That Dragon, Cancer Review
An emotional story of a battle with cancer and the despair in dealing with tragedy
Combing through the past few years of releases, it’s hard to find a game that’s hit me as hard emotionally as That Dragon, Cancer has. The same can be said for any other game that I’ve played before, really. But then again, it doesn’t make sense to try and sum up That Dragon, Cancer as just the next game I’ve sat down to play, because that description doesn’t do it justice. Rather, it's an interactive experience that explores the true story of a young boy’s battle with cancer and his parents’ struggle to cope with the reality of the situation. It’s a shining example of how narratives in video games are continuing to expand and explore new avenues.
That Dragon, Cancer follows the story of Joel Green, who at only twelve months old was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Despite being given a short time to live, Joel survived for several more years before finally succumbing to his battle with the disease. This is not a secret, but rather the focal point of the game. It is a dedication to Joel and is told largely through the perspectives of his parents, Ryan and Amy. The game acts as a bridge of sorts to help those who haven’t faced this situation before understand the sort of internal battle that takes place. It succeeds in doing so effectively, almost to unnerving proportions, as the reality and realness of the story become evident.
The game’s artistic style is both beautiful and simplistic. Characters have no faces or really any other distinct characteristic features. In a way, this design choice helps make Ryan and Amy’s narration even stronger. It all sounds so unedited and real. It’s perhaps the most genuine voice over that you’ll find in a game. That effectively helped to propel the emotions even further and amplify the uneasiness of it all. Combined with a great lighting style, the mood is always perfectly set to the feeling of the moment.
With such a sensitive topic as cancer being the focal point, there isn’t much here in terms of gameplay. Similar to other notable titles such as Gone Home and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, it is a point-and-click game that focuses on the narrative more than anything else. That’s never necessarily a bad quality for a game to have and it certainly isn’t one here. The bulk of actual gameplay comes from a series of mini-games that seem to be present more as a means to symbolize dealing with cancer for those whose lives it may not have affected. However, they only work to varying degrees of success, as oftentimes it was this influx of gameplay that detracted from the overall experience.
Symbolism is very present throughout That Dragon, Cancer and is often where these mini-games come into place. Much like Ryan and Amy finding alternate ways to describe what was happening to Joel to their other children, it’s an interactive way for the Greens to describe it to players. At one point, Joel and Amy ride a mini-kart through the halls of the clinic, gathering power-ups along the way. Except the race time is actually symbolic of the passing of days, weeks, and months as they follow the same loop and arrive right back to where they started. And those power ups, which are normally thought to be beneficial, turn out to be a depressingly long list of medications that are hard to even pronounce. This symbolic race turned a lighthearted moment into an illumination of the feeling of hopelessness that must be present when a loved one doesn’t improve after so much time and with such effort.
That effectiveness wavers, however, due to the fact that the game’s mini-games are poorly designed. Many of the sequences don’t play well at all. The aforementioned kart race was especially clunky and resorted to strange camera angles that most of the other sequences mirror. Undoubtedly these portions hold significance to Ryan and Amy, but from an outside perspective they seem awkwardly placed as almost a way to force more gameplay into the experience. It’s especially problematic when the symbolism isn’t necessarily clear, or the method of how to move forward is vague. Many of these sequences seem like they would have been better served as cutscenes.
It’s during the cutscenes or walking linear paths where That Dragon, Cancer is most effective at what it set out to do. It’s when Ryan and Amy describe all of the feelings that raced through their minds at each crossroad in their journey that make the game feel so real. That Dragon, Cancer will beat you down emotionally time and time again. There are too many moments to recall that forced me to pause the game, get up, and walk around just to recompose myself before continuing on.
One of these moments take place in a section of rooms and hallways of the clinic that are lined with cards filled with messages from the game’s Kickstarter backers. The first glimpse of it is more than enough to hit you like a freight train. Mixed with the beautiful soundtrack, it’s this sequence that sticks out the most as a reminder of how widespread cancer is and how many lives it affects. It’s these moments that are impactful, not the poorly designed gameplay sections. That Dragon, Cancer did not need the extra gameplay thrown in, because it was doing a fine job of telling its story without it.
That Dragon, Cancer is certainly not the greatest game that you’ll find on the marketplace. Its gameplay is significantly flawed and specific sections feel shoehorned in just for the sake of adding interactivity. Oftentimes, it served only to detract from the story itself. However, the story of Joel Green is the one that will stick with me for the rest of the year and beyond. The genuineness throughout the game is something that I’ve never come across before in a game, and yes, chances are it will make you cry a lot. It was two hours spent that I certainly do not regret.