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That Dragon, Cancer dev: We didn't do anything groundbreaking

"This has been a really weird year for me"

"I never hoped to create anything that would be featured on the cover of the New York Times," said Amy Green, co-director and writer of That Dragon, Cancer.

"To get press like that, you have to do something innovative, truly groundbreaking and deep. And the truth is, we didn't. My husband and I experienced the most common thing in the world: pain."

That Dragon, Cancer tells the story of a family — Green's family — through a series of vignettes. It revolves around the illness of their real-life son Joel, who was diagnosed with cancer as a baby and died at the age of 5 in 2014. Green, in recounting her experience during GDC 2016's Indie Soapbox panel, said she does not feel that the game accomplished something extraordinary. Instead, she said, it speaks to the power of video games as a medium.

"We didn't do anything surprising," she said. "We took the hardest situation of our lives, our son's terminal cancer diagnosis — the event that shook us to our core and threatened to destroy us altogether — and we tried to create something beautiful out of it."

To Green, the game would never have made headlines if people understood what video games could be.

"My husband and I experienced the most common thing in the world: pain"

"If writers really understood what was possible in a video game, we wouldn't have to worry about a lack of diversity and voices in games," she said. "We wouldn't have to worry that a non-technical person like me would be too intimidated by technical terms like player agency, because if great writers knew the potential of games, like you all know it, they would overcome any obstacle placed before them, technical or otherwise, to create in this medium.

"The fact that the world sees That Dragon, Cancer as novel just shows that outside of this room, outside of this conference of your peers, people still don't understand the potential of video games."

Although Green resisted the idea of calling herself a game maker at first, defaulting to That Dragon, Cancer being "[her husband] Ryan's thing," she eventually embraced her presence in the space. It no longer mattered if she was a "technical" participant or not.

"I started to realize that my voice was essential to this medium ... I had to carve a space for myself in this medium because the medium itself is compelling and innovative," Green said. "It takes the most common experience in the world and it makes it new and profoundly personal.

"My sweet, funny, cuddly son whose laughter had been silenced is still working his way into another person's heart."