A game about cancer, one year later

The tragic and hopeful story of a game about cancer.

Jump to

It’s day three of the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, and Ryan Green is crying. Just seconds before, he had a particularly emotional conversation with a stranger who played Green’s game — a conversation he asks not to be repeated.

Green’s development partner, Josh Larson, listens quietly to a summary of the discussion. He's heard similar stories before, filled with pain and suffering. Then Larson reaches and places his arm around Green. It’s a process they’ve repeated more than a few times.

It’s not the type of scene you typically see in development pairs at GDC, or at any conference. But Green and Larson are not typical developers, nor are they making a typical game. The details people share in the quiet space around Green and Larson are more personal than most.

This corner of the Indie Megabooth is where Green and Larson are showing off the latest build of their long-anticipated game, That Dragon, Cancer. The game chronicles the last years of Joel Green, Ryan Green’s son, who died of cancer at just four years old.

Tears are common here. Both among people who play the game, eager to share their own stories of suffering, and for Green himself, whose naturally empathetic demeanor makes him slightly more emotional than usual at these gatherings.

"I tend to have a little breakdown once every conference," he says, almost apologetically.

That Dragon Cancer

It’s just over a year since Joel passed away, and while the ache of that tragedy has subsided for Green, the death of a child is a reality he lives with every day. "We lost count at 16 tumors," says Green. Doctors told the family many times Joel had just weeks to live. The game is designed to chronicle the ongoing struggle of the Green family and provide a way to showcase hope in that bleakness, but in light of Joel’s death, it takes a different form. It is no longer just a testimony to steadfastness — it’s a memorial.

But it’s also a game — with private funding, investors and a release date set for no later than October.

The last few months are a trying time for any game, but the anticipation surrounding That Dragon, Cancer has upped the pressure for Green, Larson and their small team. Glowing previews about the emotional power of the game’s narrative have spread through mainstream media, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade called the game "an act of incredible bravery." Green claims at least two "extremely well-known" developers have privately backed the project. The game’s Kickstarter campaign was 22 percent overfunded — in no small part due to the groundswell of support from prominent developers on social media, including veteran adventure game developer Ron Gilbert.

A documentary about Green’s family and the game will debut at the Tribeca Film Festival, taking place during the second half of April. Two and a half years in, with eight staff and $104,000 of strangers’ money, That Dragon, Cancer is about to exit the realm of theory and enter the real world.

Green and Larson hope the game lives up to the hype, yes. But Green sees the game not just as a personal reflection anymore. As part of the Kickstarter campaign, backers can have their own art included in the game — and much of that art is inspired by their own personal battles with disease. Some have lost children of their own.

This story may have started with Green, his family, and Joel, but it doesn’t end there.

"This has a value that goes beyond my story to myself," says Green. "It represents something beyond that."

That Dragon, Cancer documentary trailer

Three days to go

It’s Tuesday night during GDC week. Various parties are pumping throughout downtown San Francisco. But Green, Larson and another member of the team are sitting at an Irish pub in a quiet corner of the city.

Green anxiously rubs his face. It’s just three days until the Experimental Gameplay Workshop at GDC, and the team needs to show something from the game. Something good. The EGW has been a launchpad for new and exciting methods of play — innovative titles like Portal and Journey have shown up there.

"We need to show something that is actually … experimental," says Green, as the other two quietly contemplate their dilemma. It sounds like an obvious goal, but these presentations are meticulously crafted. One glitch and the entire ambience of the demonstration could disappear.

The scope of this presentation is a far cry from where the pair started two and a half years ago. Green barely knew how to create 3-D graphics, and as Larson says, they both had little idea of what they wanted to create. At one point,That Dragon, Cancer was simply going to be a "series of interactive paintings," according to Larson.

In early 2013, the pair put together a demonstration of the game for friends and colleagues to try at GDC. A representation of the struggle against cancer in two worlds, one fantasy and one real. Players would live inside different scenes, interact with Joel and hear the family’s memories and story.

"When you give your story, it’s hard for anyone to argue with that. It’s disarming."

The early response was mixed. While early testers loved the real-world elements, the overwhelming advice was to scrap the fantasy element and focus on the real world.

Kellee Santiago, co-founder of developer thatgamecompany, knew Larson from the indie scene and the duo asked her to provide feedback. She thought the same thing others did.

"It’s already so hard to create experimental games," she says. "When I saw it, I thought it was just going to be a huge project to do essentially two games and put them together.

"There’s not really anything to point to as a model for how to do that."

Santiago wasn’t the only person to say so. "I remember getting defensive about it," says Green. "I was going to craft this email about why it’s so important we have this gigantic scope, which honestly would have taken more than $4 million to build.

"I remember just thinking one day — oh yeah, they’re right. It was too big."

But even then, early players felt That Dragon, Cancer was important or inevitable. Larson says after playing just a few minutes, people would begin to open up — they would talk about life, death, faith, belief, hope and sorrow. These aren’t normal conversations people have when playing a game. Even an experimental one.

It’s also part of Green’s plan to raise the standard of commentary in games.

Throughout the dozens of shows where the team has shown the game, over and over again players have become so disarmed they end up telling personal details to Green and the team. Making That Dragon, Cancer so personal can force people, he says, to be more careful with their critiques.

"When you give your story, it’s hard for anyone to argue with that," he says. "It’s disarming. You’re able to talk to people about the content of the game in a thoughtful, constructive way."

When they first spoke with Santiago, funding wasn’t even on the radar for Green and Larson. But Santiago, who had recently joined Ouya as the company’s head of developer relations, saw something special. Beyond special — important. So she asked if they had any publisher interest.

"I felt it needed to be made," she says. "I’ve heard the same reaction from people who are backing the game, and it’s this instinct that bubbles up in you.

"I just really felt it needed to be made."

That Dragon Cancer

The never-ending quest for money

Santiago signed Larson and Green with Ouya in mid-2013 with exclusive release rights to the game. This was no small gesture — two other potential investors had pulled out because they thought the project was too risky.

Suddenly with some money — "a significant" amount, according to Larson — things got moving. A year of solid development work followed. But as with all games, the scope of the project increased. Animations, new team members and bigger ideas crept in.

This entire process became more complicated by the fact that Green and Larson were essentially discovering the nature of the game as they moved along. Now they call it a 3-D point-and-click adventure without puzzles — but it wasn’t designed that way from the beginning. And at one point, Green ditched an entire section of the game. He had given a presentation to investors who said that, while the game was shaping up, there was a disconnection between what the developers were presenting and what players would be able to interact with.

"That was one of the moments where I realized, ‘I’m not making a film. I’m making a game. And there’s a reason we’re making a game,’" says Green. "We took that first act that I had been struggling with and ditched most of it and focused more on the stuff that was about Joel."

That decision alleviated one of Green’s fears: that the game may appear to be more about his pain above anything else. He acknowledges some criticism which suggests the entire project is a selfish endeavor, although he disagrees. In the early stages, the tendency was to talk about himself, Green says, with much more of a focus on his own struggle.

"I’m glad that’s no longer what the game is," he says.

"A lot of that has been informed by our grieving process those last weeks of Joel’s life. We started this two years ago hoping we were going to write this great miracle story, and now we’re writing a story we didn’t want to have to write."

In March 2014, Ryan wrote on the That Dragon, Cancer blog: "Joel took his last breath at [1:52 a.m.]." They had hoped for a better ending. But it hasn’t stopped the team. In fact, with so little time left until the game’s release, it’s energized them to provide an outlet for people going through a similar circumstance.

"When you see the images from Kickstarter coming in, and we read these emails, we have to take a moment and stop."

Which raises the question — is this entire process a grieving endeavour?

"At first it was something to prove that Joel could still survive," Green says. Now, it might be something different.

"I think this thing had to take two years to make, otherwise we wouldn’t have the distance, the experience, to tell a story from the perspective of going through it rather than afterwards."

All of this led to the team’s predicament in 2014. With a game featuring a steadily increasing scope, advice from investors about what to change, and a growing amount of technical detail required, the original funding amount from Ouya just wasn’t enough.

So after two years of working on the game, the team pushed a Kickstarter campaign last November to get it over the finish line. They needed $85,000 and earned $107,000 — certainly not a huge amount but enough to get things done. And it came with another benefit: Ouya allowed a dual launch on Steam.

Just as Joel’s death modified the emotional impact of the game, so too has the Kickstarter done something significant. It has made the team keenly aware of the impact this piece of gaming has on gaming culture at large.

As part of the Kickstarter campaign, hundreds of people sent in their own photos to be displayed in one of the game’s scenes. Larson shows me one of a hand holding the beet-red fingers of a premature baby. The child died a few days after the photo was taken.

"Someone wants to put that into what we’re doing," says Larson. "I can’t really comprehend that. There’s such a weight to that.

"When you see the images from Kickstarter coming in, and we read these emails, we have to take a moment and stop. We need to have a moment of silence and really respect that."

That Dragon Cancer

Numinous Games

With so much of Green and Larson’s GDC week focused on their presentation, most of their spare time is spent working. But it’s not always for themselves. On one particular night in a quiet Starbucks around 7:00 p.m, Green is spending his time helping somebody else work on a lighting problem (and debating the merits of religious art at the same time).

This isn’t unusual in the indie scene — people trade time every day. But it’s also reflective of Green and Larson’s design methodology. The two have started showing up to shows under the title "Numinous Games," the name of the studio they intend to start once That Dragon, Cancer is out in the open. "Numinous" describes the power of a supernatural entity — the religious connotations for Green are deliberate. "We want to make games which come from our world view," he says.

It’s a studio designed to give as much as it takes, they say, with a focus on personal stories. Stories like the one Green and his family have just gone through.

Thatgamecompany’s Journey has paved that road well. Games like Papo & Yo and Gone Home have warmed up audiences to the idea of playing stories about people. Maybe even stories that will make them question their own beliefs.

"There are definitely going to be a portion of people who aren’t going to like [the game]. But it seems like there’s enough for people to connect with," says Larson.

He recalls a demonstration of That Dragon, Cancer at SXSW last year. A woman came by to try the demo — in the midst of a loud, sweaty, sticky expo hall.

"I remember she said to me, ‘Nothing else in here is my world, but this — this — is my world’. That really stuck with me."

What will Numinous Games look like after That Dragon, Cancer releases? If the autobiographical underpinnings to this story are the glue that holds the team together, another project about a third party may not have the same impact.

Alternatively, not having such strong emotional ties to the source material may make working together easier. Green himself admits he’s been "bullheaded" on a number of ideas.

"I’ve taken a lot of the leadership in the writing and the narrative structure … so going in one direction, I’m pretty bullheaded and I think people have been gracious with me through that process."

"I definitely felt like, over the course of his career, Josh had been looking for a partner like Ryan."

Green hardly possesses the arrogant managerial style of Steve Jobs — not one developer who spoke for this story has a mean thing to say about him or Larson. But it can be difficult to put forward an idea when the project is about the leader’s deceased son. A different project could change that dynamic — a story from outside the group.

"That’s what we’re interested to find out," Larson says.

There is a type of tension in this development process, although both say it isn’t spiteful or resentful. On the contrary, Green and Larson are constantly in tune when it comes to philosophy, game design and spiritual matters. The pair have a gentle nature when speaking to each other, always assuming good intent. The tension simply comes from the subject matter — they’re making a game about a child who passed away.

Green and Larson want to change the status quo, but they don’t particularly want to destroy the scenery along the way.

"We want to create personal experiences and create meaningful connections," says Green. "In Josh, I’ve found someone who I’d like to partner with for 10 to 20 years if I could."

Santiago shares the sentiment. "I definitely felt like, over the course of his career, Josh had been looking for a partner like Ryan," she says. "I don’t know what this project would be like if Ryan had not found Josh."

It’s one thing to discover a partner with whom you can make good creative decisions. It’s another to share their battle with cancer. Numinous Games, even with a mission to create uplifting and hopeful human stories, was forged in tragedy — and it has brought its two founders closer.

"It’s easy to get caught up in the general rhetoric of artistically crafted games with unique experiences," says Santiago. "And this inevitable wave moving forward … you can lose sight of how it’s happening on an individual level," she says.

"Because it’s not inevitable. It’s hard to make these kinds of games, and it depends on individuals making these decisions and finding the right people to work together and all of these single actions.

"Ryan and Josh remind me of that."

"We’re increasingly finding like-minded people," Green says and suggests a team at Numinous would be full of them.

"We’d love to have the ability to continue to do this and to be able to offer a good incentive for talented people to work with us."

But studios need money, and That Dragon, Cancer is not a guaranteed financial success even with such positive early reviews. This is also made more difficult by the fact that traditional advertising, at least to Green, seems odd in the face of this game’s content.

"I’m very uncomfortable advertising this game," says Green, as he watches another person engage the demo out of the corner of his eye. "I’m very comfortable talking about it and discussing it. I’m not that comfortable advertising it."

That Dragon Cancer

The home stretch

The anticipation for That Dragon, Cancer was still present at GDC 2015. During the IGF awards, there was a memorial presentation for Joel. And at the end of the week, after Ryan and Josh presented at the Experimental Game Summit, they received a standing ovation.

Releasing a title is hardly the end of a project. Many developers know it’s often the beginning. But the release of That Dragon, Cancer is the last turn on Green’s journey. He’s ready to share — and he doesn’t want people to hold back, either.

"I hope people understand what we’re trying to do, that they give us the benefit of the doubt," he says. "Right now, while we’re still making it, it’s like no one can feel they can criticize it.

"But once you release it, all bets are off."

There will always be people who think games should be fun — and only fun. "Yeah," says Green. "But they’re the people I really want to convince."

During GDC 2015, Green made a distinction he felt developers needed to understand: What you are, and what the public perceives you to be, are two very different things you must be aware of.

What is That Dragon, Cancer? To the team, it’s a memorial, a grieving process, a project bringing two creative partners together who may go on to create more personal games over the next several years. A chance to make games mean something.

But to thousands of people who have sent in pictures of their own sick or dying children, That Dragon, Cancer is an opportunity to tell their story. None of them will have games made about them. They just want to speak. Through a game.

"Even outside of games, once you have a public platform and people start to agree with the things you say — there’s a certain responsibility you have," says Green.

"You’re not your own anymore." Babykayak