Ryan and Amy Green found an unexpected way to cope when their infant son Joel was diagnosed with cancer. Together with collaborator Josh Larson, the trio began work on That Dragon, Cancer, a hopeful and heartbreaking adventure game that chronicles the family’s experiences with terminal illness.
The inspirational story drew the attention of many in and outside the games industry, including filmmakers Malika Zouhali-Worrall (Call me Kuchu) and David Osit (Building Babel). The duo reached out to Green about recording the making of the game, and the result is Thank You For Playing, a poignantly honest documentary about loss and the impulses that inspire art.
Thank You For Playing is currently screening at the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival in Toronto, where we sat down with directors Osit and Zouhali-Worrall to speak about the about the film, their respect for the Green family, and their newfound appreciation for games as art. You can read our review of Thank You For Playing to find out more about the film, and be sure to check out the rest of our coverage of Hot Docs 2015.
Dork Shelf: Why did you decide to make a documentary about That Dragon, Cancer, which is already in many ways autobiographical?
Malika Zouhali-Worrall: By the time we got in touch with them, they had developed one scene that they were showing publically. It’s a scene you see briefly in the film, where you’re trying to comfort Joel, who’s dehydrated in a hospital room. We were fascinated. It connected to what we do as creative filmmakers, and the idea that you could explore documentary in video game form was intriguing.
But there is the additional making-of aspect to our film. What role does art have in this situation? Why did Ryan, Amy, and Josh feel they needed to explore this issue through art, and then more specifically through the video game? That was a huge question that isn’t in the game because the game is a more direct relationship being explored.
DS: Was there any concern that there would be too much thematic overlap between the film and That Dragon, Cancer?
David Osit: Ryan, Amy and Josh were creating art based on their real life experience. Whether the game was completed while we were filming was almost irrelevant to us. It was the act of creation that we were documenting.
Malika: Every time we would visit them we would see new scenes from the game, and every time we’d be like, wow, this is getting better and better and becoming more surreal and abstract and poetic. So in the editing process, we had to make sure that we weren’t using their amazing art as a substitute for our own ability to tell the story, that any material from the game was being used in our own narrative.
We were hoping to make sure the film would never substitute for the game. We seem to have achieved that. When people watch the film, they don’t feel like they know what happens. Instead, they’re still intrigued, and that’s partly why we end the film the way we do. The film ends where the game begins, and that was important to us for mutual creative respect. We didn’t want to be stealing Ryan and Amy and Josh’s work.
DS: How did you first learn about Ryan and That Dragon, Cancer?
David: We read a brief description on Killscreen Daily, and there were a couple articles about this demo that he had at GDC two years ago and the positive response from critics. The game hadn’t been exhibited for the public yet, so people knew that it existed, but it was really just a glimmer with a demo attached to it. From that, we reached out to Ryan. This sounds interesting. Can we film with you? We played the demo. He sent it to us and it was exactly as provocative as I imagined.
The thing that first got me excited was the artwork. I was struggling with this idea. What could a game like this look like? How can this be the experience I’m assuming Ryan wants it to be? Then I saw the artwork. It’s very abstract, very beautiful, and very evocative, because it’s allowing you, as the viewer, to supplant your own imagery into the space. It wasn’t going for hyperrealism the way a lot of video games tend to. I was looking at computer-generated art.
DS: As filmmakers, did you have any preconceptions or learn anything new about games as a medium?
Malika: For sure. Ryan, Amy, and Josh were thinking about the medium as an artist does. What are the tropes or genres, and how might we use that as metaphor or how might we subvert that? They made the game rather linear, and that related to their experience. When their son was diagnosed with terminal cancer, there weren’t many options for them. They had to continue living with him knowing that his health was deteriorating. Similarly, there’s a scene where Ryan and Amy are talking about the endless runner genre, which is one of the most striking metaphors for mortality that you could think of.
David: The broad cultural conception of a video game is that it’s geared towards a demographic. Their age has the number one in front of it, and it’s going to be this hyper-masculine space about shutting down and escaping. That wasn’t what we encountered at all with That Dragon, Cancer. This was a family working on a game about an emotional experience, attempting to convey it through the tropes of play and interactivity. It allows you to share with people that would never otherwise understand what you’re going through, and seeing the reactions that people had to the game was very profound. It awakened an understanding of what this art form could be that we didn’t quite understand in the first place.
DS: One of my favorite scenes in the movie at PAX. Had you ever been to an event like that? What it was like to be there to record That Dragon, Cancer while there’s so much noise happening around you?
David: Honestly, that scene is autobiographical. I had never seen anything like that before, and when we first got there, what struck me was all the craziness and hyper-violence surrounding you. Then in the corner is this innocuous, personal story. To have those worlds colliding, and to somehow have the latter win over the former, it’s incredible. That Dragon, Cancer was named by [PAX co-founder] Tycho as one of the two best games at the conference that year. It was that and Titanfall, a multi-million dollar game with about the same budget as Avatar. The fact that those two games can exist in the same sphere shows that it’s an unstable but growing medium. It’s exciting to see that it existed in the first place.
DS: At one point we see Ryan and Amy reading Internet comments, including accusations that the game was taking advantage of their son’s memory. The film makes it clear that that’s not the case, but how did you navigate that discussion while chronicling something so deeply personal?
Malika: When we first heard about the story, we were also like, why would you do that in a video game? We had certain questions, and we needed to make sure we weren’t skirting around them. We wanted to embrace that tension. Ryan and Amy had to constantly figure out where that line was and how far they were willing to go. Making something as remarkable as this would be impossible if you weren’t. That tension is a sign of their courage and their willingness to explore this question.
I’ve never met anyone else that talks about death and bereavement in the way they did, and you realize there’s no reason we don’t talk about death in those ways. The only people who have those criticisms are people who have never played the game or seen the film. But we wanted to make sure it was voiced, so that people could think about what Ryan’s doing, and make their own decision by the end of the film.
DS: What was it like spend so much time with the family during this process?
David: They were comfortable with us and we got along well very quickly. As things began to change with Joel’s health, there were concerns that we had about being there, but we were never asked to leave. If it was separate from their goal, then maybe it would be a different story, but I think we all realized that we were in service of the same mission. What does it look like to document an emotional experience? Our medium was film and theirs was this game.
DS: You mentioned that Ryan talks about death in a different way, and in the film it seems like a lot of that has to do with religion, which comes up several times. How important was the element of faith during the production?
David: Faith and religion is a pathway to deal with the complicated and terribly sad things that can happen in our lives. It’s a way to be able to cope. It was important to us to make sure we weren’t omitting the fact that Ryan and his family are Christian.
But there was a storytelling element. They were making this video game to be able to express and deal with the emotions of having a child with terminal cancer. Certain people turn to religion in that situation.
This game was a way for Ryan to have some control and agency over this experience. Religion’s not terribly different from that, in the sense that we invest some authority in what’s going on around us. We have a different religious background from Ryan and Amy. We’re not Christian. But it was irrelevant in terms being able to relate to him.
Malika: One thing that was striking about Ryan and Amy was that in everything in their life, they’re constantly asking questions. Ryan’s a Christian that’s constantly questioning why he believes what he believes, which to me was a powerful and important part of his character.
But also, if anyone’s child is diagnosed with something as awful as terminal cancer, I think we all ask the same questions. What’s going to happen after he dies? Even if they’re talking about some of those things in religious terms, they’re universal questions. Ryan talks about that in such philosophical terms that you don’t have to be religious to relate to it.
DS: You’ve talked about your own reactions, but what was it like to see the reactions of other people playing That Dragon, Cancer at venues like PAX?
David: That’s when I first understood how special That Dragon, Cancer was. It was an evocative piece of art, but I didn’t realize the empathetic value until we saw that it would affect people in this loud space. To put headphones on for ten minutes and come out changed, I didn’t know that could happen. The fact that it could affect people so much over and over and over again, it was amazing to see.
DS: The story is naturally inspirational in many ways, but is there anything more specific that you want people to take away from the film?
David: Ryan and Amy have lived their lives and created something beautiful out of a dark, impossible to understand experience. The grace and aplomb they carried through that into something that would heal other people, I find that to be very inspirational. Here is a way for you to engage in the love, peace, and joy in life. Despite tragedy, that’s what continues when sadness happens to us. We keep waking up. We keep going forward with our day. The sun does keep rising. For that to be the takeaway – as it is for people who play That Dragon, Cancer and as it is for Ryan and Amy – I think would be a wonderful thing.
Malika: I feel like their story does answer very profound questions of why artists create and what art does, and why it’s important to us as human beings. That was why this story struck us so much. It was a story dealing with a very difficult death, but it was also a story dealing with art, and that seemed pretty exciting to us.