The phrase “a game about cancer” doesn’t slip out of the mouth with much grace. Like “a bouncy castle about depression” or “an ice cream about poverty”, the conflict between a traditionally playful medium and a grimly serious subject matter is jarring. But it was through a videogame that the parents of Joel Green chose to express their grief at the loss of their young boy after a four year long battle with the disease.
What they created is That Dragon, Cancer, a deeply personal and brutally emotional piece of interactive storytelling that swings between scenes of colourful realism and outright fantasy. This ghost train of sadness and loss conveys you through a dreamlike world of half-remembered hospital wards, cluttered bedrooms and concerned doctors.
You have only a small degree of control over what happens in these fraught memories. Instead you’re led through a dozen or so vignettes, many of them representing real moments from Joel’s life, in which you progress by clicking on objects to interact with them.
There are touching and sweetly candid moments, as the focus shifts to the celebration of a short life filled with love. The game opens with you controlling a duck on a pond, while on the shore in the distance a five-year-old Joel throws bread. In this scene you can paddle by clicking about on the water’s surface, occasionally snaffling a bit of Hovis as you swim.
Audio from a real trip Joel and his family once took to feed the ducks plays in the background, so you can hear him laugh and giggle. You hear his younger brother asking why Joel, whose development has been slowed by his illness, can’t speak yet. Much of the story is told in this way, with old audio recordings by the family, interspersed with new voice acting.
As you progress, Joel’s illness worsens, reflected in the world by black thorns that encroach on the horizons and darken the skies. Later scenes become seriously difficult to watch, as the rawness of this family’s tragedy is laid bare.
This is far from what most would consider a traditional game: you can’t win, you can’t lose, there’s no way to prevent Joel from dying, or to alter the course of the game in any meaningful way. You don’t even raid treasure chests for coins. But it remains an important, honest and moving piece of interactive art – a unique memorial to a beloved son that will leave you reeling.