by Adi Stein
Cancer has been a part of my family’s life for over a decade now. I was about 20 when my sister was diagnosed with cancer and I was about 11 when my mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer, but it started long before that. I never knew my mother’s mother without cancer. It was always a part of her life, as far as I knew it. After years of fighting she finally had enough, ending her near useless treatment in the hopes of passing more comfortably. Losing her is, to date, one of the most profound losses in my life.
So finding out that my mother had cancer at the age of 11 was, obviously, devastating. A double mastectomy, several rounds of chemotherapy, and some radiation later and she had defeated cancer... for the time being. Years later it would come back; small and lacking in any major strength, but back nonetheless. Solution? Intensely radiate the affected area. Good. Done.
But not quite. This past summer, after weeks of severe back pain, my mother had a scan that highlighted a growth on her spine. Cancer? It couldn’t be. Except that it was. What did she do? She consulted with her oncologist, found the best spinal surgeon in Philadelphia, and had that son-of-a-bitch tumor removed. Being in the hospital with her that week was easily the worst week of my life.
As kids, we look at our parents as these almost god-like beings. They’re never wrong (except when they are) and they’re indestructible. So when your parent gets sick, it rocks your world to the core. How can this all-knowing, all-powerful being get cancer? That’s just not possible. But she did. Once she beat it. Obviously she did, she’s a superhero. Twice she did. I mean, the Joker doesn’t show up just once and challenge Batman. Three times. Okay. Enough already.
I remember looking at her sleeping in her hospital bed. Exhausted from fighting. Fighting cancer. Fighting for her kids. Fighting for her friends. Fighting for her life. Here was this constant source of strength, power, and conviction in my life reduced to the physical embodiment of pain and exhaustion. It changes everything.
But then I imagine the roles being reversed. Instead of watching this happen to my parent, I imagine watching this happen to my child. But in this scenario there is no solution. No cure. Such is the emotional, physical, and spiritual journey that you are taken on by the supremely moving game, That Dragon, Cancer.
That Dragon, Cancer (or TDC as I will call it going forward) tells the deeply personal story of the Green family and their journey through the life of their now deceased son, Joel. Joel was diagnosed, at a very young age, with an extremely rare form of childhood cancer. Treatment after treatment fail as this family is put to the test. Pushed to their limits.
Created, designed, and directed by Amy and Ryan Green, TDC is the closest thing that gaming has to a poem. From a strictly mechanical perspective, TDC is essentially a first person point and click adventure game, but without the puzzles. You play as a number of characters (sometimes no character at all) as you explore fourteen abstract vignettes, scattered across the Green family’s time with Joel. In each of these scenes you learn more and more about how a family copes with such a tragic loss. At one moment you’re Ryan, drowning in a sea of lost hope. In another moment you’re Amy, racing through a Mario Kart style level with Joel on your back, trying to collect as much candy as you can while kicking toy cows around the room.
But what is most striking and effective about this game is the audio and visual design. For probably 75% of this game, the audio is taken straight from home videos of the Green family; moments with Joel, moments with the entire family, moments with friends. And the times that the audio is not from a home video, it’s replaced with moving poems, written and performed by Amy and Ryan. Poems that grapple with hope, despair, faith, loss, and so much more. Poems that speak to the very core of what being human means.
Aesthetically the visuals are just as abstract as the scenes themselves, which is to say just abstract enough for you to project your own family onto these people while still holding the Green family’s very personal story front and center. This is their journey, and the game is very clear about that. But the lack of visual detail - the lack of mouths, the lack of eyes, the hyper polygonal art style - allow you to find yourself in each of these moments and in each of these people. I’ve never had a son, or any child for that matter, but looking at the polygonal representation of Joel allowed me to connect in a way that simply would not be possible with some hyper-realistic rendering of a real child. I can’t see my future child in a photograph of someone else’s kid, but I can see my future child in a blank canvas.
That abstraction is taken even further in the environments. This game is surprisingly colorful for a game with the word “cancer” in the title. But around every corner there are these, burnt, twisted trees. Some stand alone, others stand in forests, and some fuse together to form grotesque tumbleweeds. But in all cases the visual metaphor is clear: for the Greens (and for most of us), cancer is inescapable. It is a part of our daily lives, hiding in every corner of our subconscious, never allowing for any respite.
At least that’s how my relationship with cancer feels. It feels constant and overbearing, like an oppressive heat. It sticks to my throat and never allows a moment of freedom; of comfort; of cool relaxation. It’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and for the Greens that, too, is the case.
Sadly, Joel passed at the age of five which means that the Green family has so much more life to live after this. But cancer will always be a part of their lives. And on a larger scale, it will always be a part of the way we view the world today. Whether or not you personally have been affected by cancer in any way, statistically speaking, you probably at least know someone who has.
TDC doesn’t proclaim to have the answer to dealing with this pain. Far from it. The Greens try everything before ultimately finding comfort in their religion, but that’s not the point of this game. My major take away has to be that suffering and loss are vital and inescapable parts of the human condition. That through sadness and devastation we find love and support. That while it may be emotionally crippling to see my mother sleeping in that hospital bed, stitched from the top of her back to the bottom, it is a clear reminder that she, too, is human. She is a person. Not a god, not a superhero, but a person. A human on this Earth searching for love, happiness, hope, joy, partnership, and peace, just like everyone else. Just like Joel. Just like all of us.