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.”
“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.
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.