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Playing Through the Shadow of Death

Imagine holding a screaming child who is badly dehydrated but unable to keep anything in his stomach, the combined poison of chemotherapy and cancer coursing through his veins. You try desperately to comfort him, and nothing works. Imagine that same child on a different day, playful, sharing his beautiful laugh freely, unable to speak properly because of his brain tumors. What visions fly through his head? What visions does he see that you cannot?

That Dragon, Cancer is a special kind of video game, an interactive exploration of the Green family’s encounter with the disease. Ryan and Amy Green’s third son, Joel, was diagnosed with terminal cancer when he was only one and passed away at the age of five in the spring of 2014. That Dragon, Cancer walks us through suffering, love, grief, storm-tested faith, and grace in a way that only a video game could. While many associate video games with space combat, pointless shooting, and simulated sports, a growing number of games are demonstrating how the medium can be a vehicle for empathy.

That Dragon, Cancer leaves out many standard game mechanics. There is no score or competition. Most scenes revolve around exploration. At the beginning, the player controls a duck that hunts pieces of bread Joel is throwing into the water. Shortly after that, the player walks to a playground, where Joel waits to be pushed on the swing and down the slide. Most actions trigger bits of recorded family conversations, or thoughts and observations from Ryan and Amy, or short mini-movies.

The music is achingly wistful and moving. The impressionistic graphics are bathed in lovely palettes, at times warm, vibrant and full of life, and other times, somber and cold. Throughout the game, players encounter a number of creative and unexpected moments: tangled black masses, symbolizing cancerous tumors, lurk ominously throughout the landscape; a walk down a hospital hallway suddenly transforms into a frantic, delightful Mario Kart style mini-game.

Ultimately, though, what makes That Dragon, Cancer unique is the access Ryan and Amy give players to their souls. We hear their confused and painful thoughts as they learn of Joel’s terminal diagnosis. We listen in as they struggle with God and try to understand what faith means in the face of death. Most crucially, we see Joel through their eyes, this beautiful boy who laughs and plays in spite of all the pain and anxiety.

I have seen dozens of bitterly sad movies, but I don’t think any of them have left me sobbing like this, partly because I have young children myself, but also because I am not so much watching the Greens struggle with Joel’s illness as I am taking their place and living what they lived. I not only see Joel’s dreams, I participate in them along with him. Even virtual, tangential involvement in the tragedy that struck the Greens left tears streaming down my face.

Three years before release, in the early stages of the game’s development, the video game press was already raving about this raw emotional power. Current reviews are equally complimentary. Every writer has described the piercing moments of sadness, of weeping, even of having to stop playing for a while; all of them see this as a sign of a masterfully made game. The incisively intelligent, frequently profane, and often cynical Jerry Holkins of popular game comic Penny Arcade wrote a moving post that culminated in spiritual longing: “I want there to be a God,” he writes. “There should be one, because these people deserve an answer.”

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Playing Through the Shadow of Death