Ryan and Amy Green designed their video game “That Dragon, Cancer” with a highly unusual purpose in mind: not to amuse or entertain, but rather to capture and demystify what it’s like to care for a terminally ill child. That experience is accessed on an even more intimate level in David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall’s “Thank You for Playing,” a documentary that works as both an emotional portrait of a slow-motion family tragedy and a slippery inquiry into the therapeutic properties of making art. Raising, but not always answering, difficult questions about the advisability of coping with grief through the creative process, this alternately poignant and perplexing film is presently in limited theatrical release, and is set to air on PBS’ “POV” series later this year.
One would have to play it to be sure, but based purely on the abundant footage we see here, “That Dragon, Cancer” (which was released earlier this year) would seem to enrich the field of narrative and thematic possibilities available to video-game artists. It offers a vivid, 3D-rendered distillation of various episodes we see the Greens going through with their youngest son, Joel, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 1. A particular puzzle in the game might require you, the player, to rock Joel to sleep, or to push him in a wagon around a hospital race course. But its primary effect seems to be one of immersion and exploration rather than problem solving. In following the characters through every phase of their ordeal, swe are invited to partake directly of the anguish that Ryan Green feels when his on-screen avatar murmurs, “I hate that he’s sick … I just want him to feel better.”
In between scenes of the couple spending time at home with Joel and their other children, “Thank You for Playing” offers a compelling look behind the scenes of the game’s creation (on which the Greens partnered with the programmer Josh Larson). The intensely personal nature of the enterprise is made all the more painfully clear by the sight of Ryan recording his own dialogue, or using audio snippets of Joel’s laughter (but tellingly, not his crying). At one point, echoing a sentiment that will be shared by many in the audience, the film raises the question of whether the Greens are dealing with their impossible situation or exploiting it. On a certain level, the documentary is meant to vindicate the Greens of that charge (which Ryan greets with an unexpectedly creative display of indignation), and to let them to cast their motives in the most thoughtful possible light.
It’s hard to know how to feel about the scenes shot at a gamers convention where Ryan shows off an early version of “That, Dragon Cancer”; the shots of players silently wiping away tears strikes a self-congratulatory note, but they also naturally invite our empathy — and further stoke our curiosity about the game itself. While the movie runs a brisk 80 minutes, its contextual lapses here and there are readily apparent: One yearns to learn more about the Green family’s strong Christian faith, which is referenced but not deeply explored in a few scenes, and also to hear more from Amy — who, not being the primary creative force behind the game, at times feels sidelined from the proceedings. Yet even the flaws of “Thank You for Playing” have the effect of underscoring its humanity; the movie may immortalize a creative endeavor, but it never loses sight of the fact that it’s also honoring a life.