Most video games are usually an escape from real life, but That Dragon, Cancer is a game that embraces a very real life, even though it is not pleasant or fun. In the case of Joel Green, his parents Ryan and Amy Green were told that their son had terminal cancer in 2010. At the time, Joel was twelve months old, and Ryan wanted to honor his on by creating a video game about the family's experience, which later became a documentary film known as Thank You for Playing.
Ryan took to Kickstarter to fund his vision that is described as "a video game developer's love letter to his son; an adventure game to inspire us to love each other; a voice for those fighting cancer". He received over $100,000 to bring the game to life, and the game is essentially designed to bring the experience of dealing with cancer into the video game medium.
I had a chance to see the Booth devoted to That Dragon, Cancer at PAX Prime 2015. The game demo had me play as a duck, and I saw a young boy throw bread at me. I could work the duck, and I wondered what this game was about. Much of what I saw of the game was characters asking very existential questions and the overall feeling was bittersweet.
I was told the story about Ryan Green and his son Joel, and I couldn't help but be touched by it. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to speak with Ryan at the conference, but I was told by a representative that he and his family has Christian views. During the game, there are even references to the Holy Spirit, or "paraclete". A lot of the game is done with minimal graphics, as the Greens don't really have any facial details, which creates an interesting style.
There is a film version of the making of That Dragon, Cancer, known as Thank You for Playing. The film's directors, David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall begin to follow Joel with their cameras in 2013, who had already been in surgery and chemotherapy. By this time, Joel had many tumors that left him partially deaf and blind, and had to relearn how to walk, according to the New Yorker. The film shows the family dealing with Joel's death on March 14, 2014.
That Dragon, Cancer was first made available for the Ouya, and Android microconsole system, but it should be coming to Windows and Mac via Steam very soon. It isn't like a regular video game, as the player isn't supposed to overcome obstacles to achieve a victory. The game is about dealing with the fact that sometimes victory doesn't come, and it is designed not to just to see what the world of terminal illness is like, but to celebrate the life and love of Joel.