“Thank You For Playing” is a documentary about video games. It’s also a documentary about death.
When Ryan Green’s son Joel was one year old, he was diagnosed with Atypical Teratoid Rhabdoid Tumors (AT/RT) and given four months to live. He fought for four more years, eventually passing away from the condition in March of 2014. Ryan is a game designer; his wife Amy is a writer. Desperate to cope with the tornado of emotions and doctors and crises, they did what felt natural to them—they made art. Their autobiographical video game That Dragon, Cancer documents the life of a parent who is caring for a terminal child.
“Thank You For Playing” is based on the story of Ryan Green, and I had the chance to attend a screening of the film at PAX Prime. A small crew of filmmakers followed Ryan and his family as they struggled, laughed, prayed, and made art.
I’ve been following the Green family’s story for well over a year now, and it’s tricky to know how to write about a film like this one. I think the documentary was incredibly moving, and though it was not perfect, it raised a lot of really interesting questions for me about the nature of grief and how we use and define public space.
My favorite parts of the film were the moments of joy and laughter: Amy showing off where they’d painted an imprint of Joel’s butt on the hospital wall next to all the children’s handprints, the other Green sons bouncing around just barely on camera. I was nervous that the film might become heavy-handed, and these glimpses of real, relatable life helped avoid that by making Joel’s loss much more tangible.
I wish that there were more of these moments in the movie. The film’s subjects talk about happy times more than we actually see them. I worry that the filmmakers were more likely to turn on their cameras when they saw sadness than when they saw joy.
Overall, though, the film managed to strike a subtle and heartfelt tone. Ryan and Amy did a beautiful job conveying their thoughts, often exposing a raw bluntness that is important for a story about such a hard topic.
At times, watching Ryan and Amy write and act out the dialogue for their autobiographical video game felt very surreal—it showed this bizarre self-awareness about their experience that was at once funny and terrifying. While both the documentary and the video game are telling two nearly identical stories, “Thank You For Playing” is about more than the Green’s fight with cancer: It’s a film that documents documentation. Creating the autobiographical game was clearly a huge part of Ryan and Amy’s lives, and yet it’s something that you won’t see in the game itself.
Ryan was quiet for a long time, letting the other panelists answer the first several questions. It wasn’t until Rami directly asked him what role the player was meant to fill in the game that Ryan paused, leaned forward toward the mic, and answered in a soft voice, “You are the one who’s sent to go get him. To bring him home.”
At the center of “Thank You For Playing” is Ryan’s profound need to document his son’s life. He speaks multiple times of his fear of forgetting his son. In the last weeks of Joel’s life, we see Ryan taking selfies with his son over and over, trying to create permanence in an impermanent reality. Malika told us during the panel that never once did the Green family ask the documentary crew to leave, or to turn off the camera. That self-documentation became a lifeline.
“In our society, it feels like there’s a taboo around sharing these experiences with anyone outside of the immediate family,” Malika said to the tearful audience, “And I think we were very moved by that and very intrigued by that, and intrigued by the fact that Ryan and Amy had chosen the video game medium as a way to share that and, in the process, were essentially kind of pushing the boundaries of not only what a video game can be or do, but also what art in general can be and do and be used for.”
Religion was another major theme tackled in the film. Ryan and Amy are Christian, and it comes up a lot. “It’s a natural part of who I am and how I parse things and how I view the world,” Ryan said. “It is scary because we live in this kind of two-tiered society where you keep your religion and your religious spiritual beliefs to yourself…We keep those two stories separate, and I think that’s a real tragedy…I’d rather we all stop pretending to be something that we’re not.”
I am not religious, nor have I ever been, and to be honest, the religious moments in the film and on the panel did feel very alienating to me. However I am relieved that the Green family refused to compromise such an important part of their identity. My discomfort was an opportunity to consider the topic of death in a way that I usually don’t.
“I just think about all the times that we go around anonymous, and nobody talks about the people [they’ve lost], they don’t have an excuse to,” Ryan said. “There’s going to come a time when people stop asking ‘Why did they change you?’ ‘What do you miss about them?’ and I hope that I can be a person that intentionally asks people that. Like, intentionally stirs it up. Because I smile when I think about Joel. I smile when people ask me ‘What’s my favorite thing?’ or ‘What do you miss?’ I think that’s a gift we can give each other.”
That Dragon, Cancer was being developed for years while Joel was still alive, and for a long time the story was left intentionally unfinished. Ryan and fellow game designer Josh Larson both changed personally, and the game changed as a result.
“Over the course of the project I feel that my perspective, not only on game design but on life in general, really matured,” Josh said. “Just being with Joel, getting to know him, learning to love him, that is what was really important. If you do that first, the other things just follow from there. It’s not something that I expected to learn, even though in hindsight it’s kind of obvious.”
“I think one thing that changed for me was the ending of the game,” Ryan said. “Early on in game design you’re thinking, ‘How can I teach people something through these mechanics? How can I show them how to do it right? Optimize it? Repeat it or subvert it so that they get the point?’…My desire now is not to teach you anything. My desire now is to say, ‘Yeah, I don’t get it either’…I would much prefer to sit with you and talk with you and love you in the midst of that. And that’s something that’s changed in me over this process of living with and losing Joel.”
The impact that the film and panel had on the room was intense, but by the end it felt as if we had gone through something together. Ryan broke the tension by telling the room that he really, really wanted to do something funny for their next project. As we were leaving, Ryan, Josh, Malika, David, and Rami invited us all to get drinks, and we took a photo together at the front of the hotel ballroom—a documentation of a documentary about self-documentation. I’ll add it here if I ever find a copy.
“Thank You For Playing” will air on PBS in the summer or fall of 2016. You can keep up to date with the film by signing up for their mailing list on their official website. Some time soon (hopefully), the game That Dragon, Cancer will finally be released on PC, Mac, and OUYA.