About halfway through Numinous Games’s That Dragon, Cancer, the player finds themself in a small hospital room. The colors are bright and vibrant, and there’re painted hands on the wall. It’s a cheery and light-hearted sight contrasted against the IV bags, the beeping machines, and the big stuffy chairs. The next thing you notice is a card on the nightstand in front of you.
Picking it up and opening it reveals a message: “We love you dearly and miss you daily. See you soon.” When you put it down, you suddenly become aware that there are many more cards in this room, and of various colors. Glancing through the door and looking down the hall, you will see thousands. All with messages vastly different, but very much the same.
“But have no fear, our story’s just begun.”
“If every hour wounds, let us sit a minute.”
“I wish you could see me now, Mom.”
“I miss you.”
In that very first playthrough, I spent an hour in reflection as I read through the cards. This was in early 2017, shortly after my mentor’s very sudden death, as I struggled to navigate a world in which he was not present. When I ultimately finished the game, tears streaming, I was very much aware of the fact that this was not a “game” in the traditional sense.
I still don’t know how I feel about calling it a game. This was an interactive story for sure. But a game, at its core, is an objective to be overcome, first and foremost. There has to be a victory at the end. A sense of accomplishment. But there is no victory to be won here. Only knowledge, and a very painful awareness.
Now, 6 years later, revisiting the game as a cancer survivor myself, I think this is the kind of game everyone should play. Knowledge, as well as awareness, however painful as they may be, are the foundation of growth. This was true as I came to terms with the extent of my illness, and it was true again when I came upon this game again while scrolling through my Steam library.
Numinous Games is a small studio that includes husband and wife duo, Ryan and Amy Green. Their game, That Dragon, Cancer, tells the story of their son Joel, who was diagnosed with a rare, terminal brain cancer when he was just a year old. They began developing the game while Joel was still undergoing treatment, as a way to both preserve the memory of their ordeal, and provide a raw, interactive experience to shed light on what a cancer diagnosis looks like in a tight knit family.
The game is short, you can complete it all in under 2 hours if you stick to the core content. In the end, it’s more a walking simulator with the occasional point and click object, and a series of recordings of various family members reflecting on Joel’s ordeal. The mini games include riding a starry carousel in space, playing with a farm animal toy as doctors share that Joel’s treatment has failed, and a race around the hospital in a wagon race car, catching chemotherapy drugs as bonus points.
The game is depicted in an abstract, simplistic style that seems vaguely reminiscent of the late 90s, but it feels intentional and balanced. The music is soothing, emotional, and heartbreaking. And the writing, from the narration to the candid recordings interspersed throughout the game, are a beautiful reflection of the joy, love, pain, and ultimate heartbreak that encompasses the loss of Joel. Ryan Green has described the game as “the story we didn’t want to tell,” but it is the story that they got, and they did it true justice.
The core objective of That Dragon, Cancer, is to elicit an emotional response. To demand a reckoning of the player as the credits roll. This is not meant to be a story that makes you feel bad. It’s there so you understand ,not just that cancer is a beast, an unfair assailant upon those it bullies and victimizes, but that it does the same to those that are left in its wake. When the terrible storm has torn everyone and everything asunder, those that are left standing are in a wasteland of chaos and debris that nobody wanted, nobody asked for, and of whom nobody can be blamed.
I think often about that first night after they found the tumor, after they admitted me to the last room in the entire hospital, changed me into a hospital gown the color of vomit, and switched off the lights and left me in a pitch black room, thinking I would sleep at all. I wasn’t thinking about the game, then. But reflecting back on it, the silence of that first night, transposed against the infrequent beeps of the IV machine, and the palpability of my own terror, I think of Ryan and Amy, about how they carried that same terror that Joel never could.
How Ryan mused, “Fear is cancer’s preservative. Cancer’s embalming oil. And you, oh Accuser, are fear’s oil salesman. You’re a snake. A serpent. A dragon with snuffed out coal on his breath. Molting, talons broken from the struggle to free yourself of your own skin.”
Cancer doesn’t discriminate. Whether you’re 1 years old or 32 years old. You will feel like you’re falling, only you’re not sure where and when you’ll land. There’s a moment in the game that pans out to Ryan in free fall, reaching out in a desperate attempt to grab hold of an arcade machine in front of him, to cling to something he knows as he wades through a torrent of cancer cells in their monstrous, mutant fury.
We seek what we know in times of duress, when we’re drowning, in free fall, when we’ve lost control. There is no semblance of control when you have cancer, so we give it a face, we give it an identity, to try to assuage our fears and feel like we understand the threat. It’s an instinct, primal, to be sure. I’m reasonably certain that one of the core reasons I got through it was giving an identity to cancer, however terrifying it was.
This game means more to me now because I understand Ryan and Amy in a way I did not in 2017. I understand the burden they carried, at least to some degree. It was one they carried on behalf of Joel, one that they’ll always have to carry. Even when the threat has passed, regardless of its outcome, the quickened heartbeat never quite leaves you. The jolt when you hear a beeping noise. The smell of bleach. The taste of Pedialyte. The scars, both tangible and the ones that mar the psyche.
Towards the game’s end, Ryan reflects, “…the air is emptier without his laugh, and yet our hearts are still full. Though, with a different drink. And this road we’ve been on for so long is silent… so we sit here in this new silence. And long for the music to start again, and for the disc to spin again, even if it goes round and round for many more years. For at least we would be moving, and Joel would be laughing, here on Earth… and not only in Heaven… And now we know love and longing, empty and full, all in one moment. And I am grateful that we loved him well. And that we miss him well.”
You should play That Dragon, Cancer, not just because it is a beautiful story about parents and their children, and what it means to love someone with cancer. You should play it because you should know what it means to love someone at all. That in the wake of illness, of fear, of grief, love is steadfast and unbending. It sustains through it all, and even when the memory of those dark days fade to scars, the full force of love, and of empathy incarnate, will persist. All good things do, after all.