“That Dragon, Cancer”: Catharsis in Video Game Form

I am always looking for ways to illustrate the complexity of emotions associated with having cancer, or caring for someone who does, as a means of relating it to people without this experience.

An immersive video game called That Dragon, Cancer does this by telling the story of a young child with the disease, in this case, a brain cancer called Atypical Teratoid Rhabdoid Tumor (AT/RT). The game explores the fear, hope, helplessness and fight that we go through when confronting so much uncertainty.

To be clear, this is not a video game in the usual sense, it’s a narrative with mini-game elements, sometimes lighthearted, sometimes dark. We follow the journey of a family as they navigate the rollercoaster of cancer diagnosis, doctor appointments and treatments. Those of us who have been on this path can relate to the tsunami of emotions and information, all rolled up into one overwhelming ball. The game does a good job of representing these feelings.

If you’re interested in experiencing this game with a blind playthrough, this is where you should stop reading. For more information on That Dragon, Cancer, visit the official website here.

WARNING/SPOILER: Because this is a true story, the developer Ryan Green (Numinous Games), along with his wife Amy, could not control the outcome; the game was created to honor the memory of their young son, Joel, by chronicling his battle with terminal childhood cancer.

Little Joel underwent a staggering number of treatments for his brain tumors.

Be aware that there are very distressing parts to this game. Just as cancer patients fight for meaning and claw for hope, so does this family. If you are not in the right frame of mind for this, or are at a painful part of your cancer journey, it might be best to skip this game. When the game originally came out in 2016, it left well-known YouTubers in tears. Everyone can relate to loss; Ryan and Amy made this even more powerful by documenting their son’s journey in recordings made during his treatments. Therefore, when you hear the distressed cries of a young child in misery, those are Joel’s actual cries, and they are heartbreaking. But hearing his delighted giggles helps ease the pain.

It is all very raw and real.

Even in the distress, we experience joy in the life Joel lived.

Losing hope, or clinging to it in the face of insumountable odds, is documented here. The Green family hopes for a big miracle, with Ryan and Amy each heading towards the outcome in different ways: Amy is adamant that Joel will be healed while Ryan is riddled with doubt. There is a very strong Christian influence in this game that reflects the Green’s religious beliefs, with many references to God, Jesus and saving grace through prayer, so those whose beliefs differ may find this element foreign and possibly irritating, and they should decide whether it is appropriate for them. Nonetheless, the game is beautifully done with moments that will make you smile in between tearful episodes and there is value in experiencing it.

Those who expect a movie-style, “deus ex machina” happy ending may be left empty and unsatisfied, but I found the end to be uplifting, inviting in the acceptance of inevitability.

The game also honors the memories of other cancer patients in imaginative ways.

I’ve now played That Dragon, Cancer three times through. The emotions that it evokes are very familiar and I found this game cathartic and validating. As the Green family discovers, if someone succumbs to cancer, it does not mean that their faith was not strong enough. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about this disease, it is that cancer is not picky, it doesn’t care about your desires and it doesn’t play by the rules.

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From the developer, Numinous Games: “An immersive narrative videogame that retells Joel Green’s 4-year fight against cancer through about two hours of poetic, imaginative gameplay that explores faith, hope and love.” $9.99 on Steam.

Waiting To Say Goodbye

One of the inevitable parts of being a cancer patient is that you get to know other patients. Equally inevitable, however, is the fact that not everyone has a positive outcome. This week, one of my friends with whom I went through my cancer journey entered into hospice.

We had received our breast cancer diagnoses within several months of each other and occasionally met for coffee as we discussed our treatments. It was a safe conversation, as we were sharing similar experiences with similar fears that only someone in the same situation would “get”. We both enjoyed these opportunities to compare notes and allay anxieties. I had been publicly open about my cancer, but she was more private and circumspect about whom she told, so I was one of the few people who knew her condition.

But as our treatments came to a close, our paths began to diverge. My cancer treatment had been more straightforward because the drugs I was given were well-targeted to my type of tumor. Hers was a more complex situation – a more aggressive tumor with no clear targets, complicated by an existing chronic health condition. While I was declared cancer-free, diagnostic scans found “spots” in other parts of her body, tiny ones that had caused suspicion early on but had been too small to biopsy.

These sports grew larger and a biopsy confirmed her fears. Her cancer had spread. Due to her other health issue, she had not been able to tolerate the most prescribed and effective chemotherapy given to patients with her type of cancer tumor. Therefore, her best option was not available. Immunotherapy was attempted but that failed to produce positive results.

At this point, I was hearing about her disease progression second-hand as she wasn’t open to having coffee. I respect her reluctance to meet with me, because if the tables were turned, I don’t think I would have wanted to be discussing my worsening situation with someone who had been in a more fortunate position. Consider this analogy: you’re on a highway. The cars all drive at similar speeds and travel is pleasant. But if you need to pull over — perhaps there is car trouble — you suddenly feel like the world is passing you by. Every whoosh of an automobile is a reminder that you are not moving. You feel frustratingly stuck and left behind, wondering whether you’ll be able to re-join everyone else on the road again.

Her decline has come abruptly. She’d been living on her own all along, but then came dizziness and aches and pains. It started at the beginning of this past week. By Wednesday, her parents were setting up hospice in their home and had ‘round-the-clock care secured. So fast, so fast. It feels like we need to catch our breaths. No one is prepared for this.

I was told yesterday that she had only days left. I am in shock. I had originally planned to bring over bright gerbera daisies this morning, but decided against it, as she is not able to take visitors.

It’s raining hard today and for the next several days. The weather is uncharacteristically gloomy and foreboding for this part of the country. When she passes, I pray that her transition is gentle and the sun is shining.