The DeanBeat: That Dragon, Cancer shows the emotional power of video games

That Dragon, Cancer is an intimate look of one family's struggle with a dying boy.

The new year will bring us many games, but it would be a shame if you miss out on one of the earliest releases of 2016: That Dragon, Cancer.

I know what you’re thinking. I had the same reaction. It’s such a downer. Why on earth would I want to play such a sad video game? The answer is that it does an admirable job capturing an all-too-real part of the human experience — losing a child to cancer — and it does so beautifully in a point-and-click adventure style video game. Video games are so often about escaping reality, but this one is about remembering it, in all of its highs and lows.

That Dragon, Cancer tells the real-life story of Ryan and Emily Green, two game developers who lost their son Joel to cancer when he was just 5 years old. There is perhaps no greater prolonged agony that the fates can deliver for parents, as young Joel was diagnosed with brain cancer when he was 1. Yet they managed to fight off the cancer and appreciate the time they had with Joel for several unexpected years.

They captured a memoir of Joel in an emotionally draining game — one that they started when Joel was still alive and had to alter after he died on March 13, 2014. The story is about how the Greens struggled with a fight that has only one outcome: death. They put in years of work, raised money via Kickstarter, and arranged a publishing deal through Ouya. With the help of programmer Josh Larson, their studio, Numinous Games, published the game on Steam on January 12, which would have been Joel’s seventh birthday.

I’m late to the party when it comes to writing about the game, as I sort of wanted to escape the obligation. I believe that we fear getting too close to things we will lose. But I’m glad I played it because it helped me sort out how I felt. I have so little to say about it that is intelligent, except that you should share in this experience.

I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to lose a child to cancer. I have known grief. But this kind of loss is not something to be measured. We cannot dismiss it because we all have our own sorrows to worry about. It’s not a competition. There is plenty of loss and grief to go around in this word. The Greens have had theirs. In my opinion, they are not oversharing. They are simply conveying to us about how it is possible for the family to have such an experience and survive it.

When something like the loss of an innocent child happens, we all share in the suffering. That is what this video game conveys. I find it amazing that the Greens were able to step back from their own story and tell something that spoke in a more universal way. You could see their attempt to do that in Joel’s animated face: He doesn’t have one. He represents the little one that anybody could be the parent of. It’s like that old saying: Do not ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

Ryan Green comforts his son Joel in That Dragon, Cancer.

Above: Ryan Green comforts his son Joel in That Dragon, Cancer.

Image Credit: Numinous Games

As I played That Dragon, Cancer, my youngest daughter was dancing in the living room. As I looked up from the keyboard and the screen that showed poor little Joel, she was doing pirouettes. The emotional transference was palpable, and it showed up in my watery eyes. I am thankful that my daughter didn’t come over and ask me what I was playing because it was just too sad to share with a kid. There are some tales that are just too hard to tell.

Yet I felt the need to bear witness to what the Greens were saying. Cancer is inescapable from our lives. We are driven by the fear of it. Either for ourselves or our loved ones. I’ve seen friends talk about its consequences on Facebook. But those stories aren’t always as vivid as they could be at hammering home the sadness of the experience. That Dragon, Cancer does that.

The game is just a couple of hours long, and it is told in a series of interactive vignettes. It has touching and haunting music. At the beginning, you get to know Joel as a kid with a joyful laugh. You see him toss bread to some ducks, and you step into the perspectives of both Joel and the ducks. The parents are trying to explain to one of their older sons why Joel still doesn’t read even though he is 5 years old. He got sick, and it slowed him down, his mother says.

You go to an empty playground in a peaceful wooded area where you can’t see a child but you can hear him. You can move along a path where you see a black tree that represents cancer. You hear voices say, as if angels were speaking about the parents, “Do you think they know the end is near?” You look around at the ocean, and you see black thorny objects. Above Joel, something passes overhead. It’s just an instant. But it’s the black shadow of a dragon, reminding you that no matter what is happening in the immediate moment, there is always something hanging over your head.

There are 14 chapters in the game, and all of them present very different pieces of the experience. It is not relentlessly depressing. There’s one part where Joel goes racing in a wagon around the hospital. In another part, the parents try to describe the struggle to their other sons, saying that Joel is like a knight, akin to a hero in a side-scrolling 2D arcade game, battling a dragon. There’s the hopeful message on a cell phone where the wife expresses hope about a new medicine.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the game is a scene where Joel is suffering from the cancer and doesn’t understand why. He is crying at the top of his lungs and is unconsolable. As Ryan, his father, you have no help to offer. You pace back and forth in the antiseptic hospital room and try to help the unseen Joel. He won’t drink water. When he finally does, he vomits. Nothing works. It seemed to me like that scene went on forever, yet it was only a small representation of what the real experience must have been like. Peace finally comes as Joel falls asleep.

There’s another difficult scene when the doctor and nurse tell the Greens that the treatments haven’t worked and a tumor has returned. That signals the end of hope. At first, you see it from the perspective of the Greens. You repeat the conversation over again, but this time from inside the head of the nurse, or the doctor. They need to convey the terrible message that there is no hope by saying the chemotherapy has not worked and that “this is a tragedy.” And the parents cling to anything that is hopeful in the message, even if that turns out to be pure uncertainty. “There just aren’t any treatment options that are curative,” the doctor says. The nurse says, “We’re very good at end-of-life care.”

The haunting imagery of That Dragon, Cancer.

Above: The haunting imagery of That Dragon, Cancer.

Image Credit: Numinous Games

It is not a perfect game. I did not cry in all of the chapters, and I felt some missed the mark. The interactivity wasn’t so good in one scene where Joel is floating through space, hanging on to some balloons. Black thorny cancer cells appear and pop the balloons one by one. There’s no way to avoid the balloons. The interactivity could have been better, but the scene made its point about the inescapable fact that you can’t hang on forever.

The Greens clearly searched for metaphors that could convey what the experience was like. And I can’t shake the notion that some parts of the game are so hopeful because, when they were created, Joel was still alive.

But there’s a dark scene where Ryan feels like he is drowning. No matter how hard he tries to swim up to the surface, he can’t make it. Later on, the family is in a lifeboat, but Ryan is floating apart from it and refuses to join in. A lighthouse appears, and it offers only light. The dream sequences change the landscape of the otherwise relentlessly lonely and staid imagery of hospital environs.

The parents show and fully experience their pain, and they nearly turn on each other. Ryan insists at some point that “you have to let me feel this” while Amy wants him to rise above despair. Each has to deal with losing a child in their own way. They search for grace, and Amy finds it in religious faith. It offers the imagery of brightness, light, and hope. But no matter how much they pray, it makes no difference. Their miracle does not arrive, and they must accept it with grace.

To an outsider looking in, it clearly looks at this point like the Greens have become overly religious in the face of certain death. They are searching for some kind of good. They may be deluding themselves about miracles as doomed parents do. And they are not in lock step with each other.

The dreamscape of That Dragon, Cancer.

Above: The dreamscape of That Dragon, Cancer.

Image Credit: Numinous Games

This part of the experience was religious, but not in an absolutist sort of way. It was full of doubt and misery, not salvation. My own reaction to this religious segment wasn’t a negative one. It was, after all, the story of the Greens and what they felt. It is not the only way to deal with cancer, and it was not the only way this story could have turned out. But it was an authentic part of their own story. It goes on, and you want some of this torture to end. And yet, you also don’t want it to end because you know what happens in the end.

Mercifully, you don’t see Joel as he passes away. You see him as the Greens want to remember him, a funny kid with an infectious laugh and a love for pancakes.

Like I said, it is not a perfect game. You spend a lot of time watching things unfold, or clicking in areas where there is no interaction. But I am not here to view it as a critic. There is no goal to achieve in winning this game as it is a no-win situation. In this case, I simply want to bear witness and pass it along. If you are up to it, That Dragon, Cancer is worth experiencing. An upcoming documentary, Thank You For Playing, will capture their experience in film.

I am truly sorry for their loss, and I thank the Greens for sharing their private experience in such a public way. And I thank them for the reminder that, sometimes, video games can be so much more than video games.