Guest post from Glen:
How do you capture the grief of losing a five year old child? Ryan and Amy Green, a Christian couple from Colorado, made a game about it “That Dragon, Cancer“, which people are calling “the most profound videogame ever.” Since Emma showed it to me, I can’t stop thinking about it.
It did not begin life as a memorial. The game was birthed while hopes were high for Joel’s healing. He had been diagnosed with brain cancer after his first birthday and aggressive treatments began soon after. Fifteen tumors came and radiation therapy saw them off every time. Fighting the dragon seemed to be going well.
But then Ryan, Joel’s father, had an experience of utter helplessness that changed its course. One night Joel was completely inconsolable in hospital. Ryan had tried everything to soothe him but things had only gotten worse with his son head butting the crib in agony. At 4 in the morning he slumped in a chair and prayed. Joel quietened.
That Sunday, Ryan reflected on the experience in church and he knew what the game should be:
“I want to show you what it feels like to feel helpless but to have received grace. I felt like it would be ultimately encouraging to people.” (from this interview)
So Ryan teamed up with another Christian game developer, Josh Larson, who wanted to challenge the philosophy of traditional computer games.
Ordinarily a game gets you to defeat a boss, complete a level, attain “power-ups”, solve puzzles, etc. Traditional games put you in the box seat and through cunning, skill and persistence you will triumph. But that’s not how life is, especially not in the face of suffering. And it’s certainly not how things work between us and God. As Josh says:
“The idea of grace is that you don’t have to do something good to earn your salvation…
In contrast, games train you in exactly that philosophy of “good works”.
…People are always so concerned about what you do in a game, and they can be that way about life too.” (Source)
So how do you create a game that captures the helplessness we feel, both in suffering and before God? That Dragon, Cancer is a series of “immersive vignettes” that take you through Joel’s treatment. You experience the story and you interact with Joel and others. But you don’t affect the outcome. You can’t.
In the scene where doctors tell you that Joel’s cancer is inoperable, the room fills up with water while medical professionals assure you they have “excellent end of life care.” You can’t stop the room flooding, you can’t reverse the diagnosis, you can’t save Joel.
At the end you enter a cathedral as the lights are going out. It’s clear that time is short for Joel. You can push certain of the organ keys and impassioned prayers for Joel ring out. You can light a candle for him but the flame soon flickers and fades. Ordinarily a gamer would try to figure out the correct combination of keys and candles. Surely something will work, but nothing does.
I found it particularly moving to watch this play-through by a popular YouTube gamer JackSepticEye:
At the 1:29 mark he says:
What am I supposed to be doing?… Is there a puzzle or a connection that I’m not getting?… Oh, look, it’s right there…. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing?!… And then it goes dark… Lighting these [candles]… they all go dark after a while… What am I supposed to be doing??!
After a few minutes frenzied activity, the lights go out completely. A final prayer is spoken and then nothing. Joel is dead. Jack from YouTube is in awe:
Good God that is powerful!
Yes it is. The helplessness and horror of grief lands on you, heavier than if the cathedral roof had collapsed. You try to do everything you can to save the boy and nothing works.
This feeling of devastation — death crashing in, despite all your best efforts and prayers — was something Amy and Ryan Green wanted to capture. They had spent so much of Joel’s illness believing in miraculous healing, believing that the dragon would be slain if only they could do the right things. When he died in 2014, aged 5, they were unprepared. Amy said:
we were believing that he would be healed… We were believing that even if he died maybe he would be raised from the dead… But because we still believed that he could live, I feel like we didn’t go through all the processes of getting ready for him to die the way that maybe you would if you were certain that this was it.
They may not have felt prepared — what could prepare you! — but they have given us all an incredible gift. With the re-written ending to the game, here is something that is teaching millions about grief and grace.
A gamer faces life with options at their fingertips, with resources, with an expectation of success. But the Big Boss “Death” is undefeatable. There are no hacks. Not even prayer, not even “a miracle.” We have no choices, not about the things that really matter. We can’t decide our way out of our mortality. We have no choices, we have only grace. And what does that grace look like? Not the avoidance of death but the certain journey through it.
After the cathedral, the screen is blank. The word “Loading…” blinks. At last you find yourself in the final scene. You cross a lake to find Joel happily on the other side of this vale of tears. You blow bubbles and he giggles. He shows you his dog and his favourite food: pancakes. Through the devastation of death, there is hope. Through our helplessness, God shows up in mercy. But there’s no other way to glory.