'That Dragon, Cancer' forced me to confront my past

One family's journey sent me back on my own.

This article contains spoilers for That Dragon, Cancer.

My son died on May 27, 2005, the day after his extremely premature birth. I rarely talk about it, or even let my brain wander to the memories of what were some of the worst hours of my life. That Dragon, Cancer forced me to. It's a game that tells the true story of its creators, Amy and Ryan Green, struggling with their son Joel's cancer. Diagnosed at age 1 and given a few months to live, Joel lived to 5 years old. It's gut-wrenching stuff for any player, but as a father who has lost a child, it affected me deeply.

The story is told through a series of point-and-click vignettes, which take a couple of hours to get through. Some show the couple supporting their child and family, or buckling under the pressures of treatment. Others focus on despair, on faith or on hope. They highlight the roller coaster of emotions we experience when preparing for or dealing with loss. These snapshots are mostly seen from the father's perspective, with the mother's hopes and fears often conveyed through conversation or voicemails.

That Dragon, Cancer opens in a park where you discover that, at 5 years old, Joel cannot talk, save a few words. Four years of cancer treatments have left him "a boy baby," his elder brother explains. The next chapter has you wandering around listening to recordings from Joel's life, while Ryan muses about his role in his son's life. It ends on a beach, with Joel in a hospital bed, and cancerous cells floating in the surf. This collision of reality and the metaphorical happens throughout, as does the juxtaposition of happiness and looming despair.

Interaction in the game is minimal, but isn't without purpose. Mostly you're clicking to move perspective or hear a recording, but this limited agency, together with the fixed narrative, sucks you in. There are times, for example, when you have to literally and figuratively "walk away" from Joel. Or simply stroke his head to comfort him. It helps you feel a small part of what the Greens felt. It also pushed me to confront my own feelings for the first time in years. To remember what it's like to have to walk away from your child.

It pushed me to confront my own feelings for the first time in years. To remember what it's like to have to walk away from your child.

The game's self-imposed limitations are occasionally expanded to devastating effect. Indeed, the two most memorable chapters are also two of the most interactive. The first starts with a kid's toy, where you select farmyard animals and hear jokes. Joel giggles at each, the intensity of laugher increasing with every button press. It's a lovely moment, just making Joel happy after so many chapters of sadness. But this respite proves brief, as everything gets turned on its head.

"I'm sorry, guys, it's not good." A pair of doctors are now in the room, giving Amy and Ryan the tragic news that Joel's cancer has returned. As you look down at the toy, the farmyard creatures are replaced by the four people in the scene. Selecting each lets you hear the internal monologue along with the doctors' dialogue. Eventually, the environment begins to shift, representing the emotion overwhelming the room. I ended up playing through the vignette five times to try and understand what everyone was thinking and feeling.

There's another scene, called "Dehydration," that refuses to leave my mind. In it, Joel is crying. Not with the voice of a 5-year-old with a skinned knee, but the raw, helpless shriek of a newborn, so overwhelmed by his very existence that he cannot perceive anything but anguish. He's dehydrated and distressed. To fix it, you select drinks from a table to slake his thirst. For a second, it works -- but he can't hold down the liquid, and ends up vomiting. The cries continue. All the while, you hear Ryan's thoughts and frustrations at being unable to soothe his child.

Hearing brief flames of hope quickly extinguished by the reality of the prognosis was eerily reminiscent of my own experiences. It reminded me of the quiet in the delivery room after my first son was born. We're conditioned to expect a newborn to arrive screaming and kicking. He arrived in silence, unconscious. The flicker of joy and excitement my ex-wife and I felt was instantly damped by the expression of the midwife as the baby was rushed to a special care unit. I wouldn't see him again for hours. When I finally could, it was from behind a clear plastic screen. I was unable to touch, unable to comfort.

As you'd expect, not every scene resonated with me. Despite being raised a Christian, my adolescence and adulthood have been permeated by that uniquely Western brand of apathetic agnosticism. As the game shifted toward questions of God and religion, it pushed me back a little. I have some deeply religious family members, and seeing faith sustain them or bring them joy is a wonderful thing. So, too, is the notion that others are praying for a solution to your problems. When discussing the afterlife or why God might allow a child to die, though, I struggle to relate.

But that didn't make the religious scenes any less valuable. Throughout its 14 chapters, the games asks questions. What makes Joel happy? How can you possibly hope to make a dying child happy? Toward the end of That Dragon, Cancer, we see a vision of Joel in heaven. Ryan is blowing bubbles for Joel and making him laugh. I don't believe in an afterlife, but I believe in doing everything you can to make those you love happy, and to help them be at peace.

I don't believe in an afterlife, but I believe in doing everything you can to make those you love happy, and at peace.

For me, the only way I could do this was accepting that there was "no viability." Accepting that the treatments were not working, and that my son's lungs would not develop. It was taking the doctors' advice, and dealing with the loss. For Joel's parents, it was trying everything in their power to save their son. It was making his short life as happy and as comfortable as it could be. And it was also building That Dragon, Cancer as a mausoleum to contain and share those memories, good and bad, with the rest of the world.

What's remarkable to me is how the game has affected those who play it in different ways. When I finished it, I had clear in my mind that the game was created for myself and others who have lost a child, or perhaps for Amy and Ryan Green to commemorate and remember their own. But that's not quite right, as others have found their own experiences inside. That Dragon, Cancer is a truly special game. A cathartic memoir to some, an educational tool for others and an unmissable journey for all.

Image credits: Numinous Games.