“What’ve you been playing lately?”
“That Dragon, Cancer.”
“Oh.” Pause. “Is it about a dragon named “Cancer”?”
“No, it’s about a family that lost their 5 year old son to cancer.”
It’s a pretty good way to end a conversation before it’s really begun, because That Dragon, Cancer is an uncomfortable game to play and not many people want to know more about it after you tell them the premise. Cancer isn’t a subject most people like to talk about, in the most general of ways, and when it’s someone’s own story it just becomes harder. That Dragon, Cancer goes beyond telling the story of a little boy and his family, it invites you to experience it with them. The creators are Ryan and Amy Green, parents of Joel, a little boy who succumbed to a very aggressive type of cancer. It follows them as they wait with Joel in the hospital, discuss his prognosis with doctors and swing between hope and despair. The story is told in a combination of voice mails, letters and monologues from the perspectives of Amy and Ryan and sometimes Joel. It’s deeply personal and immersing.
Let’s pull back a moment and look at the art design of the game, because it’s beautiful. All the characters look like they were carved from wood, the backgrounds and objects are simplistic and vibrant. There are very few details, but there’s no need for them. In a way, the appearance is comforting in its simplicity and color, and comfort is a scarcity in this game. The elements that don’t fall into this style are the tumors that occasionally appear in a scene; they are always black and flat. They look like someone took construction paper and pasted it into the game. At first I didn’t catch the meaning, but then it occurred to me that these dark shapes should be jarring in the otherwise picturesque environment. They should always spark a feeling of “This isn’t right” when you come across them and again, for such a simple distinction, they add depth to the game. The other element that pops out at you (literally), is the text being written in front of you as a character speaks. It’s not continuous and smooth as if you were reading dialog in a JRPG, each word and phrase appears using the same cadence the character is speaking in. Instead of ignoring the neatly written words on the screen, I found myself anticipating the next one as I listened, becoming more immersed in the game. If you don’t play it, at least watch the trailer and get an idea of it.
When I picked up That Dragon, Cancer I expected something similar to Gone Home or Dear Esther, where you’re basically walking through a story and picking up objects for a closer look. It was a pleasant surprise to find that they put small “mini-games” into some of the scenes. Each game is well-done, the mechanics are easy to follow and they can be replayed as many times as you want. The last game is more involved and serves as a beautiful way for Amy and Ryan to explain what’s happening to Joel to his siblings.
I mentioned before that this game is not just telling the story of Joel and his fight with cancer, but asking the player to follow him and his family through it, sometimes becoming involved through a game or controlling a character briefly. It’s not a long game, about two hours, and my plan was to knock it out on a Friday evening and then go back to playing Tropico 5 or something less serious. I think it’s taken me 3 days to get through this game. Playing in chunks of a few scenes at a time was usually the most I could push myself through and each of these sessions would find me in tears by the end. Sometimes it was the narration as some of it’s truly heartbreaking: Ryan, sitting in front of their oncologist who has just given them bad news mentions hanging onto every Latin (and therefore scientific) word he hears in order to try and understand what’s happening to his son. More often, the times I had to stop playing were when I encountered messages from others who lost someone to cancer or who fought and won against it themselves. There are messages from parents telling their children how proud they are, from children who miss their parents and friends who want to remember someone they lost. At first I felt like I should try to read every message, but after a handful, I just couldn’t do it and I moved on to the next scene.
I believe that that’s the real impact behind this game. That Dragon, Cancer isn’t hypothetical or fictitious. It’s a re-telling of events that happened and in doing so it shares messages from other people who experienced similar events. There is no hiding behind the comfort of a story, and no escaping the pain, hope, fear, despair and joys of a real family. It’s a hard game to play and the reward at the end feels meager. I wish I felt like I had won or achieved something, but I also want there to be more games like this. Using the video game medium to tell someone’s story in a richer way than a movie or a book is something I want to see more of. And I think that this game and others like Actual Sunlight have places in the video game sphere, even if they are difficult to play and make us feel things we’d rather not feel.
So, would I recommend playing That Dragon, Cancer? I don’t have a clear-cut answer to that. I think that if you like story-heaving games and you don’t mind spending awhile with your tears and your pain, it’s definitely worth it. It strikes me as something I won’t want to experience more than once, but I’m glad that I played it and again, it’s definitely worth it.