Monday, April 4, 2016

A Review of That Dragon, Cancer

Hi faithful readers, and thanks for checking in. For your information, this post is sad.

I wanted to check in with a review that's out of the ordinary for my blog. On Friday, I was listening to NPR, and there was an interview with Ryan and Amy Green, creators of a "video game" called That Dragon, Cancer, which tells the story of their four year old son, Joel, who died from cancer after battling brain tumors for the majority of his young life. I used the word "video game" in quotation marks because the "game" is more like a story. There is nothing the player can do to change the outcome of the story. When the Greens were asked why they choose this medium instead of writing a book or making a film to tell the story of Joel's life, they said that this medium was particularly unique in helping them communicate what happened. Like other forms of art, their purpose was to shed light on this experience; also, they wanted to create something that would be a forever memorial of their son, Joel. I have never played any kind of computer game since playing Oregon Trail as a child. I was interested in the idea that this medium could be used in ways that bring out profound emotions in the player. Still, I thought it sounded emotionally difficult, maybe too much so to handle.

When I returned home, I had a devastating email in my inbox from a family I have been following for more than a year now whose son, Radley, has leukemia. You can read that update here. When I got the email, I was very upset. I decided I would download the game.

Before reading further, I would like to say that I read a blog entry in which Ryan Green discusses how many people watched uploaded videos of the game on YouTube instead of buying it, which makes it impossible to pay the designers that spent several years on this project. If you decide this is something you are going to do, please be considerate and purchase it through the creators.  The cost is $15.00

I am not going to say that this experience is for everyone, but I am going to say the experience changed me. I had no idea that this medium could make me emotional like this or broaden my depth of human understanding. For two and a half hours, I laughed, cried, and felt frustrated, terrified, and panicked. I often did not know what to do, and in that, I experienced helplessness and confusion.

The game is surreal, with settings that are sometimes realistic (a playground, a hospital) and sometimes metaphoric (the ocean or inside of a dream). The creators made some very powerful choices like blurring all of the faces (which enables players to imagine themselves in these circumstances) and using the voices of the real family. Inside the game, voicemails, letters, and dialogue come together to create a kind of documentary. Music by Jon Hillman is haunting and immersive. The illustrations are sometimes beautiful and sometimes terrifying. The experience is painful.

That Dragon, Cancer impacted me more deeply than I even expected it would.  I didn't feel like myself for the next 36 hours because I felt so devastated. That said, I still do not regret having the experience. For me (again, not for everyone), I find fulfillment in feeling a connection to and deep empathy for other people. This game helped me move from having compassion and sympathy to having more understanding and ability to empathize than I did before. The game also showed me something that I didn't realize. It showed me that even in the most terrifying, tragic, and horrible circumstances, there is still much love and joy. I also thought the game was extremely honest. The writing does not hide anything. It was one of the bravest most human pieces of art that I have ever experienced.

I think one thing that all of us have in common is the need to feel understood. I would encourage those who find this outside of their normal range of experience to not dismiss it because it seems unusual. The Greens have created something that all generations can learn from. It took bravery to make this, and it takes bravery to experience it. I'm glad I had this experience, even though it hurt. I am approaching this week with a lot of gratitude. That Dragon, Cancer has reminded me not to take a moment for granted.

Have you ever had an unexpected experience that made you see the world in a different way or profoundly impacted you? If so, I'd like to hear about it.


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