FilmThank You For Playing:
a film about a game
about taking care of
a child with terminal cancer
Hopes&Fears talks to the directors of the documentary "Thank You For Playing" and the parents of the child who inspired the most devastating game "That Dragon, Cancer."
It's safe to say you've never played a video game like That Dragon, Cancer. There's simply no precedent for an autobiographical work about raising a toddler who has a terminal and extremely aggressive form of brain cancer.
In 2010, Ryan and Amy Green were informed that their one-year-old son, Joel, had only a matter of months left to live. As they struggled through his treatment, they documented their experiences in a game. Over the course of four years, the Greens went through countless doctor's visits, chemotherapy procedures and fluctuating rounds of good and bad news. All the while, Ryan was spearheading a team that channeled his experiences into an interactive magical realist world in which unbearable real-life emotions are magnified into a series of poetic vignettes.
When filmmakers David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall heard about the still-in-development game, they approached the Greens about documenting its making. What followed was an overlapping creative process in which both projects informed each other.
Directors of Thank You For Playing
David Osit is a documentary film director, editor and composer. His work has appeared on networks such as Arte, PBS, TLC, Al-Jazeera America and Channel4. He is a recipient of ITVS Open Call funding for his film Building Babel.
MALIKA ZOUHALI-WORRALL is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker of British/Moroccan origin. She is one of the directors and the producer of the award-winning documentary Call My Kuchu that depicts the last year in the life of the first openly gay man in Uganda, David Kato.
Four years after he was diagnosed, Joel passed away. He lived much longer than expected, but brain cancer is a particularly tough form of a particularly destructive disease. The game is still not quite finished, but the film it inspired, Thank You For Playing, recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Hopes&Fears sat down with the filmmakers and the Greens to talk about the process of creating these two inconceivably difficult works.
They were tackling this idea of mortality and love within the context of a video game.
Thank You For Playing
DIRECTED BY David Osit & Malika Zouhali-Worrall
RELEASE DAY: April 17th (USA), Regal Cinemas Battery Park, Tribecca Film Festival
Hopes & Fears: Osit and Zouhali-Worrall first met in 2012 at the True/False Film Festival, where they were both showing their own feature films. They were determined to work together if the right project came along and when Osit came across an article about That Dragon, Cancer on Kill Screen Daily, he thought it might be the subject they were looking for.
Ryan Green: We didn’t know how they saw the world or how they would see us. I think we felt based on the subjects of their previous films that … we trusted that we weren’t going to be portrayed as a caricature.
Amy Green: It just seemed like they let the subjects of their previous documentaries speak for themselves. And they took topics that could be sensationalized but they didn’t sensationalize them.
David Osit: I just read a couple of sentences of a very brief description essentially saying Ryan was making a video game about his son’s terminal cancer, it just seemed very intriguing to me. There were a lot of worlds within that one sentence, and what would it look like to build such a game? What would it feel like to work through the emotions that would be inherent in building such a game? And what would the game look like?
We had both come off of two feature films that were very draining. So we wanted to maybe make a short film. We figured it would be ... a very interesting story that we could tell precisely. So we went out to Colorado for four days and had our first shoot with the family. We realized very soon after that there was something very special that we were documenting. Just the way that Ryan and Amy and Josh and the whole team were tackling this idea of mortality and love within the context of a video game.
Toronto – Hotdocs International Premiere
April 28th, 2015 6:15pm
TIFF Bell Lightbox 2
April 29th, 2015 4:00pm
Isabel Bader Theater
May 2nd, 2 2015 2:15pm
TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
All screenings followed by Q&A with filmmakers.
* Students can attend the Wednesday, April 29 and Saturday, May 2 screening for free with valid ID.
H&f: According to the filmmakers, the trust was so strong that the Greens never asked to see any footage and never requested the cameras to be turned off. That trust may have come from the fact that all parties were kindred spirits making a form of a documentary in different mediums. According to Zouhali-Worrall, this led to a sort of cross-pollination between the game and the film.
Malika Zouhali-Worrall: The way they were approaching their game creatively informed some aspects of the way we approached the film. And the way we approached the film creatively informed some of the aspects of the way they created the game.
Amy Green: [For example] we knew we wanted Joel’s voice in the game, so we had all of our home video, but especially once he died we realized that whatever we used of sound for him would have to be what we already had. So at one point we decided to open the game with us feeding ducks. And we were going through what video we had and trying to find something, and I remembered they had filmed us feeding ducks, as part of their documentary. So we said, oh can we have the audio from your footage about the game, to put in the game.
I love making him laugh, let’s make him laugh more. And that space can kind of expand with your desire to just interact with Joel.
Ryan Green: I felt like our processes of developing this game, and them developing the documentary were very similar, in how do you tell the story? And how do you compress time so you can create a meaningful moment? The same [subject] but in different mediums reveals a different aspect of interaction. [For instance] I love that they capture so much of his laugh in the film. But then there’s this aspect of like, that laugh that they have in the film was taken from our home videos. And we also use that audio in our game, when you’re interacting with Joel you’re causing him to laugh. A documentary [is] on a timeline that keeps marching forward. Whereas a video game, it allows you to like — Oh, I love making him laugh, let’s make him laugh more. And that space can kind of expand with your desire to just interact with Joel. For us, it’s ‘let’s be with Joel.’ So I think we took a different narrative approach. Something we were kind of discovering as we were living through this, is ‘what really matters?’ Do I need to inform you of all the tumors and all the protocols and all the clinical things and all the timelines of the ups and downs of everything that happened in his life? Or could I just show you what it was like to be with Joel?
Malika Zouhali-Worrall: I feel like I hadn’t experienced a game that was dealing with this kind of human experience that’s this profoundly emotional, but also a non-fiction experience. Pretty early on, we realized that Ryan and the rest of the That Dragon, Cancer team are also, even within their community, pushing the boundaries of this medium and actually are taking it to new places. I think that was something that really excited us, as artists this whole team is doing something pretty unprecedented and really new. There’s this scene where we’re at this big video game conference filled with all these gory violent triple-A video games, and then these guys are in one corner demoing [That Dragon, Cancer.] People played the game and would often have very emotional responses, and as a result of playing the game would immediately want to talk to the team to hear about their experiences, but often to share their own experiences, and sometimes about topics and experiences they had never talked to anyone about. So I think we were all just so amazed that this kind of medium that is so often associated with antisocial behavior was actually enabling people to share more than it seemed they had ever shared before.
Do I need to inform you of all the tumors and all the protocols and all the clinical things and all the timelines of the ups and downs of everything that happened in his life?
Ryan Green: I don’t think we’re the first ones, I think that there’s a lot of interesting, compelling narratives. I think also those inside the video game community understand the vocabulary and the language of video games. So they really connect with it at a very visceral level that most people don’t understand. It’s important to them. There’s a certain literacy about it that I think is really profound.
↓ Group photo of family with That Dragon, Cancer screenshot on a background
Image via Thanks for Playing
David Osit: I can remember the first time I truly realized that this game was really special. There’s this low-polygon look to the game. So it’s this abstract almost — the subtraction of visuals. In the pursuit of realism, we currently can’t achieve it exactly, but we try to come close. But there’s something lost there. There’s a scene in the film where Ryan is talking to one of his former art designers, talking about [the idea to] make the avatars faceless, so that perhaps one could subconsciously superimpose their own loved one’s face, or not even something specific, just the idea of love onto that face. And being able to do that, you don’t need high fidelity if you can do that.
Zouhali-Worrall: It was really clear that the depth of thought that was going into creating it was the same depth of thought that any artist would put into a work of art. So this kind of abstract or expressionistic approach was just like any other artistic movement that’s happening, with painting being a really obvious analogy. It relates to so many other artistic mediums. Another example is the way [they] kind of wanted to use some tropes of video games as metaphors in some cases. Like an endless runner where you’re just constantly trying to get away from something but there’s no end to the game, it just keeps going until you’re killed. It’s a perfect metaphor for mortality.
The intensely personal nature of the subject matter would seem to make the game immune to criticism, but the internet will always find a way. Among the complaints, there are some people in the gaming community who strictly believe that games should only be about having fun. These are some of the same people that initiated last year's "Gamergate" controversy. Other people have taken issue with the religious aspect of the game. The Greens are dedicated Christians and have included that aspect of their life in the game. While the game is in no way a religious recruitment tool it does include references to God and, at one point, the player prays for help.
Like an endless runner where you’re just constantly trying to get away from something but there’s no end to the game, it just keeps going until you’re killed.
Ryan Green: The personal perspective is, I hope people give us the benefit of the doubt. That our intention in doing this was to tell a story of love and hope and faith and now loss, that will resonate with people in a very real way. This is how we see the world, these are the questions we ask. From an artistic perspective, I would love if this project lived on its own feet. I know that right now people are hesitant to criticize it because who wants to be the one that criticizes it, right? So when it comes to people criticizing it or questioning it or anything like that, we make room for it. We might read it, but we’re not going to challenge you on it.
Amy Green: Individuals seem to have their questions and their concerns. I think there are video game players who question kind of what a game like this does to video games as a whole. I think some people really want games to be fun and to be light, and this isn’t those things. Some people question whether it’s just too heavy to play at all. There are things that for us feel light in it, and then we realize that someone outside of our situation still thinks it’s profoundly sad, even the moments that we thought were a little bit you know — "oh there's a little levity here, oh that was sweet." But you could lose perspective that someone else who wasn’t as intimately connected to the story is still kind of in the first, thirty minutes of playing the game, just trying to take it all in and it’s heavy for them.
Ryan Green: We would love for people to acknowledge that life isn’t one emotion. And going through this loss isn’t one emotion either. It’s a whole range of emotions that includes laughter and joy and sweetness, but also loss and grieving and mourning.
Amy Green: There were a few great comments from people that said they love to play horror videogames, but this was too scary for them.
Ryan Green: There’s a certain grace in that experience. What I mean by grace, it’s just this ability to keep walking. Even when everything seems so infinitely heavy.
Amy Green: There’s definitely been criticism online, some of it very mean spirited, because that’s how online criticism tends to be. But we notice that we don’t actually have to respond to it. You’ll see a mean comment and then more people will defend you. There’s God within the game, some people really take offense to the fact that that’s in there, and it’s wild to see one person saying this is ridiculous that they would talk about God. And another person saying, well I’m an atheist — but they’ll be the first one to defend. And so it’s just interesting to see that people who don’t even necessarily share your beliefs will come to your defense if anyone gets overly critical.
Malika Zouhali-Worrall: It seems to me that the majority of the criticism comes from people who haven’t demoed the game, haven’t played it at all. It’s usually really people who just don’t know it. I’m just always astounded because there are often people who just don’t get that video games can be an artistic medium because I don’t think you would ever challenge someone for writing a poem about this experience or painting a painting about this experience. So I think it’s mostly people who are adjusting to this idea and having to understand that it’s possible to explore this in a poetic and abstract and surreal way in this interactive medium.
I’m just always astounded because there are often people who just don’t get that video games can be an artistic medium.
David Osit: Some of it might just be syntax — like calling it a game. And that’s a bitter pill for people to swallow perhaps. You have to play a game. You have to be in Ryan’s shoes and that’s an invitation that’s rare in an artful medium. The fact that you have to actually enter that space means that your brain’s going to be activated in a different way. It means you’re not just going to watch it on a screen. Like the thing with religion, people who are maybe hesitant to be involved with the religion - you can watch religious characters who are a different religion than you in a film, and not really care at all and relate to it. But if you are invited into this interactive medium to play as Ryan, and perhaps if your faith is different ... the fact that it does engender so much empathy, I think it is a deeper leap for people.
Ryan Green: It stops becoming you and it starts becoming I. And they use the I pronoun when they’re interacting with these things. We had one person stand up and say I can’t go anymore because I don’t pray. And I was like, whoa, for one, thank you for being consistent.
Amy Green: To be that invested in the story that you’re like, I can’t go on because I wouldn’t pray in this scene, means you’ve invested something.
I don’t pray. And I was like, whoa, for one, thank you for being consistent.
Ryan Green: It also shows me that because of the I, this is a broadcast medium that includes the I perspective, that we have to be considerate of the player. It matters very much to us because we’ve invited them into a very personal space and we have to acknowledge that they’re coming with their own loss and their own grieving. And those things that we all experience as humans. And I’m having a conversation with them and engaging with them and sharing something very intimate.
Malika Zouhali-Worrall: I think there’s also an element of inviting people in to ask how they would feel. There’s that element also, this is how we felt, how would you feel in this situation?
↓ Group photo of family with That Dragon, Cancer screenshot on a background
Image via Thanks for Playing
As we wrap up, I ask the Greens whether the game or film makes them feel more vulnerable. Considering it's about two hours before world premiere, they unanimously say the film gives them far more anxiety.
Ryan Green: I feel very, very exposed this weekend. By the film. And I don’t feel as exposed by the game. And a lot of people have said, oh you’re so brave and so vulnerable and everything. We’re just like, well we kind of get to say it how we want to say it in the game. We have time to consider and craft it and do all these certain things. Here, like oh now you can see me, you can see my body language, you can see how I talk, you can see what we’ve done, and now you’re going to evaluate me as a person.
Amy Green: We were so impressed with how carefully they crafted the film, and how thoughtful they were with it, and how subtle they were in a lot of the big questions that are sort of broached in the film. They asked a lot of questions and don’t necessarily give a lot of answers. But I think there’s probably the difference between how someone responds to your avatar … it’s different than how they respond to you. So I think that the game is almost like a documentary but not really, it’s not us, we can make it a little fantastical and we can talk about themes and ideas without having to really make it us. And the film is really … it’s us.
Ryan Green: The game is abstract enough to be safer.
We trusted that we weren’t going to be portrayed as a caricature.