Not all the games we talk about on Geek and Sundry are about fighting monsters and demons. Sometimes, the most menacing things we can face in video games are the most familiar, the most banal of enemies. In Numinous Games’ That Dragon, Cancer, launching on January 12th, the foe you face is the all-too-familiar sting of cancer taking over a loved one’s body.
For Ryan and Amy Green, that loved one was their son Joel, and their game is a collection of their memories with him organized as a point-and-click adventure game. They began developing the game in 2013, balancing their time with Joel and trying to honor his life before he passed away in March of 2014 at the age of 5.
In their own words, That Dragon Cancer doesn’t have any puzzles in order to allow players of any gaming background to take a few moments and just be present in these 3-dimensional recreations of his short life.
After securing funding to develop the game for the Ouya console, That Dragon, Cancer completed development thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2014 that ensured it could launch on as many platforms as possible. It had already made a successful showing at festivals such as Indiecade in 2013, with players spending long amounts of time contemplating Joel’s life in a private demo inside the crowded Culver City firehouse.
It’s been nominated for multiple IGF awards for 2016, and was the subject of a documentary called Thank You for Playing, which documents both Ryan and Amy’s work on the game and Joel’s treatment. It’s an unprecedented look at the parallels the Greens and their development team have created between their digital world and Ryan’s real life. The trailer alone may bring a tear to your eye.
It’s not a statement we like to make often, but That Dragon, Cancer really shows the potential of what games can do for us. Designers and developers often struggle within the constraints of empowering players while guiding them through emotionally vulnerable moments, but Ryan and Amy’s goal of encouraging presence and reflection validates how players feel about digital worlds.
Their work fundamentally reminds players that we’re not just pilots shifting gears between different kinds of games, we’re people rebuilding ourselves out of polygons, trying to simulate something we haven’t necessarily experienced ourselves, but we know lies in the world around us. That Dragon, Cancer may very well make you cry, but it does so because it’s successfully brought you to these little slivers of Joel’s world, and and invited you to sit down with him for one last time.
January 12th, when That Dragon Cancer launches, would have been Joel’s 7th birthday. In her post detailing the game’s launch plans, Amy Green laments that one of the most difficult parts of moving on from Joel’s death has been figuring out how to properly celebrate his life. The only proper idea they could come up with was to invite players from around the world to an impromptu Pancake Day. Whether or not you plan to play That Dragon, Cancer, The Numinous Games team says eating pancakes is exactly what Joel would have wanted, and that he’d have loved to see everyone’s syrup-laden, buttery pancakes before chomping into one himself.
If you plan on picking up the game, or just making a fresh batch of pancakes for you and your loved ones, feel free to tweet out a pick with the hashtag #ThatDragonCancer.
Header image via Numinous Games