That Dragon, Cancer dad, devs push on after tragedy

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That Dragon, Cancer dad, devs push on after tragedy
That Dragon, Cancer tells the real-life story of Joel Green, a young boy fighting terminal cancer, placed in a low-poly, point-and-click world. There are no puzzles in the game, only daily activities haunted by an unseen monster silently shaping the lives of Joel and his family. Joel's father, Ryan Green, is developing the game alongside Josh Larson and a handful of contributors. That Dragon, Cancer includes personal notes and stories from the Green family, describing their pain, joy, hope and despair as the story progresses and Joel's health continues to decline.

In March, after battling cancer for four years, Joel died at the age of 5.

The game must go on. Ryan Green, Josh Larson and the That Dragon, Cancer team are pushing forward with development, gathering funding from investors and today launching a Kickstarter campaign seeking $85,000 to help finish the game. That Dragon, Cancer has the financial support of Indie Fund – up to $50,000 – if it needs it and if the campaign is successful.

This all means the game is delayed from its 2014 launch window, but when it does launch, it will do so on Ouya and Steam (PC and Mac) simultaneously. It was previously designed as an Ouya exclusive, but the micro-console maker is allowing a side-by-side PC premiere as a show of support for the developers, who wish to get That Dragon, Cancer in front of as many people as possible.
"We are still excited about Ouya as a platform," Green tells Joystiq in an email. "Ouya has invested in the long-term success of indie game developers and viability of their platform with their game library, and we're just one example of that. [...] We're proud to continue working with Ouya. They believe in games and they're genuine, kind, hardworking folks that put the interest of games and indie teams first. It's rare to find that kind of organization and they're an organization worth aligning with."

Valve, the company that runs Steam, also left a good impression on Green.

"While we were at PAX Prime this year in Seattle, we had the opportunity to visit Valve's offices," he says. "They were super down-to-earth, family oriented and supportive of what we're doing. We even managed to share a great lunch together. We're excited to be part of their platform, and in association with Ouya, be able to bring our project to as large an audience as possible at release."

We had the opportunity to play That Dragon, Cancer at E3's IndieCade exhibit in 2013, and even in the middle of a busy conference hall, the game displayed a poignant depth of poetry and emotion. Its content has shifted since that playthrough, and since Joel's death, Green says.

In the past eight months, the design of That Dragon, Cancer has changed from telling "what" happened to Joel, to describing "who" Joel was and is still to his family. With this direction, the game is now more joyful and playful, Green says.

"When we evaluated which scenes would make the cut in the game, we asked ourselves, 'Does this scene help the player love Joel more?' And if it didn't directly contribute to that, we cut it or we rewrote it to make sure that Joel became an integral part of the scene," Green says. "This may seem like an obvious design decision, and in retrospect it was. When you're fighting this dragon, it's easy to think that the details of what we're fighting are the most important; in the shadow of it, you realize that who we are and how we love each other is much more important."

A documentary following Joel, Ryan and their family, called Thank You For Playing, is due out in 2015 from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and ITVS. During these years of uncertainty and madness, developing That Dragon, Cancer has been an outlet for Green, and it continues to be there for him even now.

"This project has allowed me to make mourning my son well my chief occupation, which is fortunate since it is the only thing I feel like I can do with passion in this season of my life," he says. "I am acutely aware that this is a unique gift that we've been given. Sometimes my gratitude for the incredible task I have before me, to honor Joel in such a rewarding way, slips into insecurity and doubt. 'Why should you get to memorialize your son in this way?' 'What about all the other families and children who have suffered?' 'What makes you so special?' The answer is, of course, nothing. My only response can be that I loved my son deeply, and that he mattered to me."

Perhaps inspired by these insecurities, the That Dragon, Cancer Kickstarter offers a special campaign reward, the "memorial add-on pledge." Add $25 to any funding tier and backers can get a memorial token to be included in the game, in honor of a loved one or donated to the project on behalf of friends the Green family has collected along their journey.

"Joel changed my life, and loving him changed me," Green says. "I want his life and that story to be part of bringing life, hope and love to others. Despite the temptation I sometimes feel to take on the unreasonable burden of the game needing to give meaning to Joel's short life, I've come to believe, instead, that the game is not the most important artifact of Joel's life. The act of telling and retelling his story, and choosing to love people, extend comfort and share our pain in the midst of our grief as people experience the game can give us a small glimpse of the greater good that is possible in the shadow of our loss."
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