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It’s Monday, Jan. 11 2016, and I’m speaking on the phone to Ryan and Amy Green. We’ve never talked before, but their voices are familiar—a couple of hours prior, I finished playing That Dragon, Cancer, a video game developed by the couple that depicts the illness and eventual death of their five-year-old son, Joel. The Greens feature in the game as themselves. Through audio lifted directly from their home videos, or in sequences based on real events and then penned and performed specifically for the game, they recreate and re-imagine the time that they spent with their boy. That Dragon, Cancer is intensely personal, and as of now it’s available to the public, released onto the internet after three years in the making.
That night, the night before the game’s release, the couple found time to chat with me between last minute bug fixing and dispatching pre-orders.
“We began this three years ago and have worked on it basically full-time,” says Amy. “There are times when we were less effective, because of things going on with Joel, but even in the roughest times Ryan would work on it for five hours or so at night.”
“This is our trade,” says Ryan. “This is what we do. It’ll never be all of the things we want it to be, technically speaking, but we hope the heart of it comes through.”
That Dragon, Cancer did not originate as a video game. Back in 2012, Ryan Green had contacted his friend and fellow game-maker Josh Larson, explaining that he wanted to commemorate Joel’s battle with cancer with an art installation. As they talked over the idea more and more, it started to make sense to do it as a game—Larson, who briefly joined our conversation while waiting for a flight from Des Moines airport, took on the tasks of programming and co-design.
“After we took the decision to do it as a game, Amy started writing and we met Jon Hillman who worked sound and music,” he explains. “After that we got some funding and formed a larger team, and the whole thing snowballed from there.
“There’s one moment where you can sit next to Joel on a swing and decide, out of your own free will, whether you’d like to swing with him, and try to match his pace. To let you choose to swing with Joel, and then to try and harmonise together, that’s something I think only a game could let you do.”
“The difficult thing, though, is getting a player to do nothing,” says Ryan. “There have been multiple moments when I’ve been watching people play and I’ve wanted to tell them to stop, just stop. But it’s hard to say that, because as soon as you give people something to do they want to do it. It’s human nature. We get given something, we want to do the best we can. From a design perspective, getting the player to just rest, or to think to themselves that maybe they should do nothing, is a big challenge. I don’t know if it’s something we’ve quite cracked.”
Originally, Amy and Ryan concentrated the game on the rigours of cancer diagnosis, writing about the specifics of Joel’s illness and attempting to recreate some of the key events from during his treatment. That direction, however, later changed significantly.
“To begin with we were more focused on the details of the treatment, and when this thing happened and that thing happened, and were going to tell it I think more linearly,” explains Amy. “And then, after Joel had died, we were surprised about the things that we really missed about him. We shifted our focus to what it was like to be with him, and what it was like to play with him.”
“The details don’t matter any more,” continues Ryan. “We don’t need to tell you how many tumours Joel had, or how many times he went through chemotherapy. In the end it doesn’t change this story. What matters is what we’re left with, and what it was like to be in the midst of it.”
A Christian family who during their son’s illness turned frequently to God, the Greens do not shy away from discussing religion. Both in conversation and in their game, they recall periods when their faith has been tested, miracles they have witnessed and the times prayers have gone unanswered.
“Revealing to the public that you believe miracles can happen, and that God interferes with our reality and does supernatural things, that’s a big statement,” says Ryan. “And at least in its public persona, the idea behind Christianity is that if you do these good things, God will be pleased with you and give you everything you want. But that’s just isn’t the case. I think there’s a vulnerability when you say that, but I also I think it’s true, and sharing that truth is important. We wanted to show people that we struggle and have doubts and don’t get what we want, and don’t always do the right thing. But what we rest on is the grace of God.”
“There’s this scene at the cathedral, which encapsulates all of the hopes we had and all the things we wanted to happen,” says Amy. “To revisit that, with the context of knowing those prayers weren’t answered the way we wanted—that was difficult.”
At the end of our conversation, and with the launch of That Dragon, Cancer now an hour closer, I ask the Greens how all of this feels—how, after spending so much time and energy on a eulogy for their son, it feels to be finally letting it go.
“I think the game reflects what memory is like,” says Amy. “Especially as you grieve and mourn, your memory becomes less and less reliable, until what you have are these quick glimpses and bursts of feelings, or maybe one really vivid scene in your mind, something that perhaps has nothing to do with what happened. The details aren’t strong. They’re funny and mixed together. We lost Joel and so many things changed in that moment, but our purpose remained kind of the same—we were making this for him and to memorialise him, and it felt like there was a real drive to keep doing this for him. I don’t really know what life looks like when this chapter is closed. But I can tell it is closing.”
“I feel like I’ve mourned Joel by making this, and trying to make it as beautiful as we can, but it’s only now that I feel on the precipice of grieving him,” concludes Ryan. “Tomorrow is going to be interesting.”
That Dragon, Cancer is available now on Steam and at thatdragoncancer.com.
Ed Smith is a writer from the UK. You can find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.
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