Despite the unending internet controversy, I remain resolute in my stance that video games cannot be art. Games contain a fundamental opposition at their core between players and audiences that cannot be resolved. Failing some huge revolution in Western culture where we suddenly conceptualize beauty as something you can “win”, I wouldn’t expect the next Picasso to be releasing his work at a GameStop.
Still, every now and again I see a new title that makes me question my conviction. Enter That Dragon, Cancer, a small indy game being released this winter. The game is an auto-biography that tells the story of a young Christian couple and their struggle with the extended sickness and death of their infant son, Joel.
Yes, I know this sounds like a macabre subject for a video game, but it makes more sense when the entire story is told. The NPR show ReplyAll does a good job explaining:
This is by no means the first artsy viewpoint-style video game. But from what I can tell, That Dragon, Cancer takes the form one step further. It contains genuine emotion that I just haven’t seen in titles like Gone Home or Life is Strange. Moreover, there is a raw power apparent in the story. It’s certainly art, even if it’s ultimately not much of a game.
But the strangest component of this game is its apparent focus on religion. Christianity is at the heart of That Dragon, Cancer. The central layout is a cathedral, the family’s own spiritual beliefs are a driver of the plot, and the original purpose of the game was to express the emotions felt during a moment of prayer. Ultimately, I will be very interested to see how these themes are expressed in the medium of video games.
The central problem of art in video games has always been player choice. Video games put the player at the center of making decisions beyond the creator’s control. Thus there is an interplay between the two where the desire of the artist to challenge assumptions and the desire of the player to escape reality are at odds. The more the artist introduces a strong narrative and challenging messages, the more a constraints are needed to steer players away from their natural inclination towards self-affirming fun.
In the past artsy video games like Limbo and Bioshock have addressed the problem of choice by making the futility of the player’s decisions a central theme. With enough existential “Waiting-For-Gidot style” doom, a player can be artfully compelled towards an art-house ending without damaging the realism. A seemingly open world where the character’s minor decisions cannot assuage their final doom might be the plot of every French existentialist novel, but it’s also an easily programmable format for a video game.
But the subject of futility and choice also have a direct relationship to prayer. Prayer is a difficult thing to explain to most non-religious people. Do believers really believe they are influencing the will of God? Do the pious think they can bend the universe with the force of supplication? If not, isn’t the whole endeavor futile? All these questions are fair, but very difficult to answer without extended analogy. To the religious prayer comes naturally, and there is is an ineffable flow and logic to those who practice it regularly.
During more religious ages powerful scenes of prayer in fiction were passed over with little commentary. Our contemporary age is quite different. When so few people practice devotion themselves, a depiction of such requires explanation. But is any verbal explanation adequate?
The central inspiration for That Dragon, Cancer was a prayer of a father for his son when nothing else seemed to make a difference. Certainly, the prayer neither stopped the cancer nor ceased the pain, but was it futile? Perhaps prayer might be better thought of as something that brings rational order to a reality that would otherwise seem cruel and futile. It might even be possible that this side of prayer is better expressed in a video game than in written theology.
I’ll be looking forward to “playing” That Dragon, Cancer when it comes out. However, I might have to force myself to play all the way through. A strange problem for such a typically addictive medium.