There will of course be spoilers – so please take the few hours it requires to play the game. This is also based on my six month old recollections of the game, so if some details are incorrect – I beg your indulgence.
It has taken me a long time to properly parse my thoughts on That Dragon, Cancer. I want to start by saying that this game is a remarkable effort by Amy and Ryan Green. A story told by the people involved in such a creative manner that in any other medium would probably have found its way into a far more public spotlight. This would be a New York Times best selling book, it would be an Academy Awarded nominated documentary. But as a game, and with the very loud and intensely, wilfully immature voices that tend to surround games? I feel it did not get anything like the reception it deserved, as the conversation swirled around the toilet bowl that is the “but is it a game” discussion. Have no doubt, it is a game, and one worthy of both play and discussion.
A game built around such intensely emotional and personal storytelling was never going to be an easy game to talk about, but a recent conversation finally crystallised my feelings. There are moments in the game that will force players to stop and walk away – for a few minutes, maybe forever. For some it will be the moment when they just cannot handle the inconsolable crying in a hospital crib (I’ve been there, and believe me – it is even more awful in reality). Others may find themselves stopped cold by looking at the paintings, cards, and photos in the hospital corridors, and realising what they represent. For me, it was during the boat trip to an island with a lighthouse upon it – and my problem was that I just couldn’t deal with Amy and Ryan any more.
Despite the immense empathy that builds throughout the game for the characters of Amy and Ryan, I could never take that next step and truly sympathise with them because their faith is such a powerful force in this game. A highly ambiguous force which I would find intriguing, repellent, inspiring, and confusing. And it was during this long, and emotionally draining sequence that I found my empathy had expired.
So many times throughout the game, the reaction of Amy and Ryan to events felt so glib as to drive me to anger. The platitudes of faith which they found comfort in left me cold. “WHY AREN’T YOU ANGRY?” I shouted internally, with each giving of thanks for the promise of another month with Joel, “YOU THANK HIM FOR GIVING YOU A MONTH, WHILE TAKING DECADES!” As characters reach ever lower ebbs, they prayed – desperately – to a god who seemed utterly undeserving of their faith. “YOU SHOULD BE HATING GOD, WHAT HAS HE DONE FOR YOU? LOOK AT WHAT HE IS DOING!” In their quiet moments, they seemed to wallow with bovine torpor in the knowledge that it is all god’s will. “HOW CAN YOU ACCEPT THIS? HOW CAN YOU GIVE HIM YOUR LOVE WHEN HE IS SO CRUELLY TAKING THE LIVES OF SO MANY?”
The extended, quiescent sequence of crossing to the lighthouse is filled with narration. Each slight advance of the boat halted to hear another letter or diary pulled from an ocean of messages in bottles. I had to end my play for the night here. I was too furious with Amy and Ryan to go on any further. My own experiences weighed too heavy on the experience.
My atheism has only been hardened by my experiences with death. The sight of dying family members’ bodies and minds wasting to nothingness was painful, but I found ways to cope, and even celebrate the time we stole back from the reaper. But as time, and the cancer drags on, the knowledge that their suffering was being prolonged by governments that barred access euthanasia due to religious lobbying made me angry. I hated the men of the cloth who appeared on the wards, and at funerals to explain why things were better with this person gone. That their suffering was okay, because things happen for a reason. Or offer some “helpful” psalms rather than any actual support to those present. There were always family members who needed to hear these things, because their belief was important to them, or even defined them. They had a handhold in their faith which they could clutch, and keep their heads above the churning sea of anxiety and depression that is your constant companion at the bedside.
Through the voices of Amy and Ryan, it was always clear how critical this faith was to them. The moments where it faltered elicited no triumphant response – just further dread as to how these people would cope with the loss of both a child, and faith. The ability of a game – the interactive medium – to build such strong empathy in such a short time is a testament to those who worked on the title, and to the medium itself. No matter how much I hated their god and what he did, their devotion begged my respect for their own faith. A respect I had no choice but to give.
As a coda, I suppose we can all agree that if there is an afterlife, one filled with pancakes and puppies is about as good as we can hope for.