That Dragon, Cancer

The next level of the game loads, and my character is sitting in a dark hospital room. As I look around, my character’s four-year-old son starts screaming in the bed beside me. I’m left in this room to comfort him, finding options like rocking him and feeding him applesauce. No matter what I do, though, his crying won’t stop.

I start to get impatient, accustomed neither to crying children nor to games making me sit in discomfort. Several more minutes of this go by, and I’m almost ready to give up. Then suddenly, my character breaks down into a desperate prayer for calm. And almost immediately, the child becomes quiet.

A kind of video game memoir, That Dragon, Cancer recounts how creators Ryan and Amy Green deal with their son Joel’s cancer. Ryan and Amy, both devout Christians, use the game to weave together stories and interactive metaphors of their struggles with faith and grief. Through complete vulnerability and a clear artistic vision, they create a profoundly unique way for any player to participate in humility and struggle.

Tragically, the story does not end like the scene in the hospital room. Their son is eventually declared terminal and dies during the development of the game. Rather than a story of God’s grace through physical healing, then, it is something else. As Ryan puts it in an interview with the podcast Reply All, I want to show what it feels like to be helpless, but to have received grace.”

With minimalistic 3D models and dynamic lighting, the game’s art direction captures emotional experiences without being preoccupied with detailed representation. Simple controls accompany this focus, allowing the player to stay immersed in the relationships at the heart of the game.

Such relationships start simply, but build quickly through clever design. Early in the gamethe player is guided through a forest with clearings that each hold joyful vignettes of Joel’s childhood, such as feeding ducks or climbing on a playground. As I help Joel, recorded audio from family conversations is played. At first, there are mundane voicemails about picking up groceries or taking Joel to a check-up. As his condition becomes more serious, though, so do the conversations. Joel’s two siblings begin to ask more and more about his developmental problems, and I listen as the parents struggle to give the right response.

One of the game’s final interactive metaphors is that of a cathedral representing Joel’s body. The vaulted structure is impressive, but it is clear that the building is not yet finished. And despite the implicit promise of its completion, the building is beginning to crumble with the weeds of cancer. In this tension, the building suddenly falls dark and a stream of prayers erupts from empty pews. Recorded at a living room prayer meeting the night before Joel died, these prayers are desperate pleas for a miracle: “Oh Lord, my God, let this boy’s life return to him!” But those prayers do not seem to be answered.

Suffering is often most terrifying because it is out of our control. Similarly, this game rejects our cultural infatuation with control. As an interactive artwork, it offers a curated opportunity to experience a story of grief and God’s confusing promise of faithfulness. It rejects our attempts to repair brokenness, forcing us to “sit down and shut up,” as Dr. Kapic often advises. Meaning, one should be a faithful presence to those in suffering who does not seek to fix, but to listen, understand, and pray.