Platform: PC, Mac, Ouya
Developer: Numinous Games
Release date: 12 January
It’s tough to talk about That Dragon, Cancer. In so many ways it defies what games are, and through its unique and propelling gameplay, it carries you through an intense and beautifully intimate story of parenthood, love and hope.
And one of the most interesting things about the story is that going in, we know the outcome. That Dragon, Cancer tells the tale of Joel Green, the son of the game’s creators, who was diagnosed with cancer shortly after he turned one, and died four years later in early 2014. Because of this, all of our interactions with Joel are painted with the poignancy and importance of the last moments with a young child. Never before had a game made me cry in its opening 15 minutes.
The game flashes between various vignettes, some absolutely real and others totally surreal. An early scene, for example, takes place in a park, where we control a duck, approaching the shore as Joel feeds us pieces of bread, and as we hear chatter between Joel’s family, parents Ryan and Amy and brothers Caleb, Elijah and Isaac, about the mundane and the not-so-mundane.
Perspectives frequently switch throughout the game, seemingly controlling the wind at one point, as we swing Joel on the swingset and push him down a slide. These sweet, quiet moments are accompanied by a quiet solo pianist, aptly adding to the personal tone of the whole game.
Yet as the title suggests, the game also has surreal and fantastical elements to it, certain scenes depicting and describing the greater fight that many have fought against cancer.
In one particularly stirring section, we find dozens of messages in bottles, floating in a vast ocean, containing letters by a variety of people, both those close to cancer and cancer sufferers themselves. Hearing other people’s battles with cancer elevates the game from being a singular tale to a tale of humanity.
One of the reasons this game is so special is its minimalist gameplay. There is no difficulty or combat in the game, but it is still able to cause distress and discomfort. In one scene, we inhabit Ryan, sitting in a worn hospital chair as Joel lies on your chest, hooked up to a vague and scary-looking life support machine.
When the machine starts blaring a harsh red and screaming beeps, the game perfectly captures what it’s like to be a concerned and scared parent in that moment. We frantically press several confusing and generic buttons, having no idea what they would actually do, but we continue to press them anyway, waiting and hoping that we’ve pressed the right one, or in the right order.
This sort of gameplay perfectly immersed me in the moment, pushing me to try my best to keep Joel happy and safe for a while longer. Like this, the rest of the game has simple and elegant controls that fit the scenarios well. Early on, the game playfully says on screen “tap go” to push Joel down that slide; you can push any button you want.
There are, however, some pacing issues with the game. While some slow sections in the game work perfectly, being reflective and melancholic about cancer and about family, there are a few scenes that feel aimless and without direction.
In a game as tightly authorially controlled as it is, these few scenes drop the ball on keeping you wholly engaged throughout. These are, though, minor problems, and don’t take away too much from the whole experience.
It’s also worth commending the presentation of the game. The art style, one that is minimalist and low-poly, is still vibrant and colourful, and fits fantastically with the quiet piano-and-strings score. The writing, too, is outstanding, in some moments poetic and grand and in others refreshingly naturalistic and intimate, making me smile as I hear the family chat on a road trip.
That Dragon, Cancer is made for everyone to play. Never have I played such a deeply personal and entirely relatable game. It does what other mediums could not have done, and through its interactivity we learn to mourn for Joel just as his family and friends have.