The only video game I have ever cried at was That Dragon, Cancer. It was about two hours of emotional shitstorm that I will never forget, but by that end credit scene I was in complete agony. It was so personal and nuanced that the feelings and state of mind of its creator were literally laid out bare for you to explore, it opened up a whole new way of subjectively and symbolically visual storytelling that felt like you were literally stepping into the heart of another human. It was almost too much, but with several hydration breaks and a hell of a lot of ugly crying I got through it and sat in dark awed silence for half the night.
It was the single most emotional reaction I have ever felt for a piece of media. It wasn’t as much a story as the plunging into a process of grief that didn’t let you emerge until those final credits plowed through your tears. A real father expressing his very real experiences through real feeling and real symbols – it speaks on a level above language that very few experiences offer. And yet I didn’t feel particularly connected to the main character. I didn’t feel like I knew Joel, or his parents, or his siblings. I felt I was being inducted into this experience as a fly on the wall of his parents’ minds, but being shown these feelings and forced to feel them myself through these symbolic nudges rather than being told what was happening. It transmitted fear and I felt fear, though fear was never mentioned – and you might have to actually play the game to understand what I mean by that.
I wasn’t particularly immersed in the game. This abstract land of emotion presented a jarring sense of ephemerality and the stylised artwork kept me well away from the uncanny valley. The only real mechanics the game used were emotions, with any conventional gaming features completely abandoned.
It doesn’t even matter that the player isn’t actually aware that That Dragon, Cancer is a true story until the final credits – it’s presented through such absurdly realistically abstract means that you still find yourself weeping at the very thought of it, at the notion that this does happen out in the world. You find a bizarrely native sense of truth in the way emotions are only presented symbolically, in ways you pick up on a deeper level way past normal comprehension of narrative.
And yet in this completely disconnected world and its characters I could never identify with, I found myself experiencing the deepest and most emotional connection I have ever come across. A video game can introduce you to its protagonist at their earliest stages of life – you can grow with them and undertake thousands of adventures at their side, but if that character doesn’t speak to some aspect of reality you can never fully identify with them. For this emotional reaction to occur you need to have some form of realness, some form of raw human experience that you can connect to real world events. I can’t connect that way with space adventurers or zombie hunters or soldiers, I could follow them to the end of the earth completely in love with them and simply switch off the console and go about my day when they perish. And yet this abstract stitching together of emotion left me pretty much unable to function.
There is still an emotional barrier of the screen between you and the conventional video game protagonist. Of course many people do connect with these protagonists and perhaps shed a tear when they meet their ends, but it takes a lot to make me weep and fiction rarely does it. I felt that I was imposing on That Dragon, Cancer. Like I had somehow found my way into the mind of a grieving father and simultaneously had the urge of decency to leave while needing to remain and understand this side of the human experience. And it was this very open door to a very real side of the human experience that let the flood through.
I don’t know if the fact that I can’t cry at the fictional exploits of conventional video game characters makes me dulled to the impacts of these games, or if i simply need more grounding in real life to get choked up, but i’m not complaining. I still fall in love with characters I play in games, and feel a nostalgic connection to many of them – just don’t expect to see me dressed in black.