Friday, March 18, 2016

Thank You for Playing: Video Game Catharsis

Culture snobs like to joke about gamers as if they are all Cheetos-eating man-children living in their parents’ basement, but many are responsible adults with real feelings and real burdens to bear. As a father, game-designer Ryan Green faced the worst news any parent will ever hear when his one-year-old son Joel was diagnosed with brain cancer. To keep alive his son’s memory, Green began work on That Dragon, Cancer, a narrative video game allowing players to experience the highs and lows of raising a terminally ill child. David Osit & Malika Zouhali-Worrall document the development of the game and the tragic circumstances inspiring it in Thank You for Playing (trailer here), which opens today in Brooklyn.

This is not a breezy, fun movie to watch. Essentially, viewers are forewarned as to how it will most likely end, but that does not make it any easier to take, especially after we have come to know the Greens. Ryan and his wife Amy Green are remarkably brave and open, allowing the filmmakers to capture some intensely private and painful memories. It is just tough to watch them get one discouraging test result after another.

Green’s game, developed with Josh Larson, becomes many things, including a coping mechanism and a sort of animated scrapbook of memories. There is very little game-play within That Dragon. It is more about taking players on a journey.

There are a host of challenges that come with making a film that is this intimate and demands so much sensitivity. Osit and Zouhali-Worrall largely opt to resolve them by almost completely pulling back as filmmakers and simply recording the Greens. It is an understandable decision, because nobody would want to see the Greens upstaged by some hipster filmmaker excesses. However, that means everything in the film comes from the Green family. They only breakaway to show animated interludes from the game that were scripted by Green, based on his family’s experience. Arguably, Osit and Zouhali-Worrall do not bring very much value-added in their roles as filmmakers.

Regardless, nobody can fault the Greens. Even if Ryan Green’s decision to process the reality of his son’s circumstances through his creative outlet seems strange to us, he has a right to deal with it in any manner that might offer him some consolation or cathartic relief. If the film and game help others in similar situations than so much the better.

However, there is a glaring omission in the film. The Greens have two older sons who seem very patient and affectionate towards young Joel, but we never really get to hear their perspective directly.

Still, there are scenes in Thank You that will haunt you. There is more reality in this documentary than the entire reality television phenomenon aggregated together. It is heart-crushing and deeply moving (but it would have been nice if Osit and Zouhali-Worrall could have elevated the film’s cinematic-ness in some way. More distinctive music certainly could have helped). Recommended for documentary patrons and mature, empathetic gamers, Thank You for Playing opens today (3/18) in Brooklyn at the Made in NY Media Center.