It’s been two years since the first time I heard of That Dragon, Cancer. Since then there has been an incredible amount of coverage in the media on the real human story behind this game and the emotional impact the game achieves even in it’s early state. At every game event, I get to see a bit more of it, but then I spend even more time talking with Ryan Green and Josh Larson. At GDC 2015, I finally turned a microphone on during one of those conversations.
The first exposure I had to That Dragon, Cancer was on the PAX Prime floor. As I got in line to play I noticed several people playing the demo with tears in their eyes. Behind me were multiple film crews getting reactions and interviewing those most effected by a game that puts you in the shoes of a father coping with the pain of seeing their child suffer through cancer. I remember when I played the hair standing up on my arms and feeling emotions I’ve never experienced holding a controller. Leaving the booth I could overhear people talking about the game and others openly dismissing “a game that wasn’t fun.”
That very night, we were lucky enough to be invited to a party where I finally met Ryan Green, the main developer, the father whose pain I just experienced in a game. I told Ryan about my experience playing the demo and how much I appreciated him turning to the creation of a game as a way to tell his story. We ended up talking for what felt like hours about everything, but mostly we talked about our love of film. We talked about different directors, shot compositions, editing, everything…we were totally nerding out. And the next day when I met Josh, it was the same thing all over again. In fact, at every event, film is usually the first thing we talk about, “What movies have you seen lately?” And in between Ryan or Josh getting pulled away to do a serious interview about a serious game, we geek out over shots from Terrence Malick and Lars von Trier films.
Many people are looking at That Dragon, Cancer as a serious game, some have even called it an “empathy simulator.” Those people are wrong. That Dragon, Cancer is so much more than that. The game is made of a series of dream-like vignettes, visual metaphors, seeing the world through different eyes, you hear actual audio recordings of the Green Family putting you directly in the room with them. It’s inevitable to experience the real pain of a family learning of their son’s terminal cancer, but you also experience the joy of the time they had. These emotions and experiences need to be in video games.
Much like all other forms of media with books, music, and film…artistic expression, metaphors, storytelling; the drama and happiness of life…we’re finally seeing more games do what others have done for centuries in different mediums. Video games have and will continue to allow players to escape to other worlds and have power fantasies. But our medium is growing up and art is a reflection of it’s creators. Ryan Green and Josh Larson’s work on That Dragon, Cancer is further proof that games can do more.