That Dragon, Cancer And The Light In The Darkness

It was truly a miserable day.

It had been raining for hours. What do you even do in this situation? Stuck in the house with a three-year-old bouncing off the walls, making a sustained effort to break every single object within his sticky grasp. I made a call before we both lost our minds. I decided to take my son indoor rock climbing.

It was a good idea.

The climbing centre we visited was fairly unique. It had the same walls, the same holds as any other indoor gym, but catered well to young children — a playground, simple routes with butterflies and animal shapes for holds. Behind the walls — inside the walls to be more precise — there was a caving section: a series of inter-connected tunnels that played perfectly to a child’s curiosity, their need to explore, that secret desire to be afraid. To be fearful and overcome that fear.

My son wanders towards the tunnel. I sense reluctance, I encourage him.

“It’s okay,” I say. “You can go in.”

He hesitates.

“I need a torch, Daddy.”

As a parent I’ve always been a firm believer in allowing my children to define their own limits from a young age. Almost certainly I’ve been guilty of forcing them to push beyond those limits. I struggle with that. I didn’t want to give him a torch.

“You’ll be fine,” I said.

He nodded.

Then slowly, bravely, he wandered into the first tunnel.

The second tunnel was different. Complicated, darker, stranger. There was a real chance he might get trapped. I was quietly afraid of that. It would be too small, too tight for me to get in there and help him out if the situation arose.

Then, an advertisement next to the tunnel: they sold glow sticks at the front desk, to help younger kids with the dark. I caved. I bought one. It cracked with a satisfying snap and a green glow. I handed it to my son.

“This is your lightsaber,” I said. “Now you’ll be able to see where you’re going.”

“I’m Yoda,” he said.

Slowly his apprehension made way for a broad grin. He disappeared. Laughter and a soft green light echoed in the darkness.


Later that night I saw the same green glow. Not a light in the dark, a symbol. Chemotherapy treatment, drugs being drained into the body of a helpless child. A child much like my own, a boy who’d rather be running around tunnels with a lightsaber, pretending to be Yoda.

I was playing That Dragon, Cancer.

Like most parents engaged in video game culture, I wasn’t looking forward to playing That Dragon, Cancer. This isn’t Tetris. This isn’t a whimsical time waster or a meaningless skill to be acquired. This is not a power fantasy.

That Dragon, Cancer is, inexorably, a video game about the death of a child. It is not fiction. It is biography. The most brutal kind.

Ryan Green began making That Dragon, Cancer in response to a terminal diagnosis. Joel Green was only one year old when Doctors found a teratoid rhabdoid tumour in his body. He was four years old when Ryan, his father, held him in hospital in a desperate attempt to stop him from crying.

Rocking, pacing, shushing. Ryan tried everything. It reminded him of a video game with subverted game mechanics: the disempowerment of it, the vacuum of agency. Eventually Ryan abandoned any semblance of control. Instead of trying to solve the problem, he prayed — placing his agency in the abstract hands of another supernatural being. Miraculously, the crying stopped.

It was at that point when Ryan Green decided he wanted to make a video game about his son's struggle with cancer.

My own child is asleep when I replay that scene in the virtual world of That Dragon, Cancer. I pace the reconstructed hospital room, trying to placate the very real recorded cries of a child who is — tragically — already gone. That sound is so familiar to me; as is the process: soothing the cries of a child by any means necessary. The bizarre superstitions you develop in that situation: ‘He likes it when you do this thing, he now doesn’t like it because children are random autonomous beings and no-one really knows what the hell they’re doing ever.’

The frustration is palpable, that dull sleepless search for a solution that doesn’t exist. The endless pacing. That absence of agency. When your avatar stops and prays the relief is overwhelming. I cried in that moment. I cried, I think, because on some level I understood. All parents in their own way would understand. All have been privy to that desperation: the impotent stress of watching your child suffer and not having a single fucking clue how to relieve them of their pain.

The only difference: the scale of it, the perspective. My son was upstairs sleeping soundly, he would live another day. Joel Green will not.


I played That Dragon, Cancer on paternity leave.

Three weeks ago my wife gave birth to our second child, another boy. It was a successful birth, free of complications. Relatively quick too. First time around it took the better part of three days, this time it was over in hours.

All newborns are required to take a hearing test. Your day old child sits strapped as sounds bounce around his eardrums like ping pong balls. A progress bar slowly creeps. If the bar makes it to a certain point before a certain time they pass the test.

It’s little bit like watching a download bar.

I stare at the two progress bars intently. Willing them to increase. Left ear, right ear. Why weren’t they rising. Go faster. Move faster.

Halfway through the test the left ear passed. The right ear, however, was only a quarter of the way there. I tried desperately to mask my anxieties. The timer ticked. The bar stubbornly refused to move.

The nurse stopped, fiddled with the equipment. Eventually the timer ran out. My son had not passed the hearing test.

“This is normal,” said the nurse. “Nothing to worry about. Bring him back next week and we’ll do the test again."

Nothing to worry about.

Nothing. To. Worry. About.

Seven days. A constant low level static of stress, humming below the surface. We took him back to the hospital. He passed the test.


What if he hadn’t passed the test?

Another scene in That Dragon, Cancer: Ryan Green and his wife sit with a doctor as he explains the reasons why their son will not survive. Their son will die and it is only a matter of time. As the doctor talks the room slowly fills with water.

The anxieties of parenthood are acute and constant. For the better part of three weeks my wife and I have agonised over every little rash, every cry, every detail. Is he okay? Is he too hot? Too cold? Is he crying too much? Is he crying enough? Is he breathing too quickly?

“I counted 50.”

“I counted 90. Am I doing it wrong?”

One night my wife and I spent an hour counting how many times our son breathed in a minute. When does this stop? It might never stop.

That Dragon, Cancer is literally a video game dedicated to our worst nightmare. And it happened. It happens — is in the process of happening — to other people all the time.


Earlier that week my three-year-old fell over whilst trying to climb an obstacle in the park. He hit his knee pretty badly. He held back the tears.

I didn’t react. I never react. Children react to the reaction, not the pain itself. I believe that.

After a few seconds I offer him a hug and an “are you okay big man?”

He ignores it, takes a deep breath and successfully climbs the obstacle that foiled him first time around.

Only then does he circle back to reciprocate the hug I had offered just moments ago.

Why did he do that? Why did he feel like he had to overcome the obstacle before deserving a hug from his father? Why does he feel the need to earn my affection?

What the fuck am I even doing?


Like many others I wondered why That Dragon, Cancer exists.

I wonder what benefit That Dragon, Cancer will have? I wonder if that’s even a question worth asking. Is it enough that Ryan Green wanted to make it? Is that reason enough. I think so. Undoubtedly I think so.

But I didn’t have to play it. Many will refuse. I know people who have bought That Dragon, Cancer fully aware they will never play it.

Playing That Dragon, Cancer was my choice. Just like making That Dragon, Cancer was Ryan Green’s choice.

The night I played, I put my three-year-old to sleep. That night was tougher than usual. He didn’t go down easily, kept asking for one more story, for a glass of milk, for his mummy, for anything that would delay sleep for five more minutes. I got a little frustrated. Eventually, I turned the light off.

“I need my lightsaber, Daddy.”

He’s not usually afraid of the dark. I didn’t want to encourage it in him now.

“You’re a big boy, you can sleep with the light off.”

Then I played That Dragon, Cancer. Three hours later, the credits rolled.

My son was sound asleep. Still breathing. I wandered back into his room — into the darkness. I was very careful. I was quiet. I placed the little green glow stick underneath his pillow as he slept.

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Comments

    I am not a parent. I doubt I'll ever be a parent. This game is decidedly not aimed at me, so I've deliberately avoided reading anything about it, knowing that it's just not "for" me. Accordingly this is the only review / write-up I've read of it, and probably the only one I will read. I'm only looking at it because Mark wrote it.

    Like many others I wondered why That Dragon, Cancer exists.

    I think it exists for these stories. These personal interpretations and extrapolations. It was worth reading your story, and I think that's enough of a purpose.

    I know people who have bought That Dragon, Cancer fully aware they will never play it.
    Well, maybe not 'never'. I mean... it's sitting there in the library, and... yeah, OK.
    A play-through is, uh... Indefinitely postponed.

    Last edited 20/01/16 1:36 pm

    I'm also in the same boat as the original commenter. I'll never play that dragon cancer either because it's not aimed at me. I'll also never be a father because of medical reasons or have a wife due to my own insecurities bases of previous long term relationships. However I do have a form of experience in the topic. I lost my own father 6 years ago almost when I turned 18 right at that crucial point in life where your funding your feet and becoming a man. So I'm sad that my father never got to see that transformation. That being said I'm happy for the 18 years we had. And I've taken the responsibility to took after my mother.

    But more so I enjoyed reading about your experiences parenting Mark, about all the ranging emotions. And everything you go through. It makes me wonder what it was like for my own parents having me and my older brother and what that was like. I truly enjoyed your write up keep up the good work Mark. And please bring your family to Pax this year I'd love to meet them :)

    @serrels

    I am not a parent, and I don't think I will. Being a parent scares the beejesus out of me. I see enough of my parents in myself that I am scared that I will be raising someone that I dont even want to socialise in. I see it as being a responsible thing to do. Not bringing someone in this world to be a jerk.

    That being said. I feel that games like this needs to exist, more games like "That Dragon, Cancer" that handles mature themes maturely. Eventhough I will never play this game (my mother in law died from it, too close to home), I am happy games like this exist.

    That was a truly beautifully written article Mark. Top Notch

    As a dad of a two and a half year old and another on the way, I know I couldn't handle the subject matter. It rough just reading the articles on here in the last week or so. I cried at the beginning of Ori and the Blind Forest. Before I had kids, I would never have reacted that way. I think that could go a long way to show why some of these negative reactions to the game exist. I would not have given it a second thought 4 years ago. Now, I know the fear and the anguish that naturally comes with every danger that a child can face in life, whether they face it or not.

    I'm terrified about playing this game. I am not a parent, but hopefully someday I'll be. I had have many hardships in life but not many circumstances of raw, true pain. I've been pretty blessed in that regard. Reading or hearing about others who have gone through so much pain is an ordeal. Part "survivor's guilt" for not having suffered that much, part superstitious belief that not knowing how much pain a person can possibly go through will somehow shield me from something like that happening to me, like a child who hides his face under the covers and pretends that the night terrors will not manifest if he can't see them.

    I think you hit the nail on the head there.
    If you now have a greater appreciation for the gift that is your child/ren

    I really enjoyed this game up until it started throwing in the religious garbage. I uninstalled the game after trying to struggle through the garbage being put into the game.

      OK, how about instead of calling it religion, call it a mythology useful for the support and comfort of people in need.

      Regardless of what you think of religion, and how much garbage you think it is, it can also be an essential tool for survival for many. Perhaps you should try playing through again, but this time try be a little more open to a system that actually does some good for many people.

      Last edited 21/01/16 12:22 pm

        Religion's an admirable thing when it provides comfort and solace in the face of the overwhelming unfairness of this world and the terror of oblivion.

        There's a lot of problems with the evils performed in the name of preserving that mental/emotional security blanket and the very weird insistence that everyone else should help support those delusions, but I think one of the things that probably bothers atheists (or even agnostics) when religion creeps in as a coping mechanism is that it's basically giving up on finding rational ways of coping.

        Reality holds no solutions, so we turned to self-delusion of religion as the only thing that could make sense of the senseless. It's understandable, but disappointing. Especially if fervent - because then it becomes seemingly self-unaware. Like they don't know they've embraced what the unbeliever would perceive as 'madness'. They're trying to convince themselves and the player.

        At least, I expect that's probably what bugs people anyway. For me it would simply be that the ability to relate is gone. Where they have gone in their emotional journey, I cannot follow.

          Rationality can be a good solution. Delusions, or illusions, can also work well. I think both are necessary, and finding the balance between the two is a lifelong pursuit. What I don't like is when someone dismisses one or the other. Perhaps calling Rationality as "soulless", or illusions as "madness". Neither are quite correct.

          It can certainly be a challenge to try and relate to another's madness. A key process is to try and clear any preconceived perceptions. Another is to focus on the idea that this behaviour may actually be good for the individual. Or basically, keep an open mind, and be accepting. Whether you believe what they do, or not, is immaterial. Just respect that what this person believes is good for that person. Hopefully it'll help zap those bugs, and you may find you can understand where the other person is coming from now.

            Agreed on all points. And I probably should've used more inverted commas above to indicate an attempt to convey a perspective instead of an intention to offend or simply minimize belief or faith. I hope it didn't come across that way.

              I thought your post was quite well written and insightful. Though I got the sense that you're not quite accepting of using illusions as a valid, or even preferable, way to cope with reality. But hey, it's all good.

                Yeah, was mostly trying to keep my personal take out of it. For example, I have objections to organized religion, on account of all the corruption and the tribalism involved, but when it comes to the core concepts, if not the dogma? I consider that to be something deeply personal per each individual. And private.

                I've never really bought into the benefit of using something so personal as a lynchpin behind 'community'. That's probably why we've had so much strife around it, even without manipulative people harnessing an understandable response to fear as a means for control.

                Last edited 21/01/16 5:02 pm

    The reply all podcast did a great story on the inception of this project.

    If all the critics of the projects intention actually listen to that they will garner a greater understanding of it's origin.

    Be fore warned though, it's depressing, very depressing.

    Great article Mark, I'm also the father of a 3 year old boy and am divorced and I don't get to see him full time which has/is always hard to deal with as there is nothing more in life that I would rather do. Being a parent is such an amazing experience and I absolutely love it and it breaks my heart when I hear my boy cry. The bravery of this man who made this game is astonishing to me and I admire his courage and if it makes only one more parent understand how lucky and privileged they are to have a happy healthy boy then the game and Ryan Green have done their job.

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