A game about searching for grace, even when it's hard to find.
How do you tell a story about someone who can’t speak for themselves, who doesn’t have the words to describe what they’re going through? How do you attribute meaning to a life the person himself was likely too young to even remember? Ultimately, perhaps, you don’t. Instead, you talk about what you can and let silence do the rest.
That Dragon, Cancer is Numinous Games’ attempt to tell the story of Joel, the five-year-old son of team members Ryan and Amy Green, and his struggle with and eventual death from cancer. The game is a series of vignettes rendered in the chunky textures and bright colors of childrens’ blocks, adding a visual cheerfulness that stands in flagrant contrast to its difficult subject matter.
In some ways That Dragon, Cancer is a minimalist point and click adventure, moving players to interactive hotspots through basic symbols and simple controls. In lieu of puzzles, the game’s interactions are usually speech, most of which is captioned diegetically in the world itself: scribbled on walls, floating in the air, bobbing in bottled messages thrown into the sea, or appearing on the screen of an arcade game. But it’s in the content of this speech that the game stops being so simple.
Despite its focus on Joel, That Dragon, Cancer is a cacophony of voices. We hear from Amy, Ryan, and their other children; doctors, nurses, and even Kickstarter backers who contributed their own experiences with cancer. But these people rarely talk to each other. Amy leaves voice messages telling Ryan the mundane details of a doctor’s visit; she leaves letters outlining her confidence that a miracle will come in the face of Joel’s impending death. Ryan talks to himself while watching Joel play or cry; he begs to a silent God from the bottom of an ocean of grief he lets wash over him when things are at their worst.
Scenes are regularly dominated by one or two models while a chorus of voices suggests the presence of others; for instance, the family shares a rambunctious car trip to California to get Joel treatment while the screen shows only a still, empty car. At times it’s as if the act of talking - rather than communicating - is the only thing keeping the characters from being overwhelmed by the horror and confusion of their situation, the only thing they can do to keep moving forward in their efforts to keep Joel alive.
Underlying this torrent of words, though, is a desire for the opposite: for silence and peace, despite its cost. In one scene, Ryan is overcome by Joel’s endless crying in a hospital room, as is the player; the screams are unbearable, growing louder and more pained. The player can’t exit the room through the door, forced instead into the compromise of clicking a hotspot that takes them outside the hospital window, where a driving rain fortunately overpowers Joel’s howls. But framed in the window is Ryan, staring expressionless and alone into the darkness, his body looking so fragile and messily human that it feels impossible to leave him there. Re-entering the room, though, throws the player back into the helplessness, chaos, and noise. This desire for closeness against the heart-breaking risks of being close is a tension that undergirds the game, driving its characters to the one place they find a semblance of solace: God.
One of the few points in the game where characters are present and speaking to each other on screen is when Ryan and Amy discuss their faith and the stress their different approaches to it puts on their relationship.
Amy seems to embody a confident, positive belief in Christian grace, unshakably certain of God’s power and might. Ryan is less sure, confused when God doesn’t respond to his prayers and worried that Amy’s faith is rooted in a denial that weakens him by comparison. Both Ryan and Amy, together and apart, spend much of the game thinking about God, placing Him front and center as the deepest parts of who they are.
That Dragon, Cancer’s portrayal of faith is searingly honest and surprisingly nuanced; for instance, Amy and Ryan’s prayers for Joel in his final moments are by turns simple, complicated, pleading, doubtful, confident, angry, and grateful, unapologetically showing the full range of faith without explaining or preaching. In many ways the game is more about faith than it is about cancer, and more about humanity than it is about God. This transparency and openness turns the game’s final moment from a potentially neat and saccharine ending into a confident and powerful statement of faith, one that embodies both the tragedy and comfort of the Greens’ experience and beliefs.
That Dragon, Cancer is both simple and complex, quiet and loud, certain and full of doubt. The basic interactions are offset by complicated shifts in perspective, which can sometimes be confusing: playing as a duck Joel feeds at the start of the game lends a valuable playfulness to the introduction, playing later as a seagull feels like a choice made solely in service of an ever-present water metaphor. Along similar lines, the game’s mix of images and symbols feels a little haphazard at times, a sort of kitchen sink approach to finding metaphors for the characters’ struggles. But these slight missteps only serve to again highlight the chaotic and overwhelming experience at the heart of the game, all the sights, sounds, and emotions that make up what they lived through and their efforts, however impossible, to communicate how it was for them. It’s a game that desperately wants to speak the unspeakable, that finds both comfort and terror in the act of speaking at all.
Near the end of the game, Ryan writes Amy a letter. In it, he says of God, “I sense His silence is only because He is drawing His breath.” That Dragon, Cancer is both that moment of held breath and the anticipation of what comes after the exhale, a conflicted and complicated story in a bright and simple package.
Riley MacLeod spends a lot of time thinking about stealth games and the serial comma. You can follow him on Twitter at @rcmacleod.