‘That Dragon, Cancer,’ ‘Silent Enemy’: Game designers to watch in 2014

Dec. 27, 2013 | 7:00 a.m.
An early image from the video game "That Dragon Cancer." (Media Greenhouse)

An early image from the video game “That Dragon, Cancer.” (Media Greenhouse)

The Times asked its reporters and critics to highlight figures in entertainment and the arts who will be making news in 2014. Todd Martens focused on a few video game designers who could have gamers talking in the new year.

Ryan and Amy Green

The setting is a hospital. A father is exasperated, a child is crying and it’s your job to find out why. But any victories will be small, as “That Dragon, Cancer” explores the ups, the downs, the everyday terror, the sudden miracles and the dreaded inevitability of caring for a loved one with terminal brain cancer.

So … wanna play? Ryan Green, his writer-wife, Amy, and a small team near Fort Collins, Colo., are in the early to middevelopment stages of “That Dragon, Cancer,” a narrative-driven game they hope to complete and release by the end of 2014 for the home video game console the Ouya. Its tale is a personal one, initially conceived by Ryan and Amy in part as a way to help them and others express and cope with the unthinkable.

At around 12 months old, their son, Joel, was diagnosed with terminal cancer and was given about a month to live. He’s now 4, and the Greens are posting updates of his treatments online (Joel was undergoing radiation sessions in mid-December).

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Ryan, 33, who dreamed of someday being a filmmaker and has worked in mobile game development, ultimately determined the interactive medium was the one best suited for handling such a serious topic. While the area explored by “That Dragon, Cancer” may seem more suited for an indie film, he believes that by offering players a choice they can better experience “the themes that we have faced.”

“Video games are the perfect nexus of all these different mediums,” Ryan says. “It takes everything I love about film and animation, and it adds the nuance of immersion. You’re asking a player to do something and then they evaluate it as if they are doing it.”

It’s not, Ryan stresses, a game designed to make players miserable. Parts will no doubt be difficult for some players to stomach, but he wants the game to start a conversation. Early scenes show the stress and weariness of a parent who has spent a late night in the hospital, and later Ryan wants to show players the perspective of the medical staff. The end of the game has yet to be scripted, but he envisions it more as a series of vignettes.

“Ninety-eight out of 100 people are going to have somebody that they knew with cancer,” he says. “Everyone can identify with the pain that causes, but I also hope I can give you the same comfort I have received.”

Early concept art for "Silent Enemy," due in early 2014 from Minority Media. (Minority Media)

Early concept art for “Silent Enemy,” due in early 2014 from Minority Media. (Minority Media)

Ruben Farrus

A game designer today at independent studio Minority Media, Ruben Farrus remembers the nightmares he had as a teenager. He can’t forget because he continues to have them. They’re a holdover from being bullied.

“Every couple weeks I see my bullies in front of me,” Farrus says. “I try to push them back. I try to hit them. But I cannot. I cannot throw a punch. I am motionless. I am powerless.”

As a kid he played a lot of games. He also read a lot of books. Looking back today at that time, Farrus, now 30, feels the books provided him with “tools for life.” The games? Not so much.

“When you’re a kid,” he says, “you’re naturally attracted to games. They look fun, so it would be perfect if you could get something out of it.”

That’s the goal shared by Farrus and the Montreal-based Minority Media. Farrus contributed to Minority’s 2012 title “Papo y Yo,” which used dreamy landscapes and a frog-chomping monster to metaphorically deal with topics of paternal abuse.

In early 2014, Minority will release “Silent Enemy” for mobile devices, a Farrus-designed game that will address bullying. Like “Papo y Yo,” it will do so in a fairy tale-like universe.

In “Silent Enemy” a boy gets lost in a sub-arctic region, where he’ll require the help of friendly animals to locate warmer climates. Crow-like creatures will intercept him on his journey. They will be “all powerful, all evil,” says Farrus, but they won’t be typical video game villains.

— Todd Martens

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex


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