That Dragon, Cancer
That Dragon, Cancer is not a game.
OK, it is, but it's not what you typically think of when you hear the words video game. There aren't any level bosses. It doesn't test your button-mashing skills. It's not even what anyone would really call "fun." It's more of an experience than a game.
An unforgettable one.
The Joy and Grief of Joel
It was created originally as a means of therapy. Ryan Green and his wife, Amy, started piecing the "game" together as a way to work through their son Joel's four-year battle with a terrible disease. Joel was diagnosed with a form of extremely rare childhood cancer when he was only 12 months old. The doctors thought he might have about four months to live, but he proved to be more resilient. And so Ryan, Amy and Joel's two brothers all worked diligently to see him through.
The result is a symbolic onscreen journey, a series of interactive vignettes that track a path through the Green family's very real physical struggles and emotional feelings. It has us play through their cheery family trips to the park and quiet bedtime conversations. We watch them cry and hug, grieve and hope.
The game suddenly changed partway through its development when Joel succumbed to the terrible dragon he had been battling. The project that began as a way to deal with a painful struggle turned into a means of working through the agony of the aftermath. It became a eulogy and remembrance of a life lived too briefly.
Playing to Understand
You "play" this story as something of an exploration game. You control a duck in one scene as it gobbles up bread that Joel laughingly tosses into a pond. Then you're Joel himself as he enjoys a slippery trip down a park slide. Each of the 14 Green family chapters are dreamlike experiences, complete with watercolor-painted environments that can be explored, and minigames that can be played as we listen to recorded interactions that really took place.
Those interactions are alternatingly heartwarming and disquieting. There are moments when you must bear with Joel's anguished cries, for instance, unable to help or comfort. And a pensive meeting between Ryan, Amy and a doctor gives ways to the room slowly, symbolically, filling with water as the doctor's news turns bad. Other times the imagery transforms a moment from dreary to delightful, such as when a dad-and-son hospital wagon ride magically becomes a Mario Kart-like race.
Truthfully, it's those moments in the gameplay when something darkly inevitable and awful is punctuated by a flickering beam of hope, a tiny act of love or a faithful prayer that lift this game above the sad tale it might seem to be. That's when you start to realize all that it has to offer us.
And a big part of that can be attributed to the fact that Ryan and Amy are both Christians. Their game doesn't shy away from addressing their prayers for a miracle, their pain and disappointment when it doesn't come, their questions for meaning and their ultimate decision to cling to God when all other coping tools fail.
More Than Just a Game
There are a lot of games out there to be played. And they all offer something—some kind of puzzle-solving joy, trigger-pulling buzz or time-consuming roleplay. But you likely won't find many that offer the kind of reward this one can give. That Dragon, Cancer offers insight, both psychological and spiritual, into one particular family's loss and love. It tells of a little boy who was here and who mattered. It delivers an emotional experience you won't be prepared for and will not soon forget.