Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The tricky business of critiquing a work as personal as That Dragon, Cancer

Photo: blahblah5577 / Steam
Photo: blahblah5577 / Steam

You Gotta Have Faith

That Dragon, Cancer, the long-gestating autobiographical project of Numinous Games, finally launched this week. In his review, Nick Wanserski made mention of the game’s religious themes and the ways it discussed and depicted the family’s reliance on faith throughout their son’s battle with cancer. Nick noted that he was let down by the game’s comparative lack of nuance when it came to this topic, a sentiment that sparked a wonderful discussion about criticizing deeply personal works like this (even if it did spawn from a bit of a misreading of Nick’s intentions). Is it possible to critique the work without simultaneously critiquing the creator’s personal beliefs? Drinking_with_Skeletons was the first to broach the topic:

“They tell them it’s because the man grew so tired from fighting the dragon, God granted him rest. God will fight your cancer because God is good. God will let you die of cancer because God is good. It’s an unsatisfying conclusion to draw, offering very little illumination against the darkness.”

I agree that it’s a weak message and unsatisfying, but this is the family’s personal story, and it seems wrong to criticize them for trying to cope. They didn’t deny their child treatment or anything. They were just trying to help their children cope. I certainly don’t share their beliefs, but I’m not going to begrudge them their attempts to make sense of personal tragedy.

“The language used to articulate their faith rarely rises above the generic ‘behold the glory of God’ affirmation of a Christian rock song. It is too broad and too impersonal.”

This is a better argument, but I still think it might be criticizing them more than they deserve. This isn’t a director making a film about faith as it relates to the Crusades or a theological paper, it’s a family trying to tell their story. Given my experience with people of faith, it is entirely possible that their personal beliefs are rather broad and generic; certainly relatively few people I’ve ever encountered based their beliefs on sophisticated readings of the Bible.


And Venerable Monk added to the argument:

Being a former Catholic (all the way up through confirmation), I can certainly attest to the idea that relatively few people define their faith in concrete, specific, and rigorous terms. I think part of the reason is that kids who are raised in one religion or another are strongly encouraged to develop their beliefs long before they have the language and reasoning tools to define it. Depending on the community you belong to, you might even be discouraged to question matters of faith, if it even occurs to you that you could raise questions. As far as I know, I wasn’t really aware that there were other religions that might conflict with Catholicism until middle school. It’s the whole “there is only one REAL god” part of it that kids (like myself) will take for granted.

This is all to say that I think you’d have to face a pretty serious challenge to your faith in order to be prompted to really define it on a more individual level, or to mount a rigorous defense. Even going through the process of confirmation, which sounds like a series of tests to “make sure” you’re really Catholic, it’s tacitly assumed that everyone believes. Most of the exercises and discussion revolves around your understanding of the big stuff: the major prayers, the Nicene Creed, etc. It also felt like a kind of proving ground to see who might be interested in/equipped for entering the priesthood.

As did DJ JD:

This is one of those times where you could learn from the game, not where you criticize it. I’m a Christian myself, I’ve attended funerals of patients I cared for (as a Child Life Specialist, not a doctor or anything), and the hard fact is that while religion offers hope in the long term, there is no illuminating the short-term darkness. Your child shows up, they reprogram your brain just by existing, and then they suffer impossible tortures while you watch helplessly and there’s nothing you can do about it. The end. Bringing that to God—“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, oh God, you will not despise.”

That old “Why do bad things happen to good people” question? Turns out, it’s not really a question that you answer so much as an Eriksonian conflict to be resolved within yourself—or not. Words, to put it bluntly, are wind; they are just the tools by which minds grow to accept (or not) something they were previously completely incapable of accepting.

And DL came down a bit on both sides:

I can certainly see where both Nick and Drinking_With_Skeletons are coming from in this. I agree that it’s very difficult to criticize someone’s comfort in faith, but, since we’re speaking of criticism in artistic expression, I see something extremely similar in my experiences with church music of the last 30 to 40 years. My friends’ neighbors put it best when they refer to “7-11” music: those songs that seem to take seven words and have you sing them 11 times. I find these songs to be trite and uninspired, yet many of those little choruses are so popular and important to some people that they are included in current hymnals.

There must be many people who find this type of art comforting and meaningful, else it wouldn’t have survived, but when I’m asked to sing one of those repetitive dirges in our services, then asked to sing it AGAIN because it apparently wasn’t long enough for us to fully embrace the meaning within the first 20 seconds, I get frustrated and lose interest.

Just yesterday, I felt some embarrassment and remorse because I showed my disgust a little too visibly next to my wife when I heard “…again” after we finished some brief ditty at the end of our service. I shouldn’t react that way because it’s only my personal taste, not a matter of right or wrong, faithful or unfaithful.

That’s where I appreciate Drinking_With_Skeletons’ comment. Thanks for standing up for their beliefs and expressing the understanding that it works for them, regardless of what we think stylistically. For as much as I agree with Nick that I prefer nuance and thought in my religious art, there are other important ideals in place.


There’s plenty more discussion from both sides of this great conversation, plus responses from Nick, in the original comment thread, and it’s well worth checking out if you have any interest in the topic.

New Year, New You

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

This week, we returned to an old Gameological Q&A favorite and asked about your New Year’s gaming resolutions. And of course, the commentariat had plenty of admirable ones. Here’s one from ItsTheShadsy:

My goal is to play more slow games that require deeper investment. My favorite games tend to be the slow-burning, atmospheric types, but I’ve recently done a poor job of actually playing them. The biggest sin has been failing to make any meaningful progress in Avernum, the outstanding hundreds-of-hours-long RPG series that I hold dear but have barely dug into.

I finished grad school last semester, so this is the first year where I don’t have any big lingering commitments hanging over my head. I can finally take the time to enjoy things that aren’t designed to be consumed in half-hour bursts. That means finally finishing Miasmata, learning the rules of a forgiving sim game, and maybe trying to figure out The Void.


NakedSnake wants to keep reaching out:

My gaming resolution for 2016 is to try harder to share games with the people around me, particularly the interesting and niche games that would appeal to people who don’t use the medium much. At this point, the experiences that games offer are really, really diverse, and there is new stuff coming out all the time that a lot of people who don’t play games would find interesting. Unfortunately, you generally need to know a fair bit about games before you can identify what those games might be. But in the past year, I have had some success with sharing these games with other people, whether it was playing Aviary Attorney with my history-loving dad, or This War Of Mine with my human-rights focused mom, Mini-Metro with my engineer brother in law, or Panoramical with my music loving wife. Chances are good that, whoever you are, there are games out there that appeal to your interests, but most people will never wade in far enough to find them. I really enjoyed being a gaming ambassador in the past year, and I am resolved to double down in 2016.


Vincentadultman wants to be a better dungeon master:

I started a D&D group this year. I’m in my early-mid 30s and had never played before. I got a group of my friends who were mostly new to the game and in similar situations (parents of young children).

We started with the starter pack and deviated from the module after a few sessions (never got to the Wave Echo Mine). So we started on a new, free-form campaign and had a lot of good sessions and a couple not as good sessions. We only got together a handful of times over the year, but I learned a lot.

My only real resolution is to keep it up. When we first started, I was all-in and over-prepared to the point where hours and hours of work were completely disregarded. When trying to counteract that, I think I almost over-compensated in the other direction with under-preparation and too much improv. In just our last couple of sessions, I think I found the sweet spot. I’m going to use this year to get better at DMing so I can provide a fun, worthwile experience to people who can’t really get together that often to play.


And pktmann resolved to play more streamlined games, a vow shared with plenty of us staffers (myself included):

My resolution is to play more “focused” games. I love the idea of large open-world RPGs where you create your own character and all that, but I always lose interest in them relatively quickly. I was trying to figure out why I couldn’t get into games like that when I was playing through the Uncharted series again, and I realized that those open-world games never had me feeling like I was working toward anything. (Other than making my character stronger, I guess.) Although there were main stories, the appeal was clearly the broad number of unrelated sidequests.

I don’t even mean I want to only play games that tell you where to go all the time, like Uncharted always does. A Link To The Past is one of my favorite games, and it does very little hand holding. But in that game, all the optional stuff and mini-games feel like they’re for the benefit of the overall story or goal. Those are the types of games that I pretty much always manage to beat and enjoy.


That’ll do it for this week, folks. As always, thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you again next week!