That Dragon, Edith Finch, and playing through grief - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

That Dragon, Edith Finch, and playing through grief

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My dalmatian, Beau, was the stinky angel of support during the worst years of my life.  He was hit by a car when he was younger, never fixed, and was a constant source of flatulence.  Eventually he needed to lose weight and went to my grandma's for the summer.  When we arrived he was the healthiest I ever saw him, he ran and ran, then collapsed from a heart attack.  I held him, feeling all the warmth leave his frame, and I wanted to hide from my shame.  I couldn't shake the thought I killed him with my presence, and my grandma's prayers for Beau to be okay didn't help as I sat on the bed failing to disassociate myself from that awful feeling running down my arms, chest, and face of Beau's heat fading away.

Playing 2016's That Dragon, Cancer unearthed that feeling of life slipping away.  I got no respite from any of its chapters, and the moments when baby Joel - diagnosed with cancer at barely a year old - wasn't crying were filled with anxious parents, doctors, and other loved ones chiming in with their feelings.  Their words aren't always of despair or helplessness as there are spiritual and emotional comforts communicated in text, voice, or polygonal frames.  But they served as cold comfort to the tears I could not stop as Joel screamed or his parents, Ryan and Amy, let their doubts and faith spill out onto the canvas of the videogame.I cried non-stop for the two hours I took to try and play through That Dragon, Cancer.  Another five months passed before I finally had the strength to finish it.  Even after I found that strength I arrived to the same exhaustion and despair that consumed my first attempt.  This was not, nor will it probably ever be, a healthy game for me to play or dwell on outside this piece.  I was going to therapy to treat my depression, anxiety, PTSD, and (to add onto that already impressive collection of diagnoses) codependence.  That Dragon, Cancer is overwhelmingly present in its presentation of the stages of Joel's treatment and the only response my body was capable of was to take all that pain into myself.

The primary challenge was to find a way forward, and the sometimes unclear markers that would allow me to progress made wallowing in grief the default experience.  Even with the tears on my face I felt some gamer frustration creep in as I stared at the digital version of Ryan drowning himself in an ocean.  It's not always clear that I could escape, so as the soundtrack continues its mournful tune I approach exhaustion searching for the hotspot that I can click and leave from this scene.  Then there were the dozens of floating, either in water or in air, memorials for others who lost someone to or were battling cancer.  I was trapped with those reminders, feeling torn between paying respect by interacting with the memorials and knowing that each interaction would tear apart more of my empathy.That Dragon, Cancer is an example of a problem we have dealing with grief in our tech-infused age.  While there is no right or wrong way to express grief, or even express it at all, the internet and its accompanying technologies have made it possible to create memorials frozen in time.  I encountered them first as Angel Pages, little websites dedicated to loved ones who committed suicide by freezing those who suffered into whatever image the creator wished.  It's nearly impossible to move on when people can craft an exhibit that may come under scrutiny.  This happened to Ryan, frustrated that people were making Let's Plays of That Dragon, Cancer, and angry people would choose to experience it second-hand than play the game itself.  But this is the problem with creating such a strictly autobiographical piece centered around tragedy and death, if there's no right or wrong way to express grief then it's difficult to place restrictions around audiences who may need the emotional distance of a third-party to get through it.

Some of That Dragon, Cancer provides distance and those are the best parts of the game.  Ryan drives Joel around in a wagon as I picked up items signifying the different treatments Joel received.  It perfectly expresses the hope and excitement of trying new avenues for a cure before crashing back into reality with a full list of every treatment hit.  I also have not seen a game as healthily invested in expressing spirituality as That Dragon, Cancer. Amy's notes were of particular comfort here, providing a clear-eyed perspective into the love healthy spirituality can bring to the world while not neglecting the reality of Joel's condition.  It also results in some stunning moments of peace, especially close to the end when I really needed some comfort, with amber temples and piles of pancakes leading Joel to his rest.Then, in 2017, another game was released that bears surface-level similarity to That Dragon, CancerWhat Remains of Edith Finch (just Edith Finch moving forward) took me back to my grief, but as a storyteller and not as an open nerve.  I went back in my memory to a gathering at my apartment in celebration of K-Train, a coworker at the theater I worked at.  He was a titan of energy, a high school junior in a mostly college work area who gradually adapted his awkward sense of humor to the environment.  When the power went out one day, we set up flashlights in front of the biggest screen and had a wrestling match for an audience consisting of our management.  It felt amazing with our shadows blown up to mythic proportions.

Edith Finch did not bring me back to the helpless frustration and grief the night I learned about K-Train's suicide.  I still feel it, but it's not as overwhelming, and Edith Finch's artistic abstraction of the tragedies that hit the Finch family are part of why.  Instead of placing me so directly in contact with loss as That Dragon, Cancer, Edith Finch embraces the different storytelling possibilities of videogames to show how we cope with grief through a bit of fiction, fact, and emotion.  Edith Finch isn't autobiographical, closer to lyrical non-fiction (a form I adore), and creates a healthier experience that's just as honest as That Dragon, Cancer.The vignette form of Edith Finch allows for more variety in each response to death.  That's not an inherent positive in Edith Finch's corner, but that variety allows the different stories and play experiences to tap into the complex emotional tapestry of grief.  It's not all sadness and faith, though those elements are present too, and Edith Finch packs humor both macabre and warm, love reluctant and unconditional, anger baseless and justified - basically the scope of human experience.  I wasn't searching for a way out of any part of Edith Finch because it's constructed as a barely interrupted whole, letting me search for clues about the relationships in the Finch family.

Some of those clues blindsided me so thoroughly I was surprised by my laughter.  Chief among these moments is the past of Odin, the man who brought the Finch family to the United States, as seen through an old-fashioned View-Master.  There were the cold facts of his life, losing his family, then there was the hilarious image of him trying to transport his entire home to the United States only for it to be broken apart on the shore a scant few hundred feet from his landing site.  I laughed because of the recognizable hubris of it all, the absurdity of his tragic house crashing so notable it was worthy of mass-production in a slide show for an obsolete toy.  It's a messily human moment that needed unique controller inputs in order for me to see it through to the end.Therein lies the grand appeal of Edith Finch.  I move from room to room, seeing the mess of humanity doing their best to get by but ending up where we all do, and remembering the highs and lows as the narrator chooses to.  What happened matters less than how each family member chose to cope, which allows seemingly disparate moments like Dawn's slow death in a hospital and Gregory's symphony of toys to occupy the different levels of the human experience.  Each set of controls for the stories has a logical endpoint from the tragic, if freeing, use of both joysticks to launch Calvin from his swing over the cliff to the brilliantly realized monotony of labor in Lewis' story.  The latter gets at the weight of repeated action with little hope for release as my right hand repeated the same motion while my left was free to wander down paths of my choice.

I'm sure there are players who will find the spiritual release of That Dragon, Cancer an important shift in perspective from the largely spirituality-free space of gaming.  I appreciate and respect it, but felt suffocated by the chapter structure keeping me in moments of grief longer than I could handle. On the same note, Lewis' tragic fantasy could be read as a reason to commit suicide, but it's one part of a nearly transcendent whole that allows for ways to cope with death that aren't typical - and Barbara's combination horror comic/ first-person beat 'em up is as atypical, and fitting, as they come.

In the end, That Dragon, Cancer prepared me for death while Edith Finch guided me to creating meaning in life.  Both have their purposes, yet the one that impacts me the most is also the one that drives my fingers to relay what I felt and how I remember those who are gone - because I'm still here.

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Posted by Andrew

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