In an early demo of the video game That Dragon, Cancer, a certain moment struck a nerve for one user. “We had a player who got to the point where she had to press pray,” said codeveloper Josh Larson. She said, “I can’t keep playing. I put myself in the player’s shoes, and I wouldn’t do that if it were me.”
Larson and Ryan Green are Christians developing That Dragon, Cancer, a game that aims to convey Green’s experience raising his son, Joel, who died of cancer last year at age 5. Where a writer might convey that experience with words, Green and Larson are doing so in a video game.
Given the common image of video games—violent, trivial diversions—the idea of creating one about a personal tragedy may seem strange. But Green and Larson are contributing to a growing genre known as “empathy games.” Players don’t attain goals or overcome obstacles as much as empathize with characters on a significant life journey. This genre has allowed Christians to make inroads in an industry traditionally indifferent—if not hostile—to faith.
In the most recent demo of That Dragon, Cancer, the player begins the game by controlling a duck swimming after breadcrumbs thrown into the water. When the perspective shifts to one of Joel’s brothers, the player hands the bread to Joel to feed the ducks. Joel then throws the entire loaf in the water. It’s a funny and touching moment, and the player feels glad to have been there for it.
From there, the player wanders through a forest, at times feeling lost, and eventually stumbles onto a playground where she can push Joel on a swing or catch him at the bottom of a slide. The demo is tinged with sadness, and yet the game’s most striking characteristic is the joy that comes with faith and thankfulness in the midst of darkness.
Nothing But Love
The video game industry largely comprises atheists and agnostics, a byproduct of most developers living in the progressive hub of San Francisco. As a video game journalist, I’ve found that while many industry insiders will discuss spirituality, they have little patience for Christianity, which they see as narrow-minded and misguided. “I have plenty of friends in this community who I think may feel wary around Christians,” says Teddy Diefenbach, an independent game designer, “[because of] the opinions that the church has been known to hold against LGBTQ people, for example.”
Some games explicitly reject Christianity, whether through the excessive violence of Mortal Kombat, the moral chaos of Grand Theft Auto, or the postfeminist sexuality of Bayonetta. While Diefenbach is not a Christian, he remains grateful that Green and Larson are in the industry. “I see nothing but love from Ryan and Josh,” he says.
Apparently there is a lot of love going the other way as well. The Green family announced Joel’s passing on their website with an image of him smiling. The overlaid text read, “Awake, oh, awake my Joel and see the place he has prepared for you.” Later that day, several major video-game news sites ran the announcement. Developers, journalists, and players mourned with the Green family. “I look forward to meeting the digitized representation of Joel,” wrote Jeffrey Matulef, a Eurogamer reporter. “I’m sorry I never got to meet the real person.”
I met Green and Larson at the Game Developers Convention in 2013. I was struck by how they coexisted as industry insiders while maintaining their Christian identity. In one talk, they explained their philosophy of truth-telling in games to a skeptical audience. Green concluded, “We serve a God of the living and not the dead. Our eternal perspective as a family is set on that which we hope for. In the middle of all this pain, suffering, mud, and morass that cancer has wrought in our family, we have a drink of water that’s made of hope, love, and life, and we hope to share it with you.”
They are not the only ones telling their story. One of the most successful games of 2013 was an empathy game called Gone Home, a first-person exploration of a young woman’s struggles with sexuality. Richard Hofmeier’s Cart Life, the grand prize winner at the 2013 Independent Games Festival, lets players control the difficult lives of three street vendors. The genre’s popularity has encouraged developers and gamers to incorporate different perspectives, which Green says has benefited him and Larson. “People allow us to say what we believe,” he says.
Johnnemann Nordhagen, one of the developers of Gone Home, wants to hear their perspective. “I’m really glad [Green and Larson] are in the community. The need to have diverse viewpoints and explore nontraditional subject matter in games extends in that direction, too.”
That Dragon, Cancer doesn’t require the dexterity or skill that many expect from a video game, and that’s by design. “The fact that there aren’t a lot of gamey mechanics is partly because we’re trying to communicate grace,” said Larson.
As the player interacts with Joel and his family, they also hear Green’s musings in voiceovers as he delights in his son and wonders anxiously about the future. Later in the demo, the player sits in as the Green family learns about the terminal nature of Joel’s cancer. Throughout the game, the player is invited to be a bystander, friend, and even family member. At times the player feels less like a voyeur and more like someone who has an emotional stake in Joel’s life.
Video Game Grace
That Dragon, Cancer doesn’t insist the players blindly trust God or accept the tragedy as evidence against faith. It simply asks us to exist with the Greens. While the player is asked to explore various scenes and participate in occasional tasks, it’s impossible to make a wrong decision; the player’s only job is to be with the Greens. “That’s part of what grace is,” says Larson. “It’s not something you earn.”
Other Christians are on the scene as well. Jay Tholen’s Dropsy features a misunderstood clown incapable of showing any emotion but love. Tholen found backing from Devolver Digital, the publisher of the extremely violent shooter game Hotline Miami and The Talos Principle, a humanist retelling of the Garden of Eden.
Matt Gilgenbach, a practicing Catholic, recently released Neverending Nightmares. The side-scrolling horror game looks at his ongoing struggle with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. “I felt like I had a close relationship with Christ when I was dealing with my mental illness, but I did feel kind of abandoned,” Gilgenbach told Gamechurch.com. The only splash of color in the grayscale game is found on a stained-glass window depicting Christ on the cross.
As they develop That Dragon, Cancer, Green and Larson are learning to treat the player with increasing respect, lessons that Christian developers with similar goals would do well to heed. In a video game, the player plays along with whatever happens on the screen. Green takes that responsibility seriously. “We’re not going to force you to your knees,” he says. “We’re not going to bow your head for you.”
Over the last couple of years, Green and Larson have devoted enormous amounts of time to their artistic venture. They’ve sought input wherever they can find it, even from those who may not share their values. When That Dragon, Cancer is finally released, players will be poised to listen to them in return.
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