How Context Informs Art

Context is key in art. This is true from games, to music, literature, and beyond.

A professor of mine once told a story about Johnny Cash that illustrates this point well. During a lecture, he played Cash’s rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Pause and listen for yourself.

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Certainly a very powerful song, but not extremely emotionally provocative. Then, after the song finished, he told a story about how it was made.

It was a duet. The other half was sung by Fiona Apple, but the song was meant for Cash’s wife June Carter. At the time, Cash and his wife were both in the last year of their lives. They had been together for over 30 years. At the time of the recording, Cash’s eyesight had been failing badly. He was wheelchair bound when he was brought into the studio to sing.

Less than six months after the song was released, June Carter died. After her passing, Cash said:

The spirit of June Carter overshadows me tonight with the love she had for me and the love I have for her. We connect somewhere between here and heaven. She came down for a short visit, I guess, from heaven to visit with me tonight to give me courage and inspiration like she always has.

Johnny Cash passed mere months after June’s death, heartbroken at the loss of his greatest love.

The professor played “Bridge Over Troubled Water” again, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Context. Context is everything. The song’s power was amplified by that context.

This story recently came to me as I played through “That Dragon Cancer.” Like Cash’s song, the game is quite powerful on its own. It’s a stirring story about a little boy’s battle with cancer, and his family’s attempt to cope with the impending loss of their child. It’s a story of life, and happiness, and sadness, and faith.

And it’s also a true story. The game plays like a series of vignettes, mirroring the real-life story of the developer’s son’s battle with cancer. We follow them as they play in a park, stay in a hospital, and ultimately, come to the end. Knowing their personal story as you play through each vignette is what makes “That Dragon Cancer” such an evocative experience.

It’s that small glimpse of the context behind art that’s so interesting to me; of who the people are who created it, and the struggles they face, and what they value. It’s, after knowing their story, what informs how we experience their creation.

Perhaps most importantly, though, context is what helps us internalize art. For whether it’s “That Dragon Cancer,” or “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” we all share the experience of the human condition.