That Dragon, Cancer is not an easy game to review any more than it is any easy game to play. At its core, it’s a story about coming to grips with a potentially terminal illness in a young child, Joel, and so it falls in the realm of games that serve a purpose other than entertainment. There is probably room elsewhere for endless discussion on how games like this fit into the larger industry, but I am going to focus wholly on how That Dragon, Cancer uses the the trappings of gaming media to deliver its particular message.
Mostly, it does this very well, though players should be forewarned that it is unashamedly not a generalized experience, but rather the personal experience of the game creators (whose own family is the subject of the game), down to their particular beliefs and how they factored into dealing with the illness. Though I personally lost a parent to cancer, I didn’t have the frame of reference to appreciate either the situation from a parent’s perspective or from their particular place of faith. But I still think I took something away from the game and that most players will as well.
In terms of actual gameplay, That Dragon, Cancer takes the form of a simple first-person exploration game with the occasional bit of point-and-click interaction with the environment. The player inhabits a particular visual perspective, although these are sometimes transitory or abstract. The primary point of view is that of Joel’s father, but the player perspective may sometimes briefly shift to that of others involved in the story or even to that of a kind of neutral third-party observer avatar that is free to explore the collective psyche of both parents.
Whatever the viewpoint in a given scene, the player is usually free to explore a small area and interact with a few objects in it before being able to progress. Most often these play sound clips that fill in the story of the family’s ordeal, but sometimes they form small puzzles, or at least things that look like puzzles at first, encouraging the player to interact in some sequence before proceeding on. But there is rarely any real winning, and equally no actual punishment for losing either, at least not in the ways gamers are familiar with. Sometimes, the player is literally trapped in a room with no actual solution but endless trial and error that eventually progresses the story.
Of course, these frustratingly-designed enigmas are the main metaphor of the game. While a film or written story might express a character’s anguish or frustration, these interactions can create these feelings in the player outright. Locked in a room with a crying, seemingly inconsolable child, meddling helplessly with various things in the room to quiet him down or even just escape, yet finding that you can do none of these things. In these scenes, you’re given a small window into just what the parents might have felt going through the same situation.
Even if the experiences are far, far from identical, it’s a powerful trick. And though a savvy player (or even just one who is a little self-aware about the title they’re playing) will understand what is going on even as the game is doing it to them, I think the message still manages to get across. This is especially true in the game’s several full minigames. Ranging from go-karts to a short sidescrolling platformer, these minigames follow the same guidelines as the puzzles, so you can neither win nor lose anything new from playing them, no matter how well or badly you do. And yet, I still tried. I still had some instinct telling me that I could outplay the actual dragon inside the bigger metaphor. Playing on this gamer instinct to win frames, the game instills the larger human instinct for hope against all odds.
The game’s graphics are stark and somewhat abstract, using largely untextured, visibly polygonal models and terrain. Simplicity serves a point here as it allows others to more easily imagine themselves in these scenes, seeing some reflection of their own memories mixed with those of the Green family. The brightly-colored landscapes also allow for sharp contrast when the game’s lurking villain is shown, like the black, withered tree that appears alone and seemingly meaningless, even harmless, off some path in the peaceful park where the game begins.
I did have a few moments where visual oddities made it hard for me to fully make sense of the scenes, or where I had trouble distinguishing what was intentional and what might have been visual glitch, but these were limited to a few scenes (and may be improved from my beta copy). On the whole, the imagery is often immensely grand for all the simplicity of the art assets involved, and there are moments where the visuals alone convey broad swathes of story and emotion, from tender moments of the family at rest together to the rather intense image of a hospital room filling with water.
All that can be said for the visual warmth can be said doubly for the narration. Authentic in the truest sense given the parent-creators of the project, their narration hosts the range of involved emotions in their rawest forms, from happy memories to moments of frustration and despair, hope and acceptance. Worth special note for its mixture of the audio and visual is the fact that all the game narration is subtitled, not in a straightforward way on the bottom of the screen, but written across objects and surfaces in the game.
That Dragon, Cancer, is, I will say a second time, not an easy game. The themes it covers would be heart-wrenching fiction on the best day, but are only too real. Some players will find hope in its final chapters, although others, myself included, might find it more sobering than anything. Still, it is a game I would recommend for its visual artistry and the warmth of its storytelling, and as an experiment in the use of the gaming medium. In the latter case, it definitely provides further proof of the value of games as a narrative form in their own right, where mechanical feedback, even of the most frustrating kind, can be part of the storytelling process.
Platforms: PC, Mac | Developer/Publisher: Numinous Games | ESRB: Not Rated | Controls: Mouse/Keyboard, Controller
This review copy of That Dragon, Cancer was played on PC via Steam and was provided by the developers.
We’re not going to be giving this game a traditional score. While I loved the visuals and narration, there’s really no putting numbers to a personal experience of this sort. People will have different strong reactions to the game, and that’s a good thing but not something that can really be encapsulated by a numeric score. Play it, and appreciate it on your own terms.