That Game About Grief

(artwork by Heiko Nerenz)

Loss is universal. Grief is not.
By Sabine Harrer 

Two years ago, when I told people that I was doing a PhD on loss and mourning in video games, they started dropping a single reference: That Dragon, Cancer. It’s That Game About Grief, they said, tackling a father’s real experience of dealing with his son’s terminal cancer. It’s really intimate, like a personal confession, I should check it out. What they seemed to know about this game surprised me. After all, until quite recently That Dragon, Cancer – a project by Amy and Ryan Green and their company Numinous Games – was still in production. 

That it had made it into our collective unconscious prior to release surely had to mean something. Did it indicate that gamers were actually craving more representations of death and tragedy in their favourite medium? That they wanted games to become a new memorial technology for dead children? I personally hoped it would mean a new platform for many other bereaved parents as well. That gamers would collectively embrace the fact that dead kids are ordinary, and as such, a part of their surviving parents’ everyday life. That people who wanted to play That Grief Game would want to play games about my story, too. 

I’m reluctant to use my experience of losing a child to make a point, but highlighting my ex-motherhood is relevant to understanding some of my struggles as a player of That Dragon, Cancer. It is also relevant to understanding why I needed that very project to happen. And why, even though I am proud to be a Kickstarter of the game, everything in me protests against its ambition to represent me.

It wasn’t long after I became a backer that Amy and Ryan Green broke some bad news to us. Joel’s condition had worsened; it did not look good. When I first saw the message in my email, I thought back to that moment when we were ourselves confronted with the fact that Nicolas wouldn’t make it. The brain scan that proved the meningitis had left no cells intact. The insight that all the free medication, incubation, stabilisation available to a kid in a privileged 21st century Europe had failed. I felt a deep sense of connection and sympathy with the Greens. 

But reading the email to the end, I was startled. There it was, a nonchalant invitation to pray for a miracle for Joel. Memories of a different kind returned. My Catholic parents praying for a miracle as well. My sister’s protest: He cannot die – he is your son! Even back then, such reactions made me uncomfortable. Even if there was a God that through my worshipping powers could be compelled to insta-cure Nicolas while leaving the rest of the world’s terminally ill children to die, I wanted nothing to do with him. For all that it’s worth, I didn’t take any particular issues with God either after the miracle did not happen. I was angry with noone when Nicolas quietly died on my lap. And now, 10 years later, I was deeply alienated by a simple, genuine request like the Greens’: pray for a miracle. I felt with them, profoundly, deeply. But there was also a feeling of growing discomfort: What if I did not share any of That Grief Game’s agenda either? What if the Greens’ struggle with death did not have anything in common with my own experience?

Filled with hopes and doubts, I open the early Beta version of That Dragon Cancer. Soothing piano and string arpeggios, a surreal park at the sea, and a camera on rails. I’m listening to Ryan’s soothing voice while he invites me to explore Joel’s journey in 14 vignettes. Joel likes feeding ducks and riding carousels, he wants “more.” I’m let into the family’s most intimate worries: Why is Joel’s list of words is finite? Will he ever grow up to become like us? the siblings ask. I’m established as a trusted listener, but already now I’m struggling to make sense of the visual and interactive remainder. The metaphorical landscape, the sounds, the lighting – all of those appear to be references to a personal context, the details of which are unknown to me. 

At several points I feel uncomfortable for technical reasons; the often clunky movements break with the magnificent art style and fragile, contemplative atmosphere. Sometimes, the action feels unaligned to what I am told in the voice-over. At the playground, for instance, which is supposed to be an intimate family scene, I am reluctant to touch Joel out of respect for his personal space. Here I am, a stranger in his parents’ land. How much does this entitle me to interact with Joel? Shouldn’t my actions here be restricted by something like posthumous personal rights? Ultimately, I am caught in an awkward space between the desire to listen and connect to Joel’s parents, and a disconnection with the religiously charged symbolism through which they choose to speak.

That titular “Dragon, Cancer,” as I learn later, is the Green’s home-made family metaphor to talk about Joel’s death. Against the all-consuming power of the Dragon-like illness, Joel has no chance. Except, you know, for God. As I navigate a tiny version of Joel through a mini platform game, I am presented to That Dragon, and I learn that fighting on Team God ostensibly makes death a win-win situation. Not only will Joel defeat the Dragon by paradoxically leaving it alive, he’ll gain his ticket to Heaven. 

This story was particularly hard to take for me, since it conjured up a series of well-meaning comments I had received after Nicolas’ death from Austrian Christians: He died because he had learned enough in this world. He died because he chose to die. He was an old soul that God wanted back. He was an angel now looking down from a cloud. With all the distance I now have to the loss event, I can wholeheartedly say that any of these “Godsplanations” have felt nothing but hurtful and disenfranchising. For me, there simply was no reason why a mini-human, who was supposed to grow, learn, fall asleep in awkward postures, sigh with pleasure after a milk feast, would suddenly have to disintegrate next to other corpses six feet under. In my emotional reality, this was a brutal and inexplicable circumstance I needed to surrender to, not explain.

Without much doubt, That Dragon, Cancer had a strong impact on me and left me with several questions. First, how would a game called That Dragon, Meningitis have affected me 11 or so years ago? Would it have been part of the canon of religious disenfranchisement? Would all the God and the Lazarus quotes in this game have a similarly alienating effect on other atheist bereaved parents who started the game because of it being That G Game About Grief? At the same time, the only thing more tasteless than criticising someone’s religious conviction is to criticise it while they’re grieving. Since this is not my intention, I confessed some of my problems with the game to Amy and Ryan Green via a voice call. But I was not able to verbalise my experiences with the religious disenfranchisement. 

I want to express respect for their reality, that faith has been the central pillar throughout their life with Joel. Their notion of miracle, their wrestling with God, they resonate differently in my world than it does in theirs. But as part and parcel of their experience it needs to be prominently staged in TDC to do justice to their story. Struggling with God’s Grace, Ryan assures me, has been at the centre of the couple’s varying experiences of grief and a source of dissonance between Amy and Ryan. In the game we find bottled messages documenting Amy’s confidence in Joel’s miraculous recovery. These  letters clash with Ryan’s more doubtful response, and the way he is devoured by the allegorical sea of grief. This is an important portrayal of relationship conflicts during bereavement. The game doesn’t make any attempt to portray the couple as perfect; their struggle isn’t resolved in the end. As much as I appreciate this aspect of the game, when it comes to its realisation in graphics and audio, with all the heavy prayer, church scenarios, and biblical references that I know from my disenfranchising commentators, I have to close the game and go for an angry walk. 

But is it even fair to expect TDC to represent me? Is that even what the makers want? It is my impression that they do, and this why I felt so bad about not feeling represented when talking to them. As Amy says, there is nothing special or unique about the loss of Joel as compared to the loss of other children. But their attempts to include others by means of messages and art can never truly do justice to the complexity of other loss stories. And neither should it. One thing that struck me when talking to Amy and Green was their respectful attitude towards my different perspective. They said yes to the interview, but what they were truly interested in was exchanging memories about our dead children. I learned that Joel liked carousels in real life, and that’s how the family keeps remembering him. Did he have much hair, Nicolas? Ryan wants to know. “Yes!” I laugh back. I can’t remember the last time someone has given me the gift of Nicolas’ face in my mind so clearly.

In the end, there is another, more pending, concern about the broader reception of the game. How would gamer and game designer friends who share my non-religious attitude to death and dying deal with the game? How will their potential alienation from That Grief Game affect their relationship to the subject altogether? Will they treat That Dragon, Cancer as proof of concept that they should keep their hands off of dead kids? There are signs of this tendency in my immediate social circle, and I do not like it. 

If anything, game-makers uncomfortable with That Dragon, Cancer should regard it as a wake-up call for adding more dead kids and grieving parents into their games. It is the gaping absence of alternatives that is wrongly establishing That Dragon, Cancer as That Grief Game for everyone to begin with. Such a state of affairs is not only toxic for me and other bereaved parents who do not happen to share that Dragon premise, it puts an unfair burden of representation on the Greens’ shoulders. I wish that their game could just be regarded as a small piece of bereavement game culture without further obligations to speak for me or a diversity of other grief styles out there. In order for that to happen, it requires a lot more game developers to dare break the silence and add their perspective on death, loss and mourning. Only then will it become possible to appreciate That Dragon, Cancer for what I think it is: His parents’ intimate way of commemorating and remembering Joel in a way that I will never fully comprehend.