“I want to bring players face to face with that shadow of death and ask them what they really believe.”
Thank You For Playing may be the most elegant statement yet made to support the argument that video games can be art; but it feels wrong to lead with that. The documentary by David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall is not didactic in nature. Its primary purpose is not instruction but empathy. It follows the life of game developer Ryan Green as he deals with the reality that his one-year-old son Joel has been diagnosed with brain cancer. Knowing that his son is expected to die, Ryan begins creating a video game chronicling his experience as the father of a terminally ill child.
So while the doc is more intimate family portrait than essay film, the question of video game art is something that has to be addressed right out of the gate. “Most people wouldn’t have a problem with a serious film or a book that talks about tragedy,” Ryan says; but some people are squeamish about the idea of using a game for the same purpose. Perhaps the word “game” simply calls to mind something that is frivolous. Yet gaming can be highly immersive, so why not use that immersion to allow others to share in a personal experience?
That’s exactly what the Greens hope their game – entitled That Dragon, Cancer – will do. Ryan and his wife Amy are both involved in the creative aspects of the game: writing “scenes,” deciding on the direction the game will take, and even recording lines with their other children. The movie shows the way they wrestle with how to approach its sensitive and highly personal content – for example, they choose to record Joel’s actual laugh for the game but not his cry. The two of them met in the theater which might help to explain their facility and comfort with expressing their highs and lows both through the game and before a documentary film crew. These are artists, as are the modelers and coders who work with Ryan on the game. So another part of this documentary is a behind-the-scenes look at the craft of building a game, which seems incredibly daunting. If I have one criticism of the film it’s that I found this aspect fascinating and wanted to see more of it.
The game is a point-and-click adventure that acquaints players with the daily concerns and joys of parenthood, which I realize sounds boring and tedious the moment I say it. That’s why the film immediately introduces us to the game’s poetic style which often resembles something out of a Charlie Kaufman movie. The opening scene of the documentary shows us a cut scene in which blocky, 3D impressions of Ryan and Amy receive the prognosis from the doctors. As soon as the words have been spoken, it begins to rain inside the hospital room. The words of the doctors echo back again, this time distorted by disbelief, as water rises around the feet of the seated figures until they are engulfed. Throughout the film we’re occasionally shown bits of gameplay, especially where Ryan’s abstract symbols serve to reinforce the real life story, which in turn gives meaning to his symbolism. There’s a terrifying moment showing the baby Joel (imagined in the game as a faceless figure) floating from some gnarled balloons, and threatening shapes emerging from the sky to pop them. Irrationally, we’re frightened he’ll fall. The image has almost reflexively come to represent death and loss.
But that’s all in the game itself. What the film largely does is get out of the way, in the sense that it is highly organized but also seems to allow these people to just be most of the time. We get the impression that an enormous amount of footage was shot in an attempt to capture the time the family has with baby Joel, and so to cut that down to a lean 80 minutes that walks us neatly through the different issues important to understanding this story is a feat. So many docs are so fussy, using extensive text explanations, music montages, people talking over photos, etc. These filmmakers keep their conceits to a minimum. This is a quiet, somber movie that prefers to establish with visuals whenever possible, making its annotations count. The situation is unique and heartbreaking enough without the need of much embellishment. Still, the film is conversant in the documentary film language that so many have become familiar with now thanks to shows like The Office, and it’s not above using a well-placed zoom to emphasize an emotional moment.
Ryan and Amy are charismatic people who allow themselves to be very honest on camera. Following an emotional recording session, Ryan confides to his friend “I’m disappointed with God, I’m angry with Satan.” The Greens’ Christian faith informs their struggle as they suffer with Joel’s disease. Though the game is in some ways a coping mechanism, it’s also a way of reaching out to others who may be hurting. The Greens believe in life after death, and while their faith is tested, their message is one of encouragement.
Right in the middle of the film, we see the Dragon crew demonstrating their game at an expo. The camera first looks around the room at the copious games based around fighting and shooting mechanics, and then contrasts that with the introspective story-game about cancer. At first we wonder if anyone will even play it. Then we wonder if we would play it. Then when people try it we wonder if they will reject it. And then at the end of the demo, we see an incredibly trenchant single tear on a player’s face. It speaks worlds about the success of the game to connect to people.
Roger Ebert drew a lot of criticism for his view that video games could not be art. Yet in a piece on the subject he granted: “I had to be prepared to agree that gamers can have an experience that, for them, is Art. I don’t know what they can learn about another human being that way, no matter how much they learn about Human Nature. I don’t know if they can be inspired to transcend themselves. Perhaps they can.” It would be hard to walk away from Thank You For Playing and not see how a player could learn about Ryan Green through the game he created (Ebert might have argued that it did not qualify as a game, but that is beside the point). This is an extraordinary documentary filled with humanity, honesty, creativity, and unforced sentimentality that takes on one of our deepest collective fears – mortality – in the simplest and most profound of contexts: family.