This week on VGS…
We have the rare privilege to speak with Amy and Ryan Green a couple who decided to chronicle one of the most traumatic moments in life, in a video game.
That Dragon, Cancer is a game that follows the life of Joel, a child who was diagnosed with cancer and his family’s struggle to deal with this new reality. The journey has been astutely depicted by a team of game designers including Amy and Ryan themselves.
The choice to express Joel’s life in game form was a difficult one but Amy and Ryan wanted to make sure their son’s life mattered.
That Dragon, Cancer Interview
Andy Borkowski: We talk a lot on the show about video games being contemporary with both music and movies and of course literature.
In some cases we believe its level of interactivity, really does take it a step further. The indie title “That Dragon Cancer” is currently available; it’s a heart wrenching eulogy of a deceased child who passed away after his battle with cancer.
Today we speak the co-creators of the game, Amy and Ryan Green, who are also grieving parents. Thank you so much for joining the program.
Amy Green: Absolutely, thank you for having us.
Andy Borkowski: If you don’t mind let’s lets start with Ryan, tell us a bit about your son Joel.
Ryan Green: Joel loves to laugh (…) and throughout his entire battle with cancer he never lost his “baby chuckle” and it was our great joy to do anything to make that boy laugh.
Ryan Green: Joel never, developed past about 18 months, and so he had to learn to walk multiple times and verbally he was like a toddler and so unfortunately we didn’t get to know what Joel loved or what he feared, or what he thought about.
But we do know that, we do know the things that he liked, and that was eating and dogs and bubbles and playing and laughing and his brothers and babies and (…) all of those things.
Andy Borkowski: And Amy if you don’t mind, what exactly is the title “That Dragon Cancer”.
Amy Green: (inaudible) So “That Dragon Cancer” is sort of like, this sick poetic game, its point and click.
So people who have played adventure games in the past, it’s a similar feeling that you kind of explore this world by moving through the world and looking at objects. The boy is a little fun in the mix and there is also, you know a lot of our emotions from this experience of loving a child that we knew was dying.
So it’s a heavy topic but we think that putting it into a video game really explores that topic well and allows us to explore all the emotions that went along with that.Which is not, maybe quite as devastatingly sad as some people think. (…)
Because there was also like, our day to day life was-was fun and sweet.
Andy Borkowski: How has the game been received so far, it’s been out for a little while. I feel like everyone is talking about it, what are some of the messages that you have received as parents of Joel and also as the games creators?
Amy Green: We just, like when people have a chance to play the game we received really amazing emails from people. I’m amazed how many people take the time to find our email address and write us a email.
Because I have had very few experiences in my life that have made me go through so much trouble to talk to the person who created them.
That people have just told us, that it really moved them that it changes something in them and makes them, want to love their children better and pay attention the world around them a little bit more.
Andy Borkowski: This game, this project I wouldn’t even necessarily call it a game its (…) it really is at least in my experience of playing through it, I think as fully as one can. It seems to be a real window into what it was like for both of you.
You had so many ways you could have told this experience, expressed it.
Andy Borkowski: Amy you touched on it a little bit there, why did you eventually opted for the interactive medium of a video game to tell the story of Joel?
Ryan Green: I’m a video game developer and so this is what I do, and in seems of humanity and all the things that go with life are things I wanted to explore. So even before you know I knew the why of it, I just felt that compulsion to share our story and to explore my feelings in an interactive way.
You know now that we’ve started working on it and as time passed, it became very clear to me why it was so important, It was so (…)
As time passed it became very clear why it was so important and appropriate to do this interactive medium and that is because (…) that’s how we interacted with Joel. We played with Joel and that’s how we interact with our children.
So it’s amazing that I can allow somebody to interact with Joel and make him laugh and hold him and rock with him in a chair and just as- and I can give people (inaudible) excuse me and I can give people a glimpse of the kind of boy that he was.
So (…) being able to play, I think is the main reason that we chose a video game.
Andy Borkowski: Taking a look at what it’s like to deal with cancer as a family.
Playing through the title in the last few days, there is a lot of stuff I want to talk about but the one thing that I think right off the bat really hit me.
Was the choice of art style its very polygon, there is a lot of skewed facial features. As a player when I first started, it gave me a kind of, I guess a sense of distance, you know it almost mortifies the characters a bit.
But as you developed the story, these faceless characters that had voices seem more real for me as a player than any other fully featured characters. For you as developers why did you choose that art style?
Ryan Green: Well it started as a necessity, I’m a virtual programmer and I have been a programmer for many years because I really wanted to jump into art and this is my real first forward into significant 3D graphics and so part of this was a learning process for me.
But I think as we- as we experimented with this style, as we experimented how the faces should be as we added and removed facial features, it just felt appropriate to remove all of them.
And really allow the space to be expressive without detail and so I feel that abstract, you know having abstract art style and having it so with colour and light and having the environment changes as you move through them.
I think they really land on the mood to these environments and I thought it was important.
For me the environments are a character as well and they express the tone of what the player, what we are going through at ever given moment.
Andy Borkowski: Key components in the game “That Dragon Cancer”, which looks at what cancer, does to a family.
Again thank you both for joining the program and talking about this game and the experience, that left on with you but I would say millions of people around the world. We talked about it on the break; this even though it was your story is by no means individual efforts correct?
Ryan Green: (…) Yea that right, actually we have, you know to come to think of it as something that, a video game is something that one person creates but in actuality there is a lot of people involved and we have eight people on the team, Amy and I co-write and I do art.
We have another artist named Ryan and my business partner Josh, he also is a co-owner and a artist and our composer John who’s kind of the star of the video game.
Because the sounds he’s created and the musical pieces that he’s composed just really add to, something special to what has been created.
So we are really grateful that we were able to have a lot of people.
Andy Borkowski: The project for those who haven’t played the game yet again called “That Dragon Cancer”.
Is very much a window into key events in the story of Joel and his battle against cancer.
As a player the most difficult moments for myself, I think we’re starting with the doctor scene. Where you find out exactly how much time is left and shifting from perspectives and the eventual conclusion of that scene and then the scene that I as a player trying to get through and just had to come back to it was the depiction of you trying to explain exactly what was happening to your other son.
Andy Borkowski: Those two scenes and I’ve talked to other journalists and people who have played, those are high up there.
Can you tell us a little about if you don’t mind, will start with you Amy or Ryan if you want to jump in, the creation of those two moments and what that meant for you guys and what you were trying to impart.
Amy Green: The Conversation is nothing like you would expect it to be, for us we have gone through ten months of treatment, which is really difficult but it was all going according to plan. You kind of have in the back of your mind that something could go wrong at some point and you kind of imagine as long as you let yourself imagine what that conversation might be like.
So when it was actually happening, all I could think at the time was “oh weird were having this conversation that I thought about and wonder what it might be like, but it’s actually happening and its nothing like what I thought”. I was just so aware in that moment that I had this world of emotions happening inside of me in addition with the real conversation that was taking place.
We were there in that room with myself, but also with Ryan who was experiencing his whole world of emotions and then a doctor and a nurse.
Then you’re thinking to yourself this is their job , you know they have to say this again and again to parents at different times and to parents that they care about.
You know they experience this heart breaking loss as part as what they do for their career
So I think that was something I always wanted to explore were all of the things going on in that space. A room with four people all with their own lives and their own outlooks on what is happening and here is this conversation that will change our whole life, but it’s not just my impression it’s everyone’s impressions.
So creating that scene was really just trying to find a way to talk about the complexity of what happens when you get into moments like that.
Andy Borkowski: I think for a lot of people, who do experience this project (…) they feel it rings true. That it clearly is something that is very important to both of you. If you don’t mind, Amy what for you was the most difficult scene to capture and create from your past, within this video game?
Ryan Green: Yea, I would say it was the cathedral but it was for a slightly different reason, there was just so much that I wanted to stay. In that scene just depicts us losing Joel and you know it varied from wanting to teach the player something and realizing I don’t really have anything to teach.
It went to showing people, you know what it was to, you know we picked up our whole family in the last couple months and moved to California for this, we called it our hope adventure.
Because we were going on this clinical trial in California and so what it was to put all of that hope into that basket and yet give people a taste of the joy that we had as a family to spend those final months together.
Then finally just realizing that, the core of all of this was coming face to face, with the eternal and the closest we have ever been to that veil of death.
Andy Borkowski: I really loved playing the game and I remembered there was an incident when you were walking through the hospital and you got to if you chose too. See a little bit of different stories, of different people who were dealing with similar sorts of issues and trying to get insight of how wide spread and how this can affect families in different sorts of ways.
Artistically for your family was that something you experienced with as you were going through this process?
Ryan Green: You know one thing as we went through this process of creating the game for the last three years, it require a lot of resources. When we ran out of resources we took our project to “Kickstarter” and we asked people, “Hey would you like to see this project completed?”
But we also took it as an opportunity to invite other people into this story. One of the things we realized early on in Joel’s treatment was that was one family behind a closed door in a hospital.
But you know were surrounded by 500 families with closed doors in a hospital and there are so many people going through this right now. We don’t tend to talk about it and so we have the honor and privilege to being able to share our story, so we wanted to make other space for that.
So some of our “Kickstarter” backers were also contributed to the game.
So the hallways of the hospital were filled with artwork that they contributed and there are bottles in the ocean that are filled with letters that they contributed and there is over a 100 cards with messages that are strung throughout the hospital that if anyone wants to take the time to do it they can go read those things are those cards.
As we started to receive those messages, it just continued to strike us over and over again that these are real people. I mean we know were real, but it’s that constant realization that were not alone. This is Joel’s Story but it’s so many other people’s story as well.
Andy Borkowski: What does this experience this game, really mean for you as parents and what do you both hope people get from playing “That Dragon Cancer”?
Amy Green: You know it’s on a personal level. The game was our chance to really introduce people to Joel. When you have a child that dies all you want is (…) for his life to matter in some way.
I know that for me, I had all kinds of things that I wanted Joel to get to do and doing this for him, things I wanted him to have a chance to even make his own choices in the world. So when he died, a lot of my mornings turned around to the things he would never get to do, that he wouldn’t get to impact the people the way I hoped he would.
So I think the hope for me is that Joel’s life does matter to people through this game.
Not because of anything he did, but just because this an experience people can play through and think deeply about and feel something and maybe it changes how they think of other people or how they respond to people in pain, or they just have new empathy for what it’s like for a family to go through a stressful situation.
Andy Borkowski: And Ryan what about you?
Ryan Green: I think I want people to understand the importance of walking along side each other and their hardships. I think there is a tendency after things that come up with all these solutions and formulas on how to overcome and how to defeat and how to win.
Sometimes you just don’t win on the terms you were hoping. So much of the support that we received through is churched into our family routine system. Being willing to walk with me in it, I think that’s so important to not try and fix to not try to take away somebody’s pain but just to sit in their pain with them.
Acknowledge, acknowledge their love and acknowledge their loss and be willing to say I’m sorry.
I just hope that in some small way we can do that with people. We can say I feel your pain and gone through it, I’m sorry and here’s hope or here’s comfort that it doesn’t take away any of that.
It just sits alongside of it. There are not all the answers that you hope for and you still have the hope that in the end it will all work out, but right now I just hope that people feel love.
Andy Borkowski: Thank you both for one making a title like this, putting your heart and soul into this and for taking the time out of your day to speak to me about it but thank you so much.
Interview by: Andy Borkowski
Transcript by: Matthew MacKillop