Last night I played one of the most difficult games that I’ve ever played. It’s difficulty didn’t come from any tough boss battles or tricky platforming sequences, in fact the most difficult part of the entire game may have been convincing myself to turn it on in the first place. That Dragon, Cancer is the autobiographical story of the Ryan and Amy Green and their son Joel who was diagnosed with a rare form of childhood cancer at the age of one. Their story unfolds over the course of two hours through chapters that span his 4 year battle with the disease. Each segment alternating between moments that are abstract and fantastical to ones that are heartbreakingly real.
I had been looking forward to playing this game since I’d first heard about it last year, but now that it was here and downloaded onto my computer, the thought of sitting through such an experience was almost too much. Many times I’ve thought about what it must be like to go through something like this and how lucky I am to have two healthy girls and I wasn’t sure that I would be able to get through it. But I figured that if Ryan and Amy were strong enough to create this game to tell their story then I could certainly play through it. So I waited until the kids were asleep and my wife went up to bed before sitting down at my desk. This is the kind of game I needed to be alone for. I didn’t want anyone to see me turn into a blubbering mess.
That Dragon, Cancer opens in a very serene way. Joel is sitting along the waterfront, tossing bread crumbs to a hungry duck that you guide to each floating piece of food. As you play this opening scene you listen to a conversation between Ryan and one of his other children. They talk about why Joel is different and he explains why Joel maybe can’t do all of the things other children his age can. It’s remarkable that Ryan and Amy do all of their own voice acting throughout the game and it really pays off in the way that you can hear the emotion coming through their words. Even the sounds of little Joel laughing and giggling were taken from home movies of the family. It’s one of many personal touches that adds to the experience.
Most of the game is presented in a fairly passive and linear way in that most of the time you’re just clicking to move forward and interact with the few items in the environment that are designed for you to explore. That being said, they did a superb job of immersing me in this story and making me feel (in some small measure) how it would feel to be in those situations. From the joy of getting Joel to laugh as you push him on the swings at the park, to the helplessness of being unable to ease his pain as he cries relentlessly after his chemotherapy treatment. I became more emotionally invested in this game than probably any other I can remember. In a clever twist, they never give Joel a face in the game so it’s easy to envision one of my own children in those situations. It also didn’t hurt that I bear a striking resemblance to Ryan.
While the focus of most of the game is certainly on the unthinkable and worst thing a parent could ever possibly go through (the scene in which Amy counts the number of holidays they will have left together ruined me), it also features a few moments of levity such as Joel racing laps around the hospital in his wagon that serve to give you brief reprieve from the sometimes overwhelming emotion. This may be game that on it’s surface is all about grief and loss, but it’s also about hope and faith and love. It’s about cherishing the moments that you have together. It’s about grieving, but also not being afraid to continue living after unspeakable tragedy.
After I finished the game (in a single sitting) I went upstairs and looked in on my girls asleep in their beds, completely at peace and unaware of how incredibly lucky they were, and unaware of just how fragile and fleeting life can be. I thought about how lucky I was to have so much and how I should never again take that for granted. Cancer took away my father and I imagine it has touched the lives of most everyone in some way. I think it’s wonderful that video games have come so far that they can tackle such important and mature subjects. That Dragon, Cancer is the bravest and most deeply personal game that I’ve ever played. Ryan, Amy and their team have created something incredibly special. It brought out feelings that a video game never has before and their story will stay with me for a very long time.
That Dragon, Cancer is available now on Steam and Ouya.