That Dragon, Cancer is the hardest game I’m glad to have ever played

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That Dragon, Cancer feature 1

That Dragon, Cancer isn’t a video game. Or, at least, it isn’t what you’ve been programmed to think a video game is. Joel Green isn’t really a protagonist. His parents Ryan and Amy aren’t either. And the only real enemy here is a dragon; a dragon that serves as just one of many metaphors in the game to try and bring to life the horror that is cancer. The type of nightmare that no parent wants inflicted on their young child.

A nightmare that Amy and Ryan Green had to watch their son Joel endure, and eventually succumb to.

That Dragon, Cancer isn’t a light-hearted tale. There’s no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, no profound solution to the inherent problem or statement on how struggling cancer patients can help fight it harder. Instead it’s a memoir of sorts – a recollection of the most heart-warming and equally troubling times that the Greens faced during the four years of treatment Joel underwent. It’s a tale that you know the ending to as soon as you hit play, but also one that doesn’t concern itself with that type of tension.

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Joel Green sadly passed just after his fifth birthday, but that’s not what this game sets out to make you focus on. That much is clear from the splendid yet sombre opening, where the Greens are at a park feeding ducks. It’s through simple interaction with the mouse that I came to learn about Joel in a personal way. How he as a child developed slower than others, and how an illness almost from birth had already taken a stranglehold on his life. A life that his parents seemed determined wouldn’t be a short one.

It briskly moves on too, with the diagnosis of his tumour and subsequent chemotherapy being expressed in a manner only a game could convey. Through it I held Joel in my arms, saw the tubes and needles in this poor child’s body through the eyes of his father. I understood the need to make things better, even as the story rapidly progressed out of my control. A clever little comment on what I assume the four years must have felt like for the Greens.

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But when I wasn’t moving around a gloomily lit low-poly hospital I was engaging in some silly activities with a growing child. Like the day Joel’s treatment ended, sparked by a touching message from his mother Amy and how happy this day made her. The game promptly put me in a small kart race at this point, and I dashed from side to side to make sure that Joel picked up all the floating objects around the course. Objects which just so happened to represent the many treatments he had undergone prior to this, such as frequent lumbar punctures and blood transfusions.

Something That Dragon, Cancer chose to communicate to me only in reflection to the game it had made me play. Despite being bitter sweet, these seemed like an island of a happy day for the Greens, earned though through the unimaginable suffering of their son.

Of course all of this is brought to life through the eyes of the Greens themselves, and often as invisible spectators in to some of their most harrowing experiences. A conversation about the futility of Joel’s continued treatments is conveyed from different perspective using a child’s toy, the room filling with a thunderous storm as the narration grows darker still. And in the middle sits Joel, a helpless child aboard an oar-less boat trying to weather the waters – while his uncontrollable future is being mapped out to the two people who love him most.

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These sorts of metaphors are what That Dragon, Cancer lives and breathes on, and it’s put to the best use in describing key moments just before Joel’s death. When Amy turns to religious faith in the hopes of a miracle, her demeanor in bottled letters matches that of the calm sea they find themselves floating in, while Ryan’s more analytical mind struggles to stay afloat as he drowns in sorrow. It’s at this point where conflict between the parents arises – the two trying to tell the other how to grieve for an event that hasn’t even come to pass yet.

Ryan wrestles wildly with his faith, dispelling hope for a miracle before realising that there is simply nothing else but hope to cling to. A scene where Joel screams out in agonising pain reflects this in the most real way possible, with a scrambling parent trying desperately to ease their child’s suffering. At one point Ryan simply doesn’t know what to do and as the screams become deafening he reaches out in faith for some divine help. Joel manages to fall asleep, but the message is clear: there is nothing Ryan can do to stop what’s coming. As Amy so firmly believes, the Greens are simply in need of a miracle at this point.

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And for a time it seems hopeful, with Ryan and Amy doing their best to never give up believing in the seemingly impossible. It’s a sentiment difficult for their other children to understand though, which so so poetically translated through a short side-scrolling adventure mimicking a bedtime story. Here Joel is a brave knight, taking on the dragon that is besieging the land. Joel does his best to fight it off, but eventually needs help in keeping the dragon at bay.

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And when the only help around happens to be a family friend who passed away from cancer too, the tale simply stops. Ryan and Amy are unable to explain what it means to hope to their children when there are so many examples around them of it not working. It’s a powerful moment to have the tale simply cut there – the parents meant to instill confidence in a situation, but are simply unable to even understand what that means themselves.

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It’s a feeling that I’m sure is all too real to so many of players too, and it immediately brought to mind my own encounter with what cancer can do to a loved one. My grandfather died in my home seven years ago, after two seemingly endless weeks of simply waiting for the inevitable. At best you hope, but deep down you know that hope simply isn’t enough. And it makes you angry – angry at the world for having the power to make you feel powerless. An anger that is all too real in the later messages narrated by Ryan and Amy in Joel’s final days.

And in the end, the anger seems justified. The infinite hope that Amy and Ryan poured out simply couldn’t stop what was bound to happen. But a miracle does occur. Joel sits in a gorgeous field, enjoying his favourite meal of pancakes and syrup alongside the dog he always wanted. Joel speaks with ease, exclaiming his joy at having an endless supply of pancakes to eat, and a friend to share them with. Joel is finally at peace and is waiting for his parents to join him one day. A message of profound hope for what we imagine our now passed loved ones to be experiencing right now – unimaginable happiness.

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It’s this final note that truly brings together the goal of That Dragon, Cancer. It’s a hard, emotionally taxing experience that acts as an autobiography for a story Joel will never be able to tell, but it manages to be so much more than just that. It’s a eulogy of sorts for all cancer patients, victims and survivors, with the game literally littered with different stories from different people around the world. This message of love and bravery and sadness are all captivating to connect to and impossible to draw away from, creating a sanctuary for all of those touch by the flames of the dragon to rekindle their faith.

At one point in the game Ryan questions whether the fear of death is simply just a fear of being insignificant. Whether all that we are, all of our thoughts and dreams, all of our love and compassion and personality, all that makes us us, simply evaporates when we leave this earth – a light extinguished without significance. He equates that to the fear of death, and on many levels I believe he’s right.

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But That Dragon, Cancer is everything but insignificant. It’s an unapologetic look at the most tragic situation a parent could possibly find themselves in that manages to breathe hope into the future. It makes sure that every life lost, every life touched, every single person donning a suit of armour and going to face that dragon head on. They hold immeasurable significance to the world, and fight with the undying love of those behind them.

I think Joel would be incredibly proud of that. And incredibly proud of his parents Amy and Ryan too.

Last Updated: January 19, 2016

Alessandro Barbosa

You can all call me Sandy until I figure out how to edit this thing, which is probably never. Sandy not good enough? Call me xXx_J0k3R_360degreeN0Sc0pe_xXx. Also, Geoff's a bastard.

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