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In 'That Dragon, Cancer,' 'Unshakeable Empathy Gives Game Life'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This might be the only time I tell you to get tissues nearby for a video game review. The game is based on a true story. A boy named Joel was diagnosed with a brain tumor when he was one year old. Over the next four years, he was treated with radiation more than a dozen times, and he died when he was five. Joel's parents are the creators of the new game "That Dragon, Cancer." Here's the review from Chris Suellentrop and J. J. Sutherland of the podcast "Shall We Play A Game."

J. J. SUTHERLAND: Much of "That Dragon, Cancer" takes place, as you might expect, in a hospital.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "THAT DRAGON, CANCER")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) It's so late, Joel. Lay down. I can't hold you. I can't make you feel better.

CHRIS SUELLENTROP: The game is broken into scenes from the lives of Joel Green and his parents, Ryan and Amy. In this scene, Ryan, Joel's father, is trying to comfort him during a night when Joel was vomiting, dehydrated and suffering.

SUTHERLAND: And in the game, you can try to give Joel a juice box to comfort him. But just like in real life, it doesn't do anything.

SUELLENTROP: In most games, death is cheap. Resurrection comes with the press of a button - not here. You witness the Ryans' suffering and doubts along with them.

SUTHERLAND: And this isn't like most video games. You aren't shooting people here or running a race. But you are moving around the hospital. You can look at pictures and cards. You do fight dragons at one point. But most of it's clicking on ordinary objects like a cell phone to hear a voicemail.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "THAT DRAGON, CANCER")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (As character) On someone's last day, they always bring them a cake, and they sing, (singing) happy off-therapy day to you.

Anyway, that happened today. And it happens a lot, but today I cried. I just wanted that day so bad.

SUELLENTROP: You come to the moment when the doctors tell Ryan and Amy that Joel only has a few months to live. And you hear the news by pulling a lever on a child's toy.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "THAT DRAGON, CANCER")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (As character) We're very good at end-of-life care. We're very good at managing the pain and masking symptoms at the end of life.

SUELLENTROP: And then the room fills with water, washing Joel to sea.

SUTHERLAND: And not to go all high-brow here, Chris, but it's a moment of magical realism. You know, it's totally unreal, but that just makes it all the more real. And that - it was really intense. And I actually had to step away from playing at a certain point because just experiencing these two parents suffering and praying and doubting - it just tore me apart.

SUELLENTROP: "That Dragon, Cancer" isn't the first time I've cried while playing a videogame, but it's definitely the game that made me cry the most. At the same time, there are happy moments, like racing a car through the hospital ward to hear Joel laugh. And there's a great little scene where you're just blowing bubbles for Joel, and he's clapping.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "THAT DRAGON, CANCER")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (As Joel) I love bubbles. Look, I can touch one.

SUTHERLAND: Eventually, though, you have to stop blowing bubbles, because no matter how much joy it brings to Joel, your adult mind knows...

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "THAT DRAGON, CANCER")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (As Joel) I want more bubbles.

SUTHERLAND: ...Everything has to end.

SUELLENTROP: The game isn't challenging the way many videogames can be difficult, but it can be hard to play, the way some movies are hard to watch.

SUTHERLAND: "That Dragon, Cancer" is honest, and it's sad. But it's also filled with this unshakable empathy. And that empathy gives this game life, even in the face of a child's death.

SHAPIRO: Chris Suellentrop and J. J. Sutherland host the podcast "Shall We Play A Game." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.