That Dragon, Cancer and the Weight of Grief

(This piece contains spoilers for That Dragon, Cancer)

That Dragon, Cancer is a game made by Numinous Games, released in January of 2016 after a lengthy and successful Kickstarter campaign. It was a game made in memoriam to Joel Green, the youngest son of lead developers Ryan and Amy Green, who died of cancer in March of 2014.

I played this game shortly after release, in mid-January. It’s now approaching April, and I still don’t know if I can properly put into words how I feel about the experience of playing it.

Video games are in a cultural moment where we are beginning to accept and celebrate personal experiences. Games that poke harder and harder at very intimate details of person’s lives are entering the critical and popular limelight in a way that we haven’t seen in a very long time. That Dragon, Cancer is one of them. It’s also one of the hardest experiences I’ve ever had while playing a game.

The moment-to-moment gameplay of TD,C switches between narrated, first-person exploration segments and more straightforward segments often built to represent simple game genres — platformers, kart racers, etc. Ryan Green, Joel’s father and the predominant player character, is and was a game developer during the time period depicted in the game.

In an interview with Wired, Ryan shared one of the first moments that prompted the idea for the game: watching his son, in the hospital, crying, and crying, and keeping crying, and not stopping until the moment that Ryan prayed to God, asking him to calm his son. In that moment, the boy quieted. Slept, for the first time that night. Ryan could rest.

That Dragon, Cancer is inextricably a Christian game. It is a game that grapples with the intricacies of faith under duress, in a heartachingly physical fashion. Ryan argues with himself and his wife and his Lord over and over and over, trying to see the justice, or the mercy, in what is happening to his son.

I’m not a religious person. I didn’t consider myself someone particularly spiritual until the last few years. I didn’t grow up going to church, or synagogue, or mosque, or having any relation with a god on an intimate level. But watching Ryan and Amy find perseverance and resilience through their faith is remarkably human. I didn’t feel like I was alienated from this story, or that it excluded me for not believing in the same way that Ryan and Amy do.

Toward the final third of the game, there is a scene in a church, with Joel perched on the stage, lit only by candles and the bright screen of an ipad. He’s idly playing a game, or watching a movie, and the churchgoers are represented by these candle-flames, sitting in the pews. It’s a remarkably powerful image- the boy being supported by an entire community in the name of faith.

There is a profound weight to grief. It holds you down. Makes you feel like everything is your fault, somehow, or that you aren’t doing enough, somehow.

It doesn’t ever work logically, or in a way you can track exactly. For me, it feels like a constant, low-key panic attack. Like my own body is telling me I am constantly forgetting something, and it’s hard. It is a constant struggle to be dealing with grief on an intimate level.

What Ryan and Amy went through is not something I can empathize with. I’ve never been through something like what they did. But the fact that they did, and the fact that they put so much work into creating a memorial for their son that was so raw, and painful, and intimate, is something so incredibly powerful that I can’t really put it into words. The love, and pain, and loss that is communicated through this game rivals most difficult art that I’ve seen previously.

I acknowledge I’m somewhat of a games romanticist. It’s definitely a part of how I approach games, and games criticism. I do think that games are doing something special, or something unique. I can’t say how, or in what specific way, but I feel that they are, in the same way I feel that poetry does something powerful and unique, or film, or theatre.

It’s games like That Dragon, Cancer that reinforce this belief. There is something very powerful in embodying this story in the way that Numinous Games allows you to. By the end of the game, I loved Joel too.

He’s a lovable kid.

And I knew, all the way at the beginning, how this story ends. We all do, going into it, that it doesn’t end with the cure for cancer. This weighs on you. There is grief, and love, and acceptance that is woven into That Dragon, Cancer that makes my heart hurt in a deep, powerful way.

I don’t cry much, but I’ve been getting better at it. I sobbed through the entire last chapter and the credits of this game. That’s not meant to be some weird brag, or acknowledgement of personal growth, it’s just a simple fact.

There is an emotional journey in watching a family go through trauma in the intimate quarters of this low-poly world, gorgeously scored by swooping soundtrack and confessional conversation.

By the end of the game — after traveling from park, to hospital, to dreams, to MRI scanners, to churches, to drowning, to the heavens themselves — the last moment is with Joel. On a picnic blanket, playing with a dog, surrounded by all the pancakes he could eat. And it was there that I completely broke down.

There is a line toward the end by Ryan, saying that he finally understood the feeling of being both empty and full. Drained, tired, but also so at peace. So understanding of the journey, and that loss, and what he gained.

That last shot, of Joel at peace, and Ryan crying, and laughing, and me crying in front of my computer screen, at this boy who finally found some peace, is not something I’m going to forget. It sticks with you.

I didn’t know Joel, but I know the love that people had for him. I know the work, the sweat and vulnerability, that his family and friends put into honoring his life. I know that his favorite food was pancakes, and that he always wanted a dog, and that he loved God, and that he loved bubbles. I know that he was loved, and that he deserved all the love he got.

Throughout the game, cancer appears as a black, spiky, unlit thing. It is ugly, and out of place, and unnaturally pulsating. There is no cancer in the final chapter. There’s just Joel, and saying goodbye. And finally, the grief has room to move, and it is less heavy for a moment.

That Dragon, Cancer is available for purchase on Steam (PC/Mac), Cortex, and OUYA. The soundtrack is available separately from musician Jon Hillman’s website. Support the developers!