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If video games can carry us back in time or out to the farthest reaches of the universe, then why not into the emotional landscape of a family? For game developer Ryan Green, the challenge of his unique project was to sympathetically depict his young son’s battle with cancer and his family’s struggle to provide support over several years of agonizing medical treatment.
By turns touching, funny and sometimes strangely existential, David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall’s documentary, destined for broadcast on public television’s POV program next year, succeeds in telling a highly personal story in a surprisingly relatable manner.
At the age of one, doctors diagnosed Joel Green with terminal brain cancer. His video-game developer dad, Ryan, and mother, Amy, were understandably devastated, but at the same time completely committed to giving their youngest son the best care possible. When the film introduces Joel at the age of three, his condition is stable, although the cancer has not yet gone into remission. As a method of memorializing Joel’s life and dealing with the stress of “raising a child that’s supposed to die,” Ryan begins developing “That Dragon, Cancer,” an adventure game focused on Joel’s four-year-long health ordeal.
Alternative by almost any measure of contemporary gaming, Ryan’s emotionally immersive design attempts to simulate his family’s practical and emotional response to Joel’s illness and treatment. More fanciful game segments also depict Joel as a young knight battling a dragon that embodies his cancer. Ryan involves his wife and three older sons in the game by having them record voiceover dialogue and narration that he’s written, incorporating Joel’s voice and laugh as well, although his son never quite develops the ability to speak due to his numerous developmental challenges.
Osit and Zouhali-Worrall fill most of the filmmaking roles themselves, and their DIY approach permits intimate interaction with the Green family, although their emphasis falls more on Ryan than his son. Motivated in part by the possibility of eventually forgetting Joel, Ryan becomes almost compulsive in his documentation of his youngest son’s life, his medical procedures and the hospital facilities where he’s treated, as he produces photos, video footage and audio recordings to be integrated into the game.
Several dedicated colleagues assist Ryan with the hours of coding required to produce a viable product, although the visual design remains deliberately rudimentary. Debuting an early version of “That Dragon, Cancer” at a professional gamers’ conference, Green is gratified to witness how profoundly affected players are as they navigate his family’s experiences, confirming his belief that the game is “more about emotion than re-creating reality.”
As depicted in the film, however, the video game sequences aren’t especially involving, and repetitive scenes from the Green’s everyday family life and shots of coders hunched over their laptops don’t provide much context either. Rather it’s the enthusiastic discussions among the designers and Ryan’s emotional conversations with his wife that better convey the degree of intimacy he’s attempting to achieve with the game.
Production company: Kinematic Films
Directors-writers: David Osit, Malika Zouhali-Worrall
Producers: David Osit, Malika Zouhali-Worrall
Executive producers: Sally Jo Fifer, Simon Kilmurry
Director of photography: David Osit
Editors: David Osit, Malika Zouhali-Worrall
Music: David Osit
No rating, 80 minutes
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