What to say about That Dragon, Cancer? Can you quantify in a review someone’s emotional response to a near-unimaginable tragedy? Let me try…
Developed by Ryan and Amy Green, That Dragon, Cancer is an interactive storytelling experience that dramatizes the diagnosis of their son, Joel, with a terminal form of cancer. During the course of the game, you are afforded a glimpse into the lives of the Greens as they navigate hospital life, as well as the emotional toll on both parents. It’s also an effective examination of faith in the face of loss and a meditation on the very idea of hope when hopelessness is the easy path.
Given the relatively short playtime, I don’t want to give away too much. I will spoil only one moment that I believe is representative of everything that works about the game. One of the settings the player is returned to is the cancer ward of a hospital where Joel is treated. In one portion of the game, in which you are in the shoes of Ryan Green, you contemplate the horribleness of medical treatment when a child, unable to express pain or need in the way an older patient can, is forced to deal with chemotherapy. Most of the game is played by moving the cursor to a point where a symbol to move or interact will appear. In this moment, for the game is nothing but an assemblage of these moments, you turn around to find yourself surrounded by greeting cards. They are on the shelves and strung across the ceiling like decorations, on the reception desk outside, leaned against the furniture. There are dozens of them. Each of them allows you to read the text contained within via the interaction interface, and each is a unique message. Some are written to loved ones who have succumbed to cancer. Some are written by the patients themselves to family members. Some are friends expressing sympathy for the loss of a relative or friend.
I couldn’t read them all. Not because the game forces you away, but because each of these feels so real, and encapsulates such raw emotion, it is simply impossible to feel it all because sometimes it hurts too much. All the lives lost to a disease that is ruthless in its choice of victim and often insurmountable in its resistant to treatment, it lands hard in that moment. There is no soaring music to manipulate your emotions, there is only the simple fact of these cards and the words therein, the emotions laid bare to be observed and considered. Such is the genius of That Dragon, Cancer. Its subject matter is, by its nature, terribly sad, but the game never stoops to manipulation. Ryan and Amy Green understand that being a participant in these moments is weight enough, and no additional dramatic tools are required. Even the simple polygonal art style creates a universality in its presentation and invites the player in without need of graphical showiness, not that there aren’t some wonderfully striking images.
The Greens also provide their own voices, and one can’t help but wonder if some of these voicemails and conversations aren’t taken from recordings at the time. If not, they demonstrate a real knack for capturing their raw emotion. If so, it is an unnerving insight into the very private discussions between a couple who have to suffer the unimaginable. But it becomes imaginable, as we follow them through to the end, their considerations and the back-and-forth response to Joel’s struggles feel so human and relatable, we cannot but help to understand how someone could make their way through such a crisis, because there is no choice but to go on.
It’s rare to experience any form of art that places you so squarely in the worst of situations and simply explains the machinations of a relationship within it. It asks you to make no judgement, nor does it take a side in the views of either parent. It only gives us a series of moments, some represented entirely symbolically, in which we see how these people tried to make sense of their world. That Dragon, Cancer feels significant, not only because of the subject matter, but because it feels like a wildly successful attempt to place an outsider into an intensely personal circumstance and deliver its point of view succinctly and powerfully. Like Gone Home, it can be criticized for being less a game and more an experience, but I don’t care to make that distinction. It is an interactive experience, and one I will never forget.
Word of warning, if you have lost someone to cancer, especially a child, this may be too much to go through. I collected no loot, I received no trophies or gamerscore bonuses, but I came away with a greater understanding of loss. That is reward enough.