By Joanna Delalande
How a couple used a video game to immortalise their son
Think video game and you might be transported to hours in a dark room on a first-person shooter or to Mario Kart duels with the family; perhaps even to long walks in the wilderness trying relentlessly to catch Pokémon.
Now picture this: your screen displays a child's crib in a hospital room. You hear the insistent, heart-wrenching cries of a baby and a voice pleading: "Please stop. Please." The voice is your character's and the cries are your son's cries. He is dehydrated, but so sick from chemotherapy he can't keep his liquids down. All your attempts at soothing him fail.
You sit on a chair, head in your hands.
"I shake. I weep. I pray. I plead. I need... Peace," your voice says, quivering.
"You are there. I want You here. I want You to calm my son. I cannot. And You've brought us this far. He's still here, not dead, not there with You. God, I want him here with me. Please."
Instantly, the crying stops. "Peace. He sleeps. Thank You."
This is a scene from the non-traditional game That Dragon, Cancer, designed by Ryan Green and his wife Amy to explore and illustrate their experience losing their son Joel to a terminal illness.
Joel Green was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2010, when he was one, and given months to live. Over four years and countless treatments, seven tumors came, shrank and reappeared to eventually take his life in March 2014.
Ryan and co-developer of the game Josh Larson started working on That Dragon, Cancer 18 months before Joel died. They'd wanted to construct a video game together and Ryan suggested they do one on Joel.
It was a way not only of building something for his son, but of exploring and allowing players to explore the ways life sometimes leaves us in pain and helpless about it.
"It's just meant to share something, share a moment I think every parent can relate to," Ryan tells The Washington Post. "Life is not just one thing. It's not all the wins. It's the bitter and the sweet."
Later, after Joel died, Ryan says he worked on the game out of an "overwhelming desire to want to spend time with him again."
It might sound sad and somewhat morbid, but Ryan explains he wanted the game to show that even in the moments we feel hopeless there is hope, peace, and strength to carry on.
When designing the video game (available for Windows, Mac and Ouya), he started with the hospital room scene. He says he felt it was the one time in his life he prayed and got such clear direction from God.
He and Amy see Joel's four years after his initial diagnosis as a miracle, since he was only expected to live a maximum of four months.
They explain even as they went through radiology and chemotherapy and tumors continued to appear, they found somewhat of a rest and peace in the fact Joel's life was ultimately in God's hands.
"With God we don't have to do the right things or say the right things to somehow 'earn' his healing," Amy tells Wired.
The game turned out to be a sort of grieving tool for the Greens, a way of remembering their son and keeping him alive. As the project neared its end Ryan admitted, "It's also scary because I think I might grieve in a new way."
Amy said before the game's release: "We'd love for it to impact people and for it to be commercially successful. But there's a piece of me that says, maybe it's just for us."
In sharing his vision for the project, Ryan continues: "Joel didn't have the chance to make an impact. We can show the world how important [he] was to us.
"Everybody wants their child to change the world," he laughs. "I have unreasonably high hopes, just like any proud father would."
In the last scene of the 2-hour interactive story, Ryan's voice pleads once more for his small son: "Please! Return this boy's soul to his body!" This prayer is not answered.
But the Greens still have hope, and continue to learn what it means to be a family with their four other sons and daughter. "Loving [Joel] and losing him," Ryan says, "was the richest part of our lives so far."•
Find out more at thatdragoncancer.com