Sometimes a game is more than a game. Sometimes that game is a window into another world or another life. While books can be used to capture the words and thoughts of people over time, sometimes a game can capture those nebulous elements of the human experience, peoples’ emotions. That Dragon, Cancer is the title of a much anticipated look into the life of a family who lost their son to cancer and the struggle they endured. Though normally games allow us to take up the role of a hero to vanquish a monster, this heartfelt and powerful game is one that takes the monsters of the real world and presents them in a way that makes the battle much more personal.
In this interview, developers Josh Larson and Ryan Green have agreed to discuss That Dragon, Cancer and their roles as IndieDevs. Given that Ryan’s son, Joel, was diagnosed with cancer and passed on March 13th, 2014 at 1:52am at the age of 4, the strength of these people, this family, to complete this work is nothing short of humbling. I don’t think it can really be called a game, since it falls into the category of visual novels, but the story behind it is nevertheless a touching one of real human courage that transcends the medium by which it is conveyed.
Please give us a little bit of your background. What got you into games, why are you game developers?
Ryan: My early forays into game development began around 1996, when my best friend Mike Perrotto and I decided to learn to program together so that we could make video games. This mostly involved QBASIC-based ANSI graphics games and crude c based text adventures. The web started to take off and I learned web design, then server side programming, which eventually lead to spending 10 years programming software for a large dialysis healthcare provider. However, most of my creative interest still remained in video games and filmmaking. I dabbled in filmmaking and video production during that time. My interest in video game development was rekindled around 2008 when the iphone and app store made creating my own simple games an interesting prospect. I soon remembered why I wanted to learn to program in the first place and, as an app developer, I began looking for opportunities to work in games. I eventually landed at Soma Games for a few years and we made some mobile tower defense games.
I thought perhaps I’d be a filmmaker eventually, as I love film and television, but videogames are where my creative skills fit best. While most of the games I play are more arcade-like, I’m finding myself drawn more and more to the storytelling potential of the medium and studying the work of studios like Telltale, Quantic Dream, ThatGameCompany, Minority Media and Cardboard Computer and developers like Brendon Chung, Davey Wredon and Steve Gaynor.
Videogames contain in themselves the ability to take the things I love about film and tv (compelling narrative, complex human relationships, beautiful cinematography, and fantastic worlds) and then invite the viewer to live in the world that’s been created and struggle along with and interact with and love the characters they meet inside. I think that is amazing. I’m a game developer because I believe there is so much yet to be discovered in this relatively young artistic medium that draws from all other artistic mediums. I think it’s a worthy pursuit.
Josh: Like Ryan, I started making simple text adventures around 1995-1996, also in QBASIC. I moved on to learning illustration and 3d software and got into web design and development. By the end of high school, I was doing Flash-based freelance work. During college I was convinced I’d be a cartoon animator making cartoons with two other artist-designer friends of mine, but our animation instructor suggested we take an experimental game development class he was teaching. We met some programmers and formed a large team to create our first game Treefort Wars, which made it into the IGF in the Student Category! We were thrilled, and at that point I really wanted to make games. After graduating, I co-founded some game studios and then started God At Play to make some prototypes exploring videogames that are more deeply meaningful, or are meant as spiritual experiences, or have faith-based themes. I organized a couple Meaningful Gameplay Game Jam events during that time, hoping to find others interested in the same thing. I met Ryan online and got to know him more when he participated in those game jams.
I’m really passionate about the medium that videogames are a part of. Great art can reveal truth in an experiential way, it can show us a deeper insight into our lives that seemed hidden at first. Videogames have a special power for revealing truth because players choose of their own free will to explore a created world to seek it out. If they find it, it can feel like a revelation because they searched for it themselves. And revelation has the potential to change us, to help us love each other more and to remind us to hold on to hope.
What other projects have you worked on?
Ryan: While at Soma, we released two mobile tower defense games Bok Choy Boy, and Wind Up Robots, and I worked on a port of their first game G: Into the Rain, and I self-released a little iphone puzzle game called Sir Roly Poly.
Josh: I’ve done some freelance work on games including art for a Comedy Central Flash game and mobile research game LIT2Quit for Columbia University, and the programming for another small mobile title. The first commercial title I worked on was as an environment artist and level designer for Darkest of Days, a time-traveling FPS espionage game. And I was a character animator, artist, and designer on Dinowaurs, a Flash multiplayer cartoon dinosaur fighting game. More recently I started Weiv, a software platform where people can move Wii Remotes to live music to create visuals and explore videogame-like worlds.
What does being an indie developer mean to you?
Ryan: Being an indie developer affords me the means and ability to encode my heart into a world that I have a part in creating. It’s about being able to speak with my own voice in that world and have a conversation with the player. I don’t think indie means independently, without help, or solo, but I do think it means that my individual voice can be heard within the things I am part of creating.
Josh: I’ve never not been an indie developer, so it’s hard to imagine doing anything else after 9 years of it. Normally I would say being an indie is ultimately about creative ownership for me, but I’ve kind of set that aside for this project since it’s so personal to the Greens. I realize now there’s more to it than just making creative decisions. Sometimes being an indie simply means doing the right thing…even if it hurts your ego!
Can you describe your game for people who may not have heard about it?
Ryan: I would call it part interactive painting, part poem, part documentary, and part video game. It is the story of our 3rd son Joel who fought terminal brain cancer for four years before his death in March 2014. It’s an expression of what we found special about spending time with Joel, how his sickness, treatment, and eventual death affected us personally and spiritually. It’s an invitation for people to walk with us, and play with Joel inside the space we’re creating to memorialize him. There are moments of play, there are moments of conflict, and there are moments of laughter.
Josh: We’ve described it as Myst minus the puzzles since players explore the world to unlock the story. I’d say it’s also a testimony, not only of what happened but also a testimony of faith.
People have suggested our game doesn’t have a win state, but our challenge to players is that perhaps the win state of the game isn’t having beaten the boss. Maybe winning comes from something inside you that changed.
When you emailed me the link to the preview, you told me it shows the early parts of the game, rather than the more emotional scenes showcased last year. Yet when I played the preview, I had to fight to hold back tears. What made you want to tell a story like this in this format? Isn’t it like having to relive the entire period over again?
Ryan: Certainly building these scenes takes an emotional toll on us.
A narrative game is complex, especially once you add characters to a scene. Everything that you see in a scene is often hand-made, from each prop and set piece to each sculpted and animated character, to the lighting, to the sound recording and voice acting, then there’s the programming to wire it all together. At that point we must test the scene, which means often playing the scene dozens of times to work out bugs and make sure the scene doesn’t break.
Sometimes listening to those moments play over and over again hurts. Sometimes we have to create shortcuts in the game so that as we build, test, fix and retest, we can protect ourselves. Sometimes something as simple as posing Joel and My own character strikes me and I spend time weeping.
The thing is, I don’t mind that it hurts. I want to be reminded of Joel. Life moves on too quickly. It is hard to stop the flow of life and family and job and responsibility and sit in your grief for a few moments. I very much value that it has been my occupation to remember, and to grieve and to meditate on my love for Joel and how his life and death have changed me.
I think that video games provide a space for processing our emotions, memories and empathy in a way that other mediums cannot. And to be honest, no other medium would allow me to play with or hold Joel again, even if it is only a virtual representation of him, I find that incredibly special.
What would you say is the goal of this game?
Ryan: That players will feel their life is enriched by the love, hope and tears we share with them in the time they spend with us through this game.
I see on your Kickstarter that there is a documentary film being made about That Dragon, Cancer entitled Thank You For Playing.What can viewers find in the film that they won’t get out of the video game?
Ryan: I’m not sure. I haven’t seen the film yet! The documentary is not being made by us, rather it is being made about our family, about Joel, and about our team as we set out to make this game while Joel was still with us. I hope viewers will see a family that loves each other, that isn’t perfect, and struggles with all the stuff any other family struggles with, and a community that has gathered to create something beautiful out of their shared tragedy.
Making a game is a time-consuming challenge to begin with, especially as an indie developer. How has this been for you given the situation with your family, the attention this game has received and just development in general?
Ryan: I have been fortunate in that my previous job had given our family the ability to have some savings to live on when I first became a full time indie developer. Continued financial support from OUYA allowed Josh and I to work full time for the last year. So, thankfully, it has been my occupation to create this project. I’m not sure if, during this season of grieving, I could work on anything else with any degree of passion.
We also would not be able to do this if my wife Amy wasn’t 100% behind it. The same goes for the other members of the team and their spouses. Amy not only contributes to the game with writing, ideas and voice over work, but also stays home with our children, keeps our lives running, and enables me to travel to conferences to share and speak about the game, while she takes care of everything else. It has been a tremendous sacrifice on her part to make this project happen.
I think the biggest personal struggle for me has been being selfish with the project, through not making sure Amy has dedicated time to work on the project, or making design decisions without their input. It has hurt my family because this is their story too. My goal now is working to make sure that Amy and my children feel as much authorship and ownership in the project as Josh and I have been enabled to through our families sacrifice in the giving of our time, and through that, we all feel that Joel is honored well.
What can you tell us about your experiences in the indie community?
Ryan: The indie community is the most diverse, friendly, inclusive and inspiring community I’ve ever been a part of. Indies love each other, and love games, and they’re using that love and passion to create really amazing work that pushes the boundaries and challenges the presumptions we have about the interactive medium. I think it is a really exciting time to be part of the videogame industry.
Josh: If you watch indie developers meet up after not seeing each other for a while, you’ll see something happen over and over again: hugs. I think that says it all.
This is a question that I ask everyone that I interview. Feel free to respond how ever you wish. AAA industry seems to be trying to warp the concept of indie to refer to a series of game design choices. I often reference an article from Game Informer September 2014 issue called “The Mutating Meaning of the Word Indie.” Writer Matt Bertz asks in the article “When the majority of games in the contemporary landscape are already coming from outside the walls of big publishers like Electronic Arts, Ubisoft and Activision, what does becoming indie really mean?” He answers this in the article by suggesting that ‘indie’ is becoming more a choice of style and less an indicator of independence from major industry influence. What are your thoughts on the indie situation?
Ryan: I haven’t read Matt’s article. I could not find it online, but I did read your response to it just now, here. And to be honest, I don’t have much use for either argument. I’m not really into using titles like “indie” to divide us.
The fact is, almost every studio, or developer, or writer started “indie” because they started building, playing or writing about games out of passion. Somewhere along the line, apparently, they became “not-indie” because they crossed some artistic, political, or financial line drawn in the sand that nobody that calls themselves indie or otherwise can seem to agree on long enough to make any progress.
I think “indie” means “a voice,” and we can choose to join our voices together to make multi-million dollar space operas, or stand alone to recite solo monologues, or we can create four member punk bands to shout at and challenge the assumptions of the rest.
Regardless of how we choose to form-up, I believe what is important is that we say things intentionally. There are some shouting, “let’s have fun” and some moaning “I want something different” and some lamenting “see me as someone not just something.”
What we share is that we’ve all chosen to speak and sing and shout with a certain language, and that is videogames. We care deeply about our native tongue and we want to see it preserved and respected. We want to see this language grow with us and to pass it on. I believe that’s what “indie” is and what the indie culture represents.
Josh: To me, “indie” means freedom from outside factors that influence the creative direction of your work. If the budget is larger, developers have increased pressure to treat a project as a financial investment that needs a return, and that can affect the project’s creative direction. But it’s still possible to resist that pressure.
I think “indie” is so hard to pin down because it’s so difficult to determine what really influences people creatively. If you really think about it, not being influenced is impossible. That makes “indie” an ideal. And no matter where we are professionally, we can all strive for ideals.
That Dragon, Cancer is an extraordinary story about a family’s struggle with cancer. While this story has been seen in many places, it still needs your help to reach completion. They’ve almost reached their goal, but time has almost run out. Please consider contributing to the Kickstarter. If you want to follow the game and the lives of the developers, please make your way to the game’s site. Follow That Dragon, Cancer on Facebook, and you can find Ryan Green on Twitter. Show your support for this story and for those involved.