Having children has had a profound impact on how I experience art and pop culture. Things that would have passed unappreciated in years past now feel remarkably important. The main quest in Fallout 4, where a mother braves a post-apocalyptic hellscape to find her lost son, pulled me in like no other game in the series before, mainly because I would have tried to do the exact same thing if I was in her position. Even a silly movie like Father of the Bride has changed for me; it’s no longer just Steve Martin goofing around, it’s a stark reminder that one day my kids will grow up and I’ll have to let them go.
All of this is to say that, when you have two kids under the age of three running around, watching certain movies and hearing certain songs becomes harder, because they affect you in ways you haven’t prepared for. But nothing has been as hard for me as playing That Dragon, Cancer, a new game that chronicles a family’s struggle with losing their young boy to cancer.
That Dragon, Cancer is especially powerful because it’s not a work of fiction. Ryan Green, who developed the title with a small team at Numinous Games, including his wife Amy who served as a writer, initially started working on the game as a way to deal with his son Joel’s three-year battle with cancer. The late nights screaming and terrible appointments at chemotherapy were turned into a series of interactive vignettes. Where some people might write a song or a poem, he made a game. You could watch Joel toss pieces of bread into a creek to feed ducks, or see Ryan struggle with how to console a child who is unconsolable. As you explored these spaces and moments, all rendered in a dreamlike blocky art style, you’d hear from Ryan, Joel, Amy, and his brothers, their voices playing over top of the action, and displayed as text on screen.
But something terrible happened that changed the game part way through development: Joel didn’t survive his fight. What started out as a way to deal with an awful situation turned into a eulogy, a way to remember Joel and find some meaning in his brief time on this planet.
That Dragon, Cancer plays out sort of like an adventure game, though really each of the 14 chapters is very different from the next. Usually you’re simply clicking your way around an environment — a claustrophobic hospital room, a sunny playground — while listening to Joel and his family talk. You might listen to a phone message from Amy about a new kind of medicine, or watch Joel explore a fantasy dreamscape. Sometimes the real world turns fantastic, like when a wagon ride around a hospital turns into a game of Mario Kart.
The game is often heartwarming. In one scene Joel’s parents tell his brothers the titular story about Joel the brave knight, and his battle against a dragon named Cancer. Other times the game is absolutely tortuous. There are scenes when you’re forced to listen to Joel’s anguished cries, and there’s nothing you can do to stop them. He’s thirsty but he won’t drink, and when he finally does, he gulps so fast he vomits. You are helpless. Parents can relate — I’ve experienced plenty of moments when my kids are hungry and tired, yet they refuse to eat or sleep, crying the whole while — but given the circumstances, this scene in the game felt so much worse.
Those awful moments are punctuated with hope. Even though you know how the game will end, it’s hard not to feel hopeful. In a series of letters, Amy questions how her son’s situation fits into God’s plan, and despite her obvious sadness, you sense a note of optimism. It’s too hard to think about the worst outcome, so she chooses to believe Joel will make it through. And really, what else can one do?
The brief moments of happiness are what make That Dragon, Cancer playable; if they weren’t there I don’t think I could complete the whole thing, even though it’s only two hours long. The dark moments are simply too dark, too real, too close to what I love most. I’ve played a lot video games, and they’ve all tried to reward me in different ways: power fantasies, graphic showcases, addictive puzzles, and time-consuming roleplays. But nothing has felt as important or rewarding as making Joel giggle in That Dragon, Cancer. I can’t think of anything I’ve wanted to do more in a game. It’s an example of how interactivity can make a moment more powerful; I wasn’t just watching him laugh, I was helping him.
If the goal of That Dragon, Cancer was to preserve Joel’s memory, then it’s a success. I only spent a few short hours with a virtual rendition of him, an avatar without a face, but I feel like I know him in some small way. The game is a fearless reveal of the private moments of a family, one grappling with the unimaginable. It was hard to play not because it was challenging like other games, but because each moment inspired reflection. I took breaks when the screaming became too much, and I hugged my own kids after the credits rolled. I was able to see Joel laugh and cry, and scream with delight while riding a red wagon. I felt lucky to get to know him, devastated about his passing, but happy that his brief time was surrounded by so many people that loved him.
And I don’t think I will ever forget his laugh.
That Dragon, Cancer will be available on PC, Mac, and Ouya starting tomorrow.