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About That Dragon, Cancer

So, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the game That Dragon, Cancer.

You know how, sometimes, you read a book and you know you’re not the intended audience, and this makes it hard for you to really love it, and yet somehow you can appreciate why, for the people it is intended for, it would be a moving experience?

It’s not mere coincidence that, as I write this, I’m thinking of C.S. Lewis and A Grief Observed. Like That Dragon, Cancer, it’s a painful expression (and depiction) of grief at the loss of a loved one by a devout Christian. In the case of A Grief Observed, Lewis was mourning the death of the love of his life, only a short time (I think it was just a few short years) after they were married, and in its pages, Lewis rails at himself, at God, at human frailty, and at death, though in the end he arrives at a kind of… well, I guess we could call it peace, or acceptance, or readiness to keep on (though not, in the sense we sometimes mean it, to “move on” as in to “get over it”: Lewis knows that we never truly recover completely, we just continue on, and find ways to be less crippled by our grief). All of this rage and sorrow and fear and pain is something of a departure, of course: Lewis’s Christianity, of course, is a very British sort: calm, quiet, not pushy or insistent, and not really particularly preoccupied with rituals or magical occurrences like “miracles.” 

Which I think is maybe why I found A Grief Observed fairly very accessible book, whereas That Dragon, Cancer—despite being thematically very similar—left me feeling somehow, surprisingly, at a distance from the heart-rending events in the game’s narrative:

I am man enough to admit that I did tear up several times, and after playing it, I definitely looked at my life with my wife and son differently… and that in itself is a worthy and remarkable gift from a game, one that, honestly, I expected from it—not because I didn’t feel appreciative or show my love to them, but because I felt like maybe the amount of overload and hectic rush I’d been loaded with lately called for a little recalibration of my internal settings, if that makes sense. Suddenly you’re saying goodnight to your child and you realize you didn’t play with him today, or kissing your spouse goodnight and realize you didn’t tell her how much you appreciate and love her. That should be occasion for sorrow, for regret: we shouldn’t let our days pass us that way too often, when we can help it. One resolves to do better tomorrow, and one moves on, but the lesson only works if you actually follow through.  

One way to hammer that lesson home is to put you inside the heart and mind of someone who has all those tomorrows ripped away from him, and ripped away not in an instant, but slowly, so he can see it happening and regret all those lost tomorrows as much as his little failings along the way. I don’t think there’s an easy way to lose a child, of course, but I think it’s obvious that you’re trading that extra time for the pain of watching your child suffer in agony and fear for months and months before dying. 

That lesson  is hammered home pretty quickly: within about a half an hour of the start of the game, you can’t miss it. And, for various reasons—that hectic overload I mentioned—that was where I stopped for a while.  

The issues, for me, came up after I returned to the game: as the child’s condition worsens, the more the Christian beliefs of the game’s creators creep into the limelight. Not in a proselytizing way, exactly, and it doesn’t really feel like a bait-and-switch or anything like that: I mean, it was clear from the trailer (see above) there would be some religious aspect to how the story unfolded: I didn’t feel like they were trying to convert those playing their game, really, so much as just trying to depict their experience. They’re talking about their struggles with their belief, and how their own expectations and their desire to impose them on reality and their god ultimately simply didn’t work: that their religion may have been a source of hope, a source of solace, but couldn’t “fix” their problems in the way that it’s natural to long for, and in the way at least one of them seemed to believe was realistic. As someone who hasn’t  any religious beliefs at all—who actively disbelieves in the narrator’s god, the way all of us today disbelieve in the existence of the Greek and Norse gods—this had an effect on how I experienced the game, which I’m going to discuss below.  

In some ways differing approach of the mother and father characters humanizes that struggle in a way that, if it were missing, would have made it much harder to share in gameplay. I appreciated that when the mother’s faith is seemingly unshakeable, the father’s is shaken right to the core… and it certainly helps that the father is the viewpoint character for a lot of the story, because a POV character with the kind of conviction the mom had would be harder to play through. The scene where the dad is trying to get his son to stop crying, and you hear what I believe is actual audio footage of Joel Green wailing and screaming in pain and misery while his dad helplessly struggles to get him to stop crying… it’s painful to hear, and haunting, but also strange, because it’s very, very frustrating. Now, it’s designed to be frustrating, and that part of it is fine: it’s supposed to evoke that sense of powerlessness that watching your kid suffer and die involves, and mechanics like that exist throughout, and that’s interesting and, at least as a one-time experience, meaningful. Games are all about agency, after all, and while agency can be constrained—we expect it to be, as the narrative proceeds, from the results of previous exertions of agency: decisions are only meaningful when they constrain the range of future decisions one can make, right? But when agency is thwarted, is it still a game? 

And yet, that scene where the father has no means of calming his suffering son? The mechanics weren’t my only source of frustration. The scene does resolve, finally, but the way it resolves pushed me as far away as possible from the story. You’re burning with pain, with horror at the screams of the little suffering child, and you’ve tried everything you can and none of it has worked. Finally, you just try what’s left: you sit in the chair… and your character automatically starts praying, and little Joel finally stops crying and falls asleep.

While it’s clear the character takes this as a moment of grace from God, any nonreligious person who’s cared for a child knows that kids sometimes cry and cry and cry, and then drop off to sleep abruptly—no prayer necessary. Coincidence is a much more believable explanation… for me, and for people like me. That is how Joel’s crying would have ended if the game had given me philosophical agency: I’d have tried to comfort him, and tried, and then despaired, and sat in the chair and said, “I don’t know what to do!” to myself, and then Joel would have conked out, just as it would have happened if Joel’s real-life dad hadn’t thought to pray but simply sat down in exhaustion.

My character would not pray, because I would not pray. Well, I might cry out to the universe in some way that some people would interpret as prayer, but since I believe gods don’t exist—that none of them ever have, and that that is the only way to make sense of a world with pediatric cancer—it’s jolting in a way, because agency isn’t subverted mechanically, it’s also abrogated metaphysically: the hidden and unspoken cosmology of the game is one in which divine power exists, a personal deity listens to characters and responds in unpredictable but recognizable ways. It looks like a game about dealing with the death of a child, but there’s another game  hidden within it, or running alongside that primary narrative, about submission to divine will. This secondary narrative comes to the fore as little Joel’s condition worsens, that is, the further you go into the game. While things start out structured as a tale of an Everyman, Everywoman, and Everytoddler sort of family, in a surreal world built of fragments from hospitals and apartments and family outings, its subterranean (cosmological, or philosophical) geography is far from universal. 

Nowhere is that as much apparent as in the the penultimate scene (“The Temple of God”) where we struggle to keep vigil candles lit and play a tune of farewell, triggering the religious invocations and cries and shouts of Joel’s terrified and heartbroken parents, calling out to their god for help and to give Joel life as the darkness constantly encroaches. As a mechanism for conveying one of the lessons Joel’s real-life parents learned—that sometimes, there’s nothing that you can do to change the outcome of a situation—the scene was harrowing. We’re supposed to feel their pain, and relate to their hopelessness and anger and their terror at the prospect of imminently losing the light of their lives, their little son, which drives them to such lengths as to try bargain with God, to howl in pain. They’re going through the Five Stages of Grief as they pray over their dying son, and you’re right there with them.

But I found the scene harrowing in a second way that I don’t think was intended because of the rage in their voices, which they don’t seem to hear as rage; for how terrified I imagined the child must have been as his parents stood above him railing at heaven like that. The graphics of the scene, too, are really terrifying: a church, flames in the pews, and a constant, hopeless struggle to light candles and play music on a little keyboard that seems instead only to produce fragments of melody. 

If I’m being honest, in that scene I actually felt as if their faith—for giving them illusion of a being able to call in a favor from heaven, and giving them the hope that a miracle could undo a relatively reliable terminal diagnosis—was something that cruelly deepened their pain, that made everything worse and harder to get through. Not that quietly sitting with their son, and saying, “I love you, thank you for all the gifts you’ve given me, and I will remember you and miss you forever,” would have made their farewell easy, mind you. It was never going to be easy, but… well, it might’ve been easier on the kid, the person actually dying. It might have been eaiserr on the parents, too, for that matter, and not just at the time. Nobody would have had to find her way back out of all the times she’d spoken as if she knew what were going to happen, or struggle to reconcile his not believing that fervently with the loss that, I’m sure, on some level will always leave the trace of a doubt regarding whether he should have just believed a little harder, and everything would be fine. Christianity, in some ways, resembles a kind of cruel spiritual torture chamber in that scene, somehow. 

I should also say that I’m not exactly talking about Amy and Ryan Green, or Joel Green—the real people whose experiences are the subject of this game—but about how they’re represented, about what’s encoded into the game. For all I know, Joel Green’s last moments may have been peaceful and tranquil, and the game instead metaphorizes an inner crying-out that his parents went through. I’m not here to judge or criticize how they lived with their dying child, and loved him, and dealt with losing him, and I don’t think anyone decent would do so. The characters in the game are not those people: I think Amy Green is more than the one-dimensional religious fanatic that her representation in the game put before me; Ryan Green isn’t a faceless figure I’ve spent hours inside, but a man who is represented in the game in a different way—albeit, a way I found more relatable. (His doubt, at least, allowed me to be less than completely alienated from the narrative.) There should, I think, be an ability to separate them as people from the game, even if they at times have spoken about the representation in such a way that they understand that complete separation isn’t possible due to the nature of the project: 

Grief is weird and complex, and different people turn to different coping mechanisms to deal with it. It’s just that the ones that made sense for Ryan and Amy Green left me millions of miles distant, instead of drawn directly into the moment. 

I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that’s wholly unintended on their part, and… well, I’m not sure it should be a concern for them, either. I’m sure if I were talking to the people who made That Dragon, Cancer, they’d be… well, maybe not surprised, because I’m sure I’m not the first person to say this, but they’d maybe respond, “That’s not what we meant at all.” They’re entitled to believe what they choose, of course, and to make it part of their creative work: I’d never contest that for a moment. 

But what players believe will also affect how the game is experienced, understood, and talked about, and that’s valid, too. The game is, after all, out in the world. Now, I do want to be sensitive and respectful toward the creators—these people opened up the deepest wounds a human being can have and shared the story of how they got them, and that’s something to look at as courage, however much I may dispute their claims about the ultimate reality of life, the universe, and everything. It’s just that… well, I think maybe some of the criticism the game has gotten hinges on this disconnect, but probably doesn’t really articulate this issue of intended audience very well. I’m sure for someone who’s a dedicated Christian of a certain kind, a lot of the content that jolted me out of the story would be quite relatable, but for me all it did was push me further and further out of the narrative, painful and horrifying as it was at times… just as I’m sure an equivalent narrative based on the coping mechanisms of an atheist, secular humanist parent in the same situation would probably be experienced as cold and strange and alienating to a lot of religious people. 

It’s strange: I was able to buy into the characters and care about them, faceless and all, and I really did sympathize with (and hurt for) them. That said, the specific flavor of their beliefs, and how it manifested in their interactions with one another and their child, became increasingly less relatable to me as the story progressed, I guess is what I’m trying to say. Not that relatability is always a great necessity: I think insisting every character be relatable is stupid and juvenile, to be honest—it’s something I think holds back storytelling. No adult reader (or gamer) should be 100% comfortable all the time with the narratives they experience, because it thwarts the point of serious narratives: they’re an opportunity to grow and deepen as a human being, after all.

But odd things happen when a character’s beliefs aren’t relatable, or the assumptions and framework and worldview that underpin and inform a story are alienating to some of its audience members. It can result in a story having a nuance—and dark, disturbing implications—that the author never, ever intended.

That’s definitely the case with That Dragon, Cancer. I admire the game, and yes, it is heartbreaking even if you’re not Christian. In fact, it might be even more heartbreaking if you aren’t. This is because some aspects of the game guaranteed I would never really be able to access it as intended. I felt tenderness and pain for Joel, and I felt sympathy, respect, and pain alike for his parents, but I also felt sad for them that they had all these beliefs that, from where I stand, look as if they simultaneously deepened their wounds, and obligated them to avoid acknowledging that fact. Of course, nobody likes to be psychologized, so I won’t quite go to the point of saying the game was an outlet for unconsciously expressing this extra suffering, but I will say that as an atheist playing the game, what I saw felt, on some level, like an indictment of elements of Christian faith, as much as the characters seemed enunciate a sense of solace in those beliefs.   

And, returning to that point I made above about the hidden cosmology of the game—and of modern Christianity in the west—this is even more true when you consider the ahistoricity of their experience. The god they were relying on to save their child, and even expected to save their child, is a God they claim is loving by nature, and which designed this world for humanity. If you know anything about infant and childbirth mortality rates throughout human history, it’s very, very difficult to see that god as a loving being that cherishes every human life—after all, who else could be held responsible for all that death and horror and suffering? All one need do is read the account of Mary Wollstonecraft’s final days in William Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Women, to glimpse a fragment of the great mound of horror that fills up human history (and, for that matter, humanity’s much more vast prehistory). Note, I’m setting aside the existence of cancer, the fact human beings are configured so as to be capable of a whole array of horrors: even just the brutalities of childbirth and infant mortality alone leave the “loving” nature of God a baffling proposition… if you know enough to know how brutal things were before modern medicine, that is. 

Really, looking on that history honestly, it’s difficult to think of what kind of cosmic creator could have set things up the way they were (and are) who was anything by a sadistic, cruel monster. I’ve long believed that the philosophical problem supposedly answered by the theodicy is something modern people (at least in the developed world) mostly cannot understand because they’re missing that context, though—because of the circumstances of their lives—they’re freed of the very psychological need for the theodicy, except in extreme circumstances like the one depicted in this narrative… and yet, insulated by all the advances of science and medicine, the theodicy also seems to become a dated concern: it’s easier to imagine a deity who loves each individual personally when human beings aren’t dying in droves all around one, and the rhetoric of God as “love” has only really come to the fore as that historical norm has faded from our memory.  

Therefore, on some level, because I feel very differently about the god being discussed by the characters, and because I understand that only science has made their experience unusual—and only science allowed them those extra years with little Joel, the historical record and the narrative alike suggest—the experience of the couple in That Dragon, Cancer, feels to me very much like it naturally leads to an indictment of the Christian god, as well as of their religion generally. I felt reminded of how my wife sometimes comments on how people praise God for saving a child’s life, to the point of claiming God guided the hand of the neurosurgeon. To us, that’s really demeaning to the neurosurgeon, who works and studies very hard to get good enough at his or her job to save lives. It’s a bit like praising God when the cost of buying a new home drops, when actually it’s a new political policy that’s readjusted the housing market. You’ll note, for example, that in That Dragon, Cancer, praise is offered to God for the extra years Joel gets, but none is offered for the treatments that obviously and certainly prolonged his life. The cosmology, here, is visible as much in the omissions as in what’s spoken or included, and, being so different from how I understand the world, I found it as hard to relate to as I do stories rooted in worldviews privileging the superiority of one race, or of one sex, or of people from this or that country.   

Now, different stories are a good thing in this world, of course, and I think we need more of them, but it’s also good for creators to realize that narratives don’t always work as intended, when the people they’re not designed for encounter them. Certain things did work in the game, like how they mechanized the futility of trying to control the situation. Of course, games are structured around player agency, and that’s why, like a lot of Western literature, they shy away from addressing problems that are ultimately insurmountable on the individual level. I’ve talked multiple times before about how this is limiting to English-language fiction, which insists on the illusion of agency being able to do anything (even save the world), and I’d argue building a game where agency can’t affect the outcome of the narrative is as daring as writing a story in English where agency is so constrained that it could be argued not to matter at all. And yet I’m also intimately acquainted with how agency-poor narratives can frustrate profoundly, and struggle to achieve much of an audience.  

Am I repeating myself? Maybe. It’s hard to say something critical about a project where someone’s shared something so personal and painful. I can only imagine what it’s like to read criticism of one’s own work when it’s this profoundly based on something this important in one’s life. But since this is what I carried away from the game, I thought it was worth sharing. It’s not all I carried from the game: like some of Amy Green’s correspondents, I also felt sorrow and longing for that child whose voice I heard to be back in the world with us, not burdened by the pain of a body tortured by cancer. I felt compassion for, and even a kind of fellowship for, Amy and Ryan Green, a sense that they are not alone. And it certainly was a gentle—and sometimes forceful—reminder to appreciate and cherish—and to embrace—the blessing of having time with one’s own child and having a kid who is (at least for now, knock on wood) healthy and full of life. 

It’s a game that’s hard to play, as its creators sometimes have said. But in part because of the elements that are effective in it, this means it’s much, much harder to play if you don’t share their beliefs. And that, in fact, is interesting too. The lesson can go both ways, of course, and it’s not a huge and brand-new insight nobody’s had before… but the game definitely drove it home for me. 

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