That Dragon, Cancer Review

#Video ReviewsJanuary 11, 2016

Share this article:
Author:

Carolyn Petit

Managing Editor

Grief is…normal. Losing people we love is part of life, something almost all of us experience from time to time. Some circumstances that lead to grief, however, are more rare and more cruel than others. That Dragon, Cancer is a symbolic journey through the lives of creators Ryan and Amy Green as they face a plight that is incomprehensible to most of us: Their son, Joel, was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of childhood cancer that affects the brain. What makes That Dragon, Cancer so effective is the honesty with which the Greens let us into their hearts and minds; by doing so, they create a portrayal of hope and grief and love that is at once entirely their own and one that anyone who has suffered loss can relate to.

Read the full article…

Grief is…normal. Losing people we love is part of life, something almost all of us experience from time to time. Some circumstances that lead to grief, however, are more rare and more cruel than others. That Dragon, Cancer is a symbolic journey through the lives of creators Ryan and Amy Green as they face a plight that is incomprehensible to most of us: Their son, Joel, was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of childhood cancer that affects the brain. What makes That Dragon, Cancer so effective is the honesty with which the Greens let us into their hearts and minds; by doing so, they create a portrayal of hope and grief and love that is at once entirely their own and one that anyone who has suffered loss can relate to.

That Dragon, Cancer feels something like a dream. Real places and events that actually happened often give way to imagery that reflects the emotional and psychological lives of Amy and Ryan. This dreamlike imagery gives the game a deeper kind of truth. It’s not just a literal narrative about a family with a terminally ill child. It’s a journey through the doubts and struggles of the soul.

That Dragon Cancer - swing

The game reveals how living with Joel’s cancer for years was simultaneously a source of tremendous difficulty and exhaustion and pain for the Greens, and how, when you live with something like that for so long, it becomes woven into your normal, everyday lives. We hear a voicemail from Amy as she’s on her way back from the hospital in which she tells Ryan to preheat the oven for the lasagna they’re making for dinner. Life doesn’t stop. You have to keep on living, doing all the things you’d normally do. But when your life is full of hospital visits and impossible conversations with doctors, you also learn to hate some of the “normal” little specific things that become part of the texture of your life. At one point, Ryan mentions how he has come to hate the way the vinyl of hospital chairs sticks to his skin. Precise details like this put you in the day-to-day lives of the Greens.

That Dragon Cancer - peace

The animation in That Dragon, Cancer is minimal, and while the visual design supports the often abstract and dreamlike narrative, it’s through the sound that the story comes to life. In one scene, Ryan is with Joel at the hospital, and we hear Joel crying out of thirst or exhaustion or pain, and all Ryan wants to do is comfort Joel, but he can’t. And as you hear Joel crying, you understand some tiny fraction of what Ryan feels, listening to his son’s anguish and being powerless to ease it. The sound of Joel’s crying gnaws at you, too; you also hate that he’s suffering, you wish you could do something to make him better. But you can’t.

I was constantly surprised by the candor with which the Greens let us in on the doubts and questions that living with Joel raises in their hearts. Early in the game, Ryan wonders just what it is he means to Joel. How does Joel, who has so few words in his vocabulary, understand or conceive of Ryan, his own father? It’s such a different kind of connection than the one a father might typically form with his child. As people of faith, Ryan and Amy seek strength and comfort in their relationship with God but also find questions in this aspect of their lives. All of these things are so specific to the Greens but these personal truths are also exactly what make this game so relatable. It’s in their moments of confusion, anger, and self-doubt that we can see our own imperfect humanity in the face of grief and loss reflected.

That Dragon Cancer - rocking

It’s not all moments of anguish and suffering and doubt, though. On the contrary; there is so much joy and laughter here, too, and the game becomes a profound meditation on the mysteries of love and the ways in which joy and pain are so often intermingled. Joel may not be able to communicate with his parents the way children his age usually can but as Ryan observes at one point, he is still good at so many things. Eating and laughing and showing people what he loves. There is doubt and fear, anger and resentment and strife and grief beyond words. But above all, there is love. And to me, anyway, the game seems to arrive at the incredibly hard-earned but beautiful conclusion that love is its own gift.

Please consider making a one time donation or becoming a Feminist Frequency monthly sustainer to help us keep producing feminist media criticism! Feminist Frequency is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and your donations are tax-deductible.