That Dragon, Cancer

I didn’t know exactly how I’d feel both during or after playing my first of the 12 games I planned to play in 2016. I’ve simultaneously followed this project closely for several years, and also deliberately avoided everything I could so as to go in to it as blind as possible. Though I had an idea of what I was about to experience, boy… did I not expect that.

I guess the question on most people’s minds when reading an article about a video game is simply “should I play this?” With every game I’ve ever played, good and bad, I’ve always had a definitive answer - in the case of That Dragon, Cancer, there is no simple response. What I will say is that this game is on par with the most affecting and emotional films, TV episodes, music, or any other sort of media you can think of.

Even though I’m a relatively young person who has never fought in a war, witnessed a terrible accident, been directly involved in a situation involving terrorism or any of the thousands of other horrific things that are a part of the world we live in, I’m mature enough to understand the realities of life. Emotionally, I consider myself fairly solid, able to understand and deal with (most) situations without losing my head. Where I see a lot of people completely break down, I am able to hold it together and push through. The reason I’m saying this is so you understand fully when I tell you:

That Dragon, Cancer made me completely lose it. There was a particular point in this game that I had to take my hand off of the mouse, bury my head in my arms and let the emotion out. I can count on one hand the amount of times any type of media has ever made me do anything like this. None of those times have been this heavy. Never has it been in a video game.

For those who want to understand what this game is without reading anything into it and that want to go in with as minimal information as possible, the best comparison I can make is My Sister’s Keeper. Basically, if you are the kind of person who would watch that film, you are the kind of person who should play this game. 

If you aren’t already aware of the story behind this game, That Dragon, Cancer is essentially a true and very real story about a game developer’s son, Joel, who was born with cancer. The game delves into the psyche of the mother and father of Joel, Amy and Ryan Green, as they go through the treatment process for young Joel. Joel has several brothers who are involved in the game, with several other friends, family members and doctors also playing roles. To help push the full emotional spectrum of That Dragon, Cancer, all of the voice work and a majority of sound design is actual recordings from the the the lives and experiences of the Green family. 

That Dragon, Cancer is not a game that you need to be a hardcore gamer to play. The controls are extremely simple - the mouse is the only control you need apart from one small section with a keyboard - and there is no “fail” state to provide any challenge. The game is not a lengthy one - a couple of hours at most - and should be played in a single sitting. The game is broken up into vignette style sections, each one focusing on a particular moment of time during Joel’s treatment. Without moving into spoiler territory, some of the sections are straightforward - you might be walking through a hallway or along a path - while others are a bit more abstract but make sense in context.

Throughout the game you will come across various artwork, letters and notes that were sent in from backers of the games’ kickstarter campaign. This was a beautiful addition, allowing those that connected with the story in a very personal way to express their own feelings and honour their own loved ones’ memories. A particular strong point includes one section of the game where the hospital is laden with get well cards - every single one of which is a readable message from a supporter. 

The story told throughout That Dragon, Cancer is one that could be told through many different mediums - it has in fact, in the form of a movie and a book - but through interactivity, it becomes exponentially more powerful. I do want to stress that this is not a “fun” game - it isn’t meant to be. This is a story in which you experience but also participate, allowing you to connect to the family in a way that no other medium can. 

Should you play That Dragon, Cancer? I can not answer that question. Only you can. If you’re looking for my recommendation, all I can say is that this game was one of the most affecting experiences of my life, and I am glad to have supported it.

That Dragon, Cancer is available on the developer’s website at