That Dragon, Can­cer

Ouya, PC


Many vir­tual dragons have fallen at our hands. For once, how­ever, we find our­selves in the pres­ence of a beast that can­not be slain. On March 13, 2014, five-year-old Joel Green died, hav­ing lived with ter­mi­nal can­cer for four years. His par­ents Ryan and Amy had al­ready opted to chron­i­cle Joel’s short life in a videogame, and have done so in the form of 14 short vi­gnettes, which mov­ingly fol­low the fam­ily’s re­sponse to the di­ag­no­sis.

At times, their ap­proach is un­ex­pect­edly play­ful. The strik­ing, beau­ti­fully lit low-poly art is pre­sented from nu­mer­ous per­spec­tives; we view the world through Joel’s eyes and those of his par­ents, but of­ten we’re an out­side ob­server. Though this some­times makes for an un­com­fort­ably voyeuris­tic view of a fam­ily’s pain, the very first se­quence casts us as a duck, pad­dling to­wards Joel and gob­bling up chunks of bread thrown by his sib­lings. Joel joins in and promptly lobs the rest of the loaf into the pond. Later, he’s the star of a rudi­men­tary kart racer, pick­ing up colour­ful col­lectibles that are quickly re­vealed to be his var­i­ous can­cer medicines.

The hu­mour is un­der­stand­ably of the dark­est hue, but there are rous­ing mo­ments of light­ness here, as we wit­ness mem­o­ries of the Green fam­ily’s small vic­to­ries, punc­tu­ated by Joel’s own in­fec­tious chuckle. If the sparsely an­i­mated fig­ures can’t quite match the emo­tive force of the words, de­liv­ered by the Greens them­selves, it uses metaphors in­ven­tively to con­vey more ab­stract ideas and feel­ings. One se­quence sees Ryan tread­ing wa­ter, be­fore al­low­ing him­self to slip be­neath the sur­face, where he’s sur­rounded by puls­ing, urchin-like tu­mours: a de­vout Chris­tian strug­gling vainly to square events with his be­liefs. Else­where, a night­mare sees Joel float­ing to­wards the Moon, his flight cut short by rows of ma­lig­nant growths that be­come im­pos­si­ble to avoid.

At times, it strug­gles to find a suit­able role for the player, but the most suc­cess­ful episodes find ways to hold us cap­tive. A bravura se­quence sees Amy and Ryan ask their kids to imag­ine Joel bat­tling a dragon while the player does so on an ar­cade cab­i­net. This is jux­ta­posed with a hor­ri­fy­ing scene where an ex­hausted, ex­as­per­ated Ryan wan­ders around a hos­pi­tal room, un­able to pacify his scream­ing son, as he ques­tions the faith upon which his wife is able to lean for sup­port.

But amid the pain there’s hope here, too. That Dragon, Can­cer in­vites us not only to share the Greens’ grief, but also to com­mem­o­rate life, and it will surely of­fer some com­fort to those ex­pe­ri­enc­ing sim­i­lar an­guish. How­ever, even if this heart­felt eu­logy only helps the Greens come to terms with their loss, it will al­ready have ful­filled a vi­tal pur­pose.

Sting­ing truths are found in even the more mun­dane ob­ser­va­tions: a weary Ryan sneers at the sup­posed ‘heal­ing’ colours of the hos­pi­tal decor, be­fore briefly turn­ing his ire upon a clammy and ir­ri­tat­ingly small vinyl chair

De­vel­oper/pub­lisher Nu­mi­nous Games For­mat Ouya, PC (tested) Re­lease Out now

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