For the video review of That Dragon, Cancer, check out Phil’s YouTube channel:
On March 13th, 2014, game designers Ryan and Amy Green lost their son. Joel Green was only five years old.
As a way of coping with the loss and the grief, they developed That Dragon, Cancer: a short, artistic interactive experience detailing their lives and Joel’s final moments.
Due to their personal nature and smaller staffs, indie games in this day and age get the term “labor of love” thrown around them quite a lot, but there is no game that I can think of that better deserves that term.
I don’t know where to begin, truly. That Dragon, Cancer was a difficult game to play.
I’m not a father, and I can barely begin to grasp at the pain that parents who lose children must go through. I have, however, seen the devastation that it can wreak on families, and that pain is so sharp—so vividly bright that it is unforgettable. It’s not a topic that I enjoy thinking about. And it’s certainly nothing that I’d like to experience.
But when someone like the Greens are so unflinchingly honest and raw about their loss, you have no choice but to take note. They don’t pull any punches, and the love and hurt and fear is naked and one hundred percent real. It’s important to note that when this game’s development was started, Amy and Ryan Green’s son was still alive, and they hoped that the end result would be the story of a miracle. It’s a heart wrenching fact to go in with, and it raises the stakes and the tragedy of the situation.
However, there are no embellishments that make That Dragon, Cancer feel dramatic and showy—it’s an interactive trial of reaction to the most difficult things that can happen to a family, and while my playtime only lasted an hour and a half, it isn’t the sort of experience to go into lightly.
To some of us, taking the loss of a loved one and translating it to a computer game might not be the most obvious way to express grief. And perhaps that’s what makes That Dragon, Cancer so effective. We’ve all felt emotion through a book or a film or some other work of art, but I think the Green family’s story is conveyed perfectly through the interaction of play. Those interactions are limited to a mouse click here and there, it’s true, but to me it was enough. It told me: you’re involved now. You are a part of this. Add in actual voicemails and audiotracks from the Green family’s home movies, and you have an experience that is about as real and unyielding as it can get.
The game is simply designed, but beautiful in its own way. Joel and Amy and Ryan are faceless and rudimentary, which works as a design choice, whether it really was a choice or not. I’m not naïve, I know that programming faces and expressions is difficult and would take up a huge amount of time, so it was probably done more out of practicality than anything else. But I believe that even if they had a team of 300 programmers working eighteen hour shifts for this game, that leaving the faces blank is a smart design choice. It makes it easier to put yourself in this horrible position—it makes it that much simpler to empathize.
The settings holds a similarly plain style, but don’t lack for character. Warm family moments are punctured through with the frightening sterility of hospital life. Lush canopies of treetops and quacking ducks give way to harsh, fluorescent lighting, drugs, and IV stands. As simple as the majority of the gameplay mechanics are, The Dragon, Cancer is littered with a surprising number of moments that shake up the pace. A bedtime story told to Joel and his brother Elijah is illustrated through a side scrolling action game, while a go kart race segment that elicited real laughter from me ends with the stark reality of where we are and where we’re inevitably going.
Throughout the game, we tackle the subjects of fear, loss, and the different ways that we deal with either of them. Ryan and Amy Green are both devoutly Christian, and the testing of their faith is often a central point of discussion. One of the game’s scenes involve a moment when Joel will not stop crying until his desperate father prays for God to bring his son peace. It was the actual night that this scene was based on that caused Ryan to consider the idea of translating this as a game with the help of their friend, programmer Josh Larson.
“There’s a process you develop as a parent to keep your child from crying, and that night I couldn’t calm Joel.” Ryan said in an interview with Wired. “It made me think, ‘this is like a game where the mechanics are subverted and don’t work’.”
There were a few moments in the game that it wasn’t entirely clear what to do next—how to continue on with the story. And I wish that those moments were a little better put together, as I found that they would pull me out of the narrative. On the other hand, at this point I was blubbering through the game enough that I was actually glad to for those moments, if only as a way to pull myself together.
That Dragon, Cancer is one of those rare games that genuinely moved me. The courage that the Green family has shown in allowing the world a real, naked glimpse into their lives has made for a beautiful experience that I would recommend to anyone. Fear, like cancer, is a beast that threatens to engulf our lives. But no matter how deep down that dark road we go, hope springs eternal.
Seeing that the game was released on January 12th of this year to coincide with what would have been Joel’s 7th birthday, I’ll end on this note: Happy Birthday, Joel. I’m glad I got to know you a little bit. Your mother and father love you very much.