That Dragon, Cancer is not an easy game to write about. The autobiographical project details the emotional journey of Ryan and Amy Green as they struggle to cope with the cancer diagnosis of their son Joel, and the subject matter is just as wrenching as you’d imagine. Joel died in 2014 at the age of five after a four-year battle with the disease and it’s impossible to overstate the genuine grief that pours out of the screen in the latter stages of the game.
Tragedy, however, has always been an integral component of storytelling, so that’s not what makes the game so difficult to discuss. That Dragon, Cancer walks a thin line between biography and fiction, to the point that the story in the game and the story of the game are virtually inseparable. The game (and the story behind it) has been unusually well publicized following a Kickstarter campaign and Thank You For Playing, the full documentary about the making of That Dragon, Cancer that debuted at last year’s Hot Docs film festival. Even games that are based on true stories rarely skirt so close to the truth.
Can you review the game without inadvertently reviewing somebody’s life? Is it possible to criticize That Dragon, Cancer in a way that is respectful, thoughtful, and sincere?
That’s the conundrum. Sometimes there’s an impulse to spare a game to spare the feelings of those who made it, and that’s especially true in the case of such a nakedly personal game like That Dragon, Cancer. Ryan and Amy Green’s loss is incredibly real and incredibly raw, their pain the result of an actual loss of life. I can’t even begin to imagine what that must feel like for a parent. I do know that human beings are more important than video games and it feels wrong to trivialize that loss for something as insignificant as a review.
And yet, That Dragon, Cancer is still a work of art produced for a mass audience that is currently available on Steam. I’m not trying to be cynical. I do not in any way question Ryan Green’s intentions and I think That Dragon, Cancer is a legitimate way to process grief.
I mention it only because depth of feeling does not always translate to quality of art (though in this case I think it does), and it’s necessary to maintain that barrier. That Dragon, Cancer is out in the world where people who are unfamiliar with the story will encounter it, so how does That Dragon, Cancer hold up as an independent production? What happens when you strip away everything we know about how it was made and Ryan and Amy Green become fictional characters in their own autobiography?
That’s what makes That Dragon, Cancer so strange. Thank You For Playing is a better commemoration of Joel and the Greens as a family, but that unexpectedly works to the game’s benefit. That Dragon, Cancer is its own distinct creation, a work at once more abstract and more resonant than the original narrative, a moving reflection on grief and faith and the ways in which we heal emotionally. The trip into more esoteric territory makes the game special because it refocuses the experience on the way human beings deal with tragedy rather than any single incident of loss.
The end result has more power because it speaks to collectives rather than individuals. Deeply personal works can sometimes become too personal, in the sense that the creator forgets that the rest of us were not present for the events depicted in the game.
At times, That Dragon, Cancer veers uncomfortably close to that territory, particularly in the early chapters. The game attempts to give us some sense of Joel’s personality, but he is unable to articulate those thoughts and desires on his own. The result feels like a projection of a projection, one that seems like it was designed to trigger fond memories for Ryan and Amy more than it was designed to trigger a response for an audience of strangers. Watching Joel throw bread into a duck pond just doesn’t have the same impact for me as it does for them, or possibly for another parent (which I am not). I feel sort of guilty writing that, but those degrees of separation make it difficult to figure out what some scenes are supposed to convey.
Fortunately, That Dragon, Cancer evolves beyond those more idiosyncratic limitations to achieve something more universal and more profound. The turning point occurs roughly halfway through the game when you wake up in a hospital room filled with colorful greeting cards. The cards contain heartfelt messages from Kickstarter backers (it was one of the reward tiers), many of which are written to or in memory of others who have died of cancer.
Though Kickstarter rewards are often crammed into games in awkward ways, the cards elevate the themes of That Dragon, Cancer because they make suffering a communal experience. It expands the scope from one family and one child to everyone that has lost a loved one due to cancer. Joel’s story becomes one of millions of similar tales of grief. Though the quirks of Joel’s personality are uniquely resonant for Ryan and Amy, the scene makes you realize that the contours of their experience are not so isolating and that Joel’s story is emblematic of countless others.
The game becomes fascinating from that point forward as it begins to grapple with the emotional fallout for Ryan and Amy. Unlike Joel, Ryan and Amy are extraordinarily good at articulating their doubts and fears, and That Dragon, Cancer is ultimately as much about faith as it is about loss. Ryan and Amy are unapologetically Christian and their game reflects that explicit religiosity. However, That Dragon, Cancer never preaches, nor does it lie and present the world as somehow more perfect or less painful than it is. It questions and prods and explores what it means to have faith when there doesn’t seem to be anything positive to hold on to. How do you maintain hope when you feel like you’re adrift in an endless sea of sorrow?
Those questions are all the more riveting precisely because there are no good answers. It’s telling that Amy and Joel do not always see eye to eye. Amy, for instance, clings to the belief that Joel will be saved, at times questioning the depth of Ryan’s faith. To believe in a divine protector – to believe in miracles – is to believe that Joel will survive, but that faith makes the final outcome all the more tragic when the miracle never transpires.
Ryan, by contrast, is more pragmatic, but that can lead to a different kind of crisis. If the universe is just, why would God allow something so terrible to happen in the first place? There’s a scene in which Ryan is trapped in a hospital room with an inconsolable Joel when his faith almost begins to feel like pleading. The situation is so overwhelming and so sad that it makes him desperate for any kind of order when none seems to exist.
I don’t have any answers, nor would I suggest that either approach is right or wrong (I don’t think the game does, either). But that’s what That Dragon, Cancer does so well. It helps explain the appeal of faith. Belief implies that there is a natural order to the universe, which in turn means that we belong. Some might argue that Ryan and Amy’s experiences prove that God does not exist, but their continued faith in spite of adversity demonstrates just how powerful it can be as a motivating force. It’s comforting to know that there is a design greater than oneself and that confidence gives people the strength needed to move on.
You don’t need to be Christian in order to relate to those themes. Too many explorations of faith begin with an answer, suggesting that God either does or does not exist and then working backwards while cherry picking evidence to support that conclusion.
That Dragon, Cancer moves in the opposite direction. It does not pass judgment. It instead focuses on the process as two faithful people try to find their way back to their own faith. In that regard it’s a bit like a math problem on a high school quiz. It shows its work, which is more important because it provides a common methodology that allows us to discuss existential problems in a coherent fashion. Different people will reach different conclusions, each of which might be correct (that’s where the mathematical analogy breaks down), but it’s enough to understand the process because the questions are universal.
As a Jewish man, I don’t have the same kind of faith as Ryan and Amy Green. But their Christianity is not exclusionary, so I do find that I relate to their ideas about tragedy and theology because they are so flawed and human. The fact that Ryan and Amy disagree demonstrates how truly impossible the questions are, and their willingness to share that with the public is one of the most honest and courageous things I’ve ever seen in a video game. That vulnerability shows how spirituality can thrive in the ambiguous spaces between knowledge and certainty, letting people know that not knowing is normal and acceptable.
That Dragon, Cancer is therefore not a treatise as much as it’s a template, a tool that others can use to address their own sense of loss. It holds your hand and walks you through a difficult process, and that reassuring uncertainty makes it all the more remarkable.