That Dragon, Cancer
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