Read Death by Video Game: Tales of Obsession From the Virtual Frontline Online

Authors: Simon Parkin

Tags: #Travel, #Essays & Travelogues, #Popular Culture, #Social Science

Death by Video Game: Tales of Obsession From the Virtual Frontline (25 page)

Green began working on
That Dragon, Cancer
in November 2012 with his friend Josh Larson. The pair met at the ‘Meaningful Game-play Jam,’ an event organised by Larson to encourage games that, in his words, have the power to ‘cause someone to live differently.’ In Larson, Green found an ideal teammate for this difficult project.

‘Josh and I share a perspective on both games and life,’ says Green. ‘We are interested in telling stories that speak to the deepest things that people have to deal with. The medium is pregnant with potential to do this. Games exist at that nexus where film meets programming. Instead of passive viewing, you invite people in, to actively walk with you. They can see what you saw or feel what you felt.’

We have seen how video games can provide a refuge and sanctuary for people, a place to retreat from the slings and arrows of existence, to escape and even to salve pain. But for Green and Larson,
That Dragon, Cancer
was something else. For them, as designers, this was a place into which they could invite others, in order to share their experience, to communicate the pain and uncertainty of living with a terminally ill child, and to celebrate that young life. For Green in particular, the project has been a way to process a painful journey, and in that process take an unusual step towards healing.

‘I want people to love my son the way I love my son, and to love my son you have to meet my son,’ he said. ‘A video game gives the opportunity to meet my son and meet our family, and kind of walk with us in our shoes, but from a safe place.’

Back inside the game, I click ‘Pray’ and the adult character in the scene, voiced by Green himself, utters a desperate, gutsy plea for divine intervention, something, anything, to ease the child’s pain. The words are a far cry from the primary-colour pleasantries of the Sunday-school teacher; rather, it’s a longing from the deepest place, a Gethsemane appeal, spat out in desperation on sore knees. As the prayer continues, Joel’s cries settle into sniffles and, finally, still into mute, peaceful sleep. The relief is palpable. In that moment, the player fully feels the release and freedom that Green must have encountered in that room.

It’s a seemingly novel moment in a video game, but is the underlying experience very different from so many virtual problems that need solving? In this early scene (just one of the many vignettes that comprise the full game) the player is presented with a problem and, by investigating their environment, must uncover the solution, in this case a
deus ex machina
in the most straightforward sense. In life, I put it to Green, even for people of faith, God does not always offer such a practical aid to tribulations. How, then, will the pair avoid making ‘Pray’ the solution to each of the game’s terminal problems?

‘That is the great mystery,’ says Green. ‘Joel has seizures because of the chemotherapy. They are serious seizures, but he doesn’t shake and drool or convulse. It’s more of a head nod; his head falls forward. We pray for this to stop and, you know, the most frustrating, confusing, helpless thing for any parent is to pray and for nothing to happen. I think that’s another aspect of faith: perseverance in the face of this storm that won’t go away.’

Despite the centrality of faith to Green and Larson’s development of the game (and the experience upon which it’s based), there’s no
sense that
That Dragon, Cancer
is a proselytising work. ‘I’m trying to come from an honest place,’ says Green. ‘I’m not trying to tell you how it should be. I’m just trying to show you my perspective. Maybe it has value. I hope it does. I hope people see the world and God in a different way, perhaps. But I am not out to make converts. There are universal things here that we can all understand.

‘In that hospital, at two in the morning, I remember crying out. I remember my prayer changing from pleading “Stop this” to becoming more of a thankful thing. Joel may have been declared terminal, but he wasn’t dead. That’s when there was peace and he fell asleep. It’s not about saying that this is how it must be for everyone. It is a case of saying: this is how it happened for me.’

Video games are rarely used for autobiography, but as we have seen, their capacity to allow others to view the world from a person’s perspective makes them ideally suited to the task. In a video game, not only is it possible to place a player in the shoes of another person; it’s also possible to subject the player to the same circumstances, pressures, powers, and systems that this person experienced. How much more effective might it be, when attempting to communicate your circumstances to others, to allow them to experience those circumstances for themselves, to feel the sense of powerlessness and sorrow that Green felt directly, rather than through the more detached mediums of documentary or written biography?

This is, early in the twenty-first century, unusual territory for video games. Will people truly be interested in playing a game that deals with such uncomfortable subject matter? Why would anyone want to play a game in which the person you are tasked with caring for might not make it in the end?

‘That is the great risk,’ Green said. ‘At any point the medical
team could tell us to prepare for death. I am living in the shadow of that possibility. I’m wrestling with having an ending where Joel lives or an ending where he dies. We wrote a book, and our ending was: maybe he’ll live to eighty. It’s such a huge risk to say something like that: the reality might not match the hope. I am coming to terms with maybe being OK with that. But I am still contending for the greatest thing … I don’t know the answer. I don’t know if he dies or lives or both. Maybe we end the game before we know?’

I asked Green the hardest question: will the game’s message remain the same whether Joel—the real Joel—lives or dies?

There’s a painful pause.

‘I hope the message doesn’t change,’ he replied.

We sat in silence for a while.

Then: ‘Maybe it will change for a while, you know? But that’s the thing with life. You go through these hard things and sometimes you deal with anger. Sometimes you deal with a feeling of injustice. Sometimes euphoria. My hope is that eventually I can step back and trust that it’s going to be a good story in the end. A lot of players don’t want to enter our story. Because he could die, right? And who wants to play a game about that? But I want people to trust that I am going to tell a good story regardless. Because, as difficult as it is, I am living in a
good
story.’

Few video-game stories are tragic in the classical sense. By virtue of making it to the end of the game, the player must have triumphed. (A few games, such as
Spec Ops: The Line
, play with this apparent inevitability; completing the game, a damning examination of war and its video-game depictions, makes clear that you are complicit in the downfall of the main character, and confronts you with the tremendous damage you’ve caused throughout the game—a pyrrhic victory
at best.) Where early video games relied on the inevitability of failure to keep players adding quarters to the arcade machine’s coin slot, today’s games lead players to expect that victory, not failure, will be the conclusion. But in literature and cinema, there seems to be a greater willingness among creators, readers, and viewers alike to approach more troubling thematic subject matter.

I wonder why Green and Larson believe that people would want to play their game, to choose to experience such devastation, even second-hand.

‘Hope,’ says Larson. ‘People search for hope in things. This is a game filled with hope. And for me personally, as a video-game player, I want to taste the full range of human experience. In books or film you get to have those experiences, to explore what it means to live. But in games we typically focus on small subsets of life. To be immersed in other situations. There’s value in that.

‘People reject thinking about cancer because they are ultimately afraid it’s going to happen to them,’ he continues. ‘Nobody has a problem watching a zombie horror film because, on some level, they know that this is fantasy. But cancer is a real and present enemy to humans in this life. And it’s everywhere. My journey has been characterised by coming out from under that fear. There’s this scene in the movie
Rise of the Guardians
when one of the characters looks fear in the face and says: “I know who you are but I’m not afraid of you.” I’ve feared cancer for my entire life. Then it happens. And life goes on. You learn this when you go through a great struggle. I hope people can somehow overcome their fear through this game.’

On March 15, 2014, at 1:52 in the early hours of the morning, Joel Green died.

When I heard the news, I grieved. I had been there, in the hospital room, when Joel was unable to find respite from the pain; I had been broken by his interminable anguish and, eventually, overwhelmed with relief when he finally found rest. The news that his young life had ended, news of a death on the other side of the world, in a family with whom I had no real connection, was devastating. I thought about the family regularly as the weeks clustered into months.

Eventually, I wanted to speak to Green and Larson, to find out whether they would continue making the game or whether it had now fulfilled its function. Ever gracious, the pair agreed to speak.

‘There have been emotional moments for all of us over the last months, and times where some idea is just too intense to develop. For me it was working with MRI imagery,’ Larson says. ‘But this season has also been very fulfilling for all of us and has brought about great clarity. Joel’s passing caused us to take a step back and reevaluate the vision as a whole. We decided to focus more on who Joel was and what it was like to be with him and to love him. This is a noticeable change from the previous direction of sharing all the ups and downs that Joel went through. Maybe another way to put it is that we moved from focusing on the plot of Joel to focusing on the character of Joel.’

For Green, the game is now as much a way to preserve the memory of Joel’s life as a way to invite others into the landscape of his illness.

‘I want the game to capture the way Joel danced,’ he says. ‘The way he laughed. The way his brothers treated one another. The affection they have. I want to put those things in the game. He was the sweetest kid. I can’t really articulate … I hope to capture some of that; some of who he was and is. In the end, I guess my greatest hope is pretty simple: that players might care about my son the way that I do.’

Most video games feature death, but only a few are
about
death. Jason Rohrer’s
Passage
, released in 2007, is one of the earliest examples, a simple experimental game in which death is inevitable for the player, with no hope of respawn. In
Passage
, you have, to use the video game’s favoured parlance, only one life. Your character, who can move only from left to right across the screen, ages incrementally with each step. As you move through the game’s landscape, your character ages. You slow, at first, and then the game robs you of your beauty, takes away your loved ones, shrinks your family. Finally, your character dies. (Rohrer told me at the time: ‘I was about to turn thirty, about to witness the birth of our second child, and had just watched a neighbourhood friend wither and die from cancer. As such, I was thinking about the passage of life—and my inevitable death. I wanted to make a game that captured the feelings that I was having: existential entrapment bundled together with a profound appreciation of beauty. These are feelings that are hard to put into words.’)

That Dragon, Cancer
is a different kind of examination of death. It is an invitation for us to step into a family’s world, in all of its turmoil, sorrow, and joy. The game is not only a study of human suffering, but also a celebration of a human life, and through it anyone who is interested or affected has the opportunity to grieve and celebrate with strangers. It is, however, difficult subject matter to engage with, especially within the participatory prism of a video game, where we are no longer mere spectators to the story, but active participants within the drama. As such, while we are all invited, there’s no shame in declining the invitation.

But for Christos Reid, a young game developer from the UK, and creator of
Dear Mother
, it was crucial that his intended audience showed up.

‘I came out to my mother as bisexual during a temporary stay with my parents,’ he explains. Reid’s mother is a deeply religious person who, in his words, ‘used that religion to justify her homophobia.’ On hearing Reid’s admission, she told her son that he was ‘sick, wrong, and going to hell.’

‘She told me I couldn’t live in her home if I wasn’t straight,’ he tells me. ‘And so I left.’

When Reid moved into his new home, he began to try to process what he’d been through—to understand why a mother could reject her son for something over which he had no control.

‘I had to deal with it, because to hold it inside me forever seemed unwise,’ he says. As a way to get the pain out of him, and perhaps to begin to process his experience, he took out his laptop and began working on a game.

‘Not long later, I’d made
Dear Mother
,’ he says. ‘An open letter to my mum about how her beliefs had broken my heart.’

Dear Mother
, which is freely available to play on the Internet, is a simple game using archaic, blocky sprites to represent its characters and world, the kind you might have seen in the early 1980s. The game begins with a conversation between two characters. One, Reid’s mother, begins by saying: ‘My son … You must not sin.’ The action then moves to a road outside a house. You play as a boy who must collect the angels falling from the sky, while dodging the demons, by moving left and right across the screen. A shadowy figure stands in one of the house’s windows, presumably Reid’s mother, watching her son as he tries to please her.

‘Each devil causes your heart to break a little, and the game is structured so that, eventually, collecting enough devils to break your heart becomes unavoidable,’ explains Reid. ‘It’s at that
point that you leave, move to a new home, and you’re allowed to simply collect people, instead, which heals your heart up piece by piece.’

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