“Fear is cancer’s preservative.”
When I first read about That Dragon, Cancer, I knew I had to experience it. The title is an artistic retelling of Joel Evan Green’s valiant battle against the dragon, Cancer. Told through a series of short, interactive scenes, That Dragon, Cancer successfully blurs the lines of art, narratives, and gaming into a powerfully emotional experience that those who fully invest into it will never forget.
That Dragon, Cancer informs the player that, again, the game is a retelling of Joel, a young boy diagnosed with an Atypical Teratoid Rhabdoid tumor, and the final days of his life. But not only does That Dragon, Cancer explore Joel’s final days; no, the game spends a lot of time focusing on the thoughts of Ryan and Amy Green, Joel’s parents. Knowing the fear of an immediate family member diagnosed with cancer, the story really struck a chord of sympathy within me – and with countless others who have struggled through and with cancer (as the player finds out through the letters and cards he/she can read throughout the game).
The gameplay in That Dragon, Cancer is simple and effective. For the majority of the experience, the player will point and click to move and interact with objects on the screen. Occasionally, the player will have a chance to play ‘mini-game’ style activities. For example, in the clinic, you get to race Joel’s wagon for three laps. Later, when Ryan struggles with drowning in his despair, you are able to play a side-scrolling game depicting Joel’s battle with cancer and the subsequent boss fight against its dragon form. This is, of course, a clever extended metaphor that Ryan and Amy use throughout the game. In this instance, the player plays this game, aptly titled That Dragon, Cancer, while Ryan and Amy tell Joel, the Brave Knight’s story to their other children.
And that’s it. The wonderful thing about That Dragon, Cancer is its utter simplicity. Because the development team chose not to complicate the subject matter with unnecessary gameplay antics to draw otherwise uninterested consumers, they were able to successfully create the emotionally draining retelling of their son’s powerful battle. Even the art style contributed to the game’s deeply personal message.
A game like this does not come along often. Unfortunately, the game originated as a result of the tragedy of Joel Green. But fortunately for us, the game exists. Not only is it a simple reminder to love the people in our lives, but it offers solace in places you may not have knowingly needed security or healing. That Dragon, Cancer infuses a lot of speculation about God, but it never actually forces any beliefs upon the player – especially because Ryan constantly questions how could God ever do this to a child, or how could Jesus ever love Joel as much as Lazarus. The beauty of art is that we each can learn or surmise something entirely different after examination or experience. That Dragon, Cancer is no different.
Stepping outside of the purpose of the game, outside of Joel’s story, the experience is so thick with symbolism and meaning that it could succeed all on its own. I’ve read reviews that found the experience to be jumbled. Some call the game admirable but excluding. I suppose I understand the feelings, especially since cancer has affected my family life at one point. Perhaps you were expecting something so grandiose after reading the overwhelmingly positive reviews that this game has received (or perhaps you didn’t play it because of some of the negative reviews). But I can safely assure you that the game is built with reason, and that, with each play through, more of it becomes clear – at least as far as what I interpret. And I never once felt excluded during my time with That Dragon, Cancer; no, I felt that the game almost spoke to me, as I’m sure many others would agree.
To conclude my time with this brief and influential experience, I offer my thanks to the Green family for allowing me access to the pain and loss and desperation they experienced during Joel’s short but memorable life. This project could not have been easy for the Green family, but they did not intend for the memory of Joel to dissipate with time. I can think of few alternatives the Green family could have turned to instead of That Dragon, Cancer that would have garnered even remotely similar results.
Because I found the art style so meaningful, I compiled a few more screenshots I’d like to share.