It's common to see films that deal with loss and the grief that follows, but in video games, such topics tend to crop up rarely, usually with a layer of abstraction present. That's not the case with "That Dragon, Cancer," a video game that was released in January by parents Ryan and Amy Green (who created it alongside programmer Josh Larson), who crafted it as a tribute to their son Joel, who they lost to cancer when he was just five years old. There is no abstraction here. The game is autobiographical and partially serves as a documentarian approach to the final months of Joel’s life.
The Ryans' journey – and the stunning video game they made about it – are the subject of "Thank You for Playing," a new documentary by filmmakers David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall, who took on the monumental task of committing the incredible story to film. Indiewire recently spoke with both Amy and Ryan Green and Osit and Zouhali-Worrall about their very special film.
"Throughout history we’ve always seeked different ways to grapple with emotions like grief and loss," said Osit. "It makes sense that in our current day and age we would use this interactive medium to do that as well."
The video game documentary is not unheard of. In 2012, "Indie Game: The Movie" was a hit on the festival circuit, as it followed a group of independent developers with projects in various stages of development, all while chronicling the merriment and frustration that comes with such projects. But "Thank You For Playing" is unique in that it is more of a companion piece to "That Dragon, Cancer" than simply a standalone entity. They complement each other and should be experienced likewise.
"Both of our projects were serving the same goal," said Ryan Green. "The film shows you who Joel was. The projects show two parts of the same story."
Osit and Zouhali-Worrall met the couple after watching early footage of "That Dragon, Cancer" at the 2013 Game Developers Conference.
"We agreed to come out for a four-day shoot in Colorado, where they live," Osit explained. "That four-day shoot was the first of many. They were so open with sharing their story with us that we realized this wasn’t going to be a short film, but that we could do a lot more in following their story as they continued to make the video game."
Those four days turned into 18 months, and the short project turned into the feature now known as "Thank You For Playing," the same message that pops up on the screen upon completion of the game.
The final projects themselves do differ, however. "Thank You For Playing" is a very focused, linear progression of the Greens' lives during and after Joel's diagnosis. "That Dragon, Cancer" tells the narrative of Joel’s sickness and Amy and Ryan’s struggle pseudo-linearly, tossing in bits that represent more traditional gameplay with guided sections that mix home video moments and pre-scripted dialogue. It is not an entirely soul-crushing experience, and one that is occasionally quite fun.
Ryan and Amy did their best to make it feel like the player belonged in the space they created for them. "They need to feel like they have the right to be there," said Green. "Rather than the empathy through role-playing, it’s intimacy through friendship."
"That Dragon, Cancer" sets itself apart from other games in this way. The player does not take on the role of another character, or even Ryan or Amy, but themselves, the same role a viewer feels while watching a film. This allows the two to work in tandem.
"We were able to collaborate with them creatively," Zouhali-Worrall said. "The film was it’s own independent separate thing. The game was their own separate thing. But in many ways we were working on projects that were trying to figure out how to creatively document the same thing."
For some in the gaming community, there has been pushback to these projects and some have accused the Greens of taking advantage of their son’s condition for profit.
"For us, it was taking cues from not wanting to show too much suffering," Osit said of the claims. "That’s not what the story was about to us. That’s certainly not what the story was about to Ryan and Amy. They wanted to capture the lovely relationship they had with their son. They also wanted to capture the process of wresting with these terrible fears and this emotion they were going through."
More than anything, "Thank You For Playing" helps show the toll these emotions took on the family. It is a draining film not just because it shows suffering – it, in fact, shows more of Joel’s happiness than suffering – it is draining because of the effects on Ryan and Amy. It fleshes out the full picture of the situation and does not distract from the message Ryan and Amy were communicating. It strengthens that message.
"It’s exciting to see people that know nothing at all about gaming come to see the film are really intrigued and excited to watch Ryan and Amy’s story and discover this new medium that they thought was only used for a very specific genre," Zouhali-Worrall said. The filmmaker was excited that the film allowed the story to touch more people than just those who would have gotten their hands on the game.
"People can see it as art," Osit added. "It was really important for Ryan and Amy to have people see this as not just a representation of what games can be, but what art is capable of being."
Even if games do not normally grab you, do yourself a favor and play the game before seeing the film. "Thank You For Playing" will only open your mind further to what the word "game" can mean. It makes sense of an abstract piece of art in ways that are so rarely achievable.
"Even though we were telling Joel’s story, he represents all these other stories," Amy Green said. All stories that should, and now can, be heard.
“Thank You For Playing” is showing now in New York and Los Angeles and will be available digitally on March 29.