects his family. As he worked alongside his wife Amy and a small team under the name Numinous Games, another camera began following the family’s journey to bring their vision to life. The result is a documentary titled “Thank You For Playing,” which screened at the Pollock Theater on Tuesday.
The film follows both the development of the game and the family’s personal experience with Joel as he undergoes treatment for his cancer. Because Joel’s health was uncertain, the game originally meant to relay the family’s relationship with him through intimate, autobiographical vignettes. After his death, the team revised That Dragon, Cancer to memorialize and celebrate Joel’s life through more personal interactions between Joel and the player.
After the screening, Film and Media Studies Assistant Professor Alenda Y. Chang sat down with co-director David Osit for a discussion with the audience.
Chang mentioned one of the reasons why she wanted to bring the film and game (Wireframe Studio held an open play session of That Dragon, Cancer before the screening) to UCSB was because it subverts common expectations of conventional video games. Normally, players have a wide range of agency, whether it’s solving puzzles or working their way to come out on top. With That Dragon, Cancer, it’s different.
“You can’t progress unless you stop struggling, and you actually have to choose not to do something or just watch,” Chang said.
Indeed, gameplay follows a point-and-click adventure style, taking players through scenes of hospital visits to quiet family moments in the park. According to Osit, an important overarching principle for him and his co-director Malika Zouhali-Worrall while making the film was to depict the emotional interactivity of the game while avoiding encroaching on another piece of art. The game should always serve as a window into, for example, Ryan Green’s mind.
“We always wanted the game footage to appear at a moment where you’re like, ‘What is he thinking? What could he be going through?” said Osit. “That’s what the game is to him and to Amy and to a degree the other people who worked in the game. It was a way to express themselves.”
Osit explained that the general idea for the game was to stress its obvious interactivity. Having icons helps the player navigate through the world and lets them know what kind of action would take place next, especially since many who play That Dragon, Cancer have limited gaming experience.
“A lot of people who’ve played this game have never played a game before, or haven’t played a traditional game before or have only played an iPhone game,” said Osit.
Clearly, video game demographics have changed. Chang and Osit both noted the gaming world used to be more masculine, with much of the stereotypes portraying gamers as young men playing violent FPS genres in a basement. Not only have the players changed; so has the gameplay.
“I think in gaming now, you’re seeing more games express fatherhood-oriented games as a generation of people who played games growing up are now becoming fathers or mothers,” said Chang. “You see it in The Last of Us … in Heavy Rain … in quite a few games where that really hadn’t existed before.”
Fatherhood is a major theme in both the game and the documentary. It was important for Osit to make a film not only about the relationship between a father and a son, but also the relationship between Ryan Green and his own feelings.
“We do live in a society … [where] it’s generally more difficult for men to express their feelings, and I really wanted to spend as much time with him as I could on that front,” said Osit.
Given the emotional focus of That Dragon, Cancer, Osit admitted he was afraid of the game’s reception at PAX Prime 2013. It was his first time at a game conference, and he edited the entire scene to show how he felt surrounded by the mayhem of explosions and screens of violence.
“I’m not saying there’s anything implicitly wrong with those games, but to be in that environment and to also see That Dragon, Cancer tucked away in the corner, it’s like I was really terrified for those guys,” said Osit. “How will this game be received in this hyper-masculine environment?”
Fairly well, it turned out. Attendees stopped by, put on the headphones and sat down to play. By the end, many were in tears, several gave Ryan Green a hug and words of encouragement and no one refused to sign the release for the documentary.
Not everyone, however, was touched. Some accused Green of exploiting his grief or manipulating the emotions of players. No one was aggressively upset about the game after playing it, but Osit understood that people were very afraid.
“The fear of what That Dragon, Cancer would be is the same reason that a lot of these seats might be empty,” said Osit, gesturing to the seats in Pollock Theater. “People are afraid to go there, and people don’t like the idea that someone is going there.”
He added, “It’s hard to do anything with grief except look at it and move it around in your hand and try to figure out where to put it, and I think that’s what Ryan was trying to do.”
Despite the negative accusations, Osit saw an entire community come together from attendees wanting to play That Dragon, Cancer. Though surprised, he was pleased that people wanted to have that kind of experience in an environment like PAX Prime.
“Many people do want to rebel away from the perception of what gaming is,” said Osit, “and think about it more as a place where art can flourish, and I think that’s exciting.”