It still sounds like a crazy idea: take the struggles of a family dealing with a young child's serious illness and turn it into a game.
But for Ryan Green, his family and his coworkers at Numinous Games, it turned out to be a way to help deal with the issues and the grief involving his son, Joel.
The result, That Dragon, Cancer, is a small indie game heralded as a unique and emotional experience that takes players to places video games rarely travel.
What follows is an edited Q&A with Green.
How does it feel now that the game is finally out?
I'm not sure yet. I think there are so many things going on at once. I think I feel lighter in some ways, because we've been just carrying this and it's been such a labour of love for so long. I'm glad to release it into the world and have it live on its own. I'm really grateful to see all the people that are connecting with it and are getting it. There's nothing quite like when somebody understands what you're trying to say through your heart. It's very gratifying for people to connect on a personal level. We're getting these emails from people who are just connecting with it personally and that has made it all worth it.
Is it harder for video games than other mediums to explore these type of emotions?
Game players get it. Gamers understand how emotional the medium is. You can ask gamers what game made you cry. There will be different moments in games throughout their life that they just really connected with.
I think maybe you don't see as much autobiographical stuff, because games are so incredibly expensive to make, so the types of stories you like, you might get glimpses of (emotions) — like certain scenes in bigger games. But I think overall, to have something completely autobiographical and more singular in voice to Amy and I, is maybe more unique.
And I do think you are seeing it more, particularly with indies, because indies tend to make more personal work.
What has surprised you the most? Did you think that people would actually play it?
I hoped so. I think what's surprised me is how many people are afraid to go near it. We didn't intend to create a horror game, but I think it's pretty horrifying, just thinking about it. It's our greatest fear, certainly, realized. It's many people's greatest fear realized. So yeah, it's a tough ask from us. Like we're saying, “Come walk with us in our hardest, most emotionally gruelling part of our lives, but also, walk with us through this, but like, we'll show the comfort that we found. And at the same time, we can't give you all the answers, and we still have questions.”
The sound design is incredible.
It was really important that it come from our family. We didn't want any artifice in the game, it was important that Amy and I voiced and wrote our own and our kids performed their own as well. A lot of times, there are some sounds from our home video archive, and we put those moments in the game. Every time you hear Joel or his laughter — that is from our home videos of Joel before his death. We did have to dramatize certain moments in our life, but there is such attention to detail that if you just listen to the game, it is almost like a radio drama.
Some say you’re exploiting your son's illness by charging for the game.
We knew it was going to happen and people were going to question it. (They) should be allowed to question it and they should be allowed to have their opinions. I think that we have a tendency in our culture to want to muzzle people who disagree with us, and push them out. We believe in free thought and free discourse.
I do hope people give us the benefit of the doubt. I think a lot of people questioning it haven't seen the game. We feel that we have created a work of value, and we have no qualms about putting a price on it. If people want to experience it, we believe it's a fair trade.
People have been criticizing what we've been doing for three years, so we have a lot of practice with that.
We'd like to make it available for other platforms, but that depends on how well it sells. Depending on how that goes, we'll see. But I'd also like to do something with Numinous Games that shows our sense of humour. Despite the reaction to this game, we're all pretty funny people.