Magazine article The Christian Century

A Game You Can't Win

Magazine article The Christian Century

A Game You Can't Win

Article excerpt

In his book Lament for a Son, about the death of his 25-year-old son, Nicholas Wolterstorff invited readers to "sit beside me on my mourning bench." In the video game That Dragon, Cancer, Ryan and Amy Green take us with them as they care, pray, and grieve for their five-year-old son, Joel, who is dying of cancer. As Wired and the Washington Post have noted, this ruthlessly honest video game breaks new ground in the culture of gaming, in which having fun has been the main goal.

The game shepherds the player through stages in Joel's cancer and the Greens' caregiving. It moves between a playground, a hospital room, and several surreal landscapes. The player assumes the role of Ryan, Amy, or Joel.

The game's title comes from a scene that uses imagery from 1980s arcade games. The Greens explain cancer to Joel's siblings by comparing cancer to a dragon. The player then uses keyboard keys to dodge the dragon's fireballs or leap over pits. The absurdity of the play manages to lighten the somberness of the experience while underscoring the seriousness.

Ryan and Amy Green provide their own voices, and Joel's delightful giggling was recorded prior to his death. But although the voices are authentic, the design style is often abstract; faces, for example, lack eyes and other features.

Prayers used in a cathedral setting are recordings of the prayers offered by the Greens and their friends during Joel's last hours of life. This element seems creepy, yet the prayers break new ground for creativity in gaming technology. The recordings serve as a kind of digital remembering, taking us back to a sacred moment in this family's life together.

Playing Dragon requires that the player make choices and take action. In this interactive mode, the Greens' story becomes the player's story.

Actual gameplay is simple: the player navigates through a public park or a cancer ward and interacts with objects or people by moving the mouse. He proceeds at his own pace, exploring rooms, perhaps stopping in the cancer ward to read cards written by Kickstarter donors in honor of family members who had cancer--another example of how this video game blurs the distinction between gaming and the real world.

The player's decisions parallel those that Joel's parents must make. In one segment, the player suddenly finds himself awakened in a hospital room chair, holding Joel on his shoulder. The medicine dispenser connected to Joel is beeping, and the player must find a way to turn the sound off. The game recreates the panic of frantically pushing buttons so as not to awaken a sleeping child. …

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