We come across a lot of tragedy in entertainment media. Earthquakes, tsunamis, murder, kidnapping, and countless more events of dire destruction or injustice are translated to page or screen so that we can understand them as a part of the human experience, bringing us closer to events than our desensitisation to the nightly news allows us normally. It’s not very often that you come across a piece of media depicting tragedy of the kind with which you’re intimately familiar.
That Dragon, Cancer is a game that plays out the heart-wrenching story of creators Ryan and Amy Green losing their infant son Joel to cancer. It plays through the family’s emotional journey as Joel’s cancer treatment progresses, punctuating stylised real life events with dream sequences to describe the enormity of the shadow that cancer cast over their lives.
The game starts out just before Joel starts cancer treatment, following the milestones of the last few months of his story. Not that it’s all about devastation; in fact, much of the game focuses on all of the happiness that the family enjoyed in their short time together, as well as dealing with how the parents reconciled their faith with their terrible situation. It’s sad, but the game doesn’t linger on that, instead focusing on the meaning of hope in the face of futility.
It was a hard game for me to play. Cancer has touched my life, too, but in the opposite case than the game presents, having lost my dad to cancer as a child. It was pretty startling to see the differences and similarities between my personal experience and Amy and Ryan’s. The game is powerful, and surprisingly unflinching at times. A lot of sequences hit very close to home, like one scene where doctors give Joel’s prognosis and you switch between the thoughts of everyone in the room, and a section where you pluck messages from bottles floating in the sea and read short letters from different people with experiences involving cancer. Ryan and Amy seem to open their arms to all those that have watched a loved one fade to oblivion. As many of any of us, they know what that is. They know that many of us know too. And they’ve condensed all those experiences, every turn on that dark path, and in some sequences rendered them with bone-chilling clarity.
Not all sequences are as powerful; a couple throw speed bumps under the steady pacing and tone, and I think that the dream sequences could have been more consistent with the game’s much more powerful “real” scenes. But it’s clear that this inconsistency, and these shifts in tone, are the result of an honest attempt to capture the tumultuous emotional state of the family during the course of Joel’s illness. I can’t help but admire the candid honesty that Ryan and Amy deliver in their game.
The guided story holds your hand through heartbreak and hope as the game tells its tale. Sometimes you just watch a scene play out, and sometimes you’re given a small amount of control, like pushing Joel on the swings while audio snippets play in the background, or you lie beside him and gently stroke his head as you both drift asleep. The game flits between these moments that define the family’s story, pausing for a moment to linger on each one before moving to the next; you experience the story at your own pace, as befits a game with such a heavy subject matter.
That Dragon, Cancer is a game that put my head in my hands. It made me cry (in several sequences), and while I finished it in one two-hour-long sitting, at times it was difficult to keep playing because it hit so close to home. But I felt it important to keep on experiencing the game because it’s a piece of art that grabs your hand, leads you through its story, and makes you think. It reminded me of events that I haven’t wanted to think about for many years, but I feel better having done so. This is the power of games that strive to do more than entertain. You’ll think about life, love, hope, faith, family, and a great many other things, both through the lens of the Green family and for yourself.
That Dragon, Cancer is flawed, and it’s emotionally difficult to endure, its pacing suffers from needless and poorly executed stretches of play, and I’m not sure I can recommend it as a product with an asking price of £10.99. Yet I’m glad that it exists, and I’m glad I spent time with it. That speaks volumes to its worth as an experience.
Image credits- thatdragoncancer.com