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Dealing with Death in an Evocative Game about Cancer

Riding constellations in 'That Dragon, Cancer' (all GIFS by the author for Hyperallergic, via YouTube)
Riding constellations in ‘That Dragon, Cancer’ (all GIFS by the author for Hyperallergic, via YouTube)

“We grieve in silence,” game maker Ryan Green says at one point in That Dragon, Canceran interactive experience based on the illness and eventual death of his son, Joel. Released this week from Numinous Games after years of development, That Dragon, Cancer is his family’s grief transformed into a game, their private tragedy made public and achingly loud.

Green started the game in 2013, before Joel’s death on March 13, 2014. Its release follows much media hype, and a massively successful Kickstarter campaign that raised over $100,000. So what’s it like to spend two hours with the Green family’s loss? Harrowing, haunting, and complicated. There are beautiful, moving moments in That Dragon, Cancer, such as the first scenes where you’re in a serene woods, playing with Joel, and an unsettling voice message from Ryan’s wife Amy disrupts the peace with worry about Joel’s vomiting and the strange lean of his head. I also got tears in my eyes when I found myself in a hospital room littered with sympathy cards, not all of them for Joel, and after reading each one I exited to find the hospital hallways absolutely packed with them. The Green family’s sorrow may be the focus, but it’s just one of thousands of lives strained by cancer each year in these sterile spaces.

Scene from 'That Dragon, Cancer'
Scene from ‘That Dragon, Cancer’

Using a game to explore family loss, something which we usually feel we have to address internally, is an interesting way to deal with death. It’s more like a digital in memoriam than a traditional game, as it mostly involves pointing and clicking, with mini-games brief and unfulfilling. In one, you’re Joel as a knight battling an actual dragon, a battle which you lose, and in another, you’re Amy with Joel as they careen in a wagon together through the hospital as if on a Go Kart track, picking up cancer treatments as you go. The graphics of the game are generally abstract, the people faceless. Although realism in the visuals isn’t the focus, the emotions are, and even a last scene contemplating a young boy’s possible afterlife (filled with pancakes and his own pug) never gets sappy.

An aspect of the game that might make some players uncomfortable is its strong emphasis on Amy and Ryan’s Christian faith. Grace and patience are their path to hope, and in one of the most powerful scenes you’re Ryan in a hospital room, unable to comfort a crying, dehydrated Joel. After a few minutes of futile interaction with the space, you finally turn inward and pray, and there is blissful silence.

Scene from 'That Dragon, Cancer'
Scene from ‘That Dragon, Cancer’

One of the last stages is a cathedral, where you say goodbye to Joel. On a recent episode of the podcast Reply All, Green discussed the over year-long difficulty of designing this scene, where it sometimes included machines where you build a mosaic and attempt to monitor an oxygen machine, an amusement park, and a shooting gallery. He ultimately decided on a nave filled with neon tubes, like futuristic hospital equipment, and you vainly light candles that each trigger a prayer, and pound out wails on a piano. Eventually, though, the place grows dark, and Joel, illuminated on the altar, disappears. You get a real sense of the pain Green had as a developer, making his lost son fade into the darkness.

That Dragon, Cancer reminded me of Alexi Hobbs’s digital story The Last Hunt, about the death of his grandfather and their final experiences together. Both projects weave together animation and text into interactive memorials. That Dragon, Cancer is just about two hours long, and, in the end, you’re left with only the option to walk away. You’re still an outsider to the real pain that drove the years of creation behind the game. Experiencing death and loss is something we all share, it’s just not often we share it in such an open way as the Greens did with this game. In this experiment with digital art, there’s a compelling argument for the gaming medium as a form of memorial.

That Dragon, Cancer is available for PC and Mac. 

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