This Game, This Life, That Dragon

2015 was a phenomenal year for video games. From "Bloodborne" to "Fallout 4," players leveled up, teamed up, and explored worlds both familiar and fantastic. After the chaos of 2014’s Gamergate controversy, 2015 felt like a return to order, a return to games as challenges of mechanical skill, free from the social criticism which incited the aforementioned backlash—back to gittin’ gud and pwning n00bs.

Released only twelve days into 2016, "That Dragon, Cancer" seems to be the opposite of the games above. While many of the best games of 2015 offer hours of gameplay and encourage mastery of complex rulesets, TDC is effectively a short, two-hour stroll through an art gallery, asking you to walk from room to room and contemplate the pieces therein. However, TDC’s small scope hides its profundity and maturity: The game lets you point-and-click your way through the dramatized experiences and psychological landscape of two parents—Amy and Ryan Green, the creators of the game—as they deal with the treatment and death of their cancer-stricken, four-year old son, Joel.

The somber topic begs the question: How could such a game ever be fun? It’s obvious why skill-based games are enjoyable. After all, it’s fun to master game mechanics and beat opponents through better strategy and skill. If a game has enough players interacting with and against each other, dominant strategies emerge. Players ignore all other ways of playing the game and focus on one strategy—the right one, the winning one.

These games imply that every choice has a clear and immediate consequence, that there is always a ‘right’ choice. As a result, they address a desire for agency within all of us, a desire to shape our own lives according to our actions. As with skill-based games, many people believe that they can ‘meta-game’ life itself, trying to optimize themselves for the challenges they will face and focusing only on what will bring success. The pressure for students to gear themselves for lucrative fields such as the technology and finance industries is a clear example of this mentality.

Of course, life often doesn’t go according to plan; circumstances are largely outside of any one person’s control. No amount of resume building can save you from an interviewer in a foul-mood, no amount of practice can prevent the career ending injury, and no amount of holding, consoling, or pleading will get your young son to stop shrieking in agony and pain in the wee hours of the morning in a hospital room. When confronted with that observation—that inescapable sense of lacking control—it’s understandable that we seek some escape from the feeling of powerlessness. So we toil along, following the “right” or “optimal” strategy as best as we can and hoping for some validation that our actions will have some eventual impact.

The original ending for TDC that the Greens had devised would have reminded the player how the struggle of life ends: The player would fiddle with an array of levers in an attempt to unlock the game’s final chapter, only to discover that the console’s “wires [were] frayed and disconnected. The levers were false, the game’s designer was in charge, and you were forced to acknowledge that you were powerless to control the outcome.” Interestingly, Joel’s death during TDC’s development persuaded the Greens to change this bleak outcome and rewrite most of the game, trading scenes emphasizing Amy and Ryan’s experience for scenes focusing on playing with and caring for Joel himself. Rather than despairing at what they—and, by extension what we—ultimately couldn’t control, Ryan and Amy chose instead to focus on enjoying the moments when control was irrelevant.

As a result, TDC offers a powerful counter to both the desire to optimize and the despair associated with the futility of optimization; it offers a pause from the ambition and angst of our lives. In the game’s final chapter, there is the opportunity to blow bubbles with Joel for an indefinite period of time in the afterlife, mirroring the opening in which you spend time with him at the playground. While I rushed through the first chapter to get to the story more quickly, after experiencing the game’s emotional rollercoaster, that last chapter stands as one of the most cathartic experiences I’ve had while gaming.

Like life itself, "That Dragon, Cancer" pushes you along a particular path—one where you might lack control, where you might feel hopeless, where you might come face to face with the worst of fate. However, it also invites you to stop, linger, and enjoy the moments and experiences you have before continuing on. Although pausing on that path might not directly help you “win,” it grants a tranquil happiness that provides a brief respite, and that can be immensely rewarding at its best. We all could do with heeding the invitation to stop, reflect, and blow some bubbles as we try to play this game we call life.


Hansy D. Piou ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, is an applied mathematics concentrator living in Lowell House.

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