“Choosing to desperately love somebody that you could lose, I think that has changed me,” Ryan Green, co-creator of That Dragon, Cancer told the Huffington Post. It’s a game about the experience of Ryan and Amy Green’s family in the face of terminal illness. Their son, Joel, was diagnosed with incurable cancer when he was only one. A few years later, Ryan and colleague Josh Larson started making a game in order to share the Green’s experiences, and after Joel passed away at the age of five in the spring of 2014, the game very much became a tribute to the little boy. Since then, That Dragon, Cancer has been at the top of “most anticipated indie games” lists across the industry. Released on January 12, this game is a powerful and important title, demonstrating what authentic Christian art can look like.
This title is nothing like the blockbuster action and combat games that get the most attention of money in the industry. It is an interactive narrative: a slow, thoughtful, point-and-click adventure in which the player explores an artistically beautiful series of scenes accompanied by haunting music. The game doesn’t require good reflexes to play and there’s no high score. Rather, exploration touches off little bits of story or scenes with reflections. We can sit in a hospital chair with Ryan, cradling a baby Joel hooked up to an IV, and press on a phone to listen the hopeful voicemail from Amy. We can watch Joel cuddle with a dog as we listen to audio of family recordings play. Sometimes, the game jumps into unexpectedly creative and unusual experiences, like the dream scene of guiding a little Joel hanging from balloons made of inflated surgical gloves through a minefield of cancer cells.
It is not, then, a game that requires players with lightning-quick reflexes. Rather, the challenge to progress is its emotional power. I have never cried before while playing a game. That Dragon, Cancer had me sobbing more than I ever have during a movie. Because video games have the ability not only to put us in someone’s shoes but to control how we walk in them, That Dragon, Cancer gave me a tremendously vivid experience of living with impending death.
What makes the game even more compelling is that Ryan and Amy are completely open about their Christian faith and their struggles with God in a time of immense suffering. They believed that God would produce a miracle of healing, but maintaining such faith took its toll in the face of doctors’ grim diagnoses; one particularly moving sequence allows us access to Amy’s desperate hope and Ryan’s simultaneous despair. And, of course, all their thoughts and hopes and fears are now filtered through the bitter knowledge that the miraculous healing never did occur. There are precious few expressions in contemporary Christian culture of the sorrow and pain of the children of God that we see over and over again in the book of Job and the Psalms and the prophet Jeremiah’s Lamentations. That Dragon, Cancer steps boldly into that void. So many of us have fought the dragon of cancer – as the game itself notes – and we should be mourning and struggling together.
Along with the sorrow, however, are moments of joy (Joel throwing bread to ducks) and goofy fun (a wild and unexpected car race through a hospital ward) and, ultimately, hope in an embodied God who has experienced our pain and sorrow, which becomes clear by the end of the game (in ways that I don’t want to spoil).
In other words, this game is a profound theological reflection of our place in this world. A perfect Creation was corrupted, and we cannot remove the stain of evil present in all experiences. Jesus proclaimed to his followers that he had initiated the Kingdom of God in this world and redemption is at hand. At the same time, however, it is clear that the forces of sin and suffering still hold tight to us. We live in the time of the now-and-not-yet, and until Christ comes again in power to set all things right, the knowledge and joy of salvation will be mixed with the tears of death.
This is the experience of the Greens, and they have displayed tremendous courage in sharing it with us. That Dragon, Cancer isn’t fun, but it is good, in the most profound sense of the word. If you’ve always wondered why anyone would care about a video game, I strongly encourage you to go online, download it (thatdragoncancer.com), and try it out. The game stretches an important new form of communication and it shares a human experience in a way that would be impossible to replicate in a book or a film. More importantly, it’s a profound and brave reflection on what it means to follow God through this vale of tears into the Promised Land beyond.
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