That Dragon, Cancer is difficult to write about when you have a lot of space between yourself and the subject matter. I’ve never had a loved one suffer or pass away from cancer (except my dog, which, while tragic, is somewhat different in my mind); I’ve never had kids, or been around them in any kind of caretaker role; and, for me, the most difficult gap to bridge comes from the fact that I’ve never had a strong spiritual faith.
I’d like to touch on the last part first, because it most strongly affected my experience with That Dragon. The Green family’s Christianity strongly informs their responses to Joel’s cancer. The main conflict comes from Amy Green’s knowing that God will save her son’s life (though she is, tragically, proven wrong), and Ryan Green’s hope, but doubt, that this is true. Amy’s faith, and even Ryan’s, is not one that I’ve experienced first-hand, but also not one that I’ve personally witnessed before. I hesitate to say that it’s a cultural (US/UK) difference, because there are many British people who would have reacted as the Greens did, but I believe their reaction would be more common in the States, so many American players might find it more recognisable than I did.
My separation informed my experience with That Dragon, and is thus noteworthy. The strength of the game, though, was that for me, it was an experience in empathy. It excelled in showing a very specific and personal event through a very specific and personal lens and while this event wasn’t something I have been through and the lens wasn’t one that I’m familiar with, the game’s great invocation of this empathy meant that it was nonetheless moving and worthwhile. That Dragon is able to be universally understandable whilst, I’m sure, being particularly engaging to those who have been personally affected by similar circumstances. In a way, some of the parts I couldn’t identify with were the most important, because they weren’t for me. They were for those personally touched by cancer, by the loss of a child, and/or by an intense challenge to their faith, and that I haven’t been through those things is something I can only be grateful for.
Another strength is that I don’t think I would call That Dragon a sad game. Whilst I went into it extremely nervous about what I was about to experience, it immediately calmed me with happy music and colourful visuals, and while there were moments of strong emotion including sadness throughout, other emotions, like hope and joy, still managed to shine through.
In particular I enjoyed the game’s treatment of uncertainty. The opening sequence sees Joel and his family feeding the ducks, and Joel’s siblings are trying to understand his illness by asking a lot of questions. Their parents dutifully answer, but you get the feeling that they are trying to understand too. That Dragon immediately sets out to answer big questions like what is hope, or joy, without words? This is due to Joel’s inability to speak, caused by his cancer, but in the end isn’t this one of the things that games are best at – addressing things in ways beyond words?
The positioning of the subtitling on screen also always fits into the lines and aesthetics of the backgrounds, which is endlessly satisfying.
And That Dragon does go some way towards answering these uncertainties, but in a very clever and subtle way. I believe that every person who plays this game will come out with a different interpretation. Whilst this is in part due to the open nature of the narrative, which never puts one interpretation or response as the “correct” one, it’s also due to the game’s use of metaphor. Some of it, like the use of colour and space, or the breathtaking display of a warzone full of hospitals, is designed to be noticed, but still each person would come away with their own interpretation. And then some of it felt more subtle, like the fact that at times I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing, but that something I was doing was causing me to progress, which hit pretty close to home when I realised that this is sort of how life works anyway, at least in my experience.
Because of the openness of interpretation, I don’t want to speak too much on what actually happens in the game. It’s something that you need to play (or watch) and come to your own conclusions about. But the most important thing about the game for me was that it didn’t force me to be sad. Whilst in part due to my separation from its themes, it’s certainly also something intended by the developers. There are scenes of happiness that are just as important as any of the other scenes, and where there are sad scenes these are framed with silver linings about families pulling together in times of hardships; about moments of joy and calm among turmoil and tragedy; and about coping and continuing through hardship.
Somehow, Joel’s years of chemotherapy become a joyous cart race and yet don’t feel trivialised at all.
The idea that stuck with me most after finishing That Dragon was a re-affirmation that life is short, and that we should enjoy it while we can. When you learn that Joel loves pancakes and dogs and bubbles, you want to give Joel all the pancakes and dogs and bubbles he can handle. This is a lesson that is applicable to everyone’s lives: give the people in your life their equivalent of pancakes, and give them to yourself, too. Treating ourselves and others with the kindness that they deserve, today and every day, is the best way to find the happiness that That Dragon, Cancer tells us is hiding beneath the surface, even in times of immense hardship.