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In facing death, the game 'That Dragon, Cancer' embraces the complexities of life

For a few brief moments "That Dragon, Cancer" acts like a conventional video game. A wagon is transformed into a sort of go-kart and a brief race is set into motion. A boy dons armor and is outfitted with a spear before he battles a dragon inside a darkened cave.

Games are good at play, at presenting challenges or mental tasks and requesting that we beat them. Destroy the asteroids. Jump over the mushrooms. Slay the beast or arrange the color-coded blocks.

"That Dragon, Cancer" has learned tricks from what has come before. Near the end of the two-hour game, for instance, it asks us to kill a dragon. Only this dragon cannot be killed. We may dodge the dragon's breaths of fire from time to time, but this beast — death, more or less — will ultimately win.

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But that doesn't have to mean we lose.

And here is where "That Dragon, Cancer" acts nothing like a conventional video game. This wonderful and poetic meditation on loss and life theorizes that games are a key to understanding our greatest mysteries, even the ones that we find most discomforting.

For this is a game about the death of a 5-year-old boy and brain cancer. Resist "That Dragon, Cancer" and avoid, perhaps, some tearful unpleasantries, but embrace it and find a game that never stops asking thoughtful questions.

What does it mean to maintain one's faith in the face of the unspeakable? Is it OK to feel good during a time of tragedy? What are we really saying when we ask the doctors to "buy us some time"? Are we searching for a miracle or our own peace of mind?

At times magical, surreal and heartbreaking, the abstract digital worlds of "That Dragon, Cancer" become a safe and comforting way to explore topics we're often too polite to discuss.

It does this with humor. We laugh when a child tosses a whole loaf of bread at a hungry duck.

And it does this with wonder. A trip into giant medical machinery becomes a brief psychedelic journey, a way to traverse the inside of a young, imaginative and inquisitive mind.

"That Dragon, Cancer" finds the uplifting notes within one of life's greatest personal hardships. Told in vignettes, the game unfolds like an interactive diary, one that is full of the scattered and surreal thoughts that consume us all during bouts with grief. There are daydream reveries — a boy galloping among the constellations or soaring on balloons to the heavens — and there are moments of excessive guilt. Is it irresponsible, for instance, to get pregnant when you have a son who has a terminal illness?

Told in short segments, most of which are no longer than 10 minutes, "That Dragon, Cancer" is an assemblage of memory fragments. These are the collected thoughts that we can't forget, from arguments over faith to panicked cellphone messages.

"I guess we'll just give this a try," we hear the boy's mother saying early in the game.

At that point, death and illness aren't the only great unknowns. We wonder too if a video game can help us talk about cancer. Or if we even want to take control of an interactive universe in which we know the ending results in a young boy's passing.

"That Dragon, Cancer" is, more or less, a true story, complete with the voices of those who lived through the ordeal. The game chronicles the experiences of the husband-and-wife team Ryan and Amy Green with their son Joel and was built by a shoestring staff over the last three years.

Joel died at age 5 while the game was in development. This isn't a spoiler. "That Dragon, Cancer" is about how we live rather than how we perish.

It's a work of art that recalls Laurie Anderson's recent film and album project "Heart of a Dog," in which the creator grappled philosophically with the passing of many of those close to her. Anderson imagines an alternate reality, one in which her beloved canine companion becomes a grand pianist. The Greens, likewise, turn "That Dragon, Cancer" into a sort of fantastical ghost story. We float from scene to scene, sometimes seeing the proceedings from Ryan's point of view, sometimes from Joel's and sometimes from what appears to be a bird.

Characters are drawn broadly without many distinguishing characteristics, and sometimes they don't appear at all — only their voice. Sometimes houses morph into oceans, which then morph into the cosmos. It's a personal story but one that keeps reality just out of sight, resulting in a game that's equally playful and weighty.

We don't, for instance, see Joel in the most harrowing scenes, such as the ones in which he can't stop crying. We're in the room with his suffering, but instead we feel the highs and lows of the parent — the helpless frustration at not being able to stop the tears and then the overwhelming sense of peace when there is, at last, calm.

Throughout, we're reminded that grief takes many forms. While Amy and Ryan see a world full of hospitals, Joel sees hospital corridors that unfold like racetracks. There are no puzzles, per se. "That Dragon, Cancer" is about interacting with the world. Click on a juice box and see what happens. Walk toward the window and gain a new perspective.

Perhaps you'll realize you're not alone, or maybe you'll feel even more lonely, as this hospital window seems cut off and removed from the hustling world around it.

Some of the most affecting moments are those that force the Greens to look beyond themselves. In a hospital, for instance, we can pull the levers of a children's toy and use it to peer into the thoughts of everyone in the room.

We drift from the Greens to the doctors they are speaking with. It's like hitting the pause button on a film to then zoom in on the character of our choice. Or when "That Dragon, Cancer" morphs into a medieval video game as a way to help Ryan explain Joel's illness to his other children.

Joel, he says, is like a "baby knight" thrust into battle with a giant dragon that won't let him escape. We play as Joel the baby knight — running and jumping and tossing a spear around a cave — knowing that the battle is futile.

Then, suddenly, we see what we've known all along. We've always been learning to talk about life from games. Play, after all, is essential to our understanding of the unknown. "That Dragon, Cancer" just wants to focus, rather than divert, our attention.

So, then, what's it like to play "That Dragon, Cancer"? Ryan himself sums it up near the game's end. As he explains cancer, treatment, life and love to his other children, Ryan says, simply, "It's yay and sad. It's kind of all of those things."

todd.martens@latimes.com

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'That Dragon, Cancer'

Publisher: Numinous Games

Platforms: PC, Mac and Ouya

Price: $14.99

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 16, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Confronting `That Dragon, Cancer' - A new game tackles grave illness amid the fiery whirl of life's complexities. - THE PLAYER" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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