THAT DRAGON, CANCER Game Review: The Hardest Game

Parenthood, mortality, and faith collide.

Disclaimer: I backed That Dragon, Cancer on Kickstarter, which according to some makes this review, and its writer, biased and morally bankrupt.

That Dragon, Cancer is a tough game to write about, and not just because it deals frankly with a subject rarely addressed by games. It’s tough because throughout its development, it became the cancer game, with all the weight of expectation and responsibility that comes with. 

Not only would That Dragon, Cancer have to work on its own, it had to bear a whole segment of the gaming world on its shoulders. The perception of what video games could be, it seemed, rested in the balance - it became a rallying cry, a signpost, and code for “serious games.” That put pressure on both the game and its players. If you don’t cry, is it a failing of the game, or of your empathy? There’s an uncomfortable sense of importance that seems to come with playing this game, let alone writing about it.

All of that is unfair, of course. With their crowdfunded but distinctly personal project, developers Ryan & Amy Green and Josh Larson sought not to please fans, make money, or change an industry, but to express and maybe exorcise their feelings about a difficult issue. That Dragon, Cancer is the Greens’ story, and that of their son Joel, who lived with terminal cancer for four years of his five-year life. But at the end of the day, it's also a game. So how is it? Does it achieve what it’s trying to do?

Let’s get this out of the way up front: That Dragon, Cancer is no Lifetime Movie of the Week. It has its share of hospital scenes, but largely deals in abstraction and metaphor to tell its story. Low-poly, pastel-coloured, explorable environments form the bulk of the game, with level design ranging from near-naturalistic to expressionistic and even surreal. Numerous metaphors come into play, but water, a common metaphor for depression, links them all together. Gentle ponds, raging thunderstorms, life preservers, and a constant fear of drowning lend the game a sort of visual coherence, with the spindly shards of cancer ever throbbing at the edges. 

That Dragon, Cancer shines best in its unassuming moments: Joel hugging a dog; Ryan (the primary audience perspective character) listening to him breathe; family discussions over his situation. Some sequences exhibit a cynical gallows humour at the surreal horror of the situation. Many are even soundtracked by real, apparently unedited recordings of the Green family, adding a genuine intimacy to the abstract visuals. These little moments of autobiographical honesty could only have come from people who’ve lived them.

So strong are the unscripted recordings that the cleaner-sounding, scripted dialogue comes across as forced and artificial by comparison. As themselves, the Greens "perform" a little too theatrically, especially when placed directly next to the real thing. Some philosophical speeches in particular really grate, their over-the-top readings derailing the game's tone. It’s an issue with execution, not intent, but the delivery frequently pulls you out of the game, just when you should be leaning closer in.

The horror of Joel's cancer gets truly confronted about halfway through the game. Conversations turn from treatment to “end-of-life care”; medical options become more and more desperate; hope turns from universal, blind optimism to a single thread barely holding the family together. One particularly tough sequence sees Joel crying uncontrollably from pain. You try to calm him down - to do anything to ease his suffering - but you just can’t. There’s nothing to be done. You can only stay with him, listening to him wail until he’s hoarse. It’s every bit as horrific as it should be.

Much to my (and others') relief, That Dragon, Cancer doesn’t “gamify” its subject material all that much. Gameplay is light, positioning the game as a series of interactive, point-and-click tableaus. The most identifiably gamey sequences, like a kart race around a hospital and the fantasy platformer from whence the game draws its title, aren't there for "fun" but to enhance the storytelling. But while I’ve got no problem with “light” gameplay, opaque gameplay is another story. In multiple sequences, unclear or inconsistent controls meant I’d either become stuck, or progress to the next scene before I was ready. In some cases, players are at the mercy of the game’s own pacing, but other areas left me feeling frustrated. I’d wonder whether I’d failed to find the “solution,” whether I was supposed to just sit and wait, or whether the game had simply bugged out.

As a Kickstarted game, That Dragon, Cancer includes a great many in-game backer rewards, some of which are incorporated surprisingly seamlessly. The cancer ward corridors are lined with artwork and photographs from backers, and a wall is covered with backer-submitted handprints - all things you’d expect to see in such a place. Knowing all this art comes from other people who’ve gone through similar experiences as the Greens is extremely powerful. The Kickstarter rewards do, however, succumb to the classic pitfalls of crowdsourced content, in that there’s a distractingly huge quantity of it and it’s not all good. I feel like a giant dick saying that about people’s heartfelt submissions, but some of them - particularly in one area that seems to exist solely to house backer-written greeting cards - are poorly written or just bizarre, damaging the otherwise strong sense of community in the game.

One element of the game that’s proven somewhat divisive is its religious content. The Greens are people of faith, so religion is central to their lives. Naturally, that won’t resonate with everyone, and some may feel uncomfortable at or even alienated by the game's assumption of faith in God. But this story couldn’t be told without religion. The difference between the two parents’ outlooks in the face of their son’s approaching mortality - optimism versus pragmatism, or more cynically false hope versus despair - is one of the most fascinating parts of the game. The continuum between hope and delusion is discussed surprisingly frankly, in ways that bravely expose ugly, angry sides of Ryan and Amy. It’s easy to forget, as a non-believer, the power that religion holds on people’s lives and outlooks, and That Dragon, Cancer opens up that complex relationship for all to see.

Predictably, That Dragon, Cancer has been attacked on all sides by people with narrow definitions of what a game can be. Gamers make up a goodly portion of those people, but the skeptical response isn’t limited to them. I explained the game’s concept to my mother, who knows little about video games, and she wondered whether it was appropriate for a medium usually associated with dumb fun to deal with subjects like cancer at all.

My response - the same response I give many questions about games - is “would it be okay if a film did it?” I know several people who have avoided That Dragon, Cancer because they perceive it as a harrowing experience they’d rather not have. It’s a fair perception - after all, it’s cancer. But That Dragon, Cancer isn’t just a harrowing experience. Much like crying in a sad movie, emotional responses to entertainment of this kind can be uplifting. Emotional release makes you feel something. That Dragon, Cancer makes you feel something.

In creating That Dragon, Cancer, Ryan and Amy Green have built a shrine to their son’s memory, a tribute to the struggles and occasional joys of others who’ve had similar experiences, and a game that extends empathetic arms to anyone willing to share them. It’s a game for anyone who’s seen someone fall to cancer, and for anyone who hasn’t. There aren’t many games like this, and I can’t even imagine the process of spending years making something so painfully personal. You might not relate to everything the Greens have to say, but you won't forget it.

Before the credits roll, the game’s end title says “Thank You For Playing.” More than usual, it feels like that means something.