Video Game Places Player in a Cancer Drama

Jan 12, 2016

In 2010, Colorado video game developer Ryan Green's one year old son was diagnosed with cancer. To cope with what eventually became a four year struggle with the disease, he channeled his creative energy into an interactive project about what it’s like for his family to be in this situation.  This was around the time he met Des Moines game developer Josh Larson. Larson says they quickly realized they had a shared vision of what video games could be.

"This vision that video games could explore deeper topics, could explore themes of grace and hope and people’s struggles, and you know the stories that we live with as humans on the Earth relating to each other."

In 2012 they began working on Green’s project about his son titled "That Dragon Cancer."  Unlike a conventional game, the player isn’t here to score points or compete with others. They are here to watch how a family experiences changes in their life as their son undergoes cancer treatment.

In the opening scene of "That Dragon Cancer" Joel is in a park feeds a duck by a pond
Credit Still rendered by Josh Larson

The game starts in a park where their son Joel is feeding ducks with his family. At this point they don’t know about their son’s condition. The gaming experience is more like watching an animated movie where the player controls a virtual camera.  Sometimes it as an observer, other times the game lets the player see this world from the point of view of the parents.

After Joel is diagnosed with cancer, subsequent scenes show aspects of his treatment and how his parents struggle with this disease.  As Larson and Green created the game, they were optimistic about Joel’s health, but this changed when doctors determined Joel’s cancer is terminal. This moment is represented in the game.

Ryan’s wife Amy wrote the game’s story and says the original reason they decided to share these experiences is because they believed their son would be cured.

"We just had this real expectation that Joel would have a miracle. And so we though if this is gonna be a miracle, we want as many people as possible to see it."

Ryan Green says the events in That Dragon Cancer are true, but the game is not a re-telling of his son’s illness.

"It’s more of an invitation for people to come along with us into kind of the emotional landscape of what it was like, and you can linger in that space if you want to."

On March 13th, 2014 Joel died at the age of five.  The team decided to re-write much of the story, including the very last scene. It shows Joel blowing bubbles in a park while sharing an endless stack pancakes with a dog.

Ryan Green says it’s been hard for him to let go of working on this game about his son.

"Because I just wanna stay like thinking about Joel and doing work to honor him and like, I gotta do this to give it value. So there’s a lot of raw emotions right now and um... I’m ready to be done, I think."

Josh Larson works on "That Dragon Cancer" from his office in Des Moines
Credit Photo by John Pemble

Co-developer Josh Larson says the drama in this game is not for everyone.

"One of the primary challenges of playing our game is deciding that you’re going to play it.  Trying to weigh whether that emotional cost is worth it."

Larson says the team is pursing new interactive narrative projects like a drama mixed with comedy.

"Most likely, I think future projects that we do aren’t gonna be quite as emotionally difficult, and I think that’s more unique to this project."

For now, their new game "That Dragon Cancer" can be played on Windows and Macintosh desktop computers as well as the Ouya game console.