If you hold tight enough, nothing will take him, right?
It's a heartbreaking yet intimate thought, and it's only one of many wrenching statements heard in "That Dragon, Cancer," a video game created by dad Ryan Green that illustrates his son's battle with cancer. The game turns that often unspoken fear that all parents have of their child getting sick into a reality, and brings the true agony of the experience to life.
When Ryan's son, Joel, turned 1, he was diagnosed with an Atypical Teratoid Rhabdoid Tumor (AT/RT). He had surgery to remove the tumor followed by radiation and chemotherapy. Now, at age 4, Joel is on his ninth tumor. At each turn, doctors have told Ryan and his wife, Amy, that their son's death is imminent.
And so, Ryan and Amy were tasked early on with explaining concepts like death and heaven to their other sons, Caleb, Isaac and Elijah, now ages 7, 5, and 2, respectively. The idea of Joel fighting a dragon called "cancer" stuck, so the name of the video game was the easiest part of its creation, Ryan said in an interview with The Huffington Post.
The three years during which Green family has been living with terminal cancer have affected Ryan tremendously. His entire outlook on life, death, fear and relationships are now different than they once were, he said. His strongest desire is simple -- just to know his son.
"Choosing to go there rather than withdraw your emotion, choosing to desperately love somebody that you could lose, I think that has changed me," he said. And he thinks those are lessons worth sharing.
Ryan and Amy have explored all kinds of artistic ways to process what they're going through. Amy keeps a blog documenting daily life with Joel, they have published a children's book telling their story and produced a short film together.
Now, with partner Josh Larson, Ryan is working on "That Dragon, Cancer." It is more interactive diary than game, though. There are no levels to beat or points to win. The idea is to experience what his family has been through literally and emotionally. The first scene is a reenactment of a night Joel spent in the hospital dehydrated. The player hears a child crying and Dad's inner dialogue: "I hate that he's sick, I just want him to feel better."
There are other cancer games out there, but most, like one called Re-Mission, are meant to be empowering, i.e. players shoot up cancer cells with weapons. But, what happens, Ryan asks, when weapons fail? That's the point of his game, he says.
It sounds bleak, but Ryan also insists that the game does explore some of cancer's "upsides." There is inexplicable joy, he says, "when your son who has had spinal tumors and was almost paralyzed walks at 3 years old … and when he learns a new word, and just the simplicity of holding him or hearing him laugh."
Ryan says that people are often reluctant to ask him about his son for fear that they'll say something offensive. He hopes that the game will open communication lines and help others to feel comfortable talking about pain.
Indeed, previewing the game while it's still in production has provoked strangers to exchange stories and experience intimacy. For Ryan, that reaction is what he considers a "win."