THAT DRAGON, CANCER
That Dragon, Cancer (Numinous Games 2016) is an indie game made by Ryan and Amy Green, two parents who were faced with the real cancer illness of their son, Joel. They started to make the game while he was in remission from cancer, but then while making the game, the cancer returned and he died. The game features scenes from their life, sometimes expressed from the perspective of the parents or the child.
As in BioShock, the players begins birthed in a new world, and they are immediately oriented to its gameplay and emotional contours. For example, the player is taught some simple controls through interactions and instructions (e.g., feeding ducks, rocking on a toy rocking horse). The authentic voices of Joel’s parents (recordings of Ryan and Amy Green actually talking to their son and family) are used to help teach and encourage the player in the game to feed ducks. We hear Ryan say, “Don’t touch the birds” to Joel, and simultaneously the player is also told this, as they practice lifting Joel’s arm and throwing the pieces of bread at the duck. Likewise, Amy says “Ready, set, go,” while Joel sits on a rocking horse, and the game instructs the player what controls to press or tap to make Joel rock. The recordings of the Green family also provide the narrative exposition that sets up the real-world story of this family and game: that Joel got sick right after turning one year old and is developmentally delayed as a result. These voices, as well as the muted colors and simple character shapes, also immediately orients and inscribes the player emotionally into the authentic world of this family—their real struggles and concerns, as well as their joys and humor. Notably, Joel is faceless, possibly helping players to more easily inscribe their own child or imagined cared-for individual (McCloud 1993/2004; Noddings 1984).
Many games reduce the amount of scaffolding throughout the game as the player progresses, by not continuing to give hints or messaging once the player has mastered the game. However, That Dragon, Cancer continues to provide this type of supportive messaging throughout the entire game. Part of this may be because the game continually changes in the types of actions the player needs to take. For instance, in one scenario, a player needs to move a stethoscope on a dog, and in the next, they need to race around a hospital hallway in a red wagon. The goals and actions keep changing from scene to scene, but the player feels continually protected by the game designer. The designer seems to have affection and care for the player, making sure to continually lead them down a path to the end of the game. Although there is no “win” condition in the game (and in fact, the player experiences the loss of Joel no matter what they do or how they play), the “parenting” game designer stays on the journey with the player. This is not surprising given that the developers of this game were relatively new to game design, and may have been more protective of their players, similar to first-time parents and their newborn child. Moreover, like parenting, this particular game is not about winning, losing, or achieving a particular goal, but staying safe, recognized, and cared for.
Players are not just being parented by the game; they are actually practicing parenting and caretaking activities through their game play. In many of the scenarios, the player acts as the parent or caretaker of Joel (by taking on the role of Amy or Ryan), such as rocking him as a baby in a hospital chair, giving him a beverage, or going to meetings with doctors. Throughout, we also hear the perspectives from the parents during these caretaking activities, such as through authentic voice mail messages or recordings made by the family. These elements often relate to those described by Seifer & Schiller (1995), such as behaviors that increase proximity and contact with the parent (holding and rocking the baby), and ones that decrease it, such as exploration or experimentation (racing in a wagon, playing with a toy). While taking on the role of the parent, we are constantly navigating between these two rhythms—proximity, care, and closeness, versus letting go, exploration, and distance—often within the same scenario. The player shows love in this game through the rhythms of caretaking: the continual ebb and flow of closeness and release.
Likewise, the pace and tone of the game also continually changes throughout, reflecting the varied pace of parenting, from the mundane routines of caretaking to the chaos of change. Like a parent, sometimes the player just needs to wait, listen, and attend, while other times the player needs to suddenly act and respond, reflecting the tedium of waiting and wanting time to pass, as well as the sudden rush and feeling that time is too quickly gone. This is particularly acutely felt, as we see with the Greens, when parenting a sick child with only a few weeks to live.
In That Dragon, Cancer, sometimes the player is forced to fail (Chen 2016) at what they are supposed to do in a scene, and this also serves a purpose gameplay-wise, thematically, and narratively. Some examples of instances of forced failure and lack of agency in the game: the player is step removed from the direct parenting, such as by watching the mother holding and singing to him (while the player looks through get well cards), or seeing the parents sit and listen at a meeting with doctors when they explain there are no more treatment options for Joel. The player cannot interact or do anything but listen to the interaction, which sometimes repeats, reflecting the hopelessness that the parents are feeling. Eventually the scene fills with water and the couple is swept away by the waves, and the player is not able to take any actions. In another scene, the player plays as Ryan and is trying to give a drink to a crying Joel, but there is nothing the player (or Ryan) can do to ease his thirst or take away his pain. The player (like Joel) is helpless and cannot soothe the cries, which continue for a painfully long, and slow time, no matter what Ryan says or does. “I can’t hold you, I can’t make you feel better...okay buddy, I’ll hold you,” says Ryan, to his son, and we feel his despair, as well as his tension between wanting to help and loving his son, but being overwhelmed by a lack of agency over his son’s experience. Offen a lack of agency is deleterious for a game’s design, but Farber and Schrier discuss how this scene shows a lack of agency, or control, for the player resonates because of the themes of parenting, grief, helplessness, and loss in the game (Farber & Schrier 2017; Schrier & Farber 2019). Despite trying to do everything we can (as a player, or in the role of a parent in the game) we still may not be able to console the child, respond to him, and form a secure attachment. This inability to soothe the child may reflect Ainsworth’s insecure or disorganized attachment, where the child continues to cry, no matter what we do to show support.
This paper argues earlier that the game sticks with the player, bringing them on the Journey as a teacher and trainer, never fully letting go but watching from a distance. In this way, we feel the designer’s affection and care for our ability to progress in the game. On the other hand, we are not always rewarded or given the responses we need in this relationship. While we sometimes know what to expect from these game designers (that they will support us through our journey and continue to teach us what to do in each scenario), we also learn that we may not be soothed or rewarded when meeting our goals or doing what was asked of us. The game seems to have a disorganized, chaotic response to our gameplay (constantly changing scenarios, tone, and rhythms, with no clear rewards, progression, or goals, and the scaffolding of actions without the real possibility of success). This underscores the anxious, insecure, and grief-stricken feeling we have while playing the game and while imagining ourselves in the shoes of these parents. The possibility of loss is always looming (whether the loss of Joel or the loss of the game). The complex and insecure attachment that is enacted reflects the themes of parenting in this game, and the real-world anxieties about parenting, love, and loss.
Life Is Strange 2
Life Is Strange 2 (Dontnod 2018-2019) is not as obviously about parenting—thematically and narratively—as That Dragon, Cancer or BioShock. The game begins in Seattle, Washington and follows a teenage boy,
Sean Diaz, and his younger brother, Daniel, reeling over the sudden death of their father, Esteban, who had been their sole caretaker. Sean and Daniel had already been managing being abandoned suddenly by their mother, who has been mysteriously away during the first three episodes of the game. As a result of being involved in a problematic interaction with the police, the two boys need to run away to safety, and Sean becomes a de facto caretaker or “parent” of his brother. At the writing of this chapter, only the first three episodes had been released, therefore, this chapter will only focus on what these three episodes reveal.
Like in the other two games, the players have the opportunity in the beginning to get oriented to the world of the game (the controls, themes, character backgrounds) before the real danger begins. Players need to interact with a friend, Lyla Park, and decide which objects to bring for a party that night (e.g., soda or beer, chips, condom), they need to negotiate choices with their family (such as to whom to give the last piece of candy) or whether to ask for or steal money. The game play consists of doing actions (such as picking up a can of soda, or moving to a room) as well as making dialogue and other types of situational choices, such as choosing whom to give the candy to (father, brother, or self), or deciding how to respond to a friend who wants to go to a party. The game’s story unfolds through dialogues with other players, as well as through actions with objects or explorations of the spaces of the game.
After this brief orientation to the family’s history, their relationships, and their context, the rest of the game centers on the two boys evading police and other dangers. In the first episode, the player controls Sean, who needs to teach and protect his brother in the woods. Although Daniel is not an infant, the player establishes an attachment relationship with Sean, as he becomes his primary caretaker. We explore the area, but we also need to parent him: we need to make sure Daniel is nearby, and that he eats the appropriate foods and stays safe. For instance, we need to test whether the berries we find are poisonous or not and deter or encourage him to eat them. We look for shelter and make a fire. Throughout these exchanges, we also need to continually negotiate whether to just focus on survival and protection, or whether to also encourage Daniel to be silly, imaginative, and have fun. For instance, do we encourage him to create an imaginative “barrier” (out of sticks and stones) for the shelter to protect them at night, and do we decide to teach him how to skip stones in the lake? How patient are we as we try to teach him? The game, for instance, first asks us whether we want to teach him at all about skipping stones, and then we have to decide whether to keep encouraging him to try again, or to spend time doing other essential tasks (such as our main goal of building a fire). The game invites us to encourage (or not encourage) this behavior four times before Daniel is finally successful in skipping the stones (and the game gives us a reward for encouraging perseverance).
Likewise, later in the episode, we have to make choices about how to spend our minimal money on food and beverages at a gas station. Do we only spend money on what is necessary (e.g., bread, meat, drinks) to keep us surviving another day, or do we also spend on the candy that we know our brother wants? Throughout these exchanges, the game continually has us navigate the tension between wanting to meet our goals (the game goals of protecting our family, but also reaching new checkpoints in the game), while deciding whether to veer off the path and support our family’s other social and emotional needs: to express joy, tell stories, or to feel trusted and empowered. Our choices in these navigations have consequences for the relationship that we build with our brother. Do we earn his trust by keeping him physically safe and emotionally cared for, as well as by enabling his imagination and encouraging his pursuits? These tensions serve to underscore the ways we show affection to and love for our brother in the game—we can take actions to keep him safe, and we can also actively encourage and teach him. The tensions also serve to enhance the anxieties of playing the game and being “a parent.” As we navigate the park, for instance, we see signs of dangerous wildlife everywhere. There are teeth marks and poisonous berries, and “danger: wild animal” signs. The dark toned art style of the park, and ominous sounds and animal noises underscore these dangers. The park is empty of people except for the two boys. While we navigate the park, we are also trying to stay close to our brother. However, at one point, he seems to disappear and we have a momentary feeling of panic—further emphasized by Sean’s pleas for Daniel in the game. Suddenly Daniel reappears as a surprise (he was hiding from us), further suggesting the dichotomy between parental authority and childhood freedom and leisure.
As a result, depending on the players choices and actions in Life Is Strange 2, relationships with characters in later scenes or episodes may be impacted. In-game consequences and feedback may suggest that your brother has a secure and trusting relationship with you, or perhaps, less secure, resistant, or even angry interactions with you. The game limits choices and interactions as it progresses, sometimes based on previous choices, which may lead to less and less secure bonds between the two characters. For instance, in my game, in episode three, Sean and Daniels relationship becomes particularly strained, and Daniel begins to spend more time with Finn, another character at a campsite they are staying near. It’s possible that the game has constrained the choices such that no matter what the player does, this tension between Sean and Daniel emerges, as the game designers need to tell a particular story, and this strain progresses the story. Thus, while the first episode may enable the player to build a secure attachment with their brother, later episodes may enable other types of attachments due to circumstances and other factors, further suggesting the need to understand the dynamic system among all parties and their context, rather than just a one-to-one relationship when building attachment.
Furthermore, although we cannot clinically map the four different attachment types to the in-game relationships that form throughout the game—the types of actions and strategies that the player needs to make throughout the game are similar to those described earlier (attachment behaviors, exploration behaviors, the system surrounding these, and the bond that is formed) (Seifer & Schiller 1995). Throughout the entire game, we are continually enabling support and protection for our brother, whether to stay close and be careful, or to explore and expand one’s imagination. We take the actions we believe will keep him safe, happy, secure, and protected, even though he may not like it. Though we are still a teenager in the game, we are thrust into a role that requires us to be the authority, the parent, and the moral decision maker. And in tandem, we, as the player, are also navigating this for ourselves. We are carefully following the rules and goals and being rewarded for this, and we are also deciding when and how to break rules or explore new situations, such as when to take time to draw in our notebook and observe our world, give money to a stranger who is playing an instrument, use a phone or computer when we are reminded not to do so, or steal an item to give to our brother for the holiday.
Thus, the game is also parenting us, as players, while we are also parenting another character. The game shows affection for us by guiding us through rules and goals, while also allowing us to experiment and explore, and even transgress those boundaries. The game teaches us what is “right and wrong” in this world, but then lets us go and allows us to be moral arbiters and decide how we will negotiate the system’s morality (Schrier 2014, 2017; Sicart 2009). The game’s system then serves up the consequences to our decisions in the form of punishments and rewards.
Likewise, the player, as Sean, can do the same for his brother, Daniel. As Sean, we show affection for our brother through the rhythm of keeping him close and letting him go, and sometimes allowing him to make his own moral decisions, and serving him feedback for those decisions.
Finally, the game also suggests the tension between being a parent (responsibility) and leisurely pursuits. Sean can no longer just be a carefree child—he needs to now be responsible as an authority figure and caretaker for someone else. The game also continually teases the player as to this responsibility—do we continue to follow its authority and rules and goals, or do we allow ourselves to be leisurely and carefree? The game, thus, also represents the tension between games and reality itself—the freedom and experimentation that a game allows, which reality does not always afford. The game is both a parental authority, teaching and training us, while also being itself an escape from those quotidian and routine responsibilities of parenting and life.