At first glance, video games and documentaries have very little in common. One is an interactive medium, usually built from computer generated 3D animation and often featuring entirely fantastical places. The other is a received medium typically built from live action images. Yet they have also both had a tremendously difficult time being taken seriously as art, and the argument has yet to be entirely won by either of them. Thank You for Playing, if there’s any justice in the world, should put to rest any further narrow-mindedness on the “not art” side in both of these cases.
It’s entirely likely that directors Malika Zouhali-Worrall (Call Me Kuchu) and David Osit had no interest in this particular theoretical battle when they decided to make a film about “That Dragon, Cancer.” The video game and its creators would be a unique subject for any documentary, no matter what its style. Ryan Green is an indie video game designer. He and his wife Amy are the parents of three boys. Joel, their youngest, was diagnosed with terminal cancer when he was one year old. As a way to cope with and express their feelings, Ryan and Amy are building a game based on their experience. Thank You for Playing is a chronicle of their artistic process as well as the course of Joel’s illness.
Despite how it might sound, this is not a film constructed primarily as a tearjerker. Osit and Zouhali-Worrall understand that in such a tragic case as this, particularly one involving such a small child, there’s no point in exerting oneself to tap into the emotions of the audience. That will happen on its own. Instead, the directors place their emphasis on the details of Ryan and Amy’s process.
“That Dragon, Cancer” is a mosaic of dreamlike visions and real scenes taken from Joel’s treatment and his life at home. Osit and Zouhali-Worrall use the game’s diagnosis scene to open the film, the fictionalized figures of Ryan and Amy sitting in a doctor’s office that begins to flood with water as the terrible news is delivered. It’s an instantly effective proof as to the emotional and artistic power of Ryan’s work.
Back in the real world, the couple spends a lot of time trying to figure out exactly how much of their truth they should put into the game. They plan to use audio of Joel’s real laugh, but Ryan is reticent to use his real cry. The programming team struggles to design the avatar for Joel, particularly with regard to his face. He could have any assortment of features, from a full face to just a minimalist pair of eyebrows. In another scene, Joel’s brothers are asked to perform a script taken from an earlier moment in their lives when the illness was first explained to them. Ryan and Amy are meticulous in their conversation as to how this will sound and what it might say to the player.
The thematic high points in the film come from these discussions. For Ryan, one of the most important challenges has to do with abstraction. Art, he says, is taking real life and abstracting it. What he means in the context of “That Dragon, Cancer” is literal, taking a scene in a hospital and turning it into a dream sequence accompanied by poetry. Yet the work of Osit and Zouhali-Worrall also deals with abstraction. The filmmakers edit the lengthy and often morose tedium of cancer treatment into a philosophical and emotional narrative, a more oblique but still similar task. In a sense, “That Dragon, Cancer” and Thank You for Playing are adaptations of each other.
At the end of the day, then, these projects are more about art and shared humanity than they are about mourning. At one point Amy explains that while for her family this project comes from a specific love for Joel, if it’s to speak to others it will have to speak through a more universal love. This is certainly what happens when Ryan takes a beta version of the game to a video game convention, where visitor after visitor plays through the game and bursts into powerful, grateful tears. Thank You for Playing also takes the experience of Ryan, Amy and their family and artistically expands it out to a universal audience. The beauty of its experience comes, therefore, not from the bluntest of melancholies but rather through a much more layered meditation on art.
This review was originally published during the Tribeca Film Festival on April 24, 2015.