That Dragon, Cancer :Celebrating a life - Games Weekly

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Saturday, February 7, 2015

That Dragon, Cancer :Celebrating a life

Cancer is a beast. The Green family knows this all too well. They watched their son Joel battle the illness since he was one year old. During Joel’s fight, the family decided to share their story by creating a video game called That Dragon, Cancer. Sadly, in the middle of the project, Joel passed away at the age of five. Since then, the game has changed profoundly, even expanding to PC after a successful Kickstarter campaign.

The adventure game lets players get to know Joel and experience different moments throughout his life via exploration and interaction. Initially, it showcased Joel’s battle, but the game’s vision has evolved. “When Joel died, we realized that the game we outlined was the story of cancer, not the story of Joel,” says Joel’s father and creator Ryan Green. “And so, our vision for the game shifted, as we focused on telling Joel’s story in a way that would honor him.”


The team went back to the drawing board, making sure each scene passed a simple test. “‘Does this cause the player to love Joel more?’ And, ‘Does this allow the player to know Joel in some small way?’” Green explains. “In the end, what remains is the story of our relationship with Joel, more than the specifics of his treatment.”

That Dragon, Cancer is about moments, and the player being present in them. You play through the Green’s memories of Joel; audio from home videos and voice-over dialogue from the Greens were included to make these experiences more authentic. “The result is a simple space that we hope feels lived in and emotionally intimate,” Green says. “We want players to feel as comfortable as to sit with us and experience our lives with us, as one of our good friends would feel.”

The journey includes hospital visits and the Greens’ struggles, but most experiences are about just getting to know Joel. You watch him play with a dog, swing on a swing next to you, and hear his infectious laugh. “You start as a duck,” says co-creator Josh Larson. “Just let that sink in for a second. Of all the ways we could start with the story of Joel fighting cancer, we start it with you as a duck. Why? Joel loved ducks. In fact, most of your time playing will be spent loving Joel and experiencing what Joel loved.”

“My hope is that the player takes their time so that the spaces we’ve created aren’t only filled with our memories, but that the familiar spaces can be filled with their own,” Green adds. “Perhaps it’s an extra moment riding a merry go round and looking up at the trees, or swinging with Joel on the playground, or rocking Joel to sleep and listening to him breathe, or playing a game one more time, just for Joel’s enjoyment of it. Those moments should be familiar to anyone, and so they have the ability to stir the player to reflect on their own experiences.”

Asking players to face such an emotional and difficult obstacle such as cancer in a video game isn’t an easy request. Green even admits to seeing plenty of people on social media say they’re afraid to play the game. “My hope is that players who take the risk of living in our story through this game will agree that it gives more than it takes; that the experience gave them renewed hope, or a new understanding of faith, or a memory of great love to their life,” Green says. “I hope that players understand that this game demands their emotional investment, but when they finish playing they can say that it gave more than it cost.”

“Playing That Dragon, Cancer might be sad, but we hope it’s also funny, sweet, relatable, thought-provoking, surprising, and even fun,” Larson adds.

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