That Dragon, Cancer is a game that has been on mine and a lot of other’s radars for quite a while. From it’s core it’s a very unique idea. The game was created by couple Ryan and Amy Green. The game’s narrative chronicles their experience with their first child named Joel. When Joel was 1 he was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor, and unfortunately lost his valiant struggle with cancer at the far too young age of four. The courage that it took for the Green family to make this game is inexplicable, and after finally getting to sit down and absorb the experience, I believe That Dragon, Cancer is a truly special work of art, and one that every single person can find something in.
To call this analysis of That Dragon, Cancer a “review” almost seems a bit pointless. That Dragon, Cancer really lends itself more to an interactive art piece than to being a “game”. The way that it brings the player through this incredibly emotional narrative seems a bit too personal to review, in the sense that any sort of objectivity almost seems futile. It’s clear that the developers made this game with a very conscious thought that it will mean something different to every single person that plays it, which at the end of the day is the goal of art in the first place. Therefore what I am going to attempt to do here is unpack this experience in an analytical sense rather than a critical one.
That Dragon, Cancer takes the player on a journey, via a fairly on rails experience, through the life of this ordinary family dealing with extraordinary, though not entirely uncommon, circumstances. The game’s version of storytelling does something really special in that it doesn’t really intend to put the player in the protagonist’s shoes, but to create an experience of looking through a window into their lives. It seems like this is something that rarely becomes a focus of games.
This sense of giving the moral compass and judgements to the player, and not trying to put you into any specific role, but letting you just watch something happen, and make of it what you will. Because games as a whole are a very “lean forward” and active medium, it’s rare for a game to give the player that sort of experience. It is something that normally would seem to be better executed with a film or TV show, but the game’s design conveys this experience even stronger than I believe other mediums could have.
Considering the subject matter, it seems a monumental task to take the player into this experience the couple is having and make it feel genuine. It’s insurmountable to try and convey the emotions that must have been felt when going through a tragedy of such great magnitude, yet the feeling was conveyed perfectly. There were a handful of sections that stood out to me in particular in this respect. There was one chapter in the game involving Joel’s painful reaction to the chemotherapy, and you are placed in the hospital room as a distressed Ryan tries to calm the screams of fear and agony of his infant son.
During this whole experience there is quite literally nothing you can do to make the screaming and the crying stop. It becomes almost maddening, and it becomes glaringly apparent to the player that this is what the Green family had to experience for weeks on end; the vicious screaming and shrieking of a child in pain, for which they could provide no comfort or solace. It’s a very sobering and heartbreaking scene, though not the only one that pulls on the players heartstrings.
One other major theme of That Dragon, Cancer was the Green parents struggles with their own faith. The Green family are devout Christians, and as we see Joel and his family suffer, the inevitable question presents itself of, “How do I keep my faith when the world has struck me with something so cruel?” Through the game we see how Ryan and Amy struggle with their faith during all of this, and how each of them individually dealt with it differently. Amy is the rock that keeps her faith in God to heal her son, almost blindly, while Ryan begins to question his faith and lets himself wallow in pity during parts of this. It’s really a brilliant analysis of faith and how it can be a tool for healing in the face of overwhelming adversity.
What That Dragon, Cancer does so well that so many other works of art try to convey, is this sense of human connection.Though the central narrative of the game has the player going through the journey of the Green family, there are sections of the game where it becomes glaringly apparent that this isn’t simply just the Green’s story, it’s a human story, and one that shows the player that Joel is only one of many taken from this terrible disease. The scenes in the game that take place in this hospital are really what drive this point home.
As with many games that get funded through Kickstarter, the dev team offered a perk to donors, some being that if you donated over a certain amount you could have pictures or art of yourself or a loved one put into the game, and another amount giving you the opportunity to put a message for a loved one into the game in the form of a card. These sections were easily the most heart wrenching of the entire game for me.
Up until this point in this hospital you’ve simply been a part of Joel and his families struggle, but once you get into the hospital and see the dozens of pictures of children, or art drawn by the children, and the even more numerous with letters for family members with such messages as “Wish you could see me now mom” and “This is not the end my love” the whole concept hits home with a tidal wave of feeling. Obviously everyone in the modern world understands the devastation of cancer, but to see something of this magnitude and to have all of these people’s stories put into one place, was an experience I can only describe as profound.
That Dragon, Cancer was one of the most moving experiences I’ve had in a long time, not just from a game, but from any medium. It creates a sense of connectedness not just to the Green family, but with one’s own humanity, that so many works of art try to accomplish, but aren’t able to execute nearly as effectively.
It’s something that I truly suggest everyone play at some point, and if you don’t feel like spending the $15 to play it, then at least watch a play through of it, because it’s something that was truly an enriching and humbling experience for me, and will be for many others. Find your sense of humanity and connectedness through this brave, intuitive, and wonderfully unique game.