I used to be a much better Catholic, and by that I mean I used to be Catholic.  I went to Sunday School (we had it on Wednesday, but it was the same thing), I went to church on most Sundays, I prayed when I felt powerless, I talked to my friends about my faith, I went to a camp where we talked openly about our relationship to God – I did a lot of things I don’t do anymore.  Like all things about us that change, faith is no different and as I’ve grown older my interest in faith has diminished.  

Faith can be a scary thing to people who aren’t religious, or who have a passing acquaintance with religion.  Just like anything, the further you are from a community the more curious the practices of those people become.  People who post bible quotes on their Facebook page are foreign to me, the same way that my obsession with Lord of Rings, the Minnesota Vikings, or video games may be to them.  It’s not that I think people of any faith are bad, I have plenty of evidence in my life to the contrary, but just like Black Friday shoppers, Coldplay fans, or the Green Bay Packers faithful, I don’t connect with elements of their lifestyle.

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To make it perfectly clear, I don’t mean to belittle people of faith by comparing religion to sports teams or annoying pop-rock bands.  Faith is something that is often lifestyle-defining in a way none of the aforementioned things are.  But these are the closest comparisons I can draw to the distance I have with the culture of faith and my understanding of it.  If I come off as reductive, dismissive, or ignorant, I apologize in advance.  I’m aware how important faith can be and would never want to take it away from anyone.  That being said, let us continue.

Back when I was in high school I was talking with a friend whose grandmother was in the hospital.  She wasn’t religious and in the moment lamented her distance to faith.  She wished she could pray to God for her grandmother in what were likely her final moments.  I told her that you didn’t need to be a card carrying person of faith to speak to God or to pray.  Prayer was something we did almost instinctually as a species.  Whether it is the miniscule moments of our day, life-altering events, or giving thanks for fortunate windfalls, humanity instinctively clings to belief in a higher power.  Whether we called it fate, luck, coincidence, or divine intervention humanity is programmed to believe that the flow of the universe is compelled by a force other than science.  So it’s strange that when someone takes that feeling and assigns it to God or the Lord, that certain people usually become a little uncomfortable.  And I number myself among them.

That Dragon, Cancer doesn’t hide its ties to faith and religion.  Developer Ryan Green and his writing partner, Amy Green (his wife), make no bones about their close relationship to their faith and how it impacted their son’s fight with cancer.  That Dragon, Cancer is autobiographical so it makes sense the Green’s faith would be a key component of the story.  It’s part of them and part of who they are as people.  When you’re faced with a situation as painful as the Green family, it’s likely you’re going to be spending some time with a rock in your life such as religion.

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Religion and video games have had casual acquaintance at best.  Last summer, our guest reviewer, Nelson, wrote, “As a young Christian who wanted to enter the video game industry, I always felt like an outsider looking in.”  This is true of video games, but also true of most media.  While many entertainment mediums might be assumptive of a Christian audience, it is rare that a character is outwardly religious – and if they are, it is a characteristic (and often a flaw) that defines them.  Media often stereotypes people of faith into fanatics, people who aren’t relatable or sympathetic.  When we talk about nuanced or well defined characters, especially in video games, they are often secular characters – at least for the most part.  When I think of religious characters in video games my mind immediately goes to the characters in Assassin’s Creed where the Templars use a historically corrupt Catholic church as a cover for their alternative intentions.  This is what religion in mainstream video games looks like.

I can’t help but wonder if this weighed at all on the Greens as they began to tell their story in That Dragon, Cancer.  If they worried that they might alienate a certain audience with a narrative that ties so strongly into their faith.  Like I said, people gets nervous when confronted with religion and you don’t have to look far to find that audience on the game’s Steam discussion boards.  There are plenty of ignorant quotes like, “…I don’t understand why they’d be so upset about their kid’s death if they are religious, don’t they believe that he is hanging out with Jesus and being all happy?” There’s one thread that’s even angrily titled, “lol religous people”.  Apparently, they couldn’t even be bother to spell “religious” correctly.

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While some may feel turned off or even angered by the game’s religious undertones, I feel like it makes these messages all the more important.  First, there’s an artistic point to lean on.  Why should Greens not tell their story honestly?  Why should they be forced to hide their religion when making a game so personal?  Great writing means exploring the human condition and the Greens’ religion is obviously a significant part of their family and life.  In order to create a game that came from a honest place, the subject of religion was integral to the story.  The game never dares to say that religion is a necessity to everyone.  It doesn’t preach.  At no time is God represented, nor Jesus.  In fact, Ryan and Amy are confronted with perhaps the biggest test of their faith and you can feel it shake at times.  They struggle constantly, like anyone would, with the question of why God would do this to them, but find renewed strength in the belief that their son is being guided by a higher power.

This choice is also a personal one and doesn’t change the way players have to live their lives.  It’s disturbing that people would need to attack developers of faith just because they don’t share those values.  Instead of trying to see how faith would be so important to those suffering through the Green’s situation, people are quick to be dismissive and even enraged.  If the world of video games is big enough for stories of elves, Mushroom Kingdoms, and deranged killer monsters, can’t it be big enough for people of faith?  If games can talk about abuse and sexuality, can’t we handle an occasional tale of religion?

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The heart of That Dragon, Cancer isn’t religion.  As I said in my review, the true heart of the game is a beautiful boy, one who the Greens have bravely shared with the world.  And their faith is just a part of Joel’s story, albeit an important part.  It doesn’t make me want to go to church, it doesn’t make me feel closer to God, but it shows me the value of religion.  It proves how important faith can be to people when faced with unthinkable circumstances.  And it reminded me how, in the end, we all have some kind of faith.  We all dare to hope, we all dare to dream, we all dare to believe in that which is greater than us.  Without those emotions, what are we? Those feelings define us, and make us into the people we are.  For the Greens, they turn those emotions into a spiritual connection they have shared with the world.  Again, I’m in awe of their bravery and how they have shared their lives.  We could use more of that.

About The Author

The Glorious Predecessor

As I write this, I am listening to Striking Matches and eating a blueberry muffin. The music is good, the muffin is even better. I dance when I drink and have been known to occasionally free-style rap, none of which benefits society.

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  • Bryan Hall

    Josh, thank you for sharing your perspective.

    • Josh Hinke

      Thanks for reading!

  • tborg

    Dude. This is the most honest, objective and respectful thing I’ve ever read on a gaming site.

    • Josh Hinke

      Thanks, Ted. I appreciate you checking it out!

  • I think a very large cohort of video game enthusiasts (for lack of a better description) are essentially illiterate, or are relatively so, and so. I think if it were otherwise they would not find games to be all that interesting, or would not spend time with too many “games” that aspire to being literature in any case (as there are much more abundant offerings to be found within other mediums, as it’s ever been so.)

    In this case the lines are a little blurred because it’s more or less based on true events, but still this is literature. Literature has characters, characters have qualities. This is not controversial from a literary perspective, and this article almost feels like it is reaching to have to discuss this in this way. It’s really nothing to discuss, and it’s only a problem for this corner of human discourse, because it’s a vastly illiterate wasteland; no offense intended. Really.