On the morning that Ryan Green’s son Joel died, Ryan and his pastor went out to the parking lot of the palliative care facility and wept together for 20 minutes. That Dragon, Cancer, a video game created by Ryan, his wife Amy and their friend Josh Larson, tells the story of Joel’s battle with terminal brain cancer. Knowing the end, that Joel “loses,” might dissuade some from playing the game, but That Dragon, Cancer is so much more than a tragic story. It’s an interactive experience that invites players to embrace the grace of mourning. Playing the game is a mercy to anyone who has ever lost someone dear to them.
One of my favorite stories in the Gospel is mentioned at a key juncture in That Dragon, Cancer: the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. In it, Jesus deliberately arrived after Lazarus had died, for the express purpose of showing His power over death. When Jesus arrives at Lazarus’ house, He does not go to Lazarus immediately, but instead speaks to Martha, who blames Jesus for her brother’s death. He then meets with Lazarus’ other sister, Mary, and weeps with her. Jesus could have avoided Martha’s accusation and brought an end to Mary’s weeping by making a beeline to Lazarus and raising him from the dead. Instead He deliberately met with them in their deep distress, listened and mourned.
In That Dragon, Cancer, we are invited to interact with artistic vignettes representing moments in Joel’s life. Through these moments we are made privy to Ryan and Amy’s prayers, doubts and even their frustrations with one another as they struggle to believe that God would heal Joel. That Dragon, Cancer is very simple to play. Using a mouse, players click around the game’s world and interact with various objects. In one sequence, players help Joel feed ducks at a park, push him on a swing and catch him as he goes down a slide.
Playing the game is a mercy to anyone who has ever lost someone dear to them.
There are joyful moments, such as the road trip the Green family took to get Joel special treatment in San Francisco. And there are emotionally difficult sequences, including one in which players soothe Joel during a particularly difficult episode in the hospital. In another sequence, you can move the mouse over the keys on a piano in a cathedral, each of which, when clicked, voices the impassioned prayers of Ryan, Amy and their friends. Clicking each key in succession results in a desperate cacophony of prayer. Playing through these sequences, knowing that Joel lost his battle, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit like Martha, wondering where Jesus was in all of this.
Though He was capable of “fixing” the situation and in fact would shortly go to Lazarus’ tomb and raise him from the dead, Jesus did not offer Mary and Martha an easy solution. He did the more necessary thing in that moment. He grieved alongside them. By weeping with Mary, it was as if Jesus was saying, “I too hate death, I hate the pain it causes. I hate that Lazarus isn’t right here with you.” As much as Lazarus’ story is one of triumph over death, it is also a story of empathy and honesty. Jesus refuses to live in callous unawareness of the brokenness of the people around Him. He set aside the glory He would get for doing the miraculous work of resurrection to love His neighbor well.
That Dragon, Cancer is the most emotionally demanding game I have ever played, but it is also one of the most hopeful. Because the game is brutally honest about the sting of death, it is able to drive home the nature of God’s grace in Christ, to which the game continually points. By inviting us into pain and encouraging us to embrace grief, That Dragon, Cancer ultimately earns the right to offer hope.