Directed by: David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall/2015

DVD Street Date: January 2, 2018

Video games are no longer just about gaming, head to head competition, first player shooters, and the like.  As the industry has grown, along with the technological aspects of realistic graphics, story-lines, scores, and more, video games have increasingly become something bigger than “just games”.  Some are seeking to become works of art, compelling storytelling, cultural expressions, and for Ryan and Amy Green, a way to deal with something very real and horrific: the impending death of their son Joel to the effects of cancer.

Ryan, and his wife Amy, are a Colorado couple with several children who first met each other in high school.  Ryan is a video game programmer, and they both came from an acting background in their high school theater.  Their son Joel was originally diagnosed at the age of 1 with a brain tumor.  This resulted in him being non-verbal, even by the age of 5, though he could laugh and cry, and he could do some sign language to communicate.

When their youngest son Joel’s brain tumor returns, after originally going into remission, they set out to deal with it straight on.  Only the prognosis this time isn’t hopeful.  Joel, has only months to live.  Ryan turns to what he knows, and begins story-boarding a video game that will be all about Joel, consulting with his wife as to what parts of the journey they will use and how each moment they chose will look, feel, and function in the perimeters of a game.

Thank You For Playing, is a documentary film that chronicles the journey of the Green family as they try to keep the faith and care for their dying son, as well as love and encourage their other children. As Ryan and Amy work together to create a video game that both expresses Joel’s journey, and also that conveys their learning how to process and deal with the many emotions that come through a situation like this, we too are taken on this journey as we watch Joel’s deteriorating health the closer and closer they get to the game’s release.

The eventual video game, “That Dragon, Cancer” is not a typical video game.  “Players” will be able to control certain aspects of the game, including performing functions such as feeding an animated Joel, collecting his meds to make sure he has what he needs to face his condition that day, and more.  The story line, however is not about beating levels, accomplishing tasks, or anything else you might think of when playing video games.  Instead, a video game is the artistic medium through which they hope to help others experience their son’s life experiences, their journey with him, and to convey the emotions of such a journey when words fail.

The use of a video game as the medium for this type of thing is fairly unique, even in a day when video games are looking to be more than they have been thought of.  Scenes such as Joel on a merry-go-round, or laughing as he goes down a slide, seek to connect the player of the game with the boy that his parents know.  Joel’s actual laugh is the one recorded and used in the game, but any sounds of a baby or child crying is not him as Ryan couldn’t bear to include that.

Amy worked on the script, and along with her other children and Ryan, recorded their own voices saying the words she wrote that are fully based on things they actual said along this journey.  Scenes containing expressions of thought, written out as text overlaying a scene of Joel’s life on the screen are often more effective, and poetic expressions of their grief that allow players to identify with, rather than always hearing their voice saying something through a written script.  The graphics aren’t the cutting edge graphics of a high-action war game, but are deliberate attempts to capture Joel’s personality and journey, though the avatars are kept as simple as possible, with Joel’s character in particular not having eyes, a nose, or even a mouth.

The film deals with their own personal struggle through the process of lamenting their son through the creation of this game, while their son is still very much alive.  They acknowledge their struggle in their faith, and face the sometimes harsh words that they read online of comment-ers who don’t understand how making a video game about their “death” experience is even an appropriate way to deal with loss.  One writer even accusing them of turning their son’s tragedy into a way to make a profit.

These questions are not shied away from, but met head on which is a positive aspect to a documentary like this.  What does come through the most is that the Greens seem to be genuine people looking to take a tragedy, and make it something that not only allows them to remember Joel, but to also process it themselves, while reaching out to others who might not understand cancer, or who have gone through it themselves and need to find healing.  We see this especially as people at a gaming convention sit down to try out the game, and then give their responses to Ryan, or the camera.  It is obvious that the game has had an impact.  It is hard to argue with their motives for creating “That Dragon, Cancer“, even if one struggles with the idea that video games can be created for this type of purpose, or whether it is appropriate to fill a game with moments that are so personal.

This documentary, Thank You For Playing, is being released on DVD by Kino Lorber.  The film is in English with closed-captioning.