‘That Dragon, Cancer’ is revelatory anguish

This isn’t what I was supposed to write.

I backed “That Dragon, Cancer” on Kickstarter. If you play the game, and you should, you’ll see my name as one of many in the credits. The game, a true-life telling of a husband, wife and a five-year-old son with brain cancer, came out this week.

The child, Joel Green, died in the middle of the game’s development. Joel dies in “That Dragon, Cancer.” You don’t play this game to find out what happens – you go in knowing the game is a way for father and mother, Ryan and Amy Green, to grieve for Joel, and to make people understand what they have gone through. You experience this game to hear what it is this family has to say.

I really thought I knew what this game had to say before I played it.

A decade in the print news industry has made me into a fatalist. I feel, in most cases, that things won’t get better. That doesn’t mean I don’t try! I feel like it’s important to try. But I don’t have any personal faith in good outcomes.

For several months, my favorite games have been roguelites, with randomly-generated levels and a common outcome: in the end, you always lose. The point is to see how far you go. The player can change the experience, but the destination is always the same. I’ve been playing a lot of “XCOM,” a game where success is possible – but mistakes and bad luck can arbitrarily take that success from you. “XCOM” is a game of risk management. You can narrow your window of exposure to mistakes and bad luck, but some of it will always get through to reach you. It even has an “iron man” mode, where the player cannot reload to correct past mistakes or try something new. You live with it and go on.

I really, really thought I knew what “That Dragon, Cancer” had in store for me. Joel dies. There are different ways and degrees to explore the ride, but that is the destination the game plans for you. I figured the game would make me feel sad, and that it would affirm my outlook: nothing’s going to get better, so it’s best to stare straight in Medusa’s face and accept what you have before it’s gone.

News articles have described Ryan and Amy Green shopping a demo of their creation at gaming expos. I’ve read how they had to put a box of tissues by their booth, as people would stagger away from the demo blinded with tears. I could not get through this Wired profile on the game and its creators without crying.

In a creative industry where “realism” means photorealism, hair that behaves like hair and not a plastic sheet, and guns that click-clack and bang just like the real thing, game players recoiled from the presentation of something actual and real and raw. I’ve seen a growing refrain on Twitter and in some game columns that people refuse to play it outright. They appreciate that the game exists. They’re glad “That Dragon, Cancer” is out there, and maybe they’ll buy it to support the makers, but they don’t dare experience it. The emotions are too raw.

“This game is going to tear open a portal to the grief dimension like some kind of sadness Event Horizon,” I said to my friends before loading and playing the game.

Sadness isn’t the point of experiencing “That Dragon, Cancer.” It is sad. Let that not ever be in dispute. The creators suggest a play time of about two hours, but it took me twice that to make it through to the end. I spent most of that time ugly-sobbing in front of my computer. I cried because the game asks for empathy and makes an argument, and that question and statement hit me like a pair of trucks.

Ryan and Amy Green took part in this game to share what they experienced. Through them, you relive the moment of terminal diagnosis. You hear a conversation where Ryan tries to explain to his other son Eli why Joel, nearing age 5, cannot talk like a healthy child should. You see Joel in the hospital, in a crib, you see him connected to a chemotherapy drip-feed. You see his mother and father love their son and contend with the disease killing him.

You see the characters with indistinct faces. They’re almost archetypes, suggestions of shapes of people you could know. Someone who has fought a childhood illness, or lost someone to cancer, could fill in the blanks with their own faces instead.

You see the game lean into dreamlike, fantastical imagery. It uses visual shorthand to evoke life with a terminal illness. “That Dragon, Cancer” renders cancer as black, spiky shapes. At first, you could mistake them for trees in the park you see in the game’s opening scene. But they grow and pulsate. They become too obvious to miss, hiding in the corners, reaching out.

The game asks for empathy. It wasn’t the sad or harrowing parts that pierced me, but the light interludes. When you hear Joel laugh in the game, it was because his father recorded his son’s laughter to use as an in-game asset. In my work as a reporter, I’ve spoken to people who’ve lost their children to tragedy. Every single person I’ve interviewed has been so eager to share with me the details of their child. They are so eager to paint a picture for a reporter. They realize, mid-interview, that this person they love is gone, and all they have left are memories. They want to hang on to those memories and share them.

Ryan and Amy Green want to hold onto Joel. Here is a father and mother who love their son and want his life and death to mean something. I have seen that impulse before. When I saw it in this game, I couldn’t catch my breath. This Wired article, which you really should read, says Ryan played the game over and over in development, reliving his son’s life and death over and over.

“That Dragon, Cancer” asks for empathy, because even if you haven’t lost someone you love, you will. If you are healthy, you won’t be forever. There is nothing between your situation and Joel Green’s but time. Nowhere is this more plain than the cards and paintings that fill several of the game’s scenes: each one a real story from a Kickstarter backer who paid for the privilege. You can read stories from actual survivors, memorials for loved ones who have died to cancer. You can see paintings in tribute and photos in loving memory. I couldn’t bear to look at them all. It was too much.

I thought that was all the game would have to say. I came to it prepared for an “empathy game.” I was prepared for sadness. I wasn’t ready for the argument it made.

I’ve cultivated a fatalistic streak to get myself to the end of the week. But here’s the thing: I saw no fatalism in “That Dragon, Cancer.” There was nothing here to validate my world view. Through the course of the game’s narrative, Amy prays for and expects miracles. Ryan feels anger, plunges into despair. He probes at a relationship with God that feels like an expression of deism. Why, in all the universe, would God value one child over another? Why would he turn his hand away from Joel Green?

At no point do either of them express resignation. Do not misunderstand me: the family we see here is not in denial. The fatalist thing to do would be to say “Well, that’s that. We’re going to help him die as gently as we can. With all the pain he’s gone through, death would be a mercy, anyway.”

They fight and plead, even to the very bitter end, because they love Joel. “That Dragon, Cancer” pierced me because it makes an argument about the existence of grace – an essential goodness that is separate from doing good works. The game argues that it exists in Joel, that this child who can barely speak, has worth. What good is a child who can barely speak, who will die in five years? For that matter, what good is a person at the end of their life, who has lost the ability to move, or write their name, or even eat and pass waste without the help of others? What good can they possibly do? Why should they even be here?

The answer, as this game argues, is because of the possibility of a state of grace. A person without the ability to change the world around them can still be good. In that Wired interview — seriously, go read it — Ryan Green said he wanted to make “That Dragon, Cancer” because he wanted Joel’s life to mean something.

This game’s argument went against the beliefs I have adopted for years in order to survive. It asked for empathy so clearly, and made such a case for a state of essential goodness and worth, that it took away every defense I could muster against it. It was revelatory anguish. Doors flew open in me that I had closed and barred in order to survive some of the worst times of my life. This game took about two hours to play, but it felt like gale force winds ripping me apart.

The final scene makes a case for a state of grace so clearly and so painfully that I can’t bear to cheapen it with words. It depicts Joel Green in a state of grace, and it shows what Ryan and Amy wonder and hope that grace might be like. It hurt me so much to see it that a day later, I still feel aftershocks. I have to catch my breath and squeeze out tears.

When “That Dragon, Cancer” came out, the developers asked Kickstarter backers to take part in launch parties. They asked us to go have pancakes for dinner, because Joel loved to eat pancakes. They asked us to think and talk about the people we’ve loved who are gone from us. I took the photo below at an IHOP, by myself, a day before I could make time to play the game. I thought about my Pappaw Reed and Aunt Paula. It still hurts that they are gone.

If you have ever lost someone you love to cancer, or have seen a child fight with serious illness, you will recognize something real and potent in “That Dragon, Cancer.” If you have ever struggled with faith, you will recognize that struggle in the different textures of belief in the Green family. And if you’ve bricked yourself off with fatalism and pessimism in an act of self-preservation, “That Dragon, Cancer” will hit you like a freight train.

Learn more about “That Dragon, Cancer” here. Thank you, Joel Green.


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