Representing a Disease in ‘That Dragon, Cancer’

Cancer is tragic, but it’s also mundane, absurd, and sometimes even funny. That Dragon, Cancer is an unflinching look at the disease.

As is the case with the disease itself, it’s hard to know how to talk about That Dragon, Cancer. Everyone deals with such challenges in a different way, and words that are meant to be brave or comforting often end up sounding like generic platitudes. Ryan and Amy Green made a game about their son Joel’s struggle with cancer. There’s some happy parts and some sad parts in it, but all of them feel honest and even practical at points. It’s something that I admire about the game. It feels authentic because they’re tackling multiple aspects of the disease, which makes it easier for other people to relate to and to even share their own personal experiences with cancer.

Speaking of which, I’ll start with the obligatory personal background: there’s a fair amount of cancer in my family.That means that there have been deaths and survival stories, defeats and victories. After a few cycles, you get used to certain routines and certain mental models of what cancer is and what the fight is like.

I love That Dragon, Cancer‘s physical representation of the disease. The game’s opening introduces you to a polygonal-impressionist environment with lots of green foliage and warm light. Nothing looks quite the way it does in the real world, but it feels safe and appropriate. It makes for a startling juxtaposition when you find a single tree that is jet black. It is jagged and contrasts with its surroundings, even though it seems to be growing alongside all the other beautiful things in this world. It is a stark representation of Joel’s cancer, and it is one that I found particularly moving. I had assumed the game would lean much more heavily into the “dragon equals cancer” metaphor, but it instead focuses on the more all-encompassing nature of the disease.

One of the things that scares me the most about cancer is that it’s not just a single bad guy that’s invading your life. It is a part of you that grows and spreads alongside the normal parts of your body and the normal routines of your life. It seems simultaneously organic, yet completely alien. And If you’re unlucky, that dark, thorny bramble completely overtakes your personal landscape.

While you’re fighting against this uninvited weed, you still have to live your life, and That Dragon, Cancer addresses this by presenting the actual logistics of life during cancer. Particles of mundane experience fill in the cracks around what has become a central tragedy in your life. Amy leaves her husband voicemails in which in the space of a breath she goes from talking about prescription regimens to planning out what to make for dinner. After Joel loses some of his ability to eat whole food, Ryan still finds half-chewed pieces of dinner in the boy’s mouth. The rest of the family is highly entertained as Ryan tries to fish these out of Joel’s cheeks while Joel tries to bite him. The disease becomes another detail in day-to-day life.

I remember a time towards the end of my Grandpa’s life. He was bedridden and a combination of family members were helping run a house that he and my grandmother had lived in for over 50 years. Unfortunately we were not versed in the house’s arcane plumbing system, which he had quietly managed over years. As shit-brown water began to bubble up in various drainpipes, we all kind of laughed/cried/gagged our way through it. “Somewhere, God is laaaaaaaughing,” my Uncle chuckled as we washed our hands and got back to the business of being sad. It’s something that I think about now whenever I have to use a plunger.

Everyone who’s dealt with cancer has their version of these little episodes, which is why I was most moved by the scene in which you explore a hospital full of cards. In a touching nod to the game’s crowd-funded roots, each small card has a message from people who backed the game. I took my time to read through all of the cards in the first room and all of the familiar themes were there: mournful goodbyes, upbeat thank-yous, little inside jokes. Although all the cards looked the same from the outside, the little details gave them personality. After reading them, I opened the door and went into the hallway only to be greeted by what seemed like hundreds more.

It was probably the hardest part of the game to play. It brought into focus the shared experience of cancer. There were just so many of them. It reminded me that if you zoom out far enough, every cancer story starts to look pretty similar. The discovery, the fight, and the resolution follow a familiar curve. It’s only when you open the card and start exploring the details inside that you see the individual texture of each person’s life. I realized that I felt comforted by the outward similarity. Being able to generalize the experience makes it easier to deal with, which as I write actually sounds disturbingly selfish and callous. I tried to read as many as I could, but with each card, I could feel myself growing more entangled by the grief, anger, and nostalgia that comes with thinking about cancer. I had to leave, but I was glad to know that most people out there are probably carrying around their own card.

By the end of the game, I was exhausted, but refreshed. That Dragon, Cancer addresses an unimaginably sad topic, but it does so in a way that doesn’t rely on euphemisms. It calls out cancer and all the pain, mundanity, and sometimes even laughter that goes along with it. More importantly, it reminds us how many people have had to face these truths and keep on living. Our individual stories are unique, but judging by that card collection, we can take comfort in knowing that we’re never alone.