That Dragon, Cancer Review

An orange glow fills a dimly lit hospital room, drowning out ‘the colors that heal’. You’re viewing the room from the perspective of Ryan Green, debating – in a quiet moment – why the hospital is all blues and greens. The hospital room is otherwise seemingly empty, just a cot and a few toys, but it’s a scene which depicts one of the toughest nights that Ryan spent with his son. Moments later, the distressed cries of his son, Joel, kick in and it’s here where the true nature of cancer forcefully hits.

January 12th is Joel Green’s birthday, he would be turning seven this year. He was diagnosed with an Atypical Teratoid Rhabdoid Tumor (AT/RT), a particularly fast-growing and aggressive form of brain cancer. He passed away March 13th, 2014. This is his story.

In that hospital room, a common theme occurs, you’re really not quite sure what to do. “I just want him to feel better” Ryan says, as you attempt to calm his son, to stop him from banging his head against the bars, to make him feel better. In most games that would be frustrating but in That Dragon, Cancer, at that moment, it’s something that feels ‘right’. It’s representative of what must, at times, feel like hopelessness. This isn’t a game that you can just ‘win’.

In the bathroom, there’s an arcade machine – just press start to continue. Of course, there’s no such easy way out and pressing start actually does nothing. It’s one of many smart and subtle touches of detail that are present throughout the game.

You pace the room, looking for the magic cure, which, of course, doesn’t exist. There are a few moments of respite but ultimately, Joel won’t stop crying. It’s a harrowing experience and it hits home, hard. I imagine for those with children, this scene will be a particularly difficult one.

Those raw moments of emotion aren’t something that you often feel when playing video games. It’s brave but it’s expertly executed.

But That Dragon, Cancer isn’t all despair. It’s about hope. It’s about Joel and his life. We get to see him sharing loving moments with his dog, giggling, blowing bubbles, eating pancakes. We get to laugh as he throws an entire loaf of bread for a duck to eat. These are the moments that play a huge role in defining Joel by who is, and not by what illness he’s got. The real tragedy being that we didn’t get the chance to really see who Joel could become or what impact he could make on the world.

One of my favorite touches in the game is the presence of many pieces of community content. One scene is filled with cards, each one featuring a message from a contributor who has had cancer affect them and their families. There’s a similarly filled corridor of artwork, paintings and photos. It’s a touching way to remember loved ones. In that respect, That Dragon, Cancer has already had a hugely positive effect.

That Dragon, Cancer is as much about Ryan and Amy (his wife) as it is Joel, throughout the game you’ll learn more about them, their faith, their doubts, and even their disagreements. Faith has a strong presence in the game – more so later on – but it never becomes preachy or overbearing. For Ryan and Amy, it’s an important part of how they see the world and how it helped them during the worst times.

500 words in and I still haven’t touched upon the gameplay. That Dragon, Cancer is an interactive experience and should be judged that way. It’s a point and click in which there are items and people of interest to interact with to further the narrative. There are however, two scenes which alter that gameplay dynamic.

The first is a racing mini-game in which you race with Joel through hospital corridors in a cart. Whilst you race around the track, you pick up various different medicines and try to avoid blow-up animals. It comes directly after an emotional recording of Amy’s voice and I suspect is an attempt to introduce one more of those ‘lighter’ moments. As I mentioned above, those moments of humor and joy are important to the overall narrative, but it’s one scene which felt out of place and forced.

In the second of these scenes, Ryan and Amy are telling their sons the story of ‘Joel the Baby Knight’ who is being chased by a dragon named Cancer. It takes place as a bedtime story and includes the voices of their sons asking questions. Unlike the racing scene, its execution is perfect. The story is charmingly told but still has the weight of Joel’s cancer behind it. It plays out as a side scrolling platformer where you have to jump and dodge enemies, throw spears at them and eventually you reach a boss battle at the end of the level.

Whilst I have a feeling that the initial lack of expertise played a huge part in the low-polygon art style, it actually looks beautiful. Like Granstream Saga before it, the character models have no faces but the overall style works. Having seen an early shot of Joel modeled in a more realistic manner – I think that it would have actually detracted from the game. The environments make great use of lighting and are vibrant despite the heavy subject matter, possibly even because of the subject matter.

The game is told through 14 short ‘vignettes’, and whilst there are numerous highlights, there are also several chapters which miss the target. I suspect that for Ryan and Amy, some of those chapters are hugely important on a personal level but speaking as a game reviewer, they feel flat. Whilst not a story in the true spirit of one, narrative driven games are all about the telling of the story and if you’re going to leave out tangible ‘gameplay’, you have to be able to back it up. Unfortunately, That Dragon, Cancer is inconsistent in that respect. When it hits the mark, boy does it hit the mark. But, when it misses, you’ll be looking for the quickest way to the next chapter.

Ultimately, That Dragon Cancer is an interactive experience which takes you through Joel’s 4 year battle against cancer. It is in places traumatic and in other places touching but it’s an experience that you don’t often get as a gamer. For that reason, you really shouldn’t miss this important game.

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