Terrible Fascination | That Dragon, Cancer

In much of contemporary Western Christianity, holiness is a good thing. Holy people are supposed to be good people, and God’s holiness is associated with his love and exemplified through his desire for a personal (and beneficial) relationship with each individual believer. Historically, however, this association of holiness with benevolence is a relatively recent development. In a great deal of human religious practice, and even in much of the Bible, the encounter with the sacred is an event of existential peril.

In her book, A History of God, Karen Armstrong examines the meaning of holiness in the context of a vision of God experienced by the prophet Isaiah.

“When we use the word ‘holy’ today, we usually refer to a state of moral excellence. The Hebrew kaddosh, however, has nothing to do with morality as such but means ‘otherness,’ a radical separation. The apparition of Yahweh on Mount Sinai had emphasized the immense gulf that had suddenly yawned between man and the divine world. Now the seraphs [saying ‘Holy! holy! holy!’] were crying ‘Yahweh is other! other! other!’

Referring to the work of Rudolph Otto, Armstrong describes this encounter with the holy as exerting a terrible fascination (mysterium terribile et fascinans): “[I]t is terribile because it comes as a profound shock that severs us from the consolations of normality and fascinans because, paradoxically, it exerts an irresistible attraction.”

The hospital, in this framework, is a hell into which the Greens descend

That Dragon, Cancer is an autobiographical game about a terrible event in the life of its creators—the illness and eventual death of Ryan and Amy Green’s son Joel from brain cancer. But by creating a digital environment in which a player is asked to move through a narrative of the Greens’ experiences and view those experiences through the lens of their faith, That Dragon, Cancer also becomes a game about the spaces in which we encounter the holy. Nearly all of the spaces in That Dragon, Cancer are marked in some sense as sacred, though frequently in different ways that express in turn the sanctuary, the alienation, and the transcendence that sacred spaces can offer, as well as an implicit commentary on the way in which even secular spaces are sanctified—that is, set apart from everyday spaces to perform a specific purpose—and the way in which this secular sanctification echoes but remains distinct from spaces of faith.

While That Dragon, Cancer is ostensibly a narrative game—built on point-and-click 3D “adventure game” architecture, which usually focuses on narrative rather than environmental interaction or additional gameplay challenge/failure points to drive player involvement—when the game resorts to literary devices as expressive elements they are frequently less successful than the game’s visual language. There are, for example, two primary metaphors that embody Joel’s cancer and make it present for the player: A tangle of sharp black thorn-like structures that sometimes present as spherical bodies and sometime as figures resembling dead trees, and the more mythical figure of the dragon. Both of these images appear roughly simultaneously in the opening outdoor park-like space through which the player walks, the thorn-like structures as ominous occasional intrusive presences in an idyllic space, and the dragon as a shadow that passes over the figure of Joel as he lies in a stretcher at the end of the space and then carries the player (and the Greens) across the water that separates the park from the hospital which functions as the game’s second environment.

A sharp body intruding upon the spaces the Greens wish to mark as benevolent and blessed

After functioning as an essentially transitional object, the dragon (already viewed only as a silhouette) disappears as a visual element with the exception of a single instance in which it serves as the undefeatable final boss in a video game cabinet in which the player enacts the story the Greens tell their children (and themselves) about Joel’s illness. This game cabinet is not the only occasion in which That Dragon, Cancer uses the grammar of videogames to convey an element of the Greens’ experiences—at one point in the hospital, the experience of treatment is conveyed as a kart race in which the player circles the same hallways repeatedly, collecting “power-ups” which are itemized at the end of the race as chemotherapy drugs and procedures—but it’s significant that the Greens leave space and enter a two-dimensional environment in order to tell themselves this version of Joel’s story.

There is a tension between space and story in That Dragon, Cancer because there is a tension between the story the Greens want to be able to tell themselves and the experience they are forced to inhabit. Within the game cabinet, Joel’s struggle against cancer is a noble one, even if it is not one he is guaranteed to win. Joel overcomes obstacles, and finds (cardboard) armor to protect him. When he cannot jump high enough to clear an obstacle, God’s intervention in the form of grace allows him to exceed his own capabilities. Eventually, this story breaks down—late in the game the cabinet is shown, broken, tucked into the corner of the bathroom in Joel’s hospital room. The dragon is cancer as imagined for the game cabinet, an adversary and a tool of and agent for The Adversary. This is a simplification, a comfort that cannot survive outside of the game cabinet’s flattened space of signification. It is the malignant cell as a tangle of thorns, a sharp body intruding upon the spaces the Greens wish to mark as benevolent and blessed, which can be resisted but not fought, and with whom there can be no pleading, this is the image that endures.

The hospital and the church are within the game both sites of fear and trembling

Three spaces are marked as sacred in That Dragon, Cancer, two of which are likely intended to be considered as blessed as well as (or in contrast to) holy in Karen Armstrong’s sense, and one of which is visually set against the elements that mark the spirituality of the other two spaces, but still demands consideration as a location of fearful fascination. The park at the opening of the game and the “Temple of God” space are characterized by vertical elements, columns in the temple, and the distinctly columnar trees of the park. This verticality stands in distinct contrast to the horizontal elements of the hospital, with its low roof and hallways, and the cell-like enclosure of Joel’s crib. Even a surgical theater containing the MRI machine that scans Joel and reveals the final stage of his cancer, labeled in the game as “The Temple of Man,” is distinguished from the Temple of God both by its circular architecture and the descent of the stairs at its entry compared to the stairs ascending into the spiritual temple. The hospital, in this framework, is a hell into which the Greens descend, which can gaze inside of Joel’s body but cannot save him. The church, on the other hand, even though it is within the game a space of terrible pain, where the community comes together to cry to the heavens, is a means of deliverance, conveying Joel to the game’s idea of heaven.

And yet, experientially the hospital and the church are within the game both sites of fear and trembling. The church is for the player and the Greens a site of great catharsis, but it is within and around the hospital that the Greens struggle with their faith, their understanding of God’s presence within their lives and the significance within that faith and that faith’s understanding of their world of the impending death of their son. The hospital is a space severed from the consolations of normality for purposes that verge on the supernatural, healing and death. While framed by spaces marked by the transcendent, it is the space that fascinates the vast majority of That Dragon, Cancer’s attention. A location of alienation and transformation, the gulf that yawns between the Greens’ lives before and after, the hospital must be considered a holy place whether that holiness be defined by the strength of the divine presence or the force of its apparent absence.

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