When it comes to technology nowadays, anything seems possible, especially in the world of gaming. As video games become increasingly popular, many genres begin to rise, such as sympathetic gaming. This is where That Dragon, Cancer comes into play, and I dipped my toe into the controversial waters.
That Dragon, Cancer is game designed to take the player through the journey of having a child that is diagnosed with cancer, as if they are the parents themselves. The game was created by Ryan and Amy Green who were the parents of a child with cancer. The game takes you through their son, Joel’s diagnosis and treatments as if you are peeking through Ryan, Amy, and even Joel’s eyes. There is much stipulation surrounding the game, where some argue that it is topic just too sensitive to make a game out of or to ask someone else to voluntarily experience. I was intrigued by this unique angle, and decided to experience That Dragon, Cancer for myself.
Right off the bat, the game does not feel like other games I have experienced. There is an ethereal yet nightmarish feeling to the environment as soon as it begins. Each character has no coherent facial features and appear to be geometric, which I found to be an artistic choice that contributed to the ambiance of the game. Although the game takes you through the twists and turns of Joel’s life, it is still interactive, which I found to contribute to the reality of having a child with cancer because you cannot control the sickness itself but you can still react and and contribute to the diagnosis as an individual. The game is a bit confusing and makes you feel lost at some points, because it flows as a stream of consciousness or as if you are dreaming. There isn’t any leveling up or scoring points in this game, there is simply just building up the courage to move on to the next chapter, which I assumed to be a parallel to what it was like for the family in real life. Every scene is very abstract and, to be quite honest, trippy at points because it is like you are sitting in the mind and imagination of either of the parents while they are going through this terrible time. You get to experience how each parent felt when hearing that their son’s cancer is only getting worse and you get to see how they individually coped with everything on a very deep and abstract level, which made the game really personal and unique to their story. The game even added bits of other families’ stories throughout the journey which truly pieced the whole experience together as a tribute to those who are dealing with this horrible reality.
There were a few scenes in the game that really struck me emotionally. There was the part of the game where Joel is screaming in his crib at the hospital because he is in pain from his treatment and the screams, even though they were just a part of the game, echoed in my mind and I felt like I couldn’t escape how much pain this child was in, nor could I help relieve it. Then the scene of what I interpreted as Joel’s passing was very disjointed from reality, extremely abstract in nature. The player walks into a church and has to light candles where Joel is in front of them glowing as a priest’s voice prays and cries and eventually all of the light is blown out, and Joel is no more.It was very intense and confusing for me to process. However, the scene that actually made me cry was closer to the beginning of the game, where Joel interacts with the player directly for the first time. Although he is in the hospital, he appears to be very happy and says things like “you are my friend,” and “I love you.” Joel then takes you with him to play in his favorite constellations up in space, where he is having fun and purely being an innocent child using his imagination. This scene, to me, exposed how young Joel was and how he had a wild imagination and dreams just like other 3 year olds, and the idea that he was going through this while he was in the most innocent stage of his life really tugged at my heart.
Overall, I found the game to be a beautiful testimony to Joel’s life. Every scene was tastefully put together while still allowing that ugly reality of cancer to seep through, making it stand out among the crowd in the world of gaming. This type of gaming is extremely unique in my opinion, because it has so much more meaning and purpose than your standard Call of Duty or GTA. The game celebrated Joel and the short life he lived, and I believe that this game was created not only in memory of Joel, but to show other families experiencing this that they are not alone.