Every year, thousands of gamers, programmers, and journalists converge at the Penny Arcade eXpo (PAX) to celebrate video game culture. As one of the world’s premier gaming conventions, the booths and hallways are choked with endless screens of pixelated carnage and mayhem. All except for one, that is. At this booth, a quiet middle-aged man guides players towards a video game that isn’t about killing and destruction but survival and life.
His name is Ryan Green and a few years ago his infant son Joel was diagnosed with terminal cancer. To help navigate his family’s unfathomable pain, Ryan began work on an indie game entitled “That Dragon, Cancer” which attempts to immerse players in the reality of living with a child doomed to die. The game is deliberately very rudimentary: very little actual gameplay; basic, polygonal graphics; limited character animations.
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One by one, the gamers are reduced to tears. They take off their headphones and embrace Ryan, wishing him good luck. But within a few months Joel would lose his battle with that terrible dragon. Yet the game remains as a testament to one family’s unflappable will and strength in the face of incomprehensible suffering.
David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall’s THANK YOU FOR PLAYING charts the story of the Green family as framed by the development of “That Dragon, Cancer.” The process of creating a video game based on real life is quintessentially deconstructive in nature.
Ryan, his family, and his small team of developers must identify and abstract the anatomy of their agony and translate it into lines of code.
These production scenes provide the film with some of the most heart-breaking moments I have encountered this year at Tribeca: Ryan discussing with his wife Amy how he wants to use Joel’s real laugh but not his real cry; Ryan taking countless reference photos of the hospital that has become his second home so he can make an accurate in-game model; Ryan coaching his other sons to record lines for the game like “The dragon is going to kill Joel. Joel is going to lose.”
As a document of the video gaming industry achieving new artistic and intellectual heights of innovation, THANK YOU FOR PLAYING is vitally important. As an exploration of the human spirit, it is indispensable.
Nate Hood is contributing writer to Screen Comment. He recently traveled to New York City to cover the Tribeca Film Festival, where THANK YOU FOR PLAYING premiered (@natehood257)
Feeling curious? Want to find out more? Visit the film’s site here http://www.thankyouforplayingfilm.com/