Game Review: That Dragon, Cancer

It has been a very long time since I reviewed a game on here, and I can’t think of a better way than to do it with this one.

On December 12th of 2014, video game developer, husband, and father Ryan Green – along with his wife and co-developers – raised over $100,000 to pay for the development of their game That Dragon, Cancer.* Nine months earlier, the Greens lost their 5-year-old son, Joel, to brain cancer. The game was initially intended as an experience of their struggles and triumph over the cancer. It ended up “a journey of hope in the shadow of death.”

The word “game” does not adequately communicate to you exactly what That Dragon, Cancer is. This is a game that illustrates the power and potential of video games as a medium for (inter)active experiences that cannot come through any other art form. Joel’s cries in the middle of the night as you try to comfort him, the prayers of the Greens and their friends, and the moments of joy interrupted by piercing grief are only three means by which That Dragon, Cancer takes you by the hand and leads you through the Greens’ experiences. No book, movie, song, or painting can involve you like this “video game” does.

The abstract art style matches the dream-like quality of the environments and some of the gameplay. In the gameplay, the characters are all faceless. True, some have glasses, and Ryan Green has a beard, but that’s it. The style is minimal, and I think it was a perfect choice for what they made. You can see your own child, or your own loved one struggling with cancer, in Joel’s face. You can see your own face in the avatars of Joel’s parents as they wrestle with what they think about God, faith, hope, and love in their conversations, voicemails, and diary entries.

Ryan and Amy Green are Christians, and so they faced Joel’s battle with cancer with a worldview that accounts for the potential of God’s intervention in time and space. They took care of Joel as best they could, but also prayed for his healing. In the midst of all this struggle over Joel’s life, we are also let in on their personal struggles with faith, hope, and love. Thanks to the Kickstarter they ran, you can find messages and artwork from many Kickstarter backers in the game, as well. These are messages of hope and loss, grief and joy from many others who have loved ones who are either currently battling cancer or who have lost those loved ones. All these stories you encounter are raw. Including so many of them gives this game scope that it would have lacked without them. You get to see Joel’s battle with cancer as a part of the larger fight against cancer in the lives of many, many people. Too many. So your own story of cancer is also placed in its context among all these others.

When you experience cancer – either in yourself or in a loved one – how do you tell people about that? How do you tell the community you’ve arranged around yourself, “Hey, this is what’s going on right next to you. This is what’s happening to me”? How do you tell them, “My 1-year-old son Joel was diagnosed with cancer and died at age 5?” How do you tell them, “My father, a teetotaler, died at 31 years old of liver cancer when I was 3 weeks old?” You share the facts. The dates. You try to communicate what the impact is like. And how do you memorialize that person? We pay for a nice gravestone. We write a short obituary. We weep again, alone, so nobody has to see it yet another time.

I don’t know how to recommend this to you. It is excellent in achieving the goal the Greens set out to accomplish. But is it a game to fill hours with blasting newbs or hopping around goofy worlds with the Super Mario Bros.? No. It’s a game where that dragon, cancer, roars down your throat, full of menace. And for a brief moment, through the experience of the Greens, you roar back.

*That Dragon, Cancer is available on Steam, OUYA, and through their website thatdragoncancer.com.

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