by Jake Doolin
There is a good chance that when you saw a game titled That Dragon, Cancer, someone popped into your head. Be it your family member, friend, or acquaintance, cancer is all too familiar for many of us nowadays. We all have some kind of personal connection to cancer; for me, it was my Aunt Sandy. Because of that, cancer has become something of a hard subject to discuss broadly. We know the pain and confusion that cancer brings on a singular level because we see it, we felt it, but when the statistics of cancer come up, (13,000,000 living with the disease in 2012 alone) it becomes hard to comprehend. This is the challenge that That Dragon, Cancer tackles head on, attempting to tell not just the cancer story of Joel Green, but manages to tell a story that encompasses cancer as a whole. And while the game is inconsistent, it still manages to soar.
Joel Green was only a year old when he was diagnosed with cancer. Over the course of the next four years, he and his family experience the most harrowing and painful time of their lives, culminating in Joel’s death in 2014. The thought of somehow turning that experience into a game seems impossible, but developer Ryan Green and his wife Amy, who wrote the script, managed to turn this tale from one of woe into one of hope.
Told in short five- to ten-minute vignettes, That Dragon, Cancer follows Joel through his fights with cancer as well the Green family’s attempts to deal with it the best they can. Moving backward and forward through time, the story mixes the real and surreal in a (usually) seamless way. Segments may start in a hospital and end in the vacuum of space and, to the game’s credit, the shift feels natural. Some of the game’s rawest moments, such as the scene where doctors tell the Green family their son has weeks to live, are underlaid with dreamlike moments that heighten the emotion. While this mix of dreams and reality can be distracting, the times where it works create a feeling that elevates the game’s story to new emotional peaks.
That Dragon, Cancer’s narrative is not an easy one to endure; though the level of insight into their lives that the Green family grants you through audio messages and diary entries can be overwhelming sometimes, the game is always grounded in a sense of hope. By the times the credits rolled, I was crying not only because I was sad for the loss of this child, but also because the game affirms that he had a good life filled with love from a family that clearly cared about him. Joel’s story is not unlike many others’ cancer stories, filled with heartbreaks and triumph, and it’s because of this that That Dragon, Cancer is able to convey its story so well to so many. It knows cancer is around us all and yet it also knows we are ready to fight it.
While the game’s narrative works so well, it’s actually the game aspect of That Dragon, Cancer that makes for the game’s few missteps. While the game’s mix of the real and surreal can be a great driver of emotion when it works, the times it doesn’t often ruin the emotional impact of a scene. During these segments, the games usual point-and-click style is switched to anything from a Balloon Fight style platformer to a Ghost’n’Golbins style hack-n-slash.
Most jarring is when the game punctuates what might have been the most impactful moment, a voicemail from Amy discussing their son’s failing health, with a kart racer segment through the halls of the children’s ward. These traditional “game” segments do only harm to That Dragon, Cancer’s tone which made for an odd gaming experience that had me weeping one moment and scratching my head the next.
The best moments of gameplay in That Dragon, Cancer comes from the quiet moments. Walking around Joel’s hospital room, pushing him on the swings, e.t.c. These are when the player really feels an attachment to the characters and because of that, they become all the more memorable. It’s almost amusing how the removal of the more traditional “game” moments in the narrative would improve the game’s overall quality, allowing for the player to fully lose the fear of being pulled out to “do” something.
When I first heard of That Dragon, Cancer all I could think of was, why? Why would you want to relive this moment of your life; why would you want to remind yourself of your child whose life was cut short; why would you try and make that a game? After playing the game, I completely understand.
That Dragon, Cancer matters because Joel mattered.
You can feel how much Joel mattered to the Green family through the game they lovingly constructed in his memory. Even with its flaws, That Dragon, Cancer is a game that succeeds not only in telling a story of cancer, but of a family whose love shines though the screen.
+ Beautifully written narrative
+ Mix of real and surreal
– Traditional “game” elements halt emotion
Originally posted on January 13, 2016