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13 January 2016

That Dragon, Cancer proves that games can be an emotional art form

A small videogame about a couple dealing with their infant son's battle with cancer is an emotional zenith for games.

By Emad Ahmed

After the first five minutes of starting That Dragon, Cancer, my mouth was agape and I had to remember to swallow while I was taking in exactly what was happening on the screen. Very few experiences have left me in this state, opening me to emotional attack and leaving me ready to have my senses assaulted so freely.

That Dragon, Cancer deals with Ryan and Amy Green’s real-life, emotional journey of their son Joel’s fight with cancer. The game itself is a series of vignettes in an origami, abstract world. Although there are characters and animals, none of them carry eyes, giving players the opportunity to project their own images onto the series of canvases the game provides. Given how cancer affects so many of us, directly or indirectly, we all have stories of this condition to share.

The story follows particular moments during the family’s struggle against Joel’s cancer. This includes the first instances of the parents noticing his continuous bouts of vomiting, Joel’s head being tilted slightly to one side, hospital treatments and visits to the park.

Don’t let the colourful visuals fool you: the emotion is raw, and takes centre-stage in a way very few developers in the industry have achieved. In fact, this explicit level of autobiography is rarely found in books or films, let alone a computer game. It cleverly uses the audio conversations from home video and also verbal re-enactments by the couple. I don’t think I’ll forget Ryan explaining to Isaac, his other son, why Joel isn’t able to speak despite being four years old.

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As a game, it’s a wonderfully simple, cinematic experience. All the mechanics of modern games have been stripped away to let you simply click and gaze like an old-school adventure game, allowing you to absorb each particular moment. It helps that these moments are in fact the real life memories of this family, or visions experienced by the parents.

The soft music and sudden sound effects go hand-in-hand, further complemented by terrific voice acting, in particular by Amy, with a Maggie Gyllenhaal-like sensibility, which gives the game an unparalleled level of authenticity. This includes reading out touching letters and tributes, which are interspersed throughout the game.

The first chapter is matched only by Up in its emotional quality, which is the highest compliment I think a game can receive. You’re swept up by the help of mildly joyous music, as you control a duck in a pond towards Joel, before suddenly switching to control Joel, feeding the duck lumps of bread.

Another theme running throughout the game is the subject of faith and hope. As devout Christians, the Greens found solace in prayer. A specific real-life example of this was transferred into the game. Ryan is looking after Joel during one particularly difficult night at the hospital, where he cannot get his son to stop crying, whatever he tries. After a brief, quiet moment of prayer, Joel’s cries suddenly stop. This sort of moment is unheard of in a game, but it’s dealt with tenderness, sincerity and respect, without insulting the player’s own views.

Whereas last year’s Sunless Sea dealt with the idea of leaving a legacy by discovering and leaving behind treasures as you travelled rough seas, the Greens have done exactly this through the medium of gaming, an interactive homage to their son Joel in the best way they could. In an interview with the Reply All podcast, Ryan makes it clear the game isn’t Joel, but “an echo of him, and not even the best echo of him”.

And the soul poured into this thing has satisfied the couple, with Amy declaring in the same interview, “I’m sort of glad it cost us everything”.

Joel passed away at the age of five, a miracle in itself given his cancer was diagnosed as terminal after he reached his first birthday. Recurring tumours meant only palliative radiation was offered by his doctors, which removed the cancer (though not in its entirety) 15 separate times, extending his life a great deal.

The time was clearly viewed as a gift by the couple. But as they narrate the game, Amy says, “No one ever realises how short the time is.” Although their parental experience will be hard to imagine for most gaming demographics, including this writer, they make it as simple and effective as possible for us to understand in some way.


Now listen to Emad Ahmed discussing this game and others, with Helen Lewis and Stephen Bush: