(Some light spoilers ahead)
When I first heard about this game from husband and wife team Amy and Ryan Green about their toddling son’s fight with a rare brain cancer, I knew it was going to be important. Important to the gaming world and important to the art world at large. At the beginning of production their son Joel was still alive, still fighting. Not quite a couple of years ago, they reported that he had died. That they saw their way to finish the game is its own miracle.
The mechanics: Point and click, like Myst. With the exception of a mini-game where arrow keys and spacebar are utilized.
The bugs: There are some. They don’t break the game. They don’t matter.
The graphics: Sparse, gorgeous.
Now that that’s out of the way:
THAT DRAGON, CANCER is about experience. It’s an interactive diary. There is nothing to win, or beat. The player’s willingness to witness the raw, real struggles of a family as they try to help and simply live with their baby son as he bears a rare terminal illness is the only goal. That the player may come out of the game with increased perspective, empathy, and appreciation is the only “win.”
The best example of the personal depths this game achieves is the level/scene “Dehydration.” It occurs about mid-game, but was the first test build used to prove this is a viable experiment in emotional gaming, and to drum up investors.
You play as the father Ryan who is alone with his son Joel in his hospital room. Joel is sick from brain cancer. He’s in pain, hungry, and very thirsty. He’s crying inconsolably. It’s loud and invasive. It’s tortured and torturing. You have a few options as Ryan.
You can pace the floor as your son is dryly screaming in pain, or look out the window. You can opt to sit and rock your son to no avail. He still wails. You offer Joel a juice box, and he knocks it from your hand. You pick up another, and he drinks. He gulps it all without pause for breath. Joel even giggles. When finished, Joel immediately vomits up the juice, and resumes wailing. When you put him back in his hospital crib, he angrily bangs his head against the rails.
Your options for consoling the child are out. Ryan then prays amid the painful screams of his son. He doesn’t pray for the miracle of a cure, or that God Himself heal the boy. He prays for just a moment’s peace for himself and his son. When Joel finally passes out, Ryan gets his wish.
Nothing is cut and dry in That Dragon, Cancer. You can sit and entertain little Joel with toys; hear him laugh, and giggle and clap his little hands for more. But you’re obliging him in a hospital office as Amy and Ryan are talking with his doctors, who are explaining that the tumors cannot be treated any longer.
You enter the heads of Amy and Ryan as they try to process what the doctors are saying. You then watch a literal storm break out in the office, and it fills with water until Ryan is drowning in it by choice, because he wants to feel this, to take it all on, while Amy sits in an oar-less rowboat floating atop the same deep water. Amy has resolved herself to unflinching faith that Joel will get better. Ryan finds it difficult to be as optimistic. It’s hard to fault either of them.
I am an atheist uplifted by the spiritual, very specifically Christian motifs of this game. There are hymns, a real recorded family sing along. There is soul baring, fear revealing prayer. A mini-game that is reminiscent of old side scroller games like Ghouls ‘n Ghosts or Altered Beast that serves to convey the story Amy and Ryan are telling their two other children about a young knight named Joel who must defeat a dragon, and can only do so by the grace of God.
The adventure of the child knight is brought to sudden end when one of the children asks about another fellow church member who died of cancer. Where was God’s grace then?
Nothing in the game is cynical. Not the ponderings of where is/was God, nor the moments when the parents express naked anger. All of it is a very human appeal to one another and the powers that be to help understand why. Why the suffering? And since we have no real control, and the game is reliant on lack of control, how do we cope, and how do we accept?
In fact, at the end, when it’s all but over you get to make the only real choice the game has to offer. You can stay with baby Joel, who is finally in a place where he is happy; no more pain, no more disease. You can stay with that vision for as long as you like, until you’re ready and choose to move on.
I have read other reviews. All seem to sing its praise. In their comments I’ve read how some commenters refuse to call this a game. As though this sort of gaming experience somehow sullies the medium home to Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, or Grand Theft Auto. I read the thankful and appreciative comments of those who are grateful That Dragon, Cancer exists, as their lives have been touched or rocked by cancer. And some surprising ones expressing anger that they wish no one uninitiated to the grim world of cancer would subject themselves to an experience like this; that having been rocked and robbed by cancer why would they want to experience the anger and sadness all over again through a video game—which is fair. It’s fine.
I have been rocked and robbed by cancer. I get it. This game wasn’t made for them. It wasn’t made in hopes that we would appreciate it. Amy and Ryan aren’t answering for anything or to anyone. It’s for Joel.
Written by: Jody Callahan