There is no map to guide parents through the wilderness of losing a child. Each father and mother gropes his or her way through the darkness of grief, hoping to find a way to live on.
For freelance programmer Ryan Green, his son Joel’s fight with a rare, aggressive form of brain cancer — diagnosed just after he turned one, he died in March 2014, at the age of five — has become a videogame in which the dragon ultimately wins the battle, but not the war.
That’s because Green and his wife, Amy — who have three surviving children — are devout Christians, and their faith has been woven into the game.
From Wired.co.uk, in an article about the Kickstarter campaign that financed the game:
Play the game though, even a few early levels as I did recently, and it makes surprising emotional sense. Afterwards I asked Green whether the experience of making the game and Joel’s death had altered his faith.
After a pause he answered, “when Joel was alive we were still hoping for the miracle, but I think the real challenge is to find the beauty when the story doesn’t turn out how you were hoping to write it… Through this experience God has become bigger and more mysterious to me, and it’s something I’m learning to be okay with.”
Game development began in 2013, when Joel was still alive. When people saw the first bits, the impact was profound.
“There’s a process you develop as a parent to keep your child from crying, and that night I couldn’t calm Joel,” Green says. “It made me think, ‘This is like a game where the mechanics are subverted and don’t work.’”
Green—along with Josh Larson, his codesigner—built a scene around that idea, and in early 2013 they started bringing it to videogame expos to drum up interest. Players found themselves in a hospital room with Ryan, clicking the walls and furniture in search of some way to relieve Joel’s suffering and quiet his screams. Yet every action—rock him, bounce him, feed him—only caused the crying to intensify. On the soundtrack, Green’s voice grew increasingly frantic until, pushed to the edge of despair, he broke down in prayer, at which point the scene ended.
“That Dragon, Cancer” is set to be released on Jan. 12, 2016 — Joel’s birthday. To mark the occasion, the Greens will be throwing a pancake party (Joel loved pancakes) and are encouraging fans of the game to do the same.
From the official blog, written by Amy on Dec. 28, 2015, after she talks about the “hot flashes of anger” after Joel’s death, and the appalling strangeness of arranging a memorial service for a little boy:
So, when we release the videogame we made about Joel on January 12th, we’re going to eat pancakes. He would have liked that. We hope you’ll eat pancakes for dinner too. January 12th is Joel’s birthday. He would have turned seven this year, and photos of people all over the world eating pancakes in his honor would be a pretty great present to our family, who still miss him and his sticky syrup face. While you’re eating pancakes, and taking photos and posting online, share about someone you love and miss and wish you could have know just a little better.
If you post photos on social media using the hashtag #ThatDragonCancer (the name of the video game that memorializes him better than any eulogy or tombstone ever could) we will see them and share them and know that a little boy without any accomplishments to speak of at his memorial service can still change the world.
The official Website describes the game this way:
An immersive narrative videogame that retells Joel Green’s 4-year fight against cancer through about two hours of poetic, imaginative gameplay that explores faith, hope and love.
“That Dragon, Cancer” is part of a new trend of “empathy games,” which encourage players to immerse themselves in someone else’s difficult life, with the goal of understanding how people deal with what is thrown at them.
In the case of “That Dragon, Cancer,” you’re dropped into the world of two people trying to cope with a child whose suffering they can see and hear, but against which they often feel helpless.
From the U.K. Telegraph:
The gameplay is relatively straight-forward and far less action-packed than the sporting or shooter games that dominate the rest of the market. Actions are made by pointing and clicking on a variety of objects in the various rooms and locations. You can pick up a juice box, hold Joel in your arms, or stare out the window.
However, the game has no clear goals or objectives. You do not fail missions or have to reach checkpoints or battle bosses. The aim is to keep your faith, and empathise with the Green family.
All the players have minimal facial features, but Joel’s are entirely obscured. In one sense, it frees the designer from dealing with what the disease did to the child (one tumor caused one of his eyes to turn inward), but it also makes him a kind of everychild, standing in for all the innocent who face serious illness or death far too soon.
No doubt there were many difficult moments creating the game — frankly, writing about it here is hard enough — but nothing compares to that moment when a parent must say goodbye.
Here’s how Ryan did it, in a blog post from March 13, 2014:
Amy and I did not get much sleep last night. As the hours flew by faster than I could catch them, we prayed, we grieved, I cuddled my sweet son as tightly as I dared, examining his face and hands and toes and belly button, taking pictures of us that I will never show anyone else, and sweeping the hair across his forehead over and over again.
Joel fell asleep at home. Surrounded by his family and friends, only hours after we had filled our home with songs of worship to our God and prayers for mercy and healing for Joel and for ourselves from the voices of our church and friends and family.
As I awoke this morning after an hour of sleep, I lingered in the early morning light of our room, his body cradled, as always, in the crook of my arm. Except instead of the sweet sighs of comfort and the warmth of his little body against mine, the moors of death had tightened, leaving Joel’s earthly tent, cold and breathless.
And so now we mourn, and we weep, we rage and we argue with the God who knows how the story will end. And we laugh with our family and friends, and sob in the quiet moments, and wrap ourselves in his blankets and wrap ourselves in His peace. The kind that passes all understanding as we make the decisions that will lay Joel to rest.
A little boy who did no great things in the world, but was a joy to his family and all those who knew him, comes back to life in the game, not just being sick, but running and swinging, riding a hobby horse and clapping his hands.
It’s hard to imagine a better memorial to a short life, well-lived.