Sun. Feb 5th, 2023

Death is common in video games, but how often do games stop to reflect on it, or on grief? Most games disguise death in hit points, energy bars, and infinite respawns – death is reduced to a gameplay mechanic, something that can be avoided or defeated with skill. Even when games permanently remove warriors from a quest’s adventurer party or force virtual soldiers in trouble to question their motivations and press “X” to pay respect, death is no end. As long as we hold a controller, the bodies are buried, the emotions are overcome and the battle rages on.

That dragon, cancer is the rare exception of the form: a game that follows a family’s suffering through cancer therapy for their birthday son. The game dares to tie sadness and tragedy into its core interactivity, and as such it has attracted a lot of pre-release attention. While it’s not new for indie and experimental games to tackle ambitious, emotional concepts and existential crises, there’s never been one so candid, so nakedly autobiographical, and so imbued with the spiritual identity of its creators.

The game is difficult, but not because of hard-to-solve puzzles or battles. The most moving moments made me pause to think, collect myself and, frankly, sob uncontrollably. But this is a video game, not a book or movie or TV series, and that means That dragon, cancer is difficult for reasons beyond empathy and triggered memories. Video games have the unique power of putting players in control of a story and then stealing that control away, and That dragon, cancer uses that power to incredible emotional effect – after all, what could render a parent as disempowered as facing an incurable cancer in your baby?

But the game also deals with concepts such as faith and spirituality, while blurring the line between players and the real narrator. Some games use audio or visual cues to tell you how to get through puzzles or battles, but That dragon, cancer uses them to tell players how to get through grief. The result is the most morally vocal video game you’ll ever play, but while I’d hoped that such a view would make this a powerful, challenging way to explore the concept of loss, I found myself ultimately disappointed in that aspect of an otherwise unforgettable game. tribute.

Drown in a river

Ryan and Joel.

In a series of 14 chapters, each lasting five to ten minutes, That dragon, cancer tells the largely real-life story of parents Ryan and Amy Green and their toddler son Joel. Mother, father, and baby are rendered in an abstract, angular fashion, as if low-poly 3D models from a late ’80s computer project were smothered in a rainbow of watercolor and paper grain effects. Care has been taken to remove overwrought animation or details. There are no eyes, lips, or other possible creepy valleys. Instead, characters move subtly, especially Joel, who claps, points, and waves in very sweet ways.

The chapters are mostly controlled by pointing a mouse or joystick to rotate the game’s camera and select elements to interact with. This triggers simple things depending on the context, such as stepping in a certain direction, pushing Joel off a slide, or opening a greeting card. A few sequences play out like familiar video games, but they don’t require platforming skills to complete. Those game-like parts don’t depend on success or failure either – which makes sense in the case of this game, since it’s never the player’s fault if something bad happens to Joel.

These chapters are marginally interactive storylines set in beautiful, often abstract settings, ranging from drab hospital rooms to soaring cathedrals. Most of the chapters feature narration by the real Mr. and Mrs. Green, who, to their credit, rarely sound melodramatic as they essentially relive the horrors of their child’s cancer experience. The game has few traditional scripted scenes where characters exchange dialogue or discover key plot points; the spoken passages of the Green family are mostly informal – for example, conversations between parents and children, voicemails reminding of the progress of Joel’s treatment, or internal monologues about the ordeal of caring for a dying child.

These narrative bits are tucked into the clickable environments, and they all have vastly different interactive premises. In one you can click to activate Joel’s play in a playground; in another you can flip through dozens of greeting cards to read sayings about grief; in yet another you click to fly over a river where father Ryan literally and/or figuratively drowns.

As co-authors of the game, Ryan and Amy Green focus entirely on their own experiences – with the exception of letters, cards, and other passages of text in the game, written by outside, often unnamed contributors who suffered similar losses. Some moments don’t resonate, especially the happy-sounding taped conversations between the parents and their older sons who have little to do with Joel. Fortunately, most of the game’s big moments strike the all-important balance between intimate specificity and universal empathy, like when players helplessly click through a hospital room hoping to find a way to put a screaming, vomiting Joel to sleep.

A parent’s love for a child

One of Amy's many letters.
Enlarge / One of Amy’s many letters.

The game does not shy away from death – fear, anxiety, sadness and a series of sobs and screams from both the parents and their son Joel. You may assume that no content in a video game can feel more intense than that, but TDC finds a way – by focusing hugely on the Christian faith of the Green family.

A gameplay-like sequence involves the parents explaining to their older children that God is a warrior who stands next to people suffering from cancer – the titular dragon – and fights it on their behalf. Some chapters are dominated by long letters, written and narrated by Amy, affirming her belief in God’s power and presence. “My doubts are insignificant compared to God’s faithfulness,” Amy writes in a . Her many letters spell out many emotional questions, but she doesn’t explore her faith nearly as intensely or intimately—there’s no digging into growing up with faith, or developing faith as a mother of multiple children, or caring for Joel specially formed. her understanding of the Christian faith.

In that regard, Ryan is at the side of his wife and co-writer, recalling New Testament accounts of faith in Jesus; the closest he comes to questioning his spiritual path is asking if “Jesus will weep” for Joel as he did Lazarus. The game’s statements of faith accentuate many of Ryan and Amy’s most emotional moments, and they’re spoken and written as bulletproof tenets, meaning they come with the expectation that players share or at least accept those values, as opposed to the game that offers more stories, interactive sequences, or relatable context for Ryan and Amy’s trials or tribulations as Christians.

Conversely, the game allows players to interact and relate to the family’s love for Joel – the nurturing, laugh-out-loud moments that universally connect parents to children. Unless you’re a sociopath, you don’t need memories like that to realize why a parent would love a child, but… TDC players can still push Joel down a slide, help him play with an emotionally charged See ‘n Say talking toy, and comfort him during the terrifying ordeal of getting an MRI scan.

After completing the game and reflecting on what had happened, I found myself wishing for similar intimacy or interactivity with regard to the family’s faith. In TDC, the Greens present the word of the Christian God as seemingly sacrosanct and force us as half-player, half-narrator participants to follow the spiritual path of the family. We cannot absorb the faith-intensive process in the same way we do in a movie or a book – as bystanders who can watch and judge from our own perspective. Players can’t just click to align their values ​​with the Greens.

At its best, the game forces us to let go of Joel – either this Joel, who feels so alive in the game because of so many beautiful moments, or another form of Joel in our own lives – without any guidance, except to control our own compass next to the family’s own stories of happiness, pain and confusion with which we can identify. That’s the emotional heart of That dragon, cancer the ones I’ll remember most vividly: the moments when the family’s words and the game’s perfectly rendered scenes fit together in ways that are less about logic and rationality and more about emotion and survival.

By akfire1

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