I put off writing this for a long time, which is unusual for a text about a video game. Then again, I put off playing that videogame for an even longer time, because I was afraid of playing it. Now I’m putting off actually introducing it… I’m writing to you today about That Dragon, Cancer, a game created by a father of a young child that suffers from terminal brain cancer. It is unlike any type of game you’ll ever play, both in terms of gameplay and the emotional impact it has on its player.
Back in 2009, Joel Green was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer, when he was barely one year of age. A year later, when after repeated treatments a new tumour was found in his brain, the doctors declared him terminal. Joel survived for another three years, during which tumours of increasing size came and went thanks to intensive treatment, but eventually, in march 2014, Joel died.
Joel’s father, Ryan Green, who was a programmer by trade and designed videogame as a creative outlet, quit his job after doctors believed Joel to be terminal. He then fully committed himself to designing videogames. In late 2012, Green and a friend of his, Josh Larson, decided to make a game about Joel. The pair stopped taking contract work and started work on the game, supported by their own savings, which were spent quite quickly. Through various donations, funding by a game company, as well as a Kickstarter campaign, they managed to expand their team and work on the game until its January 2016 release.
That Dragon, Cancer was the way Green coped with his son’s sickness. The genesis of the game was one particular moment when Joel was dehydrated and diarrheal at the same time. Ryan tried to console him, help him, soothe him, but nothing helped, and Joel would only cry and scream. Later, when he reflected on his devastating powerlessness in that moment, he thought that it was “like a game where the mechanics are subverted and don’t work”. It became the first scene he wrote for what eventually resulted in That Dragon, Cancer.
In the game you ‘play’ mainly as Joel, but writing that you play as anything is beside the point. As far as gameplay is concerned, you mainly move your mouse around to indicate a direction your avatar should take, click on things to take a closer look, and occasionally guide the avatar through a virtual plane. There’s no right and wrong. There’s no penalties to receive. There’s no way you can influence the outcome of anything. That is the point.
You meet the Greens in a forest, which is visualised in sharp, straight lines and a thick, abstract colour palate. In it, you find the family at a ducky pond, but also near a small playground. While you move your avatar through the forest, you notice giant black tumours floating in the air and in the water of a nearby beach. It is not the last time you see cancer visualised in that explicit way. The characters, though, draw more attention to themselves, as you notice that none of them has distinctive facial features. Ryan has a beard and glasses, but Joel is entirely faceless. It is disconcerting, and it adds to the idea that the disease that causes the Greens’ suffering does so indiscriminately.
During the rest of the game you visit Joel in the hospital and are guided through Ryan’s experiences of conversations with doctors, and how he deals with the news that grows ever graver. Memorable moments are one particular conversation in which the room it takes place in gets flooded, to the point that miniature versions of Ryan and Joel ‘flee’ in a small rowing boat, and the actual walking through the hospital. The walls are adorned with pictures of victims and survivors of cancer, as well as paintings for those who have gone through it, or are still doing so.
Expectedly, the game grows more emotional and painful as you progress through it. At one point you again walk through the hospital, but now there are colourful cards standing on tables and hanging on ropes. Those cards are full of messages for cancer victims. Every card you open tells another despairing history in just a few words. The most impactful moment is the aforementioned scene in which the player is completely unable to do anything for Joel. Without a doubt that was the hardest scene in a videogame I ever experienced. I cried and cried and cried while Joel kept screaming. There was no way to help him. No matter what I tried, each and every option the game gave me I took, had no effect.
That Dragon, Cancer is the single most heart-wrenching ‘game’ I have ever ‘played’. It took less than two hours of time spent in the Greens’ abstract piece of art to take me through years of unbelievable hardships. I have a lump in my throat when I think about it and write this, weeks after the fact. It is that profound and powerful. I don’t think I can go through it ever again, and I feel immensely for anyone who has to go through the actual ordeal.