That Dragon, Cancer and the art of surrender

I can’t get baby Joel to stop crying. He doesn’t want his juice box. He doesn’t want me to hold him. As his wails grow louder and more pained, I seem to be out of options. I resign to telling my son that I can’t make him feel better, words no father ever wants to say.

It seems odd for a video game to give you a goal you can’t achieve, but that’s just one of the things that makes That Dragon, Cancer special. The game is a haunting, painful and yet beautiful interactive poem, created by Ryan and Amy Green, along with developer Josh Larson, to tell the story of their young child’s real-life battle with—and eventual loss to—cancer at the age of five.

“Interactive poem” is a better term for the title than video game. There aren’t any traditional goals, and the ones given to you seem awfully mundane. Feed the ducks at the pond. Examine pictures in a hallway. Push baby Joel on a swing. The game seems more concerned with guiding you through the events being depicted rather than letting you having any say in how these events play out. Which is, of course, the point.

That Dragon, Cancer is a devastating interactive story of a family's real-life encounter with cancer.

That Dragon, Cancer is a devastating interactive story of a family’s real-life encounter with cancer.

Gaming is often goal-oriented, asking us to solve problems and achieve things to make ourselves feel accomplished. We usually expect a reward in return. That Dragon, Cancer is part of a recent trend of “empathy games” that take a different route. More often autobiographical in nature, the goal of empathy games is to put the gamer in someone else’s shoes; perhaps a real person facing real emotions, or at least a reasonable facsimile of one. No bullet sponges or high speed chases here. In the ongoing conversation of games as art, the idea that games can allow us to connect with others in the way a great novel or film can has been a difficult hurdle for the medium to overcome. And yet, I never thought I would emphasize with the identity struggles of a lesbian teenager until I played Gone Home. And The Stanley Parable messed with my conceptions of free will and storytelling as much as One Hundred Years of Solitude.

That Dragon, Cancer is simpler than those games, and yet infinitely richer in its emotional impact. By giving us an impossible task (save Joel from dying) and asking us to control it, the Greens reveal to us the futility of human endeavor, especially when it comes to trying to make sense of unexpected tragedy. One of the game’s more creative examples of this is when the player is tasked with guiding a flying Joel through a minefield of cancer cells. Joel is held up by balloons, and once those balloons pop, he will fall. As the cancer cells continue to multiply and navigating the field becomes harder, I realize that I’m not supposed to win. Eventually, I have to surrender to the makers of the game and fail at this particular task in order to proceed.

Surrender is a big theme in the game, specifically, to God. Not that doing so was easy for the Greens. Throughout the game, the player reads letters the husband and wife wrote to one another. Amy always appears cheerful, resting in the hope that God will hear her prayers and heal Joel.

“I pray I find God’s wisdom in the midst of chaos,” she says. “My doubt is insignificant compared to God’s faithfulness.”

Ryan tries to remain hopeful, but is often jealous of Amy’s cheery outlook on their son’s increasingly grim situation.

“My wife is expecting a surprise party from the Lord…I envy her,” he says.

Ryan and Amy’s prayers seem to have got them through this tough season, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t do their part. They moved with their two other sons to California from Colorado just to try an alternative treatment for Joel. They (and by extension, the player) spent many sleepless nights in the hospital. They tried just about everything they could, but in the scene where the doctors come to announce that there isn’t anything else they can do, the game shifts. We’re no longer battling the cancer; we’re battling the voices of fear, doubt and pain that emerge in Ryan and Amy’s heads. We’re asked to resign ourselves to the fact that prayer is the only thing we have left to do.

The game’s Steam reviews are overwhelmingly positive, but most of the negative reviews complain about its blatant religious overtones. Those opinions are valid, but they miss the point. The Greens’ personal experience is not universally relatable, nor should it be. Their strong Christian faith is no less a part of their story than Joel himself. To diminish its importance in order to appeal to a wider audience would be disingenuous.

But the Greens’ Christian faith isn’t something they just conjured up to make them feel better about their baby’s death. It’s an all-encompassing hope that protrudes into every area of their life. Prayer doesn’t always have to bring tangible results to have value. Faith doesn’t always bring the healing we desire it to. God isn’t a personal genie we conjure up when we need things from him, but God is there in the midst of our pain, and he fights for us and with us.

“Grace is…kind of like help,” Amy narrates as the player fights the fire-breathing dragon of cancer as an avatar of Joel decked in armor. “We know that God fights for Joel, even when he can’t fight for himself.” It is then that grace appears as a majestic golden eagle, lifting up Joel after he is felled by a fireball.images

That faith-filled hope is driven home in the game’s ending, where I am tasked with lighting candles in church to pray for Joel’s healing. Each candle is tied to a specific prayer, and as I attempt to light all the candles at once, a symphony of prayers rise, united in their diversity. Of course, we already know those prayers weren’t answered, at least in the way we would have liked them to be, but for Christians the good news is that even this is not the end of the story. Death never has the final say, and neither does cancer. Without giving anything more away, I even get to see Joel one more time before the credits roll.

Yes, That Dragon, Cancer is an unapologetically Christian examination of death and tragedy. It’s also probably the first Christian video game that can be considered great art. From its beautiful soundtrack to its creative use of shifting perspective and haunting stylized visuals, the game is an artistic masterwork. It’s the closest we’ll get to an interactive The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Perhaps, most importantly, it’s a potent reminder that the world needs good Christian art. Stories like the ones the Greens have shared are valuable stories that need to be told—stories of God’s grace and provision through life’s up and (especially) downs. We don’t want to play or watch a religious tract or a Sunday school sermon. Just give us a story, and tell it well. And while you’re at it, give us a few tissues.

That Dragon, Cancer is on sale on Steam through March 21. You can purchase it here.