That Dragon, Cancer

A religious analysis of That Dragon, Cancer by Patrick Davet.

That Dragon Cancer is not like most video games. In fact, it’s not like any experience you’ll have this year, with any type of media. It’s a video game created by Ryan and Amy Green and a small team at Numinous Games it’s the death of Ryan and Amy’s infant son Joel who was diagnosed with terminal cancer in November of 2010. It’s a game that received a lot of attention for its subject matter. Websites were flooded with arguments as to whether or not it was really a game. I mean, sure, you play through it but but little bit of playing that you do is mostly pointing and clicking or just experiencing life through Joel’s eyes.

It’s a powerful game. NPR’s segments on it from This American Life had JJ Sutherland from the podcast  Shall We Play a Game on for their website. To quote Sutherland in the NPR article, “This isn’t like most video games. You aren’t shooting people here or running a race. You’re moving around a hospital. You can look at pictures in cards. Oh, you do fight dragons at one point. But most of it is clicking on ordinary objects like a cell phone to hear a voicemail.

Ryan, the developer of the game, used recordings of Joel’s laughter and other audio collected during his son’s life in the game. It’s a part of a growing trend in games that focus more on the narrative rather than the experience of the experience of the game itself. Much like Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, it’s a game that focuses on connection and emotion, but it still revolves around death.

As the game progresses, the religious elements stick out more. Both Ryan and Amy were devout Christians, so it makes sense that their game would take on a more religious aspect as it went on. Sam Zucchi at Killscreen wrote a review of the game that highlighted its religious elements. He said that “grief is eminently relatable, while faith is considered potentially alienating.” The game is meant to be experienced at these points from Ryan and Amy’s point of view when it switches to this religious element. We hear them quote the Bible. They give lessons to Joel about God and why hope is necessary. They console themselves. In the game’s art style, which is beautiful pastel-shaded forms, nothing is really whole. It’s as though you’re looking through Joel’s eyes but you see that the world is beautiful anyway.