By Keith Stuart – The Guardian.
When Joel Green was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, his parents took an unusual step. They turned their family’s tragedy into an interactive computer adventure.
The scene goes like this. Ryan and Amy Green are sitting in a hospital waiting room. Their toddler, Joel, slouches beside them, playing with a toy that makes farmyard noises. He is giggling cheerfully – but their world has just collapsed. A year ago, Joel was diagnosed with an atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumour, a particularly invasive form of brain cancer. He was treated with radiation and chemotherapy, but now a doctor, fighting back his tears, is explaining that the tumour has returned. Little Joel will not survive. It is just a matter of time.
A downpour starts and the room slowly fills with water as lightning flashes in great, blinding streaks. Finally, only Joel remains above the swell – in a small rowing boat, the room having become a violent ocean. There is no way he can survive.
Such a scene would be harrowing in a book or a film, but that is not how anyone will experience it. This is a scene from a computer game.
For the last three years, Ryan, a game designer, has been working with a team of coders and artists on That Dragon, Cancer, a kind of interactive biopic, exploring his son’s life and the experience of caring for him. The game takes the form of a “point and click” adventure, like the PC favourite Myst, built around his family’s memories. It began with a book Amy wrote to explain Joel’s situation to the couple’s four young sons. In it, she depicts his struggle as a mythical battle, with his cancer portrayed as a terrifying dragon. Ryan instinctively saw the story’s possibilities as a game. “Amy and I are creative people, it’s just what we do,” he explains, in a video call from his home in Loveland, Colorado. “I knew I wanted to make a game called That Dragon, Cancer before I even knew what it was.”
One particular moment cemented his decision. In 2010, weakened by palliative chemotherapy, Joel was struck down with a stomach bug. He was taken to hospital and placed in an ICU room where Ryan spent a devastating night, sitting with his son, watching as he wailed in pain and frustration, banging his head against the bars of his cot. “That experience stuck with me as something that was highly mechanical and indicative of our whole experience,” he says. “You’re trying to find just the right lever to pull to make everything OK. Maybe if I could get him to drink some juice, I could stop him crying. Maybe if I could just do that, everything would be all right.”
Ryan channelled this determination to “win”, to beat this invasion, into the game. In one of the first sections he wrote, the players are put into a small, plain room. They see Joel in the cot and hear him crying, and they see objects they can interact with: a sink, a carton of juice, a window. They try different combinations, clicking on whatever they can to make the crying stop. But it doesn’t. And one thing you definitely can’t click on is the door handle. There is no escape.
It is traumatic. Having shown off That Dragon, Cancer at various games events over the last two years, Ryan and his team are used to players bursting into tears. But what is brilliant about it (beyond the simple visuals, which leave Joel’s face blank so that it can be mentally mapped with another face, perhaps that of your own child) is the way it subverts gaming expectations. It looks like an adventure game, a puzzle you have to solve, but as the scene plays out, you realise that, like Ryan, you are trapped here. There is no solution. At one point, the viewpoint – which had been showing the room as if through Ryan’s own eyes – moves outside the window and looks back in on the scene. Suddenly, you are separated from Ryan’s anguish by a pane of glass. It is a merciful release.
Ryan speaks about this moment with remarkable clarity – partly as a parent who has experienced this despair, but also as a game systems designer who can’t help thinking that way. “I see life as very gamelike,” he says. “Fighting cancer is like a game because you’re trying to do just enough to kill the cancer but not hurt the child. You balance all the options. And it’s a multiplayer game because you have doctors, nurses and family all involved in this process of trying to keep your child alive. There are puzzles, as well as simple mechanical tasks like administering medication, taking blood pressure, giving him food – or making him laugh. The difference is that, in a game, if you’ve mastered the skillset, you can beat the level. For me, that’s where the comparison stops.” …read more.
Images: Scenes from That Dragon, Cancer.