Saturday 16 December 2017

Taking on the dragon: gamers wrestle cancer

Developers are tackling serious themes in ways that will surprise you

Games console: Developer Ryan Green with his son Joel, who died from cancer in March 2014.
Games console: Developer Ryan Green with his son Joel, who died from cancer in March 2014.
Ronan Price

Ronan Price

No one would question the validity of a book exploring what happens when a child is diagnosed with cancer. Nor if the same theme cropped up in a film, play, poem or song.

But a videogame? Surely that's a step too far? Yet for all their immaturity as a medium, videogames are beginning to push the boundaries of subject matter and styles, particularly indie productions such as That Dragon, Cancer.

Unconstrained by the need to fit marketing pigeonholes, indies are stretching even the definition of game, to encompass interactive fiction and musings on life - or, in this case, death.

After his son Joel was diagnosed with a rare cancer in 2010, Ryan Green threw himself into creating That Dragon, Cancer, which was finally released for PC and Mac this week.

At first it was just a distraction, a way for the Colorado-based game developer to keep working in between the endless time in doctors' waiting rooms and caring for Joel with his wife Amy. Then, as the prognosis got more bleak, it became a project to ensure memories of Joel lived on. But in its final form That Dragon emerged into something even more profound. It's no po-faced educational tool to bore students at school. It packs real emotion and few players come away without a lump in the throat or a tear in the eye.

Through brief interactive scenes, some allegorical, some literal, it tells the story of Joel's short life, his joyful nature offset by grave suffering. It delves into themes of hope, despair and spirituality as his parents wrestle with their strong faith in God.

The Green family, with Joel in his mother's arms
The Green family, with Joel in his mother's arms

On the line from Colorado, Ryan sounds exhausted, wracked by a cough no doubt brought on by long hours in the rush to finish the game for this week's release. There's a catch in his voice when he first speaks.

"I've proud of what we've been able to make," he says eventually. "I'm hopeful that Joel's life has a positive impact on the world. 

"A videogame allows me to give you the sense of presence, what it's like to be with him. The quiet spaces, what it's like to be in the hospital, what you're hearing, what you're feeling, what you're thinking.

"I just find it to be a poetic way to do it. It's a different kind of poetry than what I find in film and books. So I feel like it was the kind of story I wanted to tell because it's the medium I'm most comfortable with."

A scene from That Dragon, Cancer
A scene from That Dragon, Cancer

Understandably, many people will need to throw away their preconceptions of videogames to appreciate That Dragon. There are no guns, no high scores, no puzzles.

Some of the scenes are, frankly, traumatic. We see Joel's parents listen in disbelief as the doctor tells them his condition is terminal. We hear the boy's desolate wails as his father tries in vain to comfort him. It's all the more authentic because much of the dialogue is voiced by Ryan, Amy, their other children and Joel himself.

Yet we also get insight into the happiness Joel brought to his family, just like any another child.

Amy explains: "We've certainly seen that the word videogame can be off-putting for people. People have heard of the cancer idea and they hear that word videogame and those two ideas don't mesh well for them.

"Yet so much of what it was like to be with Joel was play. With a child you turn everything into a game. Even the rough parts, the treatment parts, you find a way to make it fun for them."

The Greens hope their project will encourage people to break the taboos about cancer, particularly around young people.

"One thing that losing Joel has taught us is that our children can handle it, they can talk about it and they can ask really hard questions," says Ryan.

That Dragon, Cancer is at the vanguard of a creative explosion in videogames.

Joel's story features in newspapers and magazines around the world this week. A documentary film called Thank You For Playing that chronicles the game's development goes on release early this year.

But the Greens are not the only ones ploughing this new furrow of realism in gaming. While the industry remains overshadowed by franchises such as Call of Duty and Halo, small indie games made by one or two people have explored big themes.

Depression Quest eschews complex visuals and even a cover charge to shine a light on mental illness. Via the free browser-based story, you unpick the life of a man suffering from depression, based on the experiences of the two developers, Zoe Quinn and Patrick Lyndsey.

Papers, Please asks questions of the player's humanity in appointing you an immigration officer at a dystopian border crossing. Papo and Yo deals with the aftermath of an alcoholic, abusive father.

None of them could be described as "fun". But that's not the point.

Amy Green wants their game to reach a new audience.

"I hope it's meaningful. I hope that a few people who normally wouldn't play a videogame are intrigued enough to play."

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