Why Games Need Grace

Why make a game, of all things, about suffering and heartbreak? Developer of That Dragon, Cancer, Ryan Green, explains.

Written by Ryan Green / Published on May 6, 2013

I am a videogame convert. I am currently designing a videogame about my family’s struggle against terminal cancer in my third son, Joel. We are calling it That Dragon, Cancer. Now, I do not fancy myself any type of real strategist, puzzle master, or game design aficionado, in fact I’m not that good at games. I am a creative at heart. And, I’d like to think myself free from technical, genre and medium bigotry. As a programmer, my approach is pragmatic: which is the best medium to express the desired message to the viewer? Choose that medium. For me the choice was clear.

My wife and I have spent some time sorting our feelings and beliefs about faith and living under the weight of this horrible disease in other mediums over the last year. We made a film about a couple that loses their only son to cancer. We also wrote a children’s book, titled “He’s Not Dead Yet.” And a friend of ours wrote a song about Joel’s struggle. They all told the story in a slightly different way with a different angle on what it means to walk in the middle of all of the struggle and doubt; hope and pain of chronic illness. They all had a different lens into our faith. However, none of those could do what I believe an immersive videogame can do.

Why make a game?

Lately, I’ve spent quite a bit of time attempting to sufficiently answer a common question I get from friends, family and fellow church members, “what exactly is it that you’re doing?” Often their initial response to “I’m making a videogame” is a gentle smile, a nod, and “oh, that’s really interesting” followed by a change of subject that allows them to talk about something else.

My mother recently asked me this same question. “I’m making a videogame about cancer,” I replied. Blank stare. She truly couldn’t get her head around the idea. Her difficulty grasping the concepts stopped me in my tracks. Was it really that hard to understand? I was passionately preaching the gospel truth of the power and potential of videogames, of which I am a firm believer, by faith, but I was speaking a language that was foreign to her.

In my Mom’s grid, videogames are Pac-man. What on earth did Pac-man have to do with cancer? “Well, Mom, videogames these days are like films, in that they are a ‘super-medium’ which involves members of every artistic and creative discipline. The difference with videogames is rather than constructing a virtual world that the viewer can only watch. The creator of a video game then asks the player to love their creation by living inside of it.”


Living Inside the Garden.

Recently Raph Koster, a well known academic and games thinker, who literally wrote the book on fun, posted an openletter response to a Tweet from Leigh Alexander, another well respected and outspoken critic and games journalist.

Now I’ve heard Raph is a bit of a rhetorical rabble-rouser. On the one hand, his academic work seems to focus on the structure and mechanics of games often referred to as formalism. “What makes games fun?” “How can one construct fun from rules and systems and aesthetics of game design?” However, his desire to master the craft of game design extends into the often debated realm of “What is a game?” Games-as-art, or “Art Games” often push the common conception of what makes a videogame a “game.” These games may make a profound statement but limit the choice of players so that all the “player” can do is to push a button to move the narrative forward.

It seems to me that Raph’s ability to rattle the cage of game formalism while at the same time, taking an inclusive yet opinionated stance on “what makes a game” has made him the perfect catalyst to move the conversation of games-as-art forward.

I am not an academic, nor am I well read in the science and study of game theory. The only way I am able to approach his arguments on formalism, and respond to existential questions such as “what is a game?” is as a layman. I am a layman game designer, not academic clergy. My views on videogames lie in the realm of faith more than reason and emotion over scientific-method. I connect with the ritual of game-play without a deep understanding of the icons of structure and game theory.

I believe that games and technology have evolved far enough to gain the potential to receive “that eternal spark”; That light gives them the ability to break free of their evolutionary, formalist, fetters and receive grace.

Grace is the substance that formalism cannot observe. I like how Jonas Kyratzes put it in his recent post on “DesigningforGrace

That, in fact, is its point. Grace is when the two sides of the equation don’t match but the thing works anyway. Grace is the absurd yet wonderful fact that sometimes you get out more than you put in.

So why make a videogame about cancer and faith?

Raph posits a solid stance on game-as-art in his letter:

I would rate better understanding of another human and the challenge of empathy as bare minimum requirements for something reaching for art.

Empathy at a bare minimum. He correctly points out, later in his letter, that the power of games seems to lie in discussion; in the two-way conversation of creator and player rather than the broadcasting of ham-handed rhetoric from an ivory tower.

Raph asked a question of me, as a designer of a game that seems, at first play-test, to be a rhetorical game, not one that invites conversation, but one that makes the player re-live my suffering: “Why make a game and then remove choice?”

One may assume that as a Christian and game developer, I intend to force my beliefs on players in a new and cutting edge God-like way. For as the creator of this garden called “That Dragon, Cancer,” I certainly have sovereignty. I have the power to limit choice, to bend the player’s knee in prayer, to create a black and white world in which the pillars of faith can be crammed down their throat in mega-byte-sized chunks.

If I did that, then I would not be much like the one person in history I desire to emulate.

The walk of faith I ascribe to is one of invitation. The story of Jesus is one of God choosing to enter into our sufferings here on earth, a call to “come, follow me” and the telling of a tale to teach a truth; “the kingdom of God is like…” It is an invitation to walk in the garden with those that suffer, and struggle; who make mistakes; who doubt; and are trying their hardest to love in a world that seems undone by disease and hatred and dissent.


The truth about free-will.

The truth is that any game that has been created or will be created contains only the illusion of choice. Dialog trees, branching narrative, and puzzle mechanics all drive the player towards a predetermined end. I don’t dispute that free-will and choice exist in games, but I would contend that those elusive qualities that seem to transcend formalist structures, ideals such as love and altruism are not the return value of functions of form. These ideals live in the relationship of the player to the creator, they are in the things we call beautiful, they are the moments in life that we call grace.

I believe that the creator of any universe has the power to limit choice. But a good creator gives choice because they empathize with the player. This creator recognizes that the player has been hurt, and treated viciously. This creator wants the player to love his son, like he loves his son. This creator ultimately wants good for the created world, and for its inhabitants. Of course, the player doesn’t know the end of the story. The player needs to believe that the creator is telling a good story, and for that, I, as a game designer, am asking for trust.

I’m asking that you let me take you to a dark place in my life, and that you’ll have faith I’m not going to abandon you there. Because my intent is not to hurt you. I want the players that enter my creation to feel loved. I want players to walk with me in the garden of my life, to see the faith and hope; the weakness and doubt; and to love my son, the same way I love my son, even if he succumbs to that great dragon that lies in wait.

I don’t believe that limiting choice, even down to a single inescapable moment of desperation, undoes a game. Nor, in my opinion, does offering a player only one choice rob free-will. For choice is always finite and form has a soul. A creator must recognize the agency, personhood, and feelings that a player brings into the creation and choose to love the player, to not enslave the player and hope, that if given the “choice” between life and death; the player chooses life.

About the Author:

Ryan Green is a seasoned game developer and is currently working on That Dragon, Cancer.

  • Hampus

    Bought it, loved it and cried a hellalot! Good job Ryan and keep fighting!

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