In my many years playing video games, I’ve gone up against a lot of dragons. They’ve taunted me from ledges or caves, breathing fire if I got too close. I’ve lost lives to dragons; I’ve outsmarted dragons and run them through; I’ve tamed dragons and ridden their scaly backs through the clouds. I’ve reclaimed the treasure they hoarded and liberated the princesses they kidnapped. But it’s safe to say that none of these garden variety dragons have been as insidious or made me feel as helpless as the one I encountered most recently.
That Dragon, Cancer is an experimental adventure game under development for the OUYA console, and it’s based on a true story. Joel Green, the four-year-old son of programmer Ryan Green, was diagnosed with a brain tumor when he was just one. By his second birthday, his doctors only expected him to him to live a few weeks—four months at the most. More than two years later, after multiple recurrences, surgeries, and rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Joel is still alive against all odds, and his dad is working with a small indie team to make a game about the experience of raising a son with terminal cancer.
Joel Green and his father Ryan
If it sounds heartbreaking, well, it plays that way, too. The short press demo I played included only one scene, set in the hospital on what Ryan characterizes as one of the worst nights of his life. The scene begins with Ryan sitting in a chair beside his son’s bed, looking around the room. This is a first-person game, so we see what he sees—the edge of a crib, a coffee table, a window—with occasional glimpses of his feet as he looks down, or of his shadow moving over the wall. Dragging the mouse to pan the camera triggers Ryan’s observations about the décor’s muted blue/green color scheme and the too-small vinyl visitor’s chair. “Huh. The sunset looks pretty from here.”
At one point during the demo, Ryan’s entire body comes into view: at the window, the camera turns on him to reveal an ordinary-looking guy with a beard and glasses. He’s wearing shorts, flip-flops. He’s a little pudgy under his green tee shirt. Just as the titular dragon is not a typical video game villain, Joel’s dad is not the usual hero.
Looking out the window, still facing the player, the weary father describes how he felt when his son was first diagnosed. “For a moment it was an adventure. I was cast as the compassionate and caring father, holed up with his fragile son in a small cleft in the rocks, the storm raging, waves ripping at the sharp black rocks below, and enveloped in my arms he feels safe. I’m holding him firmly, trying not to slip. Because if you hold tight enough, nothing will take him… right?”
That last bit, he says with uncertainty.
By moving the camera around and clicking on the subtle icons that occasionally appear at the center of the screen (a set of footprints to walk, a hand to interact), I explored the small hospital room and adjoining bathroom, which are realistically depicted with minimalist, intentionally blocky 3D graphics. A quiet piano sonata plays in the background, with the constant beeps of hospital equipment keeping time like a metronome. Ryan’s voice, describing what he sees, is tired and worn down. In this room, at this moment in time, there seems to be very little hope. I made my way through the room and couldn’t open the door to get out. There wasn’t anything left to look at, so I sat back down in the vinyl chair.
Then a baby began to cry.
In this demo, Joel’s character model was not present. Though Ryan’s narration referred to Joel in the crib, the crib was empty. This was surely due to it being an early preview version, but the baby’s disembodied cries made the dusky hospital room that much lonelier. Feeling lost without being able to see the child in my arms, I visited the developers’ website, where screenshots show that Joel, like his father, will be represented by a 3D model with a low polygon count. The website also shows photos of the real Joel posing with his parents and three brothers. His hair is blond; his eyes are blue and crossed.
At first, I was able to console the crying child by bouncing him on my knee. But the cries soon became louder and fiercer. My options were few: I could put Joel down in the crib, pick him up again, feed him juice that he’d promptly vomit up. My child was screaming, banging his head against the bars of the crib. Before long the only choice left was to pray.
It was exhausting. It was gut wrenching. Even for the few minutes this demo lasted, I found it very hard to play.
The developers say that this is only one isolated scene out of many, and other parts of That Dragon, Cancer will be “joyful, silly, or thought-provoking.” Considering that Joel was given only weeks to live more than two years ago, it stands to reason that this game should have some hopeful surprises alongside its dark moments. With such heavy subject matter, I expect the flow and composition of its narrative will be important to the game’s success. Otherwise, it would just be too sad. As for gameplay, it’s not yet clear how much choice players will have in reliving this experience—if we’ll get to decide how to act and react, or if the game will simply guide us through Ryan’s personal experience, as happened in the demo.
Because there are so many unanswered questions right now, far ahead of the game’s proposed 2014 release, I can only speak to my personal experience playing this brief segment. I’m a big fan of drama and realism and outside-the-box storytelling in games, but I’ll be honest: I’m not sure I want to play a game about a child with terminal cancer.
I might like to play a game about a child who survives. A child who slays the dragon or at least manages to tame it. I believe that Ryan Green is making this game as a tribute to his son, and I think the decision to tell this story through an interactive medium was deliberate and courageous. I’m fascinated by the idea and by the potential. But I’m also paralyzed by it. I’d agreed to do this preview weeks before I worked up the nerve to play the demo, and more weeks passed before I sat down and wrote about it. I’m not sure I want to go up against Joel’s cancer, because I already know this is not a dragon I have the ability to outsmart or to slay.
Most of us don’t know what it’s like to have a child as sick as Joel, but many of us know what it’s like to lose someone we love, and That Dragon, Cancer will inevitably spark powerful memories in ways that are unique and personal. Seventeen years ago—wow, that’s a long time—a good friend of mine died of cancer. The last time I saw her was a couple of weeks earlier, at a birthday party she and her husband threw for their two-year-old daughter. She was bald and the medications she was taking had made her face fat and round, a transformation I wasn’t expecting when I saw her that day. Tumors pressing against her spinal cord made it painful for her to walk.
I distinctly remember two things she said during that party. One was after she dropped a piece of birthday cake and asked her husband to bring her a paper towel: “I got frosting on my walker.” The other was in reference to a 6-foot hero sandwich she’d ordered from a favorite deli and cut into slices, several feet of which still remained as the party wound down. She was trying to get some of the guests to take home leftovers, and she said, “If you don’t, I’ll be eating this sandwich until I die.”
She was a grown woman, and I never sat with her in the hospital, but when That Dragon, Cancer drove me to tears, I wasn’t only crying for Joel Green. Many times over the years since my friend Juliet died, I’ve tried to get my memories of her down on paper in a way that matters. To communicate to the world what she meant to me. All this time and I still haven’t managed to do it.
Sadness, hopelessness—these weren’t the only emotions this demo called up in me. Anger, too.
The Green family
Then again, I only played a brief, early segment of a game the developers describe as being “about hope in the face of death.” (Speaking of which, on October 8th the Greens reported that a recent MRI revealed no new tumors, and the tumors Joel does have are shrinking.) If That Dragon, Cancer can make players understand the Greens’ hope as powerfully as the demo portrays Ryan’s despair during a long night in Children’s Hospital, it has incredible potential.
Obviously we need to be brave when facing dragons, and That Dragon, Cancer promises to be a brave game. If this early demo is any indication, it will also be a difficult game, and not in the hard puzzle sense. I’m glad it’s going to exist, and that Ryan Green and the rest of the development team have the courage to tell this story, in this way. I’m just not sure if I’ll have the courage to play it.