spent my weekend building up the nerve to boot up That Dragon, Cancer on my Ouya, and never have I felt so anxious about something like this, in such a long time.
The memories from my very first encounter with the title are still burned into the back of my skull, for better or worse. Knowing that I would be playing this game in a critical capacity, only made the whole thing even more challenging—I mean, how exactly to you review a game that serves as an interactive retelling of a true story about two parents, doing their best to raise their terminally ill child?
The thought of quantifying the quality of this particular title under the conventional criteria of criticism felt demeaning to the message of hardship and love that its story was trying to express.
Granted, I’m not going to completely discount the issues I had with the instances of shoddy technical performance I came across with the current build, but suffice to say—it honestly didn’t detract from the impression that it left on me.
No, what I want to do here, is talk about the flood of reflection I was swept in after my time with That Dragon, Cancer; the heavy tides of sympathy, remorse, and sufferance that the studio poured their hearts into.
One of the more brilliant aspects about this experiment of expression is its subtlety. There’s no secret about what you’re going into; the pain here is genuine, and devastating, but the direction doesn’t falter to the low-hanging fruit of making players sad.
That Dragon, Cancer is engineered towards making those who play it to just plain FEEL something instead of simply depressing them.
The pacing to Joel’s story avoids slapping players in the face with tragedy at every turn, and instead focuses more on developing who these people are, and how they choose to struggle to endure on in the face of their hardships, as opposed to how they live around them.
Some of the more poignantly disheartening moments in the title happened when these people couldn’t tell that difference anymore; like being haunted by something that will never truly go away.
There were moments where the environments took to the interpretive connotations of the situation, and they aren’t always dire either. Like Ryan imagining that Joel is wistfully playing in his wagon at the Hospital, and daydreaming that the whole thing was a giant Go-Kart race for instance. With his wife at the wheel, the whole concept turned out to be a fun segment of gameplay that worked as a wonderful palate cleanser.
The brief moments of Joel’s laughter, and Amy’s audible encouragement as you collected these colorful collectibles in a hospital hallway turned raceway, engaged me into playing along with the family’s reprieve right alongside them, and it did all this without the narrative becoming dissonant in anyway—especially when you finish the race.
The speedway contest comes to an end, with the Greens in first place, and then the list of collectibles scroll into view, and you discover what they really represented; MRI Scans, Blood Transfusions, Imidazole, radiation treatment, and so on, with the prize being a lowly juice box.
The fun came to an end, and the reality came back into view, the relief that the fantasy was meant to offer couldn’t even follow-through within the fantasy itself; the self-fulfilling cycle of despair managed seep itself even into the more whimsical moments of the game.
The contrast between Ryan and Amy, and their disposition towards the dilemma of Joel was another factor that hit home with me, especially when I found myself relating more to Ryan, and his anguish from the whole ordeal.
As the story carried on, Ryan’s helplessness was more, and more on display, while Amy ardently hung on to her religious faith, and the possibility of a miracle on Joel’s future. This conflict came to head when we arrived in what looked like an endless waterscape of ocean, filled with the gruesome spiked objects that symbolized Joel’s tumors, as they confronted their polarizing positions in the predicament with one another.
Amy took solace in the fact that she was able “float” above the turmoil through her devotion to God, while Ryan scrambled for air, violently flailing around before descending into the depth below, only to resurface again, slugging around the overwhelming waves before sinking back into another hopeless cycle.
The exchange of criticisms they share is equally touching as it is brutal, the quiet resentment they gradually lobbed at each other, both stretched beyond their wits end, with nothing more that they can do then vent their frustration as if it were a literal toxicity that they could no longer stand to bear.
The emotion at this point, is palpable.
While I wasn’t trying to put down Amy’s coping mechanism, I wasn’t too keen of her trouncing over Ryan’s, and he was a man at odds—it wasn’t until he screamed out “you have to let me feel this” that she understood, and that I related.
I won’t go into too many details, but I too, have lost someone very dear to cancer, someone who was like a brother to me, and I helped nurse any comfort I could onto him until his final hour. I didn’t have faith, or hope, all I had was love to give, and the determination to see it through, even when I knew that it wasn’t enough.
It was a connection that I would never want to make with someone, but damn glad that I could, something that could show that everyone who has ever been affected by cancer in some way or another, wasn’t completely alone.
This is what that game was to me; proof that I wasn’t alone, and I know what I had lost was in no way comparable to what the Greens had lost, but they knew that they weren’t alone in their fight, and this title was a testament to it.
You don’t need any kind of relation to cancer to understand the message of That Dragon, Cancer, and may heaven help you that you never will come to know that relation. Just a few hours of your time, and maybe some Kleenex is all you’ll need, and in return, you’ll experience one of the finest examples of the human condition through a screen and controller.