When you first hear of the near virtual blood bath between the Luddies and the Narros, you may be reminded of Dean Swift’s satirically fictional sects who went at each other over which end of the egg to crack. You may also feel the desire to crack a few heads together, but it turns out not only is it old hat now, there wasn’t going to be much of a “real” fight after all. But it is useful for any student of Games to be aware of some of this history, the better to consider the merits or otherwise of a given game, and to analyse your own approach to game design, assuming you have a world or life changing game in mind.
Ryan Green had a life changing experience which he felt motivated to share with the world through a game. Clearly from the ludology/narratology debate point of view, Green is using a game to narrate and share the real life experience of his young son, Joel, dying of cancer. Is there any “game” here? There are some ludic elements to the design, for example, exploring, selecting options, pathways etc. but the game is more autobiography than novel.
I myself watched a 39 year old younger brother die over a two week period, so have awareness of the mechanics of the process if not the same emotional charge, which of course is nowhere near the same as watching your young child die. I also volunteered in famine struck Niger and had first-hand experience of emaciated close to death infants and children. The difference is that we had the means to bring most of these children back to health by merely supplying food. So while these experiences are different, they give me something from the real world to bring to the virtualised experience that Ryan Green is sharing in That Dragon Cancer. Do we connect better to the narrative if we have some relevant experiences? Did this give me the courage to look into this game?
Green could have written a book, made a movie, wrote a play, or even wrote a symphony if he had that artistic skill and bent. When they get the devastatingly hopeless news, in the game Green says “In a movie I’d be throwing furniture, Amy would be crying and sliding down the wall”. He clearly has a director’s perspective.
He chose, however, to deliver his content via a game. One day will we be able to create our content and a bot will reshape it into a film, game, novel or whatever the future holds?
What value is added by presenting these experiences through a game? More so than a film or novel,, we have to participate in some way, progressing down the paths, choosing to click here and there, to open up who knows what?
The form is sparse, the child’s face is a blank (could be any child). Perhaps the minimalist form reflects the rawness of the emotional content, close to the bone, life and death. Green invites us on a rollercoaster of emotions (Stuart, 2015). Are the emotions deeper than your typical videogame, because we know the context and impetus that drove the game’s creation?
We often speak of the Game of Life, and while there is often much death in modern video games, in regular conversation we do not use the term the Game of Death. Usually in a game, we put ourselves in the fictional shoes of the hero/heroine/anti-hero/heroine, in this case the shoes are real and could in reality come anyone’s way…as Green says “Joel isn’t the only one to ever fight that Dragon.” During the game, we see Joel coming down a slide, then we get to come down the slide.
“I need to move on, or I won’t be able to move”, says one reviewer, Jacksepticeye (2016), echoing no doubt what every parent of a dying child must feel. The same reviewer eventually breaks down when thinking of his own grandmother’s death. This game doesn’t sound much like fun, which for many is a minimum criterion of game. There is laughter, the child’s as he has fun while playing based on some of our interactions. The game is filled with the family’s true story of harrowing emotion, which if we are prepared to play, can help us deal with our own very real experiences of the past, and maybe of the future, what Bow (2016) refers to as “knowledge to cope with the knowledge of death”.