I’ve played a lot of video games in my life. As someone who started playing around the time of the Atari 7800 in the 1980s, I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve saved the day, or I’ve beat the big bad guy, or I’ve rescued the damsel in distress. Never before, however, has a game hit me with quite the emotional gut punch that I experienced a couple of weeks ago, when I played That Dragon, Cancer. For those who have not heard of it, That Dragon, Cancer is a game created to serve as a memorial to a young life, Joel Green, who was taken far too early for anyone’s comfort. The game was planned, Kickstarted, and developed by Joel’s parents, Amy and Ryan Green, who sought to not only immortalize the short life of their son, but also detail the story of the family’s journey through Joel’s fight and eventual loss to a rare form of brain cancer. The game is heartbreaking, and intimate, and terrifying all at once. And it’s different than any other video game you may have ever experienced.
Most importantly, I think it’s a game that everyone should play.
This is going to be different than most video game reviews, even different than most of the reviews I normally write. I’m not going to write about the technical issues in the game, though they exist. I’m not going to write about any gameplay issues, though they exist. I’m not going to write about any of that because none of that matters. The Greens set out to create an experience documenting a horrible, terrible situation, and in this they succeeded. They’ve created a game that serves to not only give you a glimpse into their world and family, but also remind you of how quickly life can disappear, how quickly our loved ones can be here one day and gone another.
For Joel Green, the process started when he was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer as an infant. After undergoing surgery and chemotherapy to treat the cancer, he went into remission. Over the next four years, the cancer kept recurring until Joel eventually died at the age of 5. The story in itself is sad as Hell, and just making a game about the death of a young child would be tormenting enough. Where That Dragon, Cancer becomes something wholly different, though, is in telling not only Joel’s story, but Amy and Ryan’s as well, as both parents struggle with their own issues while watching their son go through this unthinkable situation. You feel sad and angry about Joel’s lot, but you feel equally heartbroken for Amy and Ryan as you see and experience all of the terrible decisions that no parent should ever have to make.
It’s an idea that resonates with many people. In an early level of the game, you walk through a hospital ward looking at artwork and pictures. In a later level, you read hundreds of cards strewn about the same hospital floor, each one with a message. I found out later that the artwork and messages were contributed by Kickstarter supporters, and while a few of them are messages of hope and encouragement for anyone going through this situation, the vast majority of them are from either cancer survivors or the loved ones of someone who has faced that battle. It becomes painfully clear that that the vast majority of us will, at some point in our lives, fight the dragon that is cancer. It sucks, but it’s true.
I’ve experienced it. Just last year, I spent the later half of 2015 worrying about a loved one that was diagnosed with breast cancer. Thankfully, she came out the other end as fine as anyone in that situation can. Others, I know, aren’t so lucky. When you start the process, there’s no way to know the outcome. The doctor will give a prognosis, but even that isn’t assured. It gives the patient a percentage chance of hope, but that’s it. Or, maybe, that’s exactly what you need. I don’t know. I’m sure it’s different for everyone.
If there is one thing I’ve learned about cancer in the past few years, it’s this: everyone handles it differently, and in That Dragon, Cancer, we get to see how the Greens handled it. I’ve heard a few people complain about the heavy use of religion within this game. If you read the writings of either Amy or Ryan, they never attempt to hide the fact that they are Christians, and that God plays a huge role in their lives. In the second half of the game, this aspect is brought to the forefront almost exclusively as both parents turn to their faith as the potential answer, though for each, it means something different. Ryan looks to his faith to keep him afloat in the midst of despair, while Amy firmly believes that God will heal Joel. For him, faith is his lifejacket, while for her, it’s a source of hope. While I can understand why this might turn off people who are vehemently opposed to anything religious, I would hope that most people would see that for the Greens, faith is the only thing they have. When your five-year-old son is dying from cancer, you grasp what you can, and you hold on tightly to anything that uplifts you, even if that uplifting is infinitesimal.
And this is why I think That Dragon, Cancer works. It isn’t because the story is sad, or because cancer is a real thing that affects millions of lives every day. This game puts you into a terrifying situation and asks you to empathize with the family experiencing it. More than that, though, to truly experience what is happening here, the game requires you to put your self on the shelf for a second to allow yourself to be open to that experience. And that’s a thing of beauty.
A few years back, movie critic Roger Ebert pissed off gamers the world over when he claimed that video games could never be art because they are too interactive. Art, like movies, music, paintings, literature, etc., requires a active creator expressing his or her sole vision, which the consumer consumes as a passive participant. Video games are too malleable — the player is an active part of the creation process. When the debate was raging, gamers threw a number of games toward the front, titles they felt represented video games as an artistic medium. Ebert never really apologized for his comments (because, why would he? He’s a critic) but he did admit that without having played a game, and without a firm definition of what art should be, he shouldn’t have brought the topic up. I wish he would have had a chance to play something like That Dragon, Cancer. There’s something different about this game. While the victory condition is assured (you can’t lose the game), by the time you’re done, you’ve wondered if you’ve really won anything at all. There’s no parade, there’s no “congraturations.” You’re left with nothing but your own thoughts and the laughter of a 5-year-old boy that was taken too damn early.