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That Dragon, Cancer

Andy Robertson

Numinous games
PC, Mac, Ouya

In a growing trend of games about challenging subjects That Dragon, Cancer stands apart. Not only does it tell the story of an infant with terminal cancer, but it does so with a disarming honesty that's almost voyeuristic in the depth of access granted to the personal lives of his family.

Cancer, video-games and children aren't concepts we want to associate with each other. Already you are likely conjuring some ill-advised grotesque simplification of the illness where players battle cancer cells with chemoguns to earn a medical high score.

That Dragon, Cancer is not that game. In first-person we wander through vignettes that recreate moments from the lives of parents Ryan and Amy Green and their son Joel, diagnosed with brain cancer at 12 months old. The screen is awash with colour as simple swathes of pigment create a dreamlike rendition of hospital rooms, parks, islands, and road trips.

It could almost be a film, but here we are called to act and take part in the drama. Our presence is noticed not only by the game but by the people in it. Intrigue gets us poking around the place, clicking to move and interact with different objects.

These spaces are beautiful and call for further inspection, and as we do we discover more of the Green family's story. Home-movie audio and answerphone messages thread through each area to created an intimate narrative.

Hearing conversations between the Green's other children about why Joel can't talk, or husband and wife discussions about how treatment is going feels almost ill-advised. This is a sacred space, and here we are blundering through the middle of it.

Then, as you play it slowly dawns on you that this isn't a fiction. Furthermore it's the creation of the Greens themselves. Ryan, a programmer, talks about wanting to express and share their journey. Having tried abstract interactive paintings, cubism, expressionism and even interactive haiku he stumbled upon the idea of a video-game.

More surprising is that Ryan and Amy decided to create That Dragon, Cancer while Joel's treatment continued. What started as a story about the hopeful prayer for miraculous healing has had to change over the years, not least in 2014 when Joel died from an atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumour. He was five years old.

All this is in the game. Too much at times to take in. Too much surely for entertainment? But the game copes admirably, bringing not only heart wrenching sadness but also playful interactions with Joel, insight into family humanity and throughout it all a brooding hopeful faith.

The Green's Christian beliefs thread through everything. Amy is more hopeful for Joel's healing, while Ryan finds more uncertainty and doubt. Although jarring at times, and sharp words are exchanged, one doesn't eclipse the other.

What sounds a little morbid at first is in reality a story about gratitude and generosity. Through the game's 2 hour duration little time is spent on "battling cancer". Instead we get to know Joel through the eyes of his parents and siblings. We hear his laughter and push him on the swings. We share his delight in sleeping in the safe folds of a friendly dog. We join him for a pancake picnic.

By the end we have passed through the watches of cancer's long night. Seeing Joel's pictures roll during the end-credits brings sadness of course. More than that though we are grateful for the time we spent with him here and for the generosity of the Greens for sharing this gift in the most unimaginable of times.