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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, December 11, 2023

The Story of Stories: No time for games

Video games construct stories by moving through the narrative and inhabiting a direct perspective. When you watch a film, you simply bear witness to the events depicted for you; when you read, you create your own personal construction of the events in your head. T heater is a space of co-creation between audience and performers, a medium which allows no two performances to be experienced in the same way.  But games construct their narrative through interaction , either with the environment or with the characters, often requiring decisions to be made, in order to build an experience deeply personal to each player. Next week I’ll delve more into how more mainstream AAA titles are changing in terms of narrative style, but first let’s discuss That Dragon, Cancer. The indie title was created by Ryan Green (developed by Numinous Games) to memorialize his young son Joel’s long and emotional battle with cancer, which he lost in 2014 at the age of five. In a recent Radiolab episode, Ryan explains that he wanted to share the experience of watching Joel fight and slowly die with others. Amy, Joel’s mother, claims she never understood why people would want to play a game about a child dying of cancer. But people are playing. The game totals about two hours, accompanied by voiceovers by Ryan and Amy. Some are mundane voicemails, complaining about traffic after taking Joel to chemo, while others are deeply poetic and devastatingly poignant reflections on Joel’s inevitable death. For much of the game you inhabit the faceless perspectives of the story’s principal characters. But at times you take a third-person perspective, a ghostly presence able to interact with the environment and push the story forward, but unable to say or change a thing.

Critics of gaming culture complain that games are egoist because the player directly controls events through the proxy of the protagonist. I generally take issue with this, but this is especially untrue of That Dragon, Cancer. You can rock Joel to sleep, explore the colorful hospital with him. You can try to escape the room in a small rowboat as it fills with water, as the doctor explains painfully that the prognosis is terminal. The water overtakes the boat, and eventually you lose Joel in the waves as the game’s controls fail. You can’t save him.

I haven’t been able to finish this game yet. There’s a scene where I had to stop, where you take on the perspective of a bird who watches Amy and Joel adrift in the open ocean, careening towards a lighthouse on a small craft. Ryan is drowning in his sorrow, his doubt in God, and he’s begging Amy to let him do so. But Amy refuses to let them give up. The hopelessness of not being able to steer the craft to safety, to pull Ryan out of his misery, became unbearable for me. And I imagine this is how the people in Joel’s life felt as they were losing a loved one.
When I bought the game and explained it to a friend, she asked, “Wait, but how do you win?” You can’t win. There’s nothing to win. But there’s a whole life of a little boy to experience. This isn’t a game; it’s a higher form of empathy, and it’s changing everything.