That Dragon, Cancer Released

After twelve-month-old Joel Green was diagnosed with terminal cancer, his parents started making a game to tell his story, and their story, and to immortalise him digitally. Joel died they were still making That Dragon, Cancer [official site], at age five, but you can now hear his story as the game’s out today.

That Dragon, Cancer follows Joel’s life through two hours of vignettes from his father’s perspective, including audio taken from home videos, narration from both parents, and poetry. It’s a celebration of Joel’s life as well as a documentary of his treatment, including scenes like visits to the park along with harrowing treatment scenes. Also, a metaphorical kart race through hospital corridors.

I played a short preview build in 2014, and didn’t really get on with it. The tale and narration brought tears to the eyes of even this monster, but I found the game laid over the top clashed with that – enough to seriously detract from the whole experience. I haven’t played the final version, though, and couldn’t tell you how much it’s changed. And I am, as stated, a monster with silty water for blood. Anyway, I think someone will be properly telling us Wot They Think of it at some point.

That Dragon, Cancer is out now for Windows and Mac, at £10.99 on Steam or £10.49 through a Humble widget on its site (which’ll give you a Steam key anyway, and give the devs a bigger share). Here’s the launch trailer:

47 Comments

  1. lordcooper says:

    I might just be particularly lacking in empathy today, but it seems a little twisted for someone to be seeking to profit from the death of their (or for that matter, any) child.

    • froz says:

      I suspected it costed them a lot more (in time and money) then they will ever earn from selling the game. I imagine they still have to eat and pay the bills, I also imagine what they experienced could devastate their live, also financialy.

      And, to be honest, I wouldn’t have that audacity to tell parents how they should feel or what they should do about loss of their child.

      • lordcooper says:

        “I wouldn’t have that audacity to tell parents how they should feel or what they should do about loss of their child.”

        Neither would I. They get to do those things however they want. I get to find it offputting.

        • w0bbl3r says:

          You wouldn’t have that audacity?

          Here I assume that at least most of the proceeds will go to some kind of cancer charity, or I would be very sickened by them charging £10 for people to watch and “experience” (albeit in a teeny tiny way) their child dying.

          As far as saying how parents should or should not behave after losing a child? I am perfectly comfortable telling the McCans that they are vile scume who are either knowingly responsible (they had something to do with it) or just ignorantly and disgustingly responsible, for their daughters death.
          And for them to write a book about it is even worse. Making hundreds of thousands (they charged a lot for interviews very soon after the event) of pounds from their daughters death, which at best they caused by leaving her alone in a room while they went out partying.

          So in some instances it is perfectly reasonable and not in the least bit “audacious” to say things about someone who lost a child. If they did something disgusting, or even mildly sickening, then say it. If they didn’t, then don’t.

          • HERP DERP NANOMACHINES says:

            You’re comfortable being a mediocre sheep that believes whatever the media says

    • Anonymous says:

      What a ridiculous thing to say.

    • Anonymous says:

      Or it might be, you know, a way to deal with it through expressing yourself, like how some people write books about tragedies that they’ve been through, or paint or make any kind of art really. Very often they then go on to sell this art rather than give it away for free. I suppose you could argue that there are production costs and such involved in the production of physical art, but I doubt that other artists take no profit whatsoever from art based on tragedy. You might as well ask the question if it was twisted for Eric Clapton to make money from “Tears in Heaven”.

      So I think you’ve just put on your super-cynical glasses today ;)

    • Spakkenkhrist says:

      I suggest you listen to the latest episode of the Reply All podcast which is about the parents of the baby this game is about, it’s pretty harrowing.

    • Bull0 says:

      It seems very cynical to conclude that this work was done to seek profit. The game hardly screams mass appeal. I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first either, since it does seem like an unusual way to grieve to me. Then I remembered that since (thank god) it’s not me doing the grieving, how this family grieves is not for me to judge.

    • xcession says:

      Your premise is flawed as they’re not “seeking” to profit. They’re going to make some money, yes, but that isn’t the goal.

      • w0bbl3r says:

        I would argue that making even £10 profit between the two of them would be completely wrong in a case like this.

        But I don’t know, I would assume (if they were rational and decent people) that at least the majority of the money made from this will go to a charity for cancer, or maybe to the hospital that treated the child.
        I mean, we raised a couple hundred quid at my dad’s funeral from donations (instead of flowers we said donations), that we gave to the head nurse at the blood cancer day unit he went to for the last 18 months of his life (almost daily), and who were incredible people, both professionally and personally.

        • jrodman says:

          Because making a game, especially one surrounding a personal topic, has no costs. Right?

      • RabbitIslandHermit says:

        This game has a decent sized team (7 people). I assume not all (possibly any?) worked on it full time during development, but if you’re assigning market rates to the work done on it I don’t think it’s safe to assume it will make a modest profit or break even, and I certainly don’t think the parents were seeking to make money off of it.

        I mean, it might do well, but it’s far from a guarantee.

        • RabbitIslandHermit says:

          And I should say that even if it does do well it seems rather crass for other people to serve as judge of what they’re morally allowed to do with the money.

    • Urthman says:

      Go look in the mirror and say, “Game developers should have to work for free if they make games based on serious life experiences they’ve suffered,” and then think about the choices you’ve made that have turned you into That Guy.

      • w0bbl3r says:

        Losing a child to a five year battle with cancer isn’t a serious life experience. Not even close.
        It is (or should be) the single most devastating and debilitating thing a person can go through. To make even a single pound of profit from that, after inserting all this very personal stuff to tug at peoples’ heart(-purse)strings, would be pretty gross, in my opinion.
        But I expect they are donating most of this money to charity. If they are in any way moral and/or decent human beings anyway. You can never tell these days, as people will do anything to make a buck

        • Spoon Of Doom says:

          Yeah, good thing musicians, writers and other artists too never deal with traumatic or devastating events in the works they sell for money. Wait…

          Why is it okay to write songs and books and movies about those things, but a game is suddenly wrong and “gross”? They want to express and share what they went through, probably to deal with the grieving, and they found making a game to be the way that works for them. Now they don’t give it away for free, because they invested a lot of blood, sweat, time and tears. I don’t see a problem with that.

          And even if it was somehow worse to make money from a game rather than, say, a book about the events: this game is so niche that I highly doubt they’ll become rich from this. Probably not even close to a profit if you regard the time investment.

        • RobF says:

          Dude, you are so far into “things you don’t get to decide” it’s not even funny.

          It’s not up to you how someone experiences or deals with grief. I mean, seriously like, read back what you’ve wrote and say it out loud. If you can say…

          “Losing a child to a five year battle with cancer isn’t a serious life experience. Not even close.
          It is (or should be) the single most devastating and debilitating thing a person can go through.”

          out loud and not have second thoughts about what you’re saying there, I don’t know man. Think on what those words mean to anyone else reading them, yeah?

          You’re deciding what experience a person should have. You’re assuming -it isn’t- exactly that just because someone has the fortitude to write a game around it. You’re assuming in making a game around this, that’s somehow ABadThing because they might make money without considering what it’d be like to spend so many years working on this game knowing that your kid will pass, then to have your kid pass away -whilst you’re working on the game-.

          I can’t even begin to imagine what that feels like, I can’t even begin to imagine how hard it must be to put something like this together without breaking, y’know?

          No amount of money washes that stuff away, man. Come on. Try and at least have a bit of heart. You don’t have to support them but you can at least try and understand.

        • Synesthesia says:

          Christ, what an asshole.

    • Premium User Badge

      gritz says:

      Here’s an entire episode of Radiolab about the story of making this game: link to radiolab.org

      TL;DL – you’re wrong.

  2. Noisy says:

    I could not even get through the video. Being a father myself, I always got emotional hearing stories like this. And imagining of “living” it through via game. That is too much for me. Still hope it gets deserved attention.

    • chewbaccasdad says:

      Yeah, give me Outlast, or Alien: Isolation, or The Evil Within. I don’t think I could handle a game that involves my actual fears.

      • Stellar Duck says:

        I don’t even have kids. Just have my nephew. But the thought of anything happening to him makes my gut curl up in a ball and my brain go numb.

        I can’t even imagine how I’d feel if I get kids of my own someday. Hope I get to find out.

        • Sheng-ji says:

          I’m not entirely convinced that came out exactly as you intended!

    • Keios says:

      Yeah, I think I’m pretty much in the same boat. I’ve lost friends and family to cancer, and sitting with my son on my lap reading the article all I could think was “Nope. Not playing this any time soon”.

    • Babytea says:

      I am a long time lurker and reader of RPS. Never made an account. I had to make one just to reply to this to say: I couldn’t make it through the video either. Hell, I teared up at the opening paragraph saying how he already passed. I’ve got two little girls, and them going through something like this is a mortal fear of mine. I couldn’t play this. I just couldn’t.

  3. haldolium says:

    While it looks atmospheric and touching in a very sad way, it drags along too much kitsch for my taste judging from the trailer. But it’s good that this was made, pushing games a little bit further to diversity.

  4. Earl-Grey says:

    Having just become a father, there is no way in hell I’m touching this before my daughter start driving me up the wall once those charming teenage years come around.

  5. GernauMorat says:

    This is going to be impossible to review fairly, as the (obviously genuine) tragedy at the heart of it will make it seem incredibly crass to point out if the game is tosh. (I have no idea if it’s any good as a game, and I hope it is)

    • Eight Rooks says:

      Not at all. Eurogamer did a perfectly good job, I thought – IIRC they said most of the story is devastatingly emotional and very well presented, some rare moments are slightly mawkish, the “game” segments are poorly produced and somewhat out of place. Seems perfectly plausible to me. These people certainly seem like a family who want very badly to share what they went through out of a genuine desire to help people understand or, if the players have been through a similarly awful experience themselves, to feel that someone’s there to support them. That’s awesome and I’m genuinely pleased they finally managed to finish the thing. Doesn’t mean their game can’t be maudlin or sometimes misguided, though, and it doesn’t mean it’s wrong or churlish to point that out, as long as you do it sensitively. Schindler’s List dramatises part of one of the most terrible events in human history, and does so very, very well – it’s still occasionally needlessly saccharine and crowd-pleasing.

      I doubt I’ll ever play this, though. It’s not a judgement call and I don’t have kids of my own (probably never will) – I just don’t feel tempted to immerse myself in grief as raw as this, with no filter between it and myself. Which is a shame, as I think they deserve some success or recognition or whatever for what they’ve managed to do – perhaps I’ll buy the thing at some point and then just never play it. >_>

    • Urthman says:

      Because in music or literature artists always get a free pass when they write or sing about personal tragedy?

      If people can write reviews of Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” without giving him a free pass or clutching their pearls about about how he’s “OMG, Making money off his son’s death!” they can do it about this game.

    • Premium User Badge

      gritz says:

      If a game can convey such intense tragedy and provoke such enormous feelings from its audience, does anything else really matter all that much?

  6. TheAngriestHobo says:

    Well, this looks… fun?

  7. flashman says:

    I just got finished playing this game, and I don’t know that I can do it justice with words. You’ll just have to take the bin full of snotty tissues as evidence of how it got to me. I’ve got two kids, and every time it got to me that this was a real family’s real story – through a soundbite from a home video, listening to Joel giggling, reading the memorial messages in game, or seeing photos of a happy boy like my own – I just lost it.

    In many ways it almost feels too personal, like the lack of emotional distance hinders the experience for the rest of us, but this is a family’s grief we are being invited to experience: I think it gets a pass because of that.

    I hope many people get a chance to play this. For me it was deeply moving and emotional, and I’m glad I had the opportunity.

  8. Marclev says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever come across a more devastating, tragic and depressing game in several decades of computer games. As the father of a child not much younger than the poor kid in the article at his time of passing away, I’m pretty much sat her having to hold back the tears just reading the article. Can’t bring myself to watch the trailer! Horror films have nothing on this sort of stuff.

    Can’t see myself ever going anywhere near this, but my deepest sympathy for that poor family.

  9. Wowbagger says:

    From reading the developer’s website I’m a little worried it will have an evangelical bent to it? Can anyone disabuse me of that notion?

    • jezcentral says:

      Surely people are allowed to have different beliefs? Being an atheist/agnostic myself, I have no problem with some people choosing to believe in a god.

      But to answer your question, I hear that they believe and there are elements of their belief in their autobiographical game. They are not evangelists, and neither is the game.

      • Wowbagger says:

        I certainly didn’t meant to come across as anti religion in general and for them to keep faith through such trials is admirable.

        If you haven’t played the game however, then it’s not very useful for you to answer my question.

        • jezcentral says:

          Sorry, I didn’t mean to come over all holier-than-though (ho ho). Re-reading it after posting made me realise I’d been a bit heavy-handed, but the usual lack of edit button meant I couldn’t change it.

          And the info comes from several reviews, so I trust it (even if, as far as you are concerned, I’m just a bloke on the Internet, and therefore an unreliable source, but you did ask. :) ).

  10. xcession says:

    This game receives a giant nope from me, albeit a respectful nope.

    My son is 2, my daughter is just a few weeks old and the trailer alone is a giant trigger for all the darkest places of my imagination – something I’ve heard many newish parents become suddenly aware of.

  11. TheCobradome says:

    I lost my wife to cancer six years ago. I’ll buy their game, because I just want to help somehow. But I’ll never install it and never play it.

  12. kyynis says:

    Radiolab told the story of making this game in a recent podcast, which, in turn, is an abridged version of the latest Gimlet Media podcast. I highly recommend either of them, especially for game devs and the folks that believe that gaming can be more than manshooting.

  13. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    Very brave of them to make this game. Just looking at the picture makes me sad, so I don’t think I’m up to playing it.

    My kids are teens now, but it brings back memories of my daughter having an ultrasound etc. on her first day of life because of a serious kidney problem. Luckily it’s all worked out, but that sense of utter helplessness & fear as a new parent was overwhelming and I felt both so joyful at her birth and so angry at the universe for allowing this to happen.

    I can’t imagine having the strength to express the experience they had in any medium – game or otherwise – so again, my deepest respect for them.

  14. swampzero says:

    i-was-never-able-accept-my-sons-cancer-until-i-monetized-it-through-videogames

    • timespike says:

      Trauma and grief inspire people to make all kinds of art that they then sell. So many songs have been written about grief and loss. So many memoirs have been written about grief and loss. Poetry. Paintings. Movies. Sculpture. Sadness is a powerful emotion and can lead to some very authentic work.

      We don’t scream at singers for being evil for writing songs about their grief or authors for writing books about it. And terminal illness is EXPENSIVE in America. People who wind up with serious illnesses are often financially ruined by it, sometimes to the point of bankruptcy or even homelessness.

      So making a game, even a fairly successful game, about their experience will allow them to do several things: process their grief as they make it, perhaps cultivate some empathy in those that play it (perhaps drum up some support for cancer research too, who knows?) and at least begin to financially recover from it.

  15. tehfish says:

    Good grief.

    I kind of want to play the game, but i also know i’m not at all capable of that right now…

    It’s a really sore subject as my father is dying of incurable cancer right now…

    Sorry to vent. but seeing the game mentioned over many posts made me unable to ignore it ;_;