That Dragon, Cancer is a confrontation with extreme empathy, a startling and heartbreaking experience that puts the player in the mindset of a father whose son, Joel, is dying of cancer. Ryan Green, one of the game’s developers, began working on the game with the help of Josh Larson in the midst of a years-long trial, an expression of his extremely personal experience with his three-year-old son’s struggle with cancer.
In the short demo I had the opportunity to play yesterday, the player controls a father desperate to calm his son. Though the game uses fairly standard point and click navigation, the first-person view often swings wildly in response to player input, unceremoniously dropping the player into the viewpoint of the child, observing the father in extreme moments of anxiety and grief. The result is a game that seems almost too truthful to bear and gives the player an impossible objective: stop a three year old child from crying and experiencing anguish and pain. That goal is the curse of any parent, but in this case, it takes on wholly other dimensions.
The soundtrack to the ten-minute demo is minimalist but expressive: ambient hospital sounds and the incessant crying of the father’s son. The game is unblinking in the way it invokes the horror of those realities, and the minimalist control scheme conveys a distinct sense of powerlessness, particularly when the camera seems to fly arbitrarily across a room, through windows, and behind chairs based on barely related mouse clicks.
We’ve all been touched in some way by cancer. For some of us it touches us so close to home that the experience is life-changing. For me, it was my dad slowly dying of cancer and the inevitable struggle that comes with it. For Ryan Green, it was this current moment, when his son is struggling to overcome what many would call a hopeless situation. These experiences and feelings don’t sit quietly. They fester and grow, waiting to be expelled. Thankfully, we have creative and communicative opportunities to exercise these feelings and worries in a way that can edify those who may not have experienced those things. These hard truths are a grace, and a truthful videogame has the potential to be a particularly powerful means of that grace.
Playing through That Dragon, Cancer, I couldn’t help but feel I’d been there before, facing the titular dragon’s existence in my own family, desperate for my father’s pain to end. At the same time, I felt that I could never comprehend the pain of the inverse tragedy, being faced with caring for a cancer-stricken son and finding yourself powerless to affect any meaningful change in his life. Perhaps more painful is the inability to communicate. The pleads and commiserates with his son, but the son is unable to comprehend his words of love and concern. He cries furiously and unceasingly.
But Ryan Green is a man of faith, and because of that, prayer operates as an essential in-game mechanic. Toward the end of the demo, after the player gives the command to pray, we sit in the chair and observe the room. He lifts up a prayer of desperation, of sadness, of thankfulness. And then he asks God to give Joel peace. In that moment, the pained cries end. Joel can finally sleep.