That Dragon, Cancer begins pleasantly. A family idly throws scraps of bread to a duck, relaxing in a dreamlike park. Chubby blocks of color lay across the landscape, like mud dropped from a toddler’s hand. Diffuse sunlight falls between the tree branches and casts everything in warm sunset hues. But even here, at the beginning, something is wrong. If you tilt your head, you catch a glimpse of a single blackened tree, stark against the canopy. Or the spiny amoeba—sharp and bristling—gently bobbing in the otherwise pristine stream.
This is the introduction to a game about the real-life experiences of the Green family, the youngest son Joel, and his cancer. Ryan and Amy Green co-wrote That Dragon, Cancer, making certain to explore their very different responses to their child’s illness. Scenes are frequently split into multiple perspectives where you interact with a scene as an invisible spectator, then take on the role of one of the participants. It shows how something can be too large and too unwieldy to be told from a single point of view.
The family’s faith in the face of this crisis is also a big part of that story. Much of the game’s imagery is that of a biblical flood, depicting a life shattered apart by calamity and the surviving pieces that threaten to sink underneath the waves. Placing belief unapologetically at the forefront of a game marketed outside the walls of dedicated “Christian entertainment” is almost as unprecedented as making a game about childhood cancer. Unfortunately, that conversation about faith is far less meaningful. While it makes all the sense in the world to incorporate the Greens’ Christianity into an exploration about life and death, the language used to articulate their faith rarely rises above the generic “behold the glory of God” affirmation of a Christian rock song. It is too broad and too impersonal.
One section frames Joel’s cancer as a classic arcade game. The boy, dressed as a knight, must find and defeat that dragon, Cancer. When Joel’s parents explain to their three other sons that it’s possible to defeat the dragon with the help of God, the children ask about a man from church who had died of Cancer. They tell them it’s because the man grew so tired from fighting the dragon, God granted him rest. God will fight your cancer because God is good. God will let you die of cancer because God is good. It’s an unsatisfying conclusion to draw, offering very little illumination against the darkness.
Make no mistake: The game is a bruising experience. It fully commits to sharing a hard, unsentimental exploration of what it means to watch your child suffer, and ultimately succumb to illness. That Dragon, Cancer is smart about presenting that tragedy through a series of stylistically disparate interactions to prevent itself from becoming dull or numbing. Scenes can be wry with black humor—one makes a kart racing track out of the hospital hallways, only to reveal the colorful powerups you collected during the race were all palliative drugs. Others are just painful—like a raw, Eraserhead-tier test of endurance where you must remain with your child as they wail despondently, endlessly in pain. Parts of the game don’t even need to do anything to be heartbreaking. An image of Ryan holding Joel—shrunken and mostly naked while a tube full of chemo drugs snakes out of him, glowing green with poison—is haunting.
That moment illustrates another of the game’s goals: To simply allow us to observe and bear witness. Multiple scenes take place within a hospital where the walls are crowded with artwork. These are real pieces collected for the game, and the player is given ample freedom to engage with each one. Images like a heart-shaped photo collage of a young teen with her memorial booklet at the center, or a watercolor of a small gray fist—medical bracelet prominently displayed—reaching upward to a rainbow hued sky, serve as reminders that this is not solely Joel’s story.
At one point, the camera pans down a hospital wall stippled with colorful hand and foot prints of all the children who have passed through the room. As it lands on the imprint of Joel’s tiny hand, Amy speaks to her son; “I’ll hold the memories of this day. You just leave it behind.” She is speaking of the pain and legacy of cancer she sees for her boy in a future he will not live to see. She doesn’t want her son to be defined by his sickness, so she vows to carry the weight of those memories so he might live his life unburdened. That Dragon, Cancer, then, feels like an honest admission that this weight can be overwhelming, that turning this tragedy into something we can all experience is a way to take some of that burden and break it apart into smaller pieces: a piece to keep us from feeling alone in what we must endure, a piece so we can better understand those who struggle. All just little pieces, so no one needs to drown underneath the weight of it.