That Dragon, Cancer is a Remarkably Human Experience


Joel Green was only an infant when he was diagnosed with an Atypical Teratoid Rhabdoid Tumor, a cancerous growth known to be aggressive and fast growing. Due to the vile nature of this tumor, little Joel underwent brain surgery – followed by extensive chemotherapy – to exscind the growth. Despite the treatments, the Green family would soon know tragedy; but nothing could prepare them for the degree at which they would face it. Joel would experience an unconscionable sum of tumor recurrences, coupled with years of palliative care in various hospitals and treatment facilities across the United States. Through the storm, Baby Joel remained vigilant and joyful until his death on March 13, 2014.

Shortly before his death, Joel’s parents, Ryan and Amy Davis, felt lead to design a narrative-based game surrounding Joel’s experiences. Through the development process, Ryan and Amy have mourned, wrestled with, and survived the loss of their child. Earlier this month, on what would have been Joel’s 7th birthday, Ryan and Amy released their sobering game: That Dragon, Cancer.

Players will start the game from the perspective of a duck, listening in on the Green family’s conversation as Joel is casting pieces of bread into the water. This point-and-click adventure’s power comes from its inclusion of real-life moments, thoughts, and audio clips. We listen as Joel’s brothers ask earnest and honest questions about his cancer. We are sobered when we hear the doctor’s prognosis. We cry as Ryan and Amy’s fears become fully realized. We smile when Amy and Joel race around the children’s hospital in a Mario Kart fashion. We hear the joy and hope in Joel’s laugh. That Dragon, Cancer is slow and thoughtful. It transported me through moments and memories that I will certainly remember for a long time to come.

Throughout my playthrough it became apparent that Ryan and Amy’s Christian faith is a huge facet of their personal lives. That Dragon, Cancer roots itself in the dichotomy of how two fearful parents can place their trust in God – even while watching their son suffer from a wicked illness. As someone who shares Ryan and Amy’s faith, and someone who lost a close loved one to cancer shortly after playing this game, I’ve found their steadfastness to be both edifying and terrifying.  I am challenged to find words as I read an update from the family’s blog, which was written six months after Joel’s passing:

“I listen as Ryan sings to our children before bed, and they sing along, loud and wild, and I realize we are not broken, not really. We are a strong family with an undercurrent of great sorrow and great joy. These past six months have stretched me, they have challenged everything I believe and made me re-examine everything I know. Not because what I believed or knew was wrong, but because it was incomplete, it wasn’t deep enough. It never can be, but I feel the stretching even though it is too soon for me to coherently express what is changing in me.”

I cannot fathom the loss of a child, nor do I want to. I cannot imagine the fear of telling my sons and daughter that their brother has passed; nor bear the thought of having to wake up and walk past a once-occupied room. The Green family possesses a resilience that I only dream of having.

After finishing That Dragon, Cancer, I feel a connection to Ryan and Amy Green. I feel a connection to their family. More importantly, I feel a connection to Joel. My heart is filled with gratitude as I reflect upon my time spent with That Dragon, Cancer; and Joel Evan Green’s story may be tragic, but it is one filled with beauty, love, and a transcendent hope. Numinous Games has captured my mind and attention after sharing such a raw, real story. That Dragon, Cancer is a sad story. It’s beautiful. It’s funny. It’s a remarkably human experience that every person should see, hear, and play.

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