Well, here I am. The experience of Numinous Games’ debut title remains fresh in my mind, but it has left me without words. I completed the autobiographical game made by Ryan and Amy Green in about two hours, but less than five minutes into their indie game I began crying. The Greens made That Dragon, Cancer to memorialize their son, Joel, who passed away in March of 2014. It places the player in the role of an observer, both externally and internally, of the big and small moments in the life of Joel and his parents. That Dragon, Cancer will eviscerate the heart of anyone who has even a shred of empathy in their body.
Shirking the weight of heavy-handed allegory, the Greens relate their experiences through a series of vignettes that capture specific moments throughout the final months of their son’s valiant struggle. In those moments we are given incredibly frank glimpses into the minds of Amy and Ryan as they struggle with their son’s impending fate. We see their faith in a God-given miracle that’s also contrasted with their human doubt. We see the couple arguing as the pressure of Joel’s situation causes each of them to cope differently, but also come together to find strength in one another. These are people with all the virtues and flaws inherent to the human race trying to get by while facing down tragedy that no one would wish upon another person.
There are moments in That Dragon, Cancer where I literally became blinded by tears. How else can one respond to such an intimate and powerful work of truth? Playing with Joel in the park while listening to him laugh, knowing where this game is eventually headed - it breaks your heart. That was when I began to weep. I was going to say that was the first time I cried, but I pretty much continued to leak tears for the rest of my time with the Green family. Whenever I thought I had expended my supply of salt water, there was another scenario to bring back the rain.
That Dragon, Cancer takes players on a journey through the valley of the shadow of death and shows that moments of joy, hope, and miracles can still be found even in the face of overwhelming anguish. The simple pleasure of hearing Joel laugh when you know the nature of the dragon he’s facing takes on a new light. We hear Amy’s desolate realization that Joel will never have an Off Treatment Day celebration, but we also see Ryan arrive at a crushing level of despair as he finds himself unable to get his son to stop crying only to experience a minor, comforting miracle.
We live through short, powerful snippets of Joel’s story: Late nights at the hospital; feeding ducks at the park; the final, hopeless prognosis. However, we are never given more than we can absolutely bear. The structure includes enough time between these gut punches to allow players to recover just enough to be able to continue through the razor-sharp moments of heartbreak. However, even the breathing period between these moments resounds with the knowledge that though the Green family is telling their story, Joel’s path has been walked before and will be walked again. Art work from cancer patients, survivors, and those who have fallen adorn the walls of the in-game hospital and we are able to look at each piece and the names attached to them.
There are so many names.
And that’s not all. The most moving of these quiet moments for me was walking around the hospital after it had been decorated with cards and realizing that I could read them. This was quickly followed by the realization that they were from the backers of That Dragon, Cancer. Those are real cards from real people whose loved ones have beaten cancer, are undergoing treatment, or have been brought low by that dragon. I felt an obligation to those people, to honor those messages. I read every single one of them and they ripped me apart in the process. But, as always, not more than I could bear.
While the term “faith-based game” usually presents a red flag to the majority of the gaming community, That Dragon, Cancer might be the first game to earn that label while also being an incredibly compelling, worthwhile experience. Largely this is due to the most human attribute that many faith-oriented games gloss over: Doubt. Throughout That Dragon, Cancer, Amy Green voices her faith that her son will be healed. Again and again while Joel’s condition worsens she professes her sincere belief that her son will be healed. Meanwhile, Ryan Green despairs at the reality of Joel’s situation. This contrast makes Amy Green seem almost delusional. However, as players near the end of their time with the Green family, Amy gives insight into her faith that gets to the human heart of what she is going through. In a distraught voice she reveals that she has long acknowledged Joel’s condition, but why must everyone continue to chant about his death? “Death is a given,” she says, “but this miracle we are hoping for is worth pursuing.” The possibility of his life is worth believing in, and you know what? Amy is right. As long as hope exists, as long as the barest sliver of a chance remains, who are we to try to drag her down into grief before its time?
These are obviously some very heavy questions, the kind that make you introspective and quiet. The subject matter is uncomfortable and difficult. So it comes down to the gorgeous visual presentation of That Dragon, Cancer to help the bitter pill of the experience become more digestible. Every scene appears as a lush geometric painting that allows for a certain surreal disconnect that oddly brings the ideas at play into clearer focus. Sitting through the final prognosis and seeing the room slowly fill with stormy waters perfectly illustrates the despair of the situation. The faceless character model of Joel becomes both Joel and the countless other children who have gone through similar experiences. That Dragon, Cancer works as both a story about a specific family and a story about all families afflicted with cancer.
It helps that the mechanics of That Dragon, Cancer remain fairly simple, practically point-and-click for long stretches. However, that control scheme works by allowing players to take their time and tackle whatever comes next at their own pace. That isn’t to say That Dragon, Cancer sticks with slow contemplation. The point-and-click segments are broken up by moments that range from cart racing to a side-scrolling arcade game. While these might normally be a bit jarring, they ultimately connect back to the core narrative and work in the wider context of what That Dragon, Cancer tries to communicate to the player.
That Dragon, Cancer is not fun, nor is it supposed to be. Some people might find fault with that, but there are moments of triumph and joy mixed in with this breathlessly human work. A powerful love woven through the fabric of That Dragon, Cancer propels the Green family’s achievement. It comes through in the visuals, the narrations, the gentleness and sincerity that permeates it all. I would be very surprised if That Dragon, Cancer didn’t go on to become one of the most influential works of game design for years to come.
If you would feel anguish and heartache; if you would feel joy and hope; if you would be moved down to your foundation; play That Dragon, Cancer.
That Dragon, Cancer is available now on PC, Mac, and Ouya