A Father's Quest to Immortalize His Son in Code
On learning that his one-year-old son’s cancer is terminal, Ryan Green obsessively developed a video game about his son’s struggle against the disease.
Image courtesy David Osit & Malika Zouhali-Worrall
I don't feel comfortable putting up a spoiler warning about the real-life death of a child that occurs near the end of the documentary film Thank You For Playing. The press material I have seen seems to deliberately avoid communicating that eventuality outright, although it alludes to young Joel Green's terminal cancer.
The film, which premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival today, documents a father's unprecedented reaction to grief: On learning that his one-year-old son's cancer is terminal, Ryan Green begins obsessively developing a video game about his son's struggle against the disease.
Over the next four years Ryan encodes his family's experiences coming to terms with their new reality. He carefully documents family outings with Joel such as feeding ducks at a pond as well as unpleasant episodes like taking Joel to the hospital to have MRI scans. Events like these are then incorporated as playable sections of his video game, which is called That Dragon, Cancer.
Thank You For Playing documents the emotional and compulsive making of this video game. The entire Green family is shown recording their voices for it; Ryan's wife, Amy, along with Joel's three older brothers. Ryan has the family read their scripts in a makeshift home recording studio in order to enact or reenact conversations about their dying family member, even going so far as to hold Joel himself up to the microphone and blow on his belly so that he can record Joel's laughter.
At other times Ryan records his own dialogue for the digital version of himself he has created, choking with real tears behind the microphone, but still so aware of what is needed for his art that he repeatedly goes back to correct flubbed lines while he continues weeping.
The Greens, who live in Loveland, Colorado, repeatedly frame their family's ordeal within the framework of small-town American Christianity. We witness Ryan and Amy rehearsing a conversation written for the game that depicts baby Joel as a Christian knight.
"[God] fights that dragon, cancer right with Joel," Amy reads, "and we know God can win even if Joel can't."
"Well, what about Timmy from Church, mom?" Ryan says, reading a role that is to be recorded later with one of their children. "He died from cancer. Wasn't God fighting for him?"
"It may have seemed like the dragon won because Tim died," she answers, "but we know that Tim is in heaven and that he is with God and that God is so proud of him."
At another point in the film Ryan seems to explain that what has befallen his family is the work of Satan: "I'm disappointed with God. I'm angry at the Devil," he tells one of his co-developers during a quiet moment.
If there are ethical issues relating to a man documenting the illness and death of his child in the format of a video game intended for commercial release, as some internet commenters have asserted, then a documentary crew entering the family home to film that child's final months for the sake of their own movie would be in the same moral boat.
"If you're going to question what he's doing," Malika Zouhali-Worrall, who co-directed Thank You For Playing with David Osit, told me, "you've also got to question what we're doing. We worked to try and build that into the film." But in Green's defense Zouhali-Worrall adds: "If Ryan were painting canvases with images exploring this experience or writing poems about this experience or writing a novel about it, no one would be saying 'What are the ethics of this?'"
As the subjects of Thank You For Playing repeatedly reference Christianity as a spiritual tool to help them come to grips with what has befallen them, does that lend the film itself a Christian message?
"Our intention with the film was not to imply any religious message at all," Zouhali-Worrall says, "but it was certainly to show the truth as to who Ryan and Amy are, and I think those are two very different things."
Thank You For Playing captures an artist's compulsion to create a meaningful aesthetic work constructed out of the joy and ruin of his own life. Osit told me that before his encounter with the Greens he "didn't quite realize that there was any connection between video games and what we would think of as high art."
Throughout the film, the Greens come across utterly transparent and open about what they are doing.
"I feel this compulsion to share it, to talk about it," Ryan quivers in Thank You For Playing, explaining both why he is developing a video game about his infant son's terminal illness and why he is allowing filmmakers to record the same. "I'm so scared I'm going to forget Joel. I don't want to forget him. So maybe that's why I'm pointing as many cameras as I can at him, at us. To just freeze this moment."