‘That Dragon, Cancer’ Is an Emotionally Powerful Experience

Ryan Green stands in front of his poster for That Dragon, Cancer, which shows him sitting in a chair with his baby Joel on his chest, while a green bag of medicine suspended above is dripping into his son.
Ryan Green with his in-game doppelgänger on the poster. Image: Michael LeSauvage

While GeekDad had covered the Kickstarter announcement for That Dragon, Cancer, I hadn’t heard of it until PAX Prime, when it was the very first booth I stopped to check out. More of a shared experience than a game, That Dragon, Cancer is the poetic retelling of the story of developer Ryan Green’s third son, Joel, who was diagnosed with brain cancer when he was just one year old. It follows his life, illness, and how it affected Joel’s family and the people around them. Joel received a terminal diagnosis when he was two, and the family shared his last three years alive under the shadow of the metaphorical dragon.

I asked Ryan his thoughts on what he was hoping to share with the game:

“Living under that shadow, how does that change you and where do you find each other and where do you find hope in the midst of that? Those are the themes we explore along with the joy of making [Joel] laugh. Whether it be in a fantastical forest or a go-kart ride in the middle of the hospital, it’s those moments of levity and joy and intimacy in the midst of something that’s so ever-present.”

Ryan told me he feels the project is partly a memorial, partly a form of grieving, and also a way to wrestle with the experience, emotionally and spiritually. It was created for the same reasons someone might write poetry or create any other piece of art about a difficult time in their life, and hopefully people find value in the sharing of that story, whether they’ve been touched by something similar or not.

That Dragon Cancer Wagon

I played the demo that was on display for PAX Prime. The experience varies from person to person, but for me, it was overwhelming. At the demo’s start, I controlled a duck in a pond, approaching Joel as he sat on the shoreline throwing bread into the water. I could hear Joel’s siblings talking with Ryan about how Joel was different, but focussing on what Joel enjoyed and how he experiences the world differently. Joel was laughing from time to time, and I immediately knew that this was his voice, recorded while he was alive. (Green later confirmed with me that the voices in the game are a mix of dramatized and home video/audio recordings by the family). Knowing where this was leading, Joel’s laughs cut through me deeply, and it wasn’t long before I was wiping tears away while I shared in the family’s experience.

Perspectives changed as the game progressed. For a time, I was Joel, throwing the bread in the water. Later, I spent time in the park with Ryan’s wife, Amy, while Joel played on slides and spring-mounted horsey. Then I was a friend entertaining Joel as the doctors talked to Ryan and Amy about treatment options. It was very intimate in that space, with the private thoughts of Ryan, Amy, and the medical staff whispered underneath the surface conversation.

That Dragon Cancer Amy Recovery

I ended the demo a total wreck, stifling my sobs in the booth’s corner while PAX continued behind me; why did they not have any tissue on hand? It took me about 20 minutes to fully recover, and I felt the experience was still showing on my face by the time I reached the GeekDad panel. Don’t let that dissuade you. That Dragon, Cancer is an important piece that will be cathartic for some, and a way for others who haven’t been touched by cancer to see the disease through someone else’s eyes. It’s already affected a number of people: their Kickstarter campaign included a funding level where backers could contribute artwork for use in the hospital scenes. The game will include handprints and other artwork, surely much of it from people who have gone through the ordeal themselves.

That Dragon, Cancer is slated for release Fall 2015 and Green tells me it should be about an hour and a half long, which I fully intend to experience. I’ll just make sure I’m well rested and have my family nearby for hugs. Learn more about it on their website.

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