Review: That Dragon, Cancer

ThatDragonCancer_1

In all my years of gaming, only two games have made me cry. The first was The Last of Us, namely the end of the opening prologue (along with other moments throughout). The second was this game, That Dragon, Cancer. The two couldn’t be any farther apart in tone, setting, and overall design, but they do share one thing: they both involve the tragic death of a child. You may want to have a box of tissues nearby before proceeding.

By now, you’ve probably heard the story behind That Dragon, Cancer, but for those who haven’t it is a narrative-based videogame tribute to Joel Green, the son of the game’s creators, Amy and Ryan Green, who tragically passed in 2014 at the age of five after a four-year battle with an Atypical Teratoid Rhabdoid Tumor. Today, January 12th, is his birthday, and along with the game launch his family held a pancake party to celebrate his far-too-short life.

ThatDragonCancer_2

That Dragon, Cancer‘s heavy subject matter is presented as a sort of interactive poem / short story that journals Joel’s fight against cancer, and shows the grief and despair that come from dealing with such a devastating, heartbreaking disease and the eventual loss of a family member. Guided by the interface of a traditional point-and-click adventure, the game immerses you in a dozen scenes representing different moments in Joel’s struggle, which take roughly an hour and a half to two hours to play through. There are more “gamey” elements than so-called “walking simulators” like Gone Home and Dear Esther, but I would still put it in that same category of interactive storytelling as the game largely consists of moving a cursor around the screen and clicking when it turns into a footprint icon to move forward in the scene, or an eyeball to interact with an object–to answer a phone message, to play with a toy, to rock and comfort Joel as a loving father.

The polygonal visual design adds an abstract minimalism that, surprisingly, makes the story hit with an even stronger impact than had the game been created with cutting edge Unreal Engine 4 tech. None of the characters have eyes or mouths; they’re like blank mannequins with clothes and eyebrows and hair. So instead of concentrating on how realistically the faces are animated, you must pay close attention to the symbolism and listen to and read the narration to feel the full emotional weight of the Green family’s tragedy. Religious undertones persist throughout, but, as an agnostic, I didn’t find it to be preachy at all.

ThatDragonCancer_3

What really punches the gut is the way the game uses audio recordings from real home videos, which lend a true voice to the deeply personal story being told. Listening to Joel’s innocent giggle and child-speak as he feeds ducks, plays on the playground, and professes his love of bubbles and pancakes makes the heart smile, only for the agonizing sound of a child’s cries of pain during treatment to then tear the heart to pieces. One of the most touching moments, I thought, occurs when the parents turn Joel’s cancer battle into a heroic bedtime story. As the story is being narrated to the family’s three other children, it is symbolized to the player as a Ghosts ‘n Goblins-like 2D arcade action-platformer in which Joel is a brave knight on a quest to slay the dragon known as Cancer, which unfolds as a climactic boss battle.

As if Joel’s tale wasn’t evocative enough, scenes throughout the game incorporate contributions from Kickstarter backers who shared their stories of family loss in the form of handprint wall paintings, framed kids’ drawings and family photos, and get well cards that line the halls of the hospital environment with dedications and messages of hope that can be individually examined and read at your pace. It’s powerful stuff.

ThatDragonCancer_4

Admittedly, That Dragon, Cancer is a very difficult game to review, because, emotionally, it can be a very difficult and depressing game to play. Unlike a traditional videogame, it’s not meant to be a source of enjoyment, entertainment, or escapism. This is a poignant love letter memorializing the life of a loved one gone, a potential source of catharsis and hope for people dealing with similar circumstances, as well as a means to continue inspiring the fight against a disease that has reigned terror like a dragon on so many families across the globe. As such, providing a rating and a list of pros and cons as I would normally close a review with just seems so trivial here. I will simply state that That Dragon, Cancer is not for everyone. Its story may hit too close to home for some players to be able to handle. But ultimately its powerful themes of love and faith serve as a beautiful tribute to a child that was taken from this world far too soon. Whether or not you have children of your own or have dealt with the loss of a family member to cancer, as long as you have a soul this game will touch you in some way.

Game Info:
Platform: PC/Mac, OUYA
Publisher: Numinous Games
Developer: Numinous Games
Release Date: 1/12/2016
Genre: Adventure
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by developer

Buy From: Steam or www.thatdragoncancer.com

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!