Platforms: PC (reviewed), OSX
Playing That Dragon, Cancer wasn't pleasant for me. That's not to discredit anyone involved in the game's creation process. The fact of the matter is that something like That Dragon, Cancer isn't meant to be pleasant or satisfying or cheery. Sure, there are some moments that made me smile, but for the most part, I was bummed out — partially because I already knew what was coming, but also because the game tells its story in such a way that you can't help but to feel awful for the characters involved.
The Story of Joel Green
That Dragon, Cancer focuses on Joel Green, who was diagnosed with cancer and battled the illness for four years. Despite the best efforts of his parents and doctors, Joel passed away in 2014. This game doesn't hide what it's about — when you play it, you know exactly what you're in for. This is a real-life story about a young boy who suffered from a horrible, fatal condition, a young boy whose parents did everything they could to keep him healthy.
Throughout the game's duration there are a handful of highs, but there are many more lows. In fact, using the term "game" to describe That Dragon, Cancer almost feels like a misnomer. Yes, this is an interactive video game, but in reality, it's more of a narrative, biographical experience. In a lot of ways, the whole thing plays out like a movie, merely requiring you to click on certain objects or people to move the tragic story along.
That Dragon, Cancer is split up into realistic scenes of real-life situations and surreal uses of symbolism to reflect the family's emotions at the time. The scenes rooted in reality often show Joel's parents holding their child or holding each other. The player is shown personal, intimate moments as the Greens sit down in a doctor's office and are in utter silence as Joel's physician tells them that there's nothing that can be done and that the treatment is no longer working. Joel is shown playing at the park, feeding the ducks, and hugging a dog.
These sequences provide an in-depth look at just how real the whole ordeal was for the Greens. It's not easy to sit through That Dragon, Cancer when you know that one happy moment with Joel giggling will lead to the voice of his mother crying or his father talking to himself as he tries to deal with everything that's happening. Even more heart-wrenching are the moments when Joel lets out a painful cry. It's difficult to listen to — so much so that I had to lower the volume a bit while playing because it was emotionally distressing.
Then there are the moments that don't depict realistic scenes but rather symbolic representations of the struggles that the Greens faced. Black, thorny formations in the sky paint an ominous picture of what's to come. The shadow of a dragon flying through the sky creates a menacing presence. That Dragon, Cancer shows Joel's father falling through the sky and drowning in a massive body of water, feeling absolutely hopeless. The game shows us his mother sitting in a boat in that same body of water, hoping for the best and holding on to her faith.
There is a mix of emotions throughout the game. These are all real emotions that the Greens felt over the course of four years. Sorrow, desperation, hope, anger, joy. That Dragon, Cancer makes you feel all of these things right along with the in-game representations of each member of the Green family.
A Sincere Tale
That Dragon, Cancer resonates so strongly due to its sincerity. Everything that happens in the game is honest and personal. Hearing Joel's mother on the phone, hoping for the best or crying as she realizes her son's fate is devastating because it's so real. Seeing Joel's father in the fetal position and falling through a thorn-filled sky is harrowing because it's a poetic picture of the raw emotions that he was feeling.
I've read a few pieces about That Dragon, Cancer that criticize its focus on religion toward the end. I get that religion isn't for everyone, but the takeaway is that those moments were all real-life occurrences as the Greens went through their horrific experience. They prayed for a cure. They questioned their higher power's plan. They went to church and sought comfort. Religion may make some people feel uncomfortable, but it's important to realize that this is the Greens' story that's being told here, and without those scenes, it wouldn't be the whole, honest story.
To that point, despite this being the story of Joel and his parents, I can't help but feel that it's also a message to people who are or who have been in similar situations. Though That Dragon, Cancer is very much biographical, it's also filled with empathy toward other children who suffer from cancer and to anyone, really, who suffers from the disease regardless of age, as well as the families of those people.
That Dragon, Cancer as a Game
Reviewing That Dragon, Cancer is a difficult thing to do. On the one hand, I applaud the Greens' courage to share such a deep, personal story with complete strangers. On the other hand, as a reviewer, I have to talk about things like story and gameplay and graphics and sound. I don't feel that any of those things aside from the story should be the basis of my review, but they do hold importance and should be noted.
So what I'll say is that, from a narrative standpoint, That Dragon, Cancer succeeds in telling a beautiful yet sorrowful tale, even if some of the heavier symbolism can sometimes feel out-of-place. Mechanically, it doesn't always work, and the moments (there are more than just a few) when it gets a bit too game-y don't really work. The controls can also be rough if you're playing with a traditional controller, so a mouse is highly recommended.
On the visual side of things, That Dragon, Cancer is pretty to look at, and uses abstract polygonal shapes and subdued hues. The soundtrack is touching and emotional, and it works well with the art. As for the voice work, the recordings of Joel's laugh and the voicemails exchanged between his parents add to the authenticity and sincerity of the game, but they make the scripted parts sound, well, too scripted.
To the Green Family: Thank You
In the hour and forty minutes that it took me to get through That Dragon, Cancer, I realized I was experiencing an open invitation into the life of Joel Green, a young, amazing person who suffered from a horrible illness — a boy whose life was cut short and whose family went through a hideous ordeal.
There's no real reason I should have had the opportunity to hear Joel's wonderful laugh, but I thank the Greens for giving me that opportunity. This is an emotional game that not everyone will be able to sit through because it's so heavy and hard-hitting. It's an important project, though — one that tells an emotional true story, and one that shows that the video game can be a strong narrative medium by telling the greatest story of all: the story of life's fragility.