"That Dragon, Cancer might be one of the most important and poignant games you'll play this year."
I nearly had to stop playing That Dragon, Cancer around the halfway mark of the game. I found myself flooded with grief, my breathing had changed and I couldn't keep my composure, but I told myself I had to carry on. I struggled through the narrative, blinking through tears all the while, but this is not the same sort of struggle you have with a bad or hard game — rather, it's a necessary struggle which helps you come to terms with cancer and grief. It's an extremely personal game and a unique experience, one that doesn't suit the usual review system well, but I can say That Dragon, Cancer might be one of the most important and poignant games you'll play this year.
The game reflects the real life story of Joel Green, the son of Ryan and Amy Green, who are the lead designer and writer of the game respectively. The story doesn't just follow Joel's battle with cancer, but also the effects of cancer on the family, the processes of grief, and the strength of love and faith. You're immersed in the abstract world of Ryan and Amy's minds as they come to terms with the condition and the hardships they go through. The game manages to touch every emotion during its two-hour length, from intense sadness to utter joy at any time. It toys with open spaces at one moment, cluttering them with thoughts and ideas while also leaving you feeling stranded, and also formulates claustrophobic and uncomfortable atmospheres which immerse you in the experience. You feel like you're with the Green family every step of the way, suffering as they do, laughing with them, and praying for an end to the pain.
As a result, That Dragon, Cancer contains the most accurate portrayal of the effects of the disease I've seen in any media form; Numinous Games manages to create a huge feeling of empathy throughout by employing relatable experiences. One such moment is the image of the ocean: Amy and Joel are stranded on a boat and they float aimlessly across the endless waters where there is nowhere to hide. You read diary entries and notes in bottles, which are representations of thoughts from Amy, Ryan, and cancer survivors, and every single one rips through your heart — they perfectly capture the confusion and unknowing of what cancer does, or what might happen. Every word written in these notes, and by extension the game, is a form of therapy for the Greens. I felt every word of what they meant. These words they write stand as a form of hope, whether that hope be that Joel survives or that his story will live on.
The reason these environments work so well is because of the harmony between the music and the graphics. While not breathtaking, the game's distinctive polygon-esque visuals provide a stripped-back and simple style that act as a space for the game's messages to be conveyed. The characters have no facial expressions, so you're forced to rely on the atmosphere the game creates through its style, and made to live in each character's shoes, hear their thoughts, and understand their perspective. While the ocean is a very open, scattered and cold-looking area, some of the hospital rooms are cramped and cluttered, covered in warming and calm colors to reassure the player that Joel is in the right place. The hospital provides both hope and truth, and these two ideas are highlighted perfectly though this. The game's soundtrack is mostly limited to soft, melancholic piano themes that, while not memorable outside the game, in tandem with the graphics create the perfect set-piece and mirror the mood of each scene perfectly.
There are a few points that pull the player out of the experience in a jarring way. One such way is through the four minigames. These games add more insight into how the family copes with cancer, and act as playful transitions between important parts. The most memorable of these is the Ghosts 'n' Goblins-style minigame where Joel the Baby Knight is fighting a dragon called cancer in a very short 2D side-scrolling adventure. It's a quirky take on the 'fight against cancer' but these minigames feel a little out of place. While they provide light relief from the grave central matter, they are at odds with the more philosophical side of the game, and often come out of nowhere. They form a bridge between each section of the story but alter the pace of the narrative uncomfortably and rush you through sections where more care and interaction should be had.
While you'll spend most of the time listening, reading and interacting with objects, there are a few moments where you have to guide your character through the corridors or just to the window, and these feel awkward. The game is very linear for the most part, but a game that explores the notions of grief would benefit from allowing the player to explore the environments a little more. Luckily these restraining moments are few and far between, and in most of the sections where you have to guide yourself around, there's a lot to interact with, and everything enriches your experience.
Cancer is something that affects nearly everyone, and almost everybody can name someone they know who has suffered at the hands of the disease. That Dragon, Cancer stands not only as a powerful memorial for Joel Green, but for all who have suffered at the hands of cancer, whether they have lost their life, known someone who has been ill, or survived. That Dragon, Cancer tackles the illness head on, and although the gaming sections can somewhat pull you out of the experience, it's nonetheless an unforgettable tribute.