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.


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.

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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.

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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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