By: Brian Gunn
That Dragon, Cancer is a game that is hard to describe. It is part adventure game, part therapy session for a family dealing with illness in a young child, and it’s a rare intimate look into someone else’s life for the medium.
While That Dragon, Cancer is of the genre that is somewhat derisively called a walking simulator, it actually involves very little walking. It is entirely mouse controlled, with movement controlled by clicking on certain areas, similar to point-and-click games. It’s in first-person perspective and combined with the pointing mechanics reminded me a bit of old games like Myst in that sense.
There’s not a whole lot mechanically in the game. For the most part the game controls well, though some inputs feel a bit imprecise.
Blending a sort of paper-craft and painterly style, That Dragon, Cancer is a fairly striking game. Areas are often surreal, evoking something dreamlike and occasionally nightmarish. Characters in the game are only painted in broad strokes.
They have distinguishing features like hair and clothing, but their faces are blank, seemingly to allow players to project onto the starring family. The game pulls off some neat tricks with perspective as the world shifts around you when you look away for a brief moment.
The story of the game is very personal, and that is reflected in the voice acting. Nearly all of the voices are from actual family members of Joel, and while they are not professional voice actors, and can sometimes feel a bit stiff, it works well for the most part.
Sound is used effectively, even to annoy the player at times to get them frustrated like the game’s characters. Music is good, if not outstanding.
Joel Green was a four-year-old boy that died of cancer in 2014, and That Dragon, Cancer is a game meant to memorialize him. Initially this wasn’t the case, and it began development in 2012 as a way to simply document life with Joel. When things took a turn for the worse during development, obviously some elements needed to change, and it is one part love letter, one part grief counseling.
The game is fond of perspective switching and so there is no real main character. That said, players largely find themselves in the shoes of Ryan, Joel’s father, though they’ll switch to his mother, Joel himself and even a surprising amount of birds that observe the family. Most of the time players will be tasked with simple moving forward, like other games in the genre, while the story is narrated.
However, the game does have a handful of more stationary moments, and these are where it shines. From hearing the news of the diagnosis to attempting to calm down a screaming child, these moments are intense and heart wrenching.
There are some light and joyful moments to counteract these as well, often taking form in recreating moments to play with Joel and the kids. An arcade sidescroller and Mario Kart riff that encourages you to screw up because it makes Joel laugh are among the highlights, even if they are mechanically crude and simple.
Of course, this is all heavy subject matter, which raises the question of if the game is for you as an audience member. It is, after all, about the sad death of a child, which may hit too close to home for some.
As someone with a family member that also passed away from cancer, I found it somewhat therapeutic, especially in the moments in the hospital where the walls are all adorned with the tales of kickstarter backers and their family members.
The developers are also highly religious; something not very often portrayed in videogames, and that might take some out of their comfort zone. I personally am not religious and could still approach these scenes with empathy considering the situation, and I would suggest simply going in with an open mind even if you don’t agree with them.
That Dragon, Cancer is a hard game to play out of sheer virtue of its subject matter, and will likely not convert anyone that doesn’t like the genre. However, it is a unique experience that isn’t quite like anything else in the medium and is worth a look.