It’s not too often that you find a game ‘Based on a true story’. Games, even more so than films and TV (where the trope thrives) are perfect vehicles for total fantasy. But That Dragon, Cancer is very much based on a heartbreaking true story; that of Ryan and Amy Green’s experience raising their son Joel, who at just 12 months was diagnosed with terminal cancer and not given long to live. Despite that, Joel lived a further four years, until March 2014. So it’s an adventure game, but it also serves as a living painting, a poem, an interactive retelling of the Greens’ journey. Players relive memories, share heartaches, and even find the overwhelming hope that can be found in the face of death.
I came across the game by complete accident, and was totally unprepared for the subject matter and the story behind it. It soon became very clear that this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill game, and I knew I had to talk to the Greens.
You’ve made a game based on a very personal issue, your son Joel’s battle with cancer. Why?
Ryan Green: We didn’t set out to tell such a personal story. When we started this project we were going to explore the issues of sickness and cancer, but in an allegorical and fantastical way. When I wrote the first scene that we ended up building for the game, what came out was something altogether intimate and real and inescapably personal.
Creating art, communicating, writing, and sharing our hearts is what we do well, and we make video games; it’s an art form we believe is worth exploring.
I believe the video game medium is uniquely suited for personal stories and we’re starting to see others explore the game space’s potential for intimate storytelling, too. Video games invite players to become part of the story, not just as an audience to a character’s thoughts and actions but as a friend that we’ve invited into our world to spend time with us, and in that way, video games can be an instrument of comfort and hope.
How did you find the strength to keep the story going?
So much of our experience has been marked by strength that isn’t our own. I believe strength to continue comes from God, and I consider it a gift, not something that I do by my own effort, so I’m thankful for the opportunity to remember Joel well, working to share my love for him is a worthy pursuit, I don’t know what else I could throw myself and my passion into as much as this.
You’ve done well with the Kickstarter, exceeding your initial goal of $85,000, so that must be something you’re really pleased with. Are you surprised at how much a game with this subject resonated with so many people?
Yes, definitely, the scariest part about launching a Kickstarter is finding out if the thing that you’ve poured your heart and finances into is something that others find worthy. We believed it should exist, and so our families have made sacrifices to be able to create it, but seeing how other people also want it to happen, enough to support it financially, is really humbling and amazing.
What surprised me the most was just how many people were willing to not only contribute their finances but also their voices to what we’re doing. It’s become clear to us that this is bigger than us. It’s not only a project that honors Joel, but now it will also honor hundreds of others just like Joel.
Some people go through tough things and want to separate themselves from their difficult experiences, other people want to examine and share their pain, the Kickstarter made it clear that many people really want to be able to share their stories, that projects like this help them.
Does its name, That Dragon, Cancer have a specific meaning to you?
It’s a title that felt appropriate for a few reasons. When my wife Amy talked to our older boys about Joel’s illness, she decided to tell them the story of brave knight Joel and his fight against the dragon named Cancer. In Christian theology, the devil is symbolically referred to in the book of Revelation as a great dragon intent on making war with the children of God.
Is this going to be a sombre experience? What do you hope people will be left with after playing it?
My hope is that players experience the full range of emotion that we have experienced. Even somber moments can be accompanied with laughter and even the sad days had moments of joy. My hope is that people will feel that we added something to their lives through this experience.
You’ve been working quite closely with the Ouya team. What sort of things have they helped you with?
Ouya is a great company. They are interested in ensuring we are able to see our creative vision realized and that it reach as wide of an audience as possible. Part of this came in the form of significant financial support. They believed in us early on before few others did. They also provide feedback, technical support and space to promote our game at conferences. They are interested in being a developer’s best friend, and I’d say they do a great job.
So, when can we expect the game to be released?
We’re aiming for Fall 2015
Finally, what plans do you have for the future?
Our first priority is to finish That Dragon, Cancer but we hope to remain a studio for many more years. In some of the early concepts of this project we envisioned an allegorical world of a far off city and a people who have to join together to defeat a great enemy and learn to care for each other. We’d like to have the opportunity to make that game.