That Dragon, Cancer. That Dragon, Internet.



Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space by Spiritualized is one of my all-time favorite albums. Written shortly after Jason Pierce’s girlfriend (and the band’s keyboardist) secretly married Richard Ashcroft. The album encapsulates the raw sorrow and pain Jason experienced in the aftermath, including his drug abuse turned addiction in dealing with the pain. The album has it all, slow melancholic melodies that make you feel alone, slamming arrangements where Jason gets in your face about how fucked up and sad he is, and uplifting music juxtaposed to lyrics that paint a quite different mood.

The album, at least in parts, were created from this experience, and it produced what some call one of the best albums of the 90’s. And it sold for money. Spiritualized is far from the only band that has drawn on pain to create art that was also commercially successful.

In 1991, Eric Clapton’s son Conor died when he fell out of an apartment window in New York City. As part of dealing with the pain, Eric wrote two songs. One of them, Tears in Heaven, became one of his biggest hits.

When Princess Diana died, Elton John re-wrote and re-recorded the song he had written about Marilyn Monroe – A Candle in the Wind – in her honor. It became the second best selling single of all time.

Both of these songs were commercially successful, and both were about the death of a loved one. Neither were harshly criticized for exploiting death for monetary gain.

So what makes videogames different?

Art Comes From Tragedy

Lester Bangs: Yeah, great art is about conflict and pain and guilt and longing and love disguised as sex, and sex disguised as love… and let’s face it, you got a big head start.
William Miller: I’m glad you were home.
Lester Bangs: I’m always home. I’m uncool.
William Miller: Me too!
Lester Bangs: The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.
Almost Famous

That Dragon, Cancer is a game/threnody that has been in development for quite some time and I have kept up with it a bit here and there, looking forward to it coming out. It tells the story of a family whose four year old son Joel died of terminal cancer and promises to reduce the player to tears. Reply All did a show on it recently where Ryan, Joel’s father, talks about how making the game was a coping mechanism for his feelings of grief and helplessness. The game came from reflecting on one difficult night at the hospital, and he wanted to share is desperation and grief where no matter what you do, you will lose. Since he was a videogame programmer, it was obvious to him what he needed to do.

Yet, some people from the worst place on Earth (a.k.a. the Internet), particularly on the Steam forums, have been trying to vilify the creators on the pretense that they have taken a tragedy and tried to make money off of it. We know that commercially successful music has come from tragedy, and so have movies and books, but somehow videogames are different. For some reason the videogame community is different. Here are some examples of what has been said:


(There are quite a few more if you want to go digging. To be fair, there are a lot more posts expressing gratitude for the game)

My problem with all this is that personal tragedy has always been a source for art. There are countless examples of music, books, movies, comics, and other media that are based either completely or in part on the author’s tragedy. The difference with That Dragon, Cancer is perhaps that it is so much more raw. Games are interactive, which cause an engagement that differs completely from other mediums. The game includes real recordings of Joel, the son, giggling and making baby noises. We know the story of the developers on a level more intimate than most of the other media we experience. All this makes it more personal to us, the players, than if we were to watch the latest Biopics of Steve Jobs. I can see that this would make people more uncomfortable. I believe that most people, myself included, had a very hard time processing emotions and dealing with them. And when people are uncomfortable they get twitchy, and lash out.

Art Comes From Money

Michelangelo, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and other painters of the renaissance did their work because they were commissioned to. The Renaissance was a period where the city-states of Italy became prosperous and the wealthy families and the clergy could afford to pay for artists to adorn their great and mighty houses and tombs. Art has a history of being made for money. That is not to say that all art is made for money, or that art is made for the express purpose of making money, but there has been a relationship between the two for a long time. Without money, the artists can not make more art. And art leads to more art, as one piece may affect another person to create their own piece, in turn influencing another artist. And so on.

Paying money for art is good if you like it. Making art and getting paid for it is great. However, we live in an age where art comes cheap for the consumers. We can get music free on Spotify and Pandora. We can watch movies and TV shows for free on Youtube and (almost free) Netflix. We can appreciate paintings and illustrations for free on sites such as DeviantArt. We can get games for free on PC and mobile (as long as we put up with the freemium limits). Technology and the Internet has been both a boon and a curse for artists. It has increased an artists’s audience to global levels, while also reducing the worth of their labor.

Videogames are an extreme example of this, as prices of games have remained more or less steady for the past 20 years and have not increased with inflation. At the same time, developer costs have gone up, technology has become more complicated requiring more time to learn (depending on what type of game you are making.) Steam sales, shovel-ware, and quite frankly, garbage, has cluttered the market with low prices that it forces other companies to follow suit. Sometimes this helps, but the general trend is we want stuff for free (or close to it) and videogame players have become very sensitive to pricing, using metrics such as play time to justify the monetary value of a game.

The point is, art costing money is a good thing because it creates more art, regardless of what the source of that art is. It allows artists to create more good stuff, and it allows others to partake in art by exposing them to it.

Maybe It’s Just (That Dragon) Cancer

I think almost everyone now has, knows, or knows of someone who died from or had cancer. My father had cancer when I was in University and that year was really tough on the whole family. I remember walking to the hospital every day to visit him. I remember rushing to the hospital at least on one of those nights sure that he was going to die. I don’t really want to go too much into it here but I mention it because that experience makes me want to play That Dragon, Cancer. The story of my father’s cancer was not tragic, in the end. He is alive and kicking. He beat it, eventually.

But I remember that fear, that lack of certainty of what happens now. I remember that feeling of not being able to do anything. Perhaps the scary part that I haven’t fully accepted is that that could be me, in five, ten, twenty years. And I don’t know if I can make it, like my dad did. I remember stuffing down my emotions during that time, trying to stay positive because I thought it was what my family would need in case things went bad. But maybe it was really me who needed to do that.

This is maybe why I want to play it. To face those emotions I felt like I had to hide. To experience again and finally deal with an experience that happened. To share Ryan and Amy’s story and grief.

But this is uncomfortable territory. Cancer is scary, because anyone can get it. Death is scary, because everyone gets it and usually when they aren’t ready for it. Personal stories of raw emotion are scary, because it forces us to connect with another human. And when we have to pay for such an experience, it might feel insulting because we paid for something to feel bad, to feel close, to feel. Some people are so used to “games” being fun little diversions or hyper-competitive arenas of machismo, that they just can’t fathom them being different. Feelings can be scary.

But how often, in a day, do you actually feel?

Isn’t it the ability to feel something that makes humans great?

Isn’t it the one thing that makes us human?



Reply All’s Episode The Cathedral


  1. Well written. It`s always amazing to me how games are judged by such diffent standards from other art forms. Kudos to the game developer for being brave enough to share his experiences, and to you for your open, fair, and personal analysis.

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