In a new series of YouTube videos, U.K. ministry Speak Life tells the story of Amy and Ryan Green, who created the game That Dragon, Cancer to memorialize their son who died from a brain tumor at age five. The game, which explicitly depicts the Greens wrestling with their faith in God, has not only been highly impactful to players but has also been well-received by critics, who have called it “really intense,” “harrowing” and “crushingly intimate.”
“This game…is upsetting, from the beginning to the end. It is challenging, enriching and devastating. I think it might have changed me in some way that I’m yet to fully understand,” said Colin Campbell in a review for gaming website Polygon. “This is a game that shows us the symbols of its church, that tries to explain the spiritual joy of belief, but it ought not be accused of being too preachy because it also acknowledges doubt, limitations and powerlessness.”
The Game’s Backstory
The Greens’ third son, Joel, was diagnosed with a brain tumor when he was one year old, and shortly before Joel turned two, the Greens learned that his cancer was terminal. At that time, doctors gave Joel four months to live. However, he ended up responding to treatments so well that the Greens got more time with him than they expected. Amy Green says this extra time gave them an opportunity to consider how they might share Joel’s story with other people, which they ended up doing through a video game. Ryan says, “Amy and I are creative people, and this is they way we express the things that we’re going through.”
When they began working on the game in 2013 (while Joel was still alive), the goal was to win, as it would be with any other video game. Amy says, “I think most people would say that the very best thing about a video game is that you are in control of it… If you fight well, then you’ll perform well, and the more you practice, the better you get, and that there’s a way to overcome every obstacle.”
But in the midst of navigating Joel’s cancer, Amy and Ryan felt completely out of control. On a particularly difficult night when he was with Joel by himself at the hospital, Ryan says he felt like he was “playing a video game where all the mechanics were broken.” As they continued working on their project, the Greens began to see the point of the game to be not for players to win, but to be immersed in and carried through its story. The result is that That Dragon, Cancer turns the norms of gaming on their head.
At the end of the game, players are faced with a challenge of pressing organ keys and lighting candles in a cathedral as they listen to prayers for God to spare Joel’s life. The players must solve the problem of keeping the lights from going out. But no matter what players do, as the final prayer for Joel’s soul is spoken, all the lights disappear. The Greens say that this scene depicts their pain, their confidence that God would redeem, their cries for help, their struggle with doubt and disappointment, and even the peace they felt about their situation.
What Does Easter Really Mean?
Many video games end by requiring players to defeat a “boss,” or an enemy more difficult than any other antagonist in the game. That Dragon, Cancer portrays the truth of the human experience by showing that we cannot defeat the “boss” that we all face—death—while still showing us the hope that Christ offers to those who are willing to admit their helplessness.
Joel passed away in 2014, shortly before Easter. The Greens say it was extremely difficult to be reminded of Christianity’s promise of new life when they had just experienced so much pain and disappointment. Since then, Amy says she’s grown to be able to “rejoice in Easter as a promise” and take comfort in the fact that Jesus is the “firstborn among the dead” who bears our sin and our suffering. Notably, the cathedral scene is the second-to-last scene in the game. In the final scene, players cross water in a boat (significant because of drowning imagery earlier in the game) and meet Joel, who is alive, happy and having a picnic. Before, the cancer had taken away his ability to speak, but now he can talk again and is able to enjoy pancakes, his dog and bubbles, which are his favorite things.
Ryan Green says, “I feel like as video game designers, we get to create worlds and invite people into it. And so one thing I would like to say is that, you know, we got to create a world, and I got to place my son in it, and I asked you to love him and let that love change you. And to me that is a small mirror of the promise of Christ, right? That God put His Son into the world and asked you to love Him and let that love change you.”