At the 2016 Q Conference, James K.A. Smith challenged Christians to “punch skylights in our brass heaven” to give our disenchanted world a chance to see “the cosmos is charged with the grandeur of God.”
Video games are often used to escape reality, not reveal God’s glory in it. Ryan Green is a video game designer who is changing all that. He and his team released That Dragon, Cancer this year, punching a skylight in our brass heaven and letting God’s glory shine down on the gaming community.
Meet the Greens
In January 2010, Joel, Green’s son, was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of cancer shortly after his first birthday. Joel endured round after round of radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and even brain surgery, only to have another tumor form that November. Joel’s doctors declared him terminal and gave him four months to live.
Joel survived three more years. It was during this period that Green conceived the idea to make a video game about Joel. He thought of it one evening while at church. Green was reflecting on a traumatic evening “a couple of years earlier when Joel was dehydrated and diarrheal, unable to drink anything without vomiting it back up, feverish, howling, and inconsolable, no matter how Green tried to soothe him,” writes Jason Tantz in a Wired profile of Green.
“There’s a process you develop as a parent to keep your child from crying, and that night I couldn’t calm Joel,” Green told Tantz. “It made me think, ‘This is like a game where the mechanics are subverted and don’t work.’”
In 2013, Joel developed a tumor near his brain stem and his health deteriorated. The Greens turned to home hospice care after an unsuccessful new drug trial. They hosted a prayer night on March 12, 2014. A few hours later, Joel passed away.
Building a Cathedral
Green and co-designer Josh Larson designed the game as a series of vignettes from Joel’s life. You feed ducks with the family. You play Joel, the baby knight fighting that dragon cancer, in the story the Greens tell their other sons about Joel’s illness. You are with them when the doctors tell them Joel’s cancer is terminal.
In the game’s original iteration, the final scene presents Joel’s life as a cathedral. The cathedral was filled with machines that kept Joel alive, and players pulled levers and pushed buttons in order to keep him that way. After a few minutes of pulling and pushing, the screen panned out to reveal the machines’ wires weren’t connected to anything. Players were powerless, fully at the mercy of the designers.
Ryan changed the final scene after Joel died. He no longer felt right making the players responsible for keeping Joel alive. The climax of the game still takes place in a cathedral, but everything else is different.
Walking into the cathedral, you see Joel up on the altar. You come to a table with candles on it, and as you light the candles, prayers recorded the night Joel died begin to play. The screen fades to black. Joel disappears.
Then the screen flashes, and a child recites a portion of I Kings 19:11-12: “He was not in the wind, he was not in the earthquake, he was not in the fire, he was here in a gentle whisper.” The camera soars to the ceiling and reveals the image of a bird inside a cross formed by the cathedral’s nave, transept, and sanctuary.
The screen fades to black again. Once the final vignette begins, you find yourself on a boat with Joel sitting on the bow. You reach the island and suddenly Joel is nowhere to be found.
You find a path and follow it deeper into the island’s recesses. You find Joel in a clearing. He is happy, healthy, whole. His favorite things—giant pancakes, a dog, juice boxes—surround him. Though he had a limited vocabulary in life, he greets you in complete sentences: “I remember you. You made it, too. I’m glad you’re here. I love it here. I bet you’ll like it, too.”
This moment outshines all the hardship endured to reach it. It offers a beautiful glimpse into the Greens’ hope of reuniting with Joel in heaven.
Returning to Smith’s Q talk, Smith challenged the church to be people that are “rebuilding cathedrals of hope which are open, hospitable places of welcome that invite people to see what’s beyond the frame. What’s been left off. The transcendent that has been knocking on the doors of their hearts and haunting them all this time. Let’s be the generation that plants gardens in the cracks of the secular.”
Smith bases this challenge on two features he identifies about our secular age. First, in the secular world, everyone experiences “contestability of belief.” Different people believe different things. This causes “cross-pressure”: each person is pulled and pushed by ideas outside their own.
Second, the secular world is disenchanted. “We’ve unhooked the cosmos from its creator. [We’re left] with the sterility of naturalism and evacuated the cosmos of mystery and transcendence.”
These features present the church with an opportunity. There is a chance for belief when the pressure on a non-believer causes a crack in their unbelief. This crack gives the church an opportunity to show how the world is full of God’s glory.
This is what Green has done with That Dragon, Cancer. He has taken a harrowing event that highlights the brokenness of the world and turned it into a story of hope. He has taken one of the cracks in the secular—the deep longing for something after life—and, to use Smith’s words, “planted a garden there.”
This takes an immense amount of vulnerability. We’d rather do anything than talk about what matters, what Green refers to as “the things that happen to us, define us, that make us who we are.” We’d rather escape into a fantasy where our level 49 dwarven sword can mow down orcs with lightening bolts, or into our curated social media feeds that only show gourmet brunches and Caribbean adventures.
Instead, Green’s game makes you confront the reality of death and its toughest questions. The Greens had to ask themselves, “Do we believe in heaven or not?” “Do we believe God is sovereign over the lives of our children?”
My wife, Haley, and I wrestled with these same questions a few years ago when she had a miscarriage with our first child. We didn’t know anyone who’d experienced one, and we felt isolated. But when God granted us the courage to talk about it, we were immediately surrounded by people who endured the same thing. We would have missed out on our community’s support if we had not been willing to be vulnerable.
This is what I’ve learned from Green’s game. Engaging our communities, be they next door or the community of gamers, requires vulnerability. When we show it, we offer a glimpse into a more enchanted world, one charged with the glory of God.