Wielding Hope in the Face of the Dragon

That Dragon, Cancer wasn't one of the biggest games at this year's E3, but it may have been one of the most important.

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Cancer. To greater or lesser degrees, it impacts most of our lives. Sometimes just hearing the word "cancer" is enough to create a twisted feeling in the pit of my stomach, as memories of hospital rooms, of loved ones suffering and loved ones lost, come flooding back to me. Cancer's intrusions into my life have been swift and merciless, leaving me feeling disoriented and cast adrift.

The E3 show floor is just about the last place I expected to find an example of grace in the face of this scourge. But just a short distance from massive booths bombarding passersby with advertisements for the biggest upcoming shooters, racing games, and open-ground reconnaissance endeavors, in the unassuming IndieCade area, I found That Dragon, Cancer. Described as an adventure game about hope in the face of death, That Dragon, Cancer is based on the actual experiences of Ryan and Amy Green as they raise their young son Joel, who has terminal cancer.

The scene I played took place, as so many scenes from our lives do when cancer is involved, in a hospital room. The beeping of machines accompanies your every action, your every thought, a constant reminder of the precarious nature of life. Playing as Joel's father, Ryan, you spend time with Joel, participating with Ryan as normally ordinary parenting tasks, like giving a child juice, become fraught with pain and significance. After drinking some juice, Joel throws it up. Joel then cries because he is thirsty, but Ryan knows that if he gives Joel more juice, he'll only throw it up again. Joel's thirst is a small discomfort, one amid a sea of discomforts and agonies, just another pain that Ryan cannot take away from his son. All the while, the sound effect of Joel crying persists, and it's such a piercing, heartbreaking sound that you can't hear it without understanding that Ryan would do anything to make his son better. You almost feel as if you would, too.

Throughout the scene, you hear Ryan's thoughts, giving us a glimpse of what it has been like for him to see his son suffer, and to spend countless hours in hospital rooms like that one. In perhaps the most emotionally honest moment I've ever encountered in a game, Ryan admits that when the ordeal began, there was a fleeting moment when some part of him saw it as a kind of adventure, with himself cast as the heroic father. This honesty was disarming; whatever defenses I'd had up against the game's attempts to move me fell away in that instant, as I understood how committed the game was to the truth of Ryan and Amy's experiences. Only by being so honest, by unflinchingly facing the truth of this struggle in all its facets, can the game provide a realistic basis for hope.

And ultimately, this is what That Dragon, Cancer aims to do. On the game's official site, Ryan has written, "We're still fighting with Joel, and even though we're on our 8th tumor, we've had a beautiful 3 years in the midst of such trials. That Dragon, Cancer will have moments of despair, but I will never leave the player there. Our journey has been characterized by hope and many small miracles, a community of faith and a set of amazing physicians. And even in the event we lose him, our desire is that our hope remains." When my brief time with the game came to an end, I was devastated by the experiences I'd vicariously experienced, but deeply grateful for the opportunity to have experienced them, and for the opportunity to have glimpsed, in the game's fearless honesty and in the simple fact of its existence, the hope, love, and faith that sustains the Greens.

After the press conferences that preceded this year's E3, I found myself despairing a bit about games. I felt overwhelmed by big announcements for games about shooting and racing, and while some of my favorite games are about shooting and racing, I yearn for a much more creatively diverse gaming landscape. I hoped that, on the show floor, I might find a game or two that would make me more hopeful about the industry's future. And I did, in the whimsy of The Wonderful 101 and the world of Transistor, in the magic of Fantasia and the madness of Rayman Legends. But in That Dragon, Cancer, I found something I never expected to find at E3: a game that made me more hopeful, not just about the potential games have as a storytelling medium, but about humanity, as well.

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Discussion

48 comments
GSGuy321
GSGuy321

This is what gaming is all about. Glad to see the gaming genre widening. Fact is, you don't have to play it if it depresses you, but variety in the art of gaming is essential if it wants to survive... 

Everything is starting to look the same.. "Oh look Halo 5 and another 150 shooters to go along with it that look exactly the same"... 

The genre has to expand... This is a good thing.

mav_destroyer
mav_destroyer

The topic of this game might be depressing and heart breaking, but what's even more depressing are some of the negative comments here.

Great coverage on this game Carolyn. I could feel the pain the game conveys in the article. I'm glad you wrote about it here, I would probably not have heard about it otherwise. Thank you.

SweetPandaLove
SweetPandaLove

My mother passed away last year from Stage 4 lung cancer that spread to the brain.  Why would anyone want to turn something like this into a game?  Something so morbid and depressing?  What's the point?  Games are supposed to be a fun escape...why would they want to bring people into this depressing world when they don't need to be?  This is NOTHING ANYONE SHOULD HAVE TO EXPERIENCE unless they have to.  Keep it out of games.

Mega_Loser
Mega_Loser

that's original but also so morbid -_-


cbxero
cbxero

Touching story, I hope and pray for them... but there isn't a chance in hell I would ever play a game like this. I play games to escape, and to have some fun. It may be a work of art, but it sure looks depressing to me.

komuchen
komuchen

Shouldn't games be about fun and large-ass bosses, not about fucking dying? It's weak. It's weak like larger part of gaming industry. Next there will be testicular cancer or hemoroids, can't wait.

Move your ass and volunteer, at least you will be helpful.

Sohereiam
Sohereiam

My cousin is with cancer, the treatment is going well, but before she was angry, despaired, she closed herself from the world and nobody besides my aunt can visit her, now she's a little better, its more talkative and less depressive.

moonlightwolf01
moonlightwolf01

Gaming is steadily claiming the status of an art form and its good to see the medium tackling new areas. My grandfather died of cancer a few year ago and although it happened very quickly watching the transformation as he became a shell of his once vibrant and life filled self was horrible and terrifying. Their situation is far worse than i can imagine yet not only have they managed to find hope but they want to share that hope and that is a beautiful thing.

grove12345
grove12345

If they can do video games based on war....why not?

willhelliwell
willhelliwell

I'm glad games are branching out and looking at new topics, no matter how depressing or emotional. Games are an art form. We've been running around shooting things for years now, it's time for something new = )

Vertigem
Vertigem

Regarding games, I will not play this, I play games to take me away from real life worries, not to bring back old scars that I do not want to touch.Call me a coward, but that's just what games are for me, an escape.

I have read a lot of the comments bellow, my dad took 8 months to die from lung cancer. I don't even want to imagine if it where 3 or 8 years, sometimes I even wonder if all the chemicals and treatments actually did anything or if they just stole the last few quality moments he had to live. All the hype about AIDS or Bird Flu, cancer is one of the oldest and deadliest killers.

TheAmazingYeah
TheAmazingYeah

My mom just died in February from the most aggressive type of brain tumor.  No game or movie could come close to my experience or the torment she went through.  The sights and sounds and smells of death are impossible to forget.

Byshop
Byshop

This reminds me of Spec Ops: The Line, in as much as it's there to tell a story, and that story may or may not be fun or entertaining. Requiem for a Dream was a damned good movie, but I wouldn't call it fun and I doubt I'd ever sit down and watch it all the way through again. For games to gain the same level of acceptance as movies, tastefully done games that tackle rough subject matters must exist. I have no idea if this "game" will be one of those, but I see the attempt as a step in the right direction.

onikay
onikay

My mom suffered through 10 years of cancer before dying to it. Just reading this article pretty much messed up my day. Playing a game like this doesn't substitute seeing someone you love waste away & suffer day in, day out

For people like me these games are the worst reminder & for people who haven't gone through such a thing... it might give them a small idea but it's still no comparison. And any normal person certainly wouldn't play this for fun... so I wouldn't really call this a game... more like a visual novel or something.

starduke
starduke

Well, having lived thru my mom having cancer, and fortunately, surviving it, this game could only bring up bad memories of all the dark times my family went thru while she had it.

 So, I too will be sticking with games about racing and shooting, and such like, the fun video games.

However, for people that caner hasn't touch that immediately, perhaps this game can give a glimpse into what it's like to live with someone who is struggling to survive cancer.


Josh Evans
Josh Evans

There are games and films that express a wide variety of the human experience. Everything is not for everyone.

rockafella06
rockafella06

I think its great that people are making games like this, but I play games to release my mind of the fears of the real world. Every day  I wake up and remember my dad has cancer, it sucks. I really don't need that in my video games. I'll stick with shooting, racing and sports. 

NeoIostars
NeoIostars

great read. I'll definitely keep an eye on this game.

Flamewolf75
Flamewolf75

Another reason I really love gaming. A lot of people don't seem to understand that video games are a form of art. Great article, Carolyn.

Matt Knapp
Matt Knapp

People always say they play games for the story; this game strips away the assault rifles, super powers, and alien characters and leaves you with a stunningly real game. You want something more realistic? This game is it.

Walker Hurley
Walker Hurley

glad to see someone trying something different other than explosions and terrorists -_-

Smokescreened84
Smokescreened84

Cancer is quite the killer, it fairly runs in my family line and has claimed a lot of my extended family over the years.  I wouldn't be surprised if I'm diagnosed at some point in the future, hope not.  I'm always worried that my parents may be diagnosed or my brother or sister.


There are a lot of topics that video games can cover, yet all we ever tend to see is just some generic male running around killing people for whatever reason.  That kind of thing doesn't show the potential of video games to be able to tell an involving and emotionally driven story.

Jonathan Leard
Jonathan Leard

Part of games growing as an art form is expanding beyond the traditional game experience. I often prefer to watch Star Trek or Indiana Jones, but that doesn't mean that Grave of the Fireflies wasn't a powerful and important film. I don't think I could stomach playing this game with a son almost five of my own, but games should and could expand bound killing thousands of faceless drones. Good piece, Carolyn Petit

Riley Cuda
Riley Cuda

The art style is amazing and I'm sure the game will be, too.

Dwayne Clark III
Dwayne Clark III

Why is there even a game like this? This is just depressing.

Candace Pettit
Candace Pettit

Not my cup of tea. I play games to have fun and escape. I had cancer when I was 4 1/2. I don't need to play a game about my own parents' experiences.

Ovirew
Ovirew

It's interesting how so many games have you wielding guns - in third person, in first person, in over-the-shoulder-cam, in a cover shooter, etc etc...  But I can't think of too many games that have actually dealt with a character suffering from a real-world illness, and him and his family trying to cope with it.

I think there's a lot of ground that games can cover.  So far, I feel like we've mostly been focusing on real small areas of game genres and stories, and there's a lot more that we could do.  We've only scratched the surface of what a video game can be.

GSGuy321
GSGuy321

Very nicely written article.

GSGuy321
GSGuy321

Pretty intense. Will definitely keep an eye out for this.

mav_destroyer
mav_destroyer

@SweetPandaLove Maybe for one thing is will offer "hope" as the author stated for the families of cancer victims, or on the other hand raise awareness for the suffering of those affected by cancer which in turn will raise public support for them as well.

moodyfoo
moodyfoo

@SweetPandaLove maybe so that poeple who never had to deal with cancer (themselves or someone close to them) can understand better how it actually is to deal with all of this. one real story comes to mind:a girl shaved her head to support her sister who has been diagnosed by cancer, the girl in question has lost her job due to this(shaving her hair). she worked at a hair salon and the ownners felt that she would scare clients away. my point is if those ignorent people played (or read about cancer) that particular game they "probably" would've understood better why she did it.

tomrocks666
tomrocks666

@TheAmazingYeah I lost my dad to bowel cancer last september, you are right. I dont understand why a game like this exists. Nothing can compare to what we have been through. Like you say, all of it is impossible to forget. Any image or flashback to the last few days of my dad's life just makes me feel sick, confused and broken. Nobody should want to try to replicate that. 

Yomigaeru
Yomigaeru

@starduke For my experience, it's just been my parents that have had to suffer. I was too young to really comprehend the concept of mortality, but my grandparents (save for my mother's mother) all died from cancer in the span of two years (April 1994 to January 1996).

To me, no matter how good it is, no medium (be if film, music, or game) could relate the experience of "cancer" that's anywhere close to reality. We're all different, so we react differently. It's not as if cancer isn't something we're constantly reminded of, as there's talk of breast cancer in this country all year round.

However, to each their own. I've no interested in games dealing primarily with relating real life experiences.

xeoneex66
xeoneex66

@rockafella06 In 2003, my father died of the worst possible brain cancer you can get.  After being diagnosed in the early/mid 90's, they gave him 2 years.  The son of a gun lived 7 long years but sadly succumb to it.  That word... cancer, brings about a heartache that only people who have had, or knew someone with cancer could possibly know.  Pray you never get it.  It changes your life in a way, and the lives of those around you, to a degree that you aren't the same person.

BradBurns
BradBurns

@Smokescreened84 


I don't mean to sound overly negative or anything, but I always felt that most of us would be diagnosed with cancer in one form or another in the future. There's just something wrong with our food, environment, or whatever the underlying cause is. Until that is fixed, and there is no cure, I can only assume things will get worse for us. I'm shocked by how little money is spent researching this disease. It's criminal.


I've also seen many of my close relatives struggle and beat Cancer, thankfully.

oldschoolvandal
oldschoolvandal

@mav_destroyer @SweetPandaLove @moodyfoo I see it as a good thing that moves games forward as a form of expression and ultimately, art.

There are lots of great Drama movies around most of them based on true stories, which sole purpose is to make public how a personal drama developed and give people hope or at least some information.

Why can't games take this step? Was Catherine a bad game because it touched on adult themes? Or Cart Life for that matter?

For a long time I also thought games were supposed to be fun but after I realized that games can and must be whatever the hell creators want it to be. It's is a powerful way of telling a story because of its interactive nature and you only try it by choice.

And saddly, not all stories are happy.

SweetPandaLove
SweetPandaLove

@moodyfoo @SweetPandaLove Like I said dude, this is nothing anyone should have to face unless they have to.  No one should have to watch someone they love rot away while there is nothing they can do.

EternalSouldier
EternalSouldier

They're not replicating that. They're sharing a true story of hope through its perils. I am so sorry that your dad had to die that way though. I've had quite a few people in my life though who've overcome cancer. I'd like everyone who's going through it that an anewed life is very possible past its ravaging.

realguitarhero5
realguitarhero5

@BradBurns @Smokescreened84 If a person lives long enough, they WILL get cancer.  It's not something in our food, water, or air.  It's that those things have increased our life expectancy, and consequently, our cancer risk

BradBurns
BradBurns

@realguitarhero5 

While I get your point completely, I respectfully disagree.

There have been studies that conclude that our modern diet and environment contribute greatly to our cancer rate. Now on top of that add what you stated about longer life expectancy and you a have a serious problem.