A video game becomes memoir about a family fighting cancer

“That Dragon, Cancer” is an interactive narrative about Joel Green and his battle with cancer.

From the Series

Video game “That Dragon, Cancer” by Ryan Green

A baby asleep on his father's lap, his head rests against his dad’s chest as he finds temporary relief from his reality. His father, Ryan Green, sits on an armchair and stares out the window. Next to them stands an IV pumping neon green liquid into cancer stricken baby Joel’s body. 

In 2010, at twelve months old, Joel Green was diagnosed with terminal cancer. By age three young Joel had undergone numerous surgeries and chemotherapy sessions to remove the tumors, which left him partially deaf and blind.

"That Dragon, Cancer": Ryan Green video game creator

During the past four years Green created a video game that is far removed from what video games are normally thought to be. That Dragon, Cancer is a soul touching emotional narrative about the reality the Green family and their infant son faced as he battled cancer. It’s a “click and explore” interactive game where the player explores the circumstances and surroundings of this family and interacts with their surroundings.

According to online reviews by Forbes and Wired, the current trend in gaming is focused on high graphic output with straightforward story telling. That Dragon, Cancer is a strange contrast to gaming today. The expressionistic style graphics and faceless characters become of secondary interest as you play through different situations and memories in Joel’s life. Simple moments such as feeding ducks by the pond or playing in the swing become momentous sequences where the player wants to linger and enjoy rather than face the potential somber reality of another trip to the hospital.

"That Dragon, Cancer": Religious themes imagery of  Christianity

In video games today, challenges encountered are solved through violence or magic; in this game, the problem cannot be resolved. The player is left to endure the reality of the situation. One such scene is when Joel is crying uncontrollably in his cot. Too small to voice his discomfort, his only way of communicating is through cries of pain. His father and mother try to console him but to no avail. The player desperately clicks around looking to find a solution but they are coldly reminded that no magic, violence nor clicking on screens – not even love and attention – can cure the cancer.

It’s the true human emotion that is conveyed through the battles a family faces with an ailing son that drives the approximately two hours of game-play forward. There aren’t objectives to complete so to speak, the player becomes the viewer and sees life through eyes of Joel’s parents as you are taken along on an interactive narrative, which ultimately serves as a memoir of Joel’s life.

"That Dragon, Cancer": Joel in the park

That Dragon, Cancer is a virtual interactive memoir where you are drawn into the life of the Green family and experience the themes like resilience, faith and love as you hope this boy makes it out alive.

The game has been met with some criticism as Green launched Kickstarter campaign to fund the completion of the game and then charges $14 to purchase it.

"That Dragon, Cancer": Children in the hospital.

Joel Green passed away in March 2015.

“That Dragon, Cancer" was released worldwide on January 12, 2016.

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