That Dragon, Cancer: A beautiful nightmare you shouldn't miss
While covering the IndieCade booth at E3, I made it a point to spend some time with the team bringing to life “That Dragon, Cancer.”
When I read through the list of games available for the Indie Cade booth, one jumped out at me: That Dragon, Cancer. The descriptions I could find about the game were intriguing, and a little bit intimidating. Most essentially described the game as an artistic and poetic interactive storytelling experience, told partially from the perspective of a parent with a young child, with terminal cancer.
When I gushed to friends and family about my upcoming trip, the first question most asked was: “What games do you most want to try?” When I listed That Dragon, Cancer as among the top in my list, I got more than a few odd looks. In some instances, I even got some outright disapproval of my choice to spend time during such an uplifting event, focusing on something so 'down.'
All that negativity did was strengthen my resolve to see this project, understand what it really was, and learn how it came to be.
The fine line between reality, and hope.
Talking with Ryan Green and Josh Larsen, the main duo behind That Dragon, Cancer- was enlightening, and very-- big. It wasn’t a discussion of 'come look at my labor of love, I have so many polygons, I’ll be interfacing with these platforms.' (No disrespect to those conversations, however- they were largely expected) Instead, my discussion started when Ryan Green said:
“let me tell you about Joel, my son. He’s four, and he is going into his third year battling a terminal cancer diagnosis.”
Ryan was willing to tell me about his son, and I understood from talking to him, even just briefly, how he could be so driven to share his experience (and that of his family) with the world in this way. I told him about my similarly aged son, and my experience with a close family member battling leukemia through their childhood. As we shared stories, he told me how touched he was to see his game’s intention -- connecting people -- in action in our conversation. More so, I immediately felt grateful that I had the opportunity to meet him and his team, try the game, and hopefully help others see how valuable an experience this can be.
(Photo from www.thatdragoncancer.com)
That Dragon, Cancer is a beautifully artistic and expressive video game, where the player experiences life, and the continual threat of death, with young Joel. At times you play from the perspective of Ryan, watching your baby scream and writhe, choking in pain; unable to do anything but offer a juice box in consolation. Other times you play as Joel’s mother, another family member, or as an omniscient third party -- watching Ryan search for hope in a sunset, reaching for that bright horizon through a hospital window.
Lastly, sometimes you are Joel. Sometimes in this beautiful, haunting, and hope-filled game, you are gazing around from the perspective of an innocent baby, saddled with a death sentence, searching for hope and love and life from those loved ones who desperately cling to your giggle.
“I love Joel’s laugh, I am going to find a way to put it in the game somewhere, so people can experience the joy in it.” –Ryan Green, on what drove him to make That Dragon, Cancer
I was given an opportunity to play a short chapter of the game, which is largely cinematic. I interacted with various objects and scenes in Joel’s hospital bedroom. I heard Ryan’s soothing voice not only trying to calm Joel, but trying to calm himself. I read poetry that was displayed through graffiti-like animation on the hospital walls, written by Ryan over years of time spent in that hospital room... The room where sterile surfaces and utilitarian furniture were recreated from memory in soft, beautiful, tones and lines.
At one point I interacted with a window, out which I (as Ryan) was taking in the beauty of sunset. The camera swung around and I observed Ryan—with the shadow of his son’s crib behind him—contemplating his fate, and that of his son, aloud.
A video game that can reach out and grab ahold of our hopes, anxieties, and terror.
As a mother of a three and a half year old, I have experienced sleepless nights. Hearing Joel’s story brings about a tangible terror and anxiety. At one point during the demo Joel started crying, and I could hear the desperation and fear in Ryan’s voice as he tried desperately to console his inexplicably sick baby. I could never begin to compare my experiences to Ryan’s, and that of the Green family. But in that moment, my physical urge to reach out for that crying child was overwhelming. My instinct to pat and help the screaming infant as he started to choke on his own screams, was stifling. The tears from being stuck outside the game, unable to help, came suddenly and silently as I took in the sounds and artwork within That Dragon, Cancer. All this, while on a chair surrounded by thousands of gamers in the LA Convention center.
A font of hope, from a well of Faith.
As I was talking with Ryan and Josh about how they came together, teaming Josh’s technical and artistic background with Ryan’s drive and experiences, I learned that their faith played a huge part. While I didn’t feel an overly religious tone within the game, I learned that the hope, the faith you feel within it—is largely in part due to the faith and hope they feel in their own lives from their strong religious ties. Religious ties which have allowed Joel’s family to make the most difficult decisions, as they have battled 8 cancerous tumors riddling the body of a little boy who can’t even read yet. Specifically Ryan mentioned the moment at which he and his wife realized, they had to tell Joel’s siblings that he may die, and what would happen to him when he did.
Listening to Ryan’s narrations in the demo, hearing the hope in his voice throughout the moments of darkness, I started think, and hope, myself- that there wouldn’t be those who overlook That Dragon, Cancer as a thing to be missed.
Ryan Green, Josh Larsen and the rest of the amazing team on That Dragon, Cancer have done a fantastic job of bringing a difficult, harrowing, and hope-filled story to life for others to experience. I feel blessed, and very lucky, to have gotten an opportunity to see it, to hug its creators, and to hopefully convince others to look into it themselves.
For more information, or to support the Green's project with their unbelievable project, and story, visit www.thatdragoncancer.com for more information and updates.