I am not entirely clear, in my mind, if playing That Dragon, Cancer upset me as a result of its game-ness, especially.
Perhaps it was the poetry of love and loss that is threaded through the experience. Maybe it's the heart-breaking sound-files of a child playing with his family. Or it's the mere knowledge that this is a true story about a little boy, Joel Green, who died of cancer and left behind people who love him very much.
That Dragon, Cancer is an intense game-world, an experience, a narrative and a poem. It was originally envisioned as a game about hope. When development began, Joel was still fighting the cancer that had blighted his short life. His father Ryan, mother Amy and family friend Josh Larson decided to make a game about this fight, about how it changed their lives, about how their faith revealed itself as a source of strength.
Joel died earlier this year. He was five years old.
That Dragon,Cancer remains a game about hope, for other children and for other families. But it is also a game about grief, a memorial to a happy kid and a family whose suffering is now partly manifested in a unique slice of interactive storytelling.
The demo I played is set in a park. The player follows the child as he feeds the ducks and plays on the slides and the swing. It has a dreamy, elegiac quality of intense colors, spare details and desperately sad innocence.
Strictly speaking, it's a point-and-click adventure, but it's one of those games where you progress not-so-much in order to reveal new areas or for the pleasure of solving new puzzles, but to understand the human landscape you find yourself inhabiting, one that is familiar and warm but also, actually, very distressing.
We have seen games about personal experiences before, good ones about depression, isolation, gender and identity issues. But a game about the death of a child is a new magnitude of exploration into what a game might have to say about being human, facing the best and the worst of what that condition means.
The Green family and Larson are seeking to raise funds for the game's final development via a Kickstarter. It will be released simultaneously on Windows PC (via Steam) and Ouya. I asked Ryan Green, via email, how the game has changed in the last year.
"I thought I wanted people to know what it was like to make those first phone calls in the hospital, or the tedious nature of administering medications, or disagreeing with my wife over whether we should call the doctor, or fighting with my wife at Joel's birthday party. It seemed important to me that players experience some of the trauma and understand the treatment and some of the conflict that we faced and be able to say, despite all of that, ‘Look! He's still here, look how we're getting through it in spite of ourselves!'
"In the wake of Joel's death in March, as we met to discuss how we were going to proceed, it dawned on me what I had been missing in my plans to share our story. I was making it to tell you how I felt, and how Amy felt, I was growing so self focused that it was at the expense of missing what it was like to simply be with Joel."
"The park scene I shared with you came out of that realization. Joel's developmental limitations meant that play was the primary way we interacted with Joel his entire life, whether through singing songs with motions,or making him laugh, or dancing with him and his brothers to a silly song, or finding out how much food he could stuff in his mouth at any given time, or letting him pet every dog he could get near.
"Being with Joel was the thing. It was so obvious once he was gone, that what we would all desperately miss was just being with him. We wouldn't miss the drama, the ups and downs, the medical procedures, but we would give anything just to hold him and hear him laugh again. So as I looked through the scenes we had scoped out, it became clear that the joy of playing with Joel was missing.
"And so we went through every scene and asked the question. "Does this help the player love Joel?" and ‘Does this reveal an important aspect of who Joel was?" and if it didn't answer those questions well, we cut those scenes.
"In that wrestling match with design, we've come to the point where we feel we are able to communicate what made knowing Joel special and it still includes elements of how we felt in the midst of it, and what happens to our hearts when we're faced with an illness that we will not overcome. We started this project in the middle of our journey of loving Joel and fighting his cancer. Only through the living of our story, did we face the ending that had to be written and discover the story that's worth telling."