By Amy Green
The title screen for “That Dragon, Cancer” loads. You pause for a minute and take a deep breath. You are bracing yourself for the emotional impact of spending the next two hours in the world of our family as we care for our terminally ill son, Joel. As you click the “start new game” button you aren’t sure quite what to expect, but you hope that the experience is beautiful and true.
As Ryan says in the videogame, “Joel isn’t the only one to ever fight that Dragon … ” and so, as you learn to love Joel, we hope you realize, through little glimpses, that he is one of many. The handprints on the wall and the cards in the hall remind you that so many people have gone before Joel and too many more will follow after.
We asked Kickstarter backers to contribute their personal stories to the videogame’s landscape, so that each piece of hospital art represents a real person. Aaron Horn first learned about the videogame from our development partner Josh Larson, who attended the same startup community events as Aaron in Des Moines, Iowa. When Aaron heard about “That Dragon, Cancer” he thought of his son, Eli.
Eli spent over half his life fighting cancer. He was diagnosed with Stage IV Neuroblastoma at the age of three and a half, and after undergoing surgery and treatment for the adrenal gland tumor (and then subsequent brain tumor a few years later) he was diagnosed with Leukemia, a side effect of the treatments Eli received. Eli died just before his 8th birthday. As you play the videogame, you may stumble across a letter written from Aaron to his son.
I feel nothing but pride for the way you battled cancer. I remember the way you learned to ride your tricycle down the hospital hallway, instead of down the sidewalk like other three-year-olds…”
Aaron hopes that as you finish reading the letter, it sticks with you, “I hope they are inspired by Eli. I hope that they get a small glimpse of his bravery and realize what's important in life and that the small things aren't worth getting worked up about. I hope that they can see his faith and strength and that he is a very loved boy.”
Aaron supported the videogame, in part, because he is passionate about childhood cancer awareness and said, “From the early screenshots and concepts that I saw, I knew this would be a great insight into a world that is very hard for a family to explain to others that haven't been exposed to it before.”
When we talk to players at conventions, they often tell us how personal and intimate the experience of playing That Dragon, Cancer feels. We have always hoped that the videogame would inspire others to share this kind of intimacy, but it can be a challenge. Asking Kickstarter backers to contribute their own stories to That Dragon, Cancer was an invitation to come be vulnerable with us. When Aaron first submitted his letter, it was a little objective and distant, but then we asked him to write the letter as if Eli could actually read it. What would he want Eli to know, if he could speak to him again? According to Aaron, “it was obviously a much more emotional task. I am very glad I did it and I really appreciate their support of that process.” We were amazed at the way his letter was transformed when he approached it more personally, and we're so honored to have a chance to know Eli through Aaron's words.
Even though Aaron is more familiar than he would like to be with the hospitals and treatments that act as secondary characters in Joel’s story, he still has to brace himself, like any player, for the way the videogame will impact him and the memories it will revive, “Over time, you forget some of the smaller details about hospital life and I expect that much of that will come rushing back to me during the videogame. I expect it to be emotional, but also a joy to remember those times that I had with Eli. I also look forward to the community response to a bold project like this. As I said, childhood cancer awareness is very important to me, so I certainly hope the release is met with a lot of press and success to help that mission. More funding for childhood cancer research is needed and my hope is that this videogame helps generate more desire in folks to contribute to that cause."
Aaron Horn actively raises funds for pediatric cancer research in honor of his son Eli through www.beatcancertoday.org