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WIRED: A Father, a Dying Son, and the Quest to Make the Most Profound Videogame Ever

Posted on February 08, 2016


You find yourself in a hotel room in a strange city, like a character in the first scene of a videogame.

Take a second to get oriented, to remember where fate has delivered you. Seattle. OK. You have come here to meet Ryan Green, who has made a videogame about his young son Joel’s battle with brain cancer. You’re not sure you’re ready for this, but you don’t have much choice. Deep breath. Go.

Head down to the lobby. Walk outside and travel two blocks northeast to the Washington State Convention Center, which is currently hosting PAX Prime, the country’s largest annual videogame expo. Enter the convention center and locate the escalator, just there, up the stairs to the left. Ascend to the fourth floor. Walk past the long lines of gamers waiting to take a spin through forthcoming big-budget releases like Tom Clancy’s The Division and Mad Max. Work your way back to the Indie Megabooth, a collection of more than 70 independently developed, artsier titles. There is a map; find the game you’re looking for, That Dragon, Cancer, tucked away in the northeast corner. As you reach the booth, notice the poster—a digital sketch of a large man in a hospital chair cradling a small boy, an IV delivering a toxic green fluid into the child’s body.

Green showed a demo of his game here in 2013, and you’ve heard the stories. Players breaking down in sobs and quickly exiting the booth. The emergency box of Kleenex, hastily procured and placed next to the monitors. The soothing reassurances to distraught gamers that Joel was, in fact, still alive.

Enter the booth. There are two monitors on a table. Players sit before them, silently steering through the latest demo. Here is what they see: a young boy, his facial features obscured, feeding bread crumbs to a duck, while his parents explain to his brothers why his treatment has left him unable to speak at age 2; a man sitting at a picnic table, ruminating on what his son must be experiencing without the words to express it; a playground, where the boy rocks on a toy horse, swings, giggles, spins on a carousel, then disappears; a path to a beach, where the boy is now strapped to a gurney, his tiny body hooked up to machines, the water filled with bobbing, gnarled tumors; the shadow of a dragon against the sea; a flight through the window of a hospital; a doctor telling the family that a recent MRI shows the boy’s tumors have returned; a nurse assuring them that the staff is very good at end-of-life care; the boy’s parents sitting still and silent while the room fills with water; the boy, now sitting in a rowboat, wearing a tiny life jacket that doesn’t look sufficient to protect him.

You know you will have to play this game at some point. You will have to confront all of these moments, and many more. But not yet. Instead, you find the bespectacled man wearing a narrow-brimmed straw fedora and a close-cut red beard. This is Ryan Green. Hold out your hand and share a sad smile, a silent acknowledgment of what you both know—what Green himself didn’t know when he started working on That Dragon, Cancer, what he didn’t know the first time he brought it here to PAX. You know how the game ends. You know that Joel dies.

Green began working on That Dragon, Cancer in November 2012. Joel, who had been diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer just after his first birthday, was approaching the age of 4. Green and his wife, Amy, lifelong devout Christians, saw this longevity as a miracle; back in November 2010, when Joel developed a new tumor after several rounds of chemotherapy, the doctors had declared him terminal, placed him on palliative care, and given him at most four months to live. The Greens had spent much of the next two years celebrating small victories and enduring crushing setbacks. Tumors that shrank, or even disappeared, then reemerged with greater vigor months later. Steroids that filled Joel with a powerful rage. A tumor that pressed on Joel’s optic nerve, causing his right eye to turn inward.

Green’s idea to make a videogame about Joel came to him in church, as he reflected on a harrowing evening a couple of years earlier when Joel was dehydrated and diarrheal, unable to drink anything without vomiting it back up, feverish, howling, and inconsolable, no matter how Green tried to soothe him. He had made a few games since then and had been thinking about mechanics, the rules that govern how a player interacts with and influences the action on the screen. “There’s a process you develop as a parent to keep your child from crying, and that night I couldn’t calm Joel,” Green says. “It made me think, ‘This is like a game where the mechanics are subverted and don’t work.’”

Green—along with Josh Larson, his codesigner—built a scene around that idea, and in early 2013 they started bringing it to videogame expos to drum up interest. Players found themselves in a hospital room with Ryan, clicking the walls and furniture in search of some way to relieve Joel’s suffering and quiet his screams. Yet every action—rock him, bounce him, feed him—only caused the crying to intensify. On the soundtrack, Green’s voice grew increasingly frantic until, pushed to the edge of despair, he broke down in prayer, at which point the scene ended.

The compelling demo made That Dragon, Cancer a cause célèbre within the indie game community. Noted game writer Jenn Frank played it at that year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco and wrote a raw essay about the thoughts and feelings around her own mother’s death that it evoked: “We will all meet this thing, or have already met it,” she wrote. “Maybe that should be scary, but That Dragon, Cancer is about sustaining the hope and joy of life for just as long as we can.”

Other influential raves soon followed. “I don’t know what else I will remember about this show, which things are going to stick, but this one has already set up shop,” PAX co-organizer Mike Krahulik wrote on his blog that same year. Green, he continued, “has encoded the experience, his actual experience, of being a father to a son doctors tell you will not and cannot live. It is an act of incredible bravery to collect it at this level of emotional ‘resolution,’ and we talked for as long as I could possibly spare about what it is to be a believer in God in the world we have been given.”

The game’s reputation has only grown since then, building anticipation for its January release on the Ouya console and for the Mac and PC on the Steam platform. That Dragon, Cancer has been written up in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and The New York Times. A documentary about the game, Thank You for Playing, screened at the Tribeca Film Festival and will air on PBS in 2016. (The film was codirected by Malika Zouhali-Worrall, the wife of my WIRED colleague Andy Greenberg.) “That Dragon, Cancer is an amazing work of art,” says prominent game theorist Raph Koster. “In some ways, I’m glad that games were there for Ryan, because it sounds to me like the kind of questions that he is wrestling with, games are the right medium to wrestle with them in.”

Amidst all the plasma guns and power-ups, it can be easy to overlook the fact that videogames are inherently metaphysical exercises. Designing one is like beta-testing a universe. Its creators encode it with algorithms, maps, and decision trees, then invite players to decipher its hidden logic. Intentionally or not, games contain implicit messages about purpose, free will, the afterlife. Master the secret rhythms of Super Mario Bros. and you can deliver the eponymous plumber to a princely paradise. But even the best Space Invaders player is fated to end the game in defeat, another futile circuit in its samsara-like cycle of death and rebirth.

In a 2011 lecture titled “Truth in Game Design,” developer Jonathan Blow declared that games were a unique platform through which to explore the mysteries of the universe. “We can come to the game with question after question after question and type in some code and get answer after answer after answer,” he said. “And if we’re tapping into the right thing, then the volume of answers available to us can actually be quite large.” Blow, whose time-bending puzzle game Braid was a breakout hit, was speaking mostly of questions pertaining to theoretical physics and advanced mathematics. The questions That Dragon, Cancer is asking, on the other hand, are the kind of spiritual and existential quandaries that have haunted humanity since Job: Why are we here? Can we influence our fate? What kind of God would allow such suffering? How do we endure the knowledge that we, along with everyone we have ever met and loved, will die?

Unlike the games in Blow’s lecture, That Dragon, Cancer doesn’t provide any solutions to its queries. “A lot of people say art asks questions, and that always bothered me. Why leave people with just questions?” Green says. “But I find, through this process, that I do have more questions than I did, and I’m not so keen or eager to offer answers.”

Toward the end of Thank You for Playing, the documentary about the game, there’s a scene in which you can spy a copy of Reality Is Broken on the Greens’ bookshelf. The manifesto, by designer and academic Jane McGonigal, argues that we should engineer our world to be more like a videogame, incorporating its system of rewards and escalating challenges to help us find meaning and accomplishment in our lives. Green, though, is doing the opposite. He’s trying to create a game in which meaning is ambiguous and accomplishments are fleeting. He is making a game that is as broken—as confounding, unresolved, and tragically beautiful—as the world itself.

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Courtesy of the Green family

They wait somberly in line: cosplayers, young women, middle-aged men. They sit in front of the monitor, put on the Bose noise-canceling headphones, and pick up the Xbox controller. Fifteen minutes later they stand and push back from the table. Many of them affect sheepish grins, rise quietly, walk off abruptly without making eye contact. A few get misty-eyed, clearly shaken, collecting themselves before they leave. And then there’s the developer who starts weeping and says, “I don’t want to be here at PAX; I want to be home with my kids.” The couple whose own daughter survived cancer and who have followed the game’s development for years. The boy who staggers away from the screen as if emerging from a particularly punishing roller coaster.

“Are you OK?” Green asks.

“It’s just so sad,” the boy says in a hushed tone, staring off. He wanders away, dazed. A few minutes later he returns to collect the backpack he has inadvertently left behind.

Green, on the other hand, doesn’t at this moment appear particularly haunted or upset. He stands in front of his booth with the studied casualness of someone who knows that people nearby are talking about him. His burly figure would be imposing if he weren’t dressed in cargo shorts and flip-flops, a wardrobe that—along with his sunny, authoritative demeanor—gives him the air of a summer camp director. Despite the circumstances, he is happy to be here.

An experienced programmer, Green is relatively new to the indie-game world. Until recently, he worked full-time designing software for a Denver-based dialysis company, a job he held for 11 years. In 2008, just before Joel was born, Green, who had long dabbled in filmmaking, poetry, and art, decided to try his hand at game-making. He spent his evenings and weekends learning how to use the Torque game engine and cranking out silly iPhone trifles with names like Sir Roly Poly and Little Piñata. They didn’t sell well, but Green enjoyed making them. He had always fantasized about pursuing a creative career, and he and Amy hatched a plan to save up enough money for him to quit his job after a few years and build games full-time.

That Dragon, Cancer explores spiritual and existential quandaries that have haunted humanity since Job.

When the Greens received Joel’s first cancer diagnosis in January 2010, that creative outlet became more important to Ryan, even as it grew more difficult for him to pursue. The Greens live in Loveland, Colorado, about an hour from Joel’s oncologists in Denver, and Ryan found his schedule overtaken by late-night trips to the emergency room and overnight stays in the ICU, wrestling with feeding tubes and chemotherapy pills, juggling childcare for the Greens’ other children, and all the other logistical, emotional, and psychological challenges that come with tending to a seriously sick child. Ryan’s boss told him to take as much time as he needed, and he ratcheted back to working about 30 hours a week. At the same time, he found himself taking on contract game-design work, something to keep him creatively engaged during those long and terrifying months.

Then, just under a year later, Joel was declared terminal. The news caused Green to reassess his life. The dialysis company was giving him paid time off and the flexibility to take care of his family, and he was using it to work for somebody else. He was one month away from a $30,000 retention bonus—money that was crucial to his plan to strike out on his own—but he couldn’t stomach the idea of accepting it under such pretenses. Over the protests of his employer, he quit.

“Everybody around me was like, ‘Don’t fall on your sword, you don’t have to do this,’” Green says. “I don’t want it to sound more noble than it was, but it just felt like a moment where I could have some integrity.”

“You think, ‘Ugh, I kind of hate this, but I get it,’” Amy says. “Both of us at that point were like, ‘Let’s do what you’re passionate about and not just get through life. Let’s make decisions we love.’”

For Green, that meant making games that explored religious themes. He started doing full-time contract work for Soma Games, a Newberg, Oregon-based developer of Christian videogames. In late 2010 he met Larson, an indie-game veteran from Des Moines, Iowa. Larson, another devoted Christian, had been spending time on a “not-games” forum, an online discussion for developers interested in avoiding all the usual gamelike trappings—the puzzles and quests and levels—to discover what else the medium might be capable of. I Wish I Were the Moon was a clickable tone poem about lost love. Proteus had players wander around an interactive landscape. Larson says his interest in not-games was purely intellectual, not spiritual, but the effort to move beyond performance-based reward systems seems to track with some of his deeply held philosophical beliefs. “The idea of grace is that you don’t have to do something good to earn your salvation,” he says. “People are always so concerned about what you do in a game, and they can be that way about life too. Whereas some people, depending on what kind of faith they have or what kind of person they are, that’s not necessarily what defines them.”

Green and Larson cemented their friendship during a 2011 game jam Larson organized to promote the development of what he called “meaningful games.” At Amy’s suggestion, Ryan created Giga Wife, a simple, Tamagotchi-like game in which players pushed buttons to deliver romantic gestures to their virtual spouses. In an explanatory essay, he underscored the importance of marital mindfulness, confessing that he too frequently took Amy for granted. “Most of my life has been spent taking and pursuing my desires, in contrast to giving and seeking hers,” he wrote. “I tell her I love her every day. But I’m not sure I always do it for her. Sometimes I do it out of duty.” For his part, Larson made a game based on the philosophy of Molinism, which theorizes that God accounts for free will by knowing how we will respond to certain conditions, then reverse-engineering the world to create those conditions. In Larson’s game, players had to design an environment that compelled an onscreen character to trip over a log and land next to a butterfly, thereby sparking a lifelong passion for lepidopterology.

Soon the duo began talking about working together. After tossing around a few ideas, Green suggested making a game about Joel. Larson was instantly enthusiastic. “We both felt compelled to do it,” Green says now. In fall 2012, Larson announced to Green that he would forgo all of his contract work and live off his savings for a year to work on the game.

“He said, ‘I feel an urgency in my spirit. I think you’re supposed to do this and do this now, and I want to help you,'” Amy says. “Who does that? They knew each other and worked together, but it wasn’t like they were best friends. It was just unbelievable.”

The videogame became Green’s primary method of dealing with Joel’s illness, as well as his connection to a son he struggled to understand.

The Greens took a hard look at their own finances and decided they could afford for Ryan to set aside his contract work as well and spend three months working on That Dragon, Cancer. But when that time was up, Amy couldn’t bring herself to ask him to return to work. “I remember thinking, ‘This is the most foolish thing I’ve ever done,'” she says. “Living off our savings until we have nothing left—you can’t do that with a kid who’s dying. You can’t do that in general! But I had that conviction that I needed to let him do this.”

By early 2013, Green and Larson began showing scenes from the game to potential funders—an urgent need, as by this point the Greens had burned through their savings and were living off donations and loans from friends. One of their first meetings was with Kellee Santiago, an old acquaintance of Larson’s who was leading developer outreach for the Kickstarter-funded Ouya console. Santiago had previously cofounded Thatgamecompany, creator of the art-house crossover hits Flower and Journey, and she was immediately drawn to Green and Larson’s project. “Five minutes into it, in my mind I was canceling all my meetings, because I wanted to spend as much time as I needed to talk them through this,” she says. Santiago eventually agreed to fund the project, giving Green and Larson enough money not only to support themselves but to hire three more developers to work on it with them. (The money, along with some other grants, lasted through November 2014, at which point the team raised more than $100,000 on Kickstarter to complete the game.)

Green was accustomed to transmogrifying his life into art. He and Amy had already made a short film based on their experiences with Joel and had self-published a children’s book titled He’s Not Dead Yet. Now he channeled his frustration, fear, love, and hope into designing a series of interactive challenges. One preliminary idea had players struggling to insert a feeding tube into Joel’s nose. Another, called “Auto-Tune the Noise,” poked fun at the barrage of well-meaning advice—Have you tried oxygen therapy? Have you tried cutting out sugar?—that they’d received over the years. Green wrote a minigame in which players could shoot at targets that represented the terrible decisions he and Amy were forced to make—whether to undergo another round of radiation despite the damage it might do to Joel’s spinal column, whether to give Joel antiseizure medicine that might cause peripheral blindness.

Over time, That Dragon, Cancer became Green’s primary method of dealing with Joel’s illness, as well as a way for him to preserve a connection to his son, whom he struggled to get to know. In real life, Joel couldn’t talk about his feelings, leaving Green to guess at his thoughts and emotions. Joel’s reaction to radiation therapy was particularly puzzling. Children usually hated being placed on the gurney inside the giant linear accelerator, resisted the anesthetic, fought and clawed at their parents and doctors every time they entered the room. But Joel loved it. He grew impatient in the waiting room, and his face lit up when the doctors came to get him, more excited than his parents had ever seen him. Green couldn’t know just why Joel was so enthusiastic about undergoing the anesthesia, but he wrote a scene imagining the adventures Joel might be experiencing in his mind—riding animals made of stars, giggling and tearing across the cosmos.

According to Green’s original design, the game would end with you, the player, facing an array of dozens of levers. For a while you would yank and tug at them, trying to discern the pattern that would unlock the game’s conclusion. After a few minutes, the camera would pan up to reveal the back of the console, its wires frayed and disconnected. The levers were false, the game’s designer was in charge, and you were forced to acknowledge that you were powerless to control the outcome.

That conclusion arose directly from the Greens’ religion, their belief that God’s will was beyond human comprehension, that we are operating within a divine plan that we may or may not have the power to influence. Even as they pursued every medical option, their agony was somewhat relieved by the conviction that Joel’s fate was ultimately in God’s hands. “With God we don’t have to do the right things or say the right things to somehow ‘earn’ his healing,” Amy wrote in an online diary soon after Joel’s first biopsy. As Ryan worked on his game, the Greens continued to believe they were on the cusp of a miracle: Joel’s survival and recuperation in spite of all medical science.

But then, toward the end of 2013, Joel developed a new tumor near his brain stem, and his health began deteriorating quickly. He struggled to maintain his balance. His right eye turned more noticeably inward. He began experiencing seizures and difficulty swallowing. In January 2014, Joel’s oncologists told his parents that the tumor was untreatable. The Greens traveled to San Francisco to take part in a Phase I experimental trial of a new drug, but it was unsuccessful. On March 12, 2014, on the recommendation of their hospice nurse, the Greens took out the feeding tube that was Joel’s only source of sustenance. That night, they hosted an evening of prayer and song at their home. At 1:52 am on March 13, Joel died in his parents’ bed, with Ryan and Amy by his side.

The team had discussed how they might finish the game after Joel’s death, in case Green had to take a few months off to grieve. But two days after the funeral he was ready to get back to work. If anything, the game felt more crucial than ever. It had been written when Joel’s death was hypothetical; now, in the shadow of the actual event, much of it seemed irrelevant or off-base. The final, lever-pulling scene came to feel particularly unsatisfying. Joel’s death may have been a manifestation of God’s unknowable will, but Green found himself unable to accept it, as the scene encouraged players to do. Over the course of the next several months, the team decided to rewrite 70 percent of the game, de-emphasizing Ryan and Amy’s experience and focusing instead on scenes that directly involved Joel—caring for him, playing with him, attending to him.

Working on the game also gave Green an important outlet, a way to explore his grief and keep his son alive in his memory. In one of our first conversations, he seemed startled to realize that he and Amy hadn’t read many books or attended any support groups or counseling sessions to help them process their loss. “I’ve used this game as a way of wrestling with it,” he says, “more than the typical channels of grief.”

“Ryan was able to spend the last year of Joel’s life, and all of the time since he died, working on this game,” Amy says. “We’d love for it to impact people and for it to be commercially successful. But there’s a piece of me that says, maybe it’s just for us.”

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Courtesy of the Green family

The Greens—Ryan, Amy, and their four children—live in a small townhouse about halfway between Loveland’s big-box commercial district and its sleepy, red-brick downtown. Their home and schedule reflect a laissez-faire approach to time and space management. The shelves and walls are cluttered with family photos, paintings, figurines of a man and woman cradling a baby. A stack of board games towers atop the refrigerator. Two beat-up Xbox consoles inhabit the entertainment center.

On a sun-blasted September afternoon, I pull up a chair in front of their TV. Green takes a seat next to me. Larson, who has flown in to work on the game for a few days, settles into an easy chair. Amy is here too, sitting next to Jon Hillman, a local composer who signed on as the game’s sound designer after meeting Green at a coffee shop. The game’s two other far-flung designers, Ryan Cousins and Brock Henderson, are waiting to discuss my experience via Google Hangouts. Green smiles and hands me an Xbox controller. I am about to become the first person outside the core development team to play a full run-through of That Dragon, Cancer.

I am not a great player of videogames. I get disoriented easily, I am quickly overwhelmed by complicated button combinations, and I often pass right over the clues and prompts that designers use to nudge players through the story.

But That Dragon, Cancer is not a tricky game to master. Indeed, it’s barely a game at all, more a collection of scenarios that the player explores and clicks through. There is some degree of agency—you can decide how long to spend in any particular scene, for instance—but the overwhelming sensation is one of being a bug caught in a rushing river; you might veer a few degrees in either direction, but you can’t alter the overall flow.

All videogames are deterministic; some just mask it better than others. The Super Mario Bros. series may give the appearance of serendipity, but creator Shigeru Miyamoto planned every surprise down to the pixel, a kind of 8-bit Truman Show of false autonomy. For all their free-range chaos, the massively multiplayer games of the ’90s and ’00s were ruled by “gods” and “immortals”—admins who could spy on players, take control of their avatars, or single-handedly wipe objects out of existence. Today, many of the most popular cinematic titles hew to what Koster calls the “string of pearls” design: lots of freedom within individual levels, but a rigid structure that ultimately forces the player’s hand. “You have all the choices in the world, until you have to move on and do what they tell you,” he says.

In his recent book God in the Machine: Video Games as Spiritual Pursuit, Liel Liebovitz, an assistant professor at NYU, argues that such contradictions are inherent to gaming, part of what makes them fun and meaningful. “To be coherent,” he writes, “to be compelling, video games must unfold in a way that allows players to continue and believe that the decisions they make are their own, and that the game’s world, preordained as it is, nonetheless allows for expressions of their free will. Video games, in other words, depend much on the sentiment expressed by the Jewish sage Rabbi Akiva, in Pirkei Avot: ‘Everything is foreseen, and permission is granted.’”

But some game designers have taken the opposite approach, calling attention to players’ fundamentally powerless position. The 2007 blockbuster BioShock put players in the role of a vengeful amnesiac who learns in a climactic scene that his seemingly independent actions have been programmed, Manchurian Candidate-style, by the game’s villain—just as the player’s own actions had been programmed by the game’s creators. In the comic meditation The Stanley Parable, a hapless office worker explores his abandoned workplace while being harangued by the game’s domineering narrator, who grows more flustered and hostile with every act of disobedience. But each seeming transgression—going through the door on the right instead of the suggested door on the left, for instance—is undercut by the realization that it’s all part of the game’s inescapable design.

The 2012 cult hit Dear Esther pushes in an even more radical direction, removing every pretense of autonomy. In the game, players follow a path around a deserted island. As they hike inexorably to a tragic conclusion, they hear snippets of a deranged man’s letters to his dead wife. The messages are delivered semi-randomly; it takes seven or eight play-throughs to listen to all of them. But even then, the story remains ambiguous, never completely explaining who the characters are or how they intersect. The result is a profound irony. While players can’t influence the game itself, they are in many ways granted a more meaningful freedom: to interpret its creators’ inscrutable logic. People went online to share their outlandish theories, a fact that tickled the game’s designer, Dan Pinchbeck. “This thing is so out of our control, in a way,” he told an interviewer at “That’s a really lovely feeling.”

That Dragon, Cancer is very much in the Dear Esther mold, pulling players through an evocative landscape whose meaning proves elusive. It’s not even clear what character you inhabit—sometimes you’re Green, sometimes you’re a bird, sometimes you have no body at all but hover above the action, watching from a benevolent remove. Sometimes you interact with the characters onscreen—as when you cavort in a playground with Joel—and sometimes you manipulate them, as if you’ve entered their bodies.

Green, Larson, and the rest of the team monitor my play closely. Do I realize I’m supposed to follow that sweep of light down to the waterfront? Did I find the cell phone that unlocks the next stage of the game? What did I think that wing-flapping sound indicated? Did I understand why that blue van was parked under the lighthouse?

For the most part, I move easily through the game, but I get stumped halfway through. Ryan is drowning, curled shrimplike in the middle of a vast sea, a portrait of helplessness and despair. Looking up I see a slightly damaged life preserver on the surface of the water. I realize that, by steering the pointer near Ryan’s body and pressing a button, I can get him to swim. But when I guide him to the surface, I can’t get him out of the water. He sputters and gasps but won’t grab the life preserver. I keep trying—five, six, seven times. Green, sitting next to me, stares at me meaningfully.

“I think I need some help,” I say.

Green pauses. He doesn’t want to tell me what to do, but he’s willing to give me some ambiguous guidance. “Well,” he says, “what can you do other than swim up?”

That’s when I notice the light, glowing up from the bottom of the sea. I reorient my pointer and urge Ryan down. It takes a long time, so long that at one point I’m convinced I’ve hit another dead end and give up. But it turns out I just haven’t gone far enough. Eventually, after swim­ming for a few more seconds, I reach the bottom and the scene ends.

We all sit in silence for a moment, and then I hear Amy stirring behind me. “It shouldn’t be that hard,” she says. “You’re making them go down awfully far.”

Ryan grins, a little sadly. “Yeah,” he says, “I am.”

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Courtesy of the Green family

By turning his personal loss into art, Green has also been able to convert his grief into labor. At times, that’s a gift—when he’s designing a landscape or animating a character’s movement, he can almost lose sight of the larger story. But occasionally he’ll be crippled by the enormity of what he’s grappling with. Once, he says, he broke down sobbing while positioning images of himself and Joel on a hospital bed. Cousins, the designer, told me that he sometimes hesitated before sending Green new animations of his son, for fear it might be overwhelming. Larson sometimes has to take extended breaks, particularly when he’s doing speed-runs—high-velocity run-throughs of the entire game—experiencing Joel’s decline over and over again.

In a way, the process of working on the game in the months since Joel’s death has given Green the opportunity to spend more time with his son—or at least a digital approximation of him, what Green calls an “echo” of who Joel used to be. “If I look at the game objectively,” Amy says, “of course it’s all just to make his life matter. You wanted his life to matter so much, and he died young, and in a lot of ways his life will only matter if we make it matter. When the project is done, that process ends. And then we get to see, does this matter?”

Toward the end of the run-through, I enter a giant cathedral. This is the scene that Green has worked on most diligently since Joel’s death. It replaces the lever-pulling scene, his initial idea to urge the player toward accepting his own powerlessness. This is the scene, Green says, that embodies all the wrestling with God he has endured since his son’s death, the scene that once provided answers but now leaves only questions. I brace myself.

“This isn’t quite done yet,” Green says. “I’d better walk you through it.”

I exhale and sit back as he takes the controller. A wave washes over me. It feels like relief. It’s no longer my job to navigate this treacherous emotional landscape. All I have to do now is put myself in the designer’s hands.

Settle into your chair. Turn to your left. There is Ryan Green, his hands on the Xbox controller, his eyes focused on the screen. Face forward and watch the game. Your view swings around the cathedral, awe-inspiring in its size but clearly under construction. You see scaffolding, an unfinished stained glass window. Now the picture swings around again and you are looking at the altar, and there is Joel. He looks impossibly small inside this vast expanse. Behind him, Jumbotrons recapitulate and magnify his image.

Green continues to move you through the cathedral until you find a spot about 20 rows back from the altar. Soon, the church fills with the sound of prayer. These are the actual prayers that Ryan, Amy, and their friends sang and whispered and screamed the last night of Joel’s life, prayers that were not answered. “Please!” you hear a voice bellow. “Return this boy’s soul to his body!

In two days, you will fly back to your family. At some point in the future, hopefully long into the future, you will say good-bye to them. You will leave them, or they will leave you. You may be able to influence how or when this happens, but you cannot change the fact that it will happen. You also cannot change the fact that whoever remains will feel great pain, will ask difficult questions, and most likely will not receive satisfactory answers. It may bring to mind the words of the theologian C. S. Lewis, who inadvertently wrote about grief as something akin to a dark, final level in a videogame, the miserable reward for succeeding at love, “as if God said, ‘Good: You have mastered that exercise. I am very pleased with it. And now you are ready to go on to the next.’” When you read those words, months from now, they will remind you of something Amy Green once told you: “Pain doesn’t mean you failed. Suffering doesn’t mean you failed. In a strange way, I think suffering may mean you won.”

But for now, sit here, in the Green family living room. The cathedral scene is over, but Ryan does not offer you the controller back and you do not ask for it. Joel is back on the screen, but now he is healthy and happy. The room fills with his laughter—his actual laughter, recorded before he died. Ryan pushes a few buttons and makes Joel laugh harder. Don’t look directly at Ryan. Stare straight ahead, but note that you can still see him, hazily, in your peripheral vision. Take him in, watch him there, crying and smiling, playing with his creation on the other side of the screen.

Editor at large JASON TANZ (@jasontanz) wrote about Salman Khan and his new lab school in issue 23.11.

This article appears in the January 2016 issue.



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