The video game that takes death seriously

Gizmo ZONE : A grieving father's heartbreaking memorial for his son demonstrates that the genre can be about more than entertainment
Last Updated 14 February 2016, 18:36 IST

Video games have long enjoyed making entertainment out of conflict, but mainly from the infantilisation and the belittling of what is at its heart. As Simon Parkin explored in his recent book Death by Video Game, gaming barely acknowledges death, despite how central it is to so many titles, let alone lingers on it, or considers the grief in its aftermath.

Entertainment is what drives the industry. But it need not define the medium and that it can be more is evident in the recently released That Dragon, Cancer, a title with an uncomfortable subject at its heart. It is a game made by parents Ryan and Amy Green about their son Joel, who was diagnosed with brain cancer at 12 months old.

It could not be further from the gung-ho gun battles, where action and consequence have long ceased to have a relationship. Viewed from the first person and navigated by clicking, memoirs drawn from home movies, poems and answer-phone messages grant uneasy documentary-like access to the ups and downs of Joel’s life that lasted only 4 years after his diagnosis.

Joel’s parents, developer Ryan and his wife Amy, along with a handful of artists and programmers, created the game that’s now available on PC, Mac and Ouya — but not as cathartic retrospection: it was made as the chaos and uncertainty of Joel’s treatment continued.

Being a coder, he stumbled on the unusual idea of creating a video game about Joel’s cancer. “We had this idea of living, abstract interactive paintings: cubism, expressionism, even interactive haiku. Eventually we landed on the first scene of the game based on a poem I wrote about a night spent in hospital while Joel was dehydrated,” he says. Combined with poetry, poignant piano music and his eye for life’s absurd details in the midst of catastrophe, this was the first part of the game shown to the outside world.

Unlike a film, interactions invite involvement in the drama. “Are you okay with Joel?” Ryan pokes his head round a door in the game as he literally leaves the player holding the baby. “I remember you,” says Joel in a later scene, and again we are placed at the heart of the family story.

Here then, voices and sounds from home movies and Amy’s answerphone messages are uneasy listening, but it’s impossible to look away. This risk of voyeurism is part of Ryan’s plan. “We wanted people to know that Joel was a real boy, who loved playing with his brothers and screaming in glee while playing with puppies,” he says.

Equally, the Greens have unashamedly weaved their faith through the game along with Bible stories and church songs. In real life too he doesn’t duck questions about his evangelical faith. “Many times the answers we think we have don’t take into account the experience of walking through pain … I’ve not lost my faith, but it’s much more complex than it was five years ago.”

But what had started as a video game about hope for healing suddenly changed direction on March 13, 2014, when Joel died from an atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumour. He was five. “Joel’s death provided an ending for the game,” says Ryan.

“We were forced to confront this common pain. Even if it isn’t the story we would have chosen, it’s the story that was written on us. We were just reciting it.”

(Published 14 February 2016, 16:50 IST)

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