Platforms: PC, Mac, OUYA
We played on: Mac
That Dragon, Cancer by Numinous Games tells the autobiographical story of Ryan and Amy Green as their young son Joel fights with cancer. It’s unlike any other video game that I’ve played. It invites you to take a look inside the minds of two people dealing with incomprehensible tragedy, while simultaneously posing questions about what a video game is meant to be.
That word “incomprehensible” is important. Tragedy is a paradox like this: it is simultaneously unique and ordinary. Almost every human has experienced loss, and at the same time, their experiences will always be incomprehensible to anyone else.
That Dragon, Cancer is at its best when you see it as an anthem for the leftovers—the people who have participated in grief and yet are still alive. It’s a reminder that these people are still participating, that they will always be participating. But that this is not necessarily a bad thing. We carry the ones we love forever, allowing them to influence us years after they have left.
I’ve known about this game for a while now, although it didn’t come out until January 12. Last September I reviewed the documentary “Thank You For Playing,” which observes the life of the Green family. I also backed the game on Kickstarter in 2014. I did not, however, participate in the game’s creation in any other way.
I tried to enter That Dragon, Cancer as a blank slate. I didn’t want to go into it already thinking about the people I have lost because I wanted to see if the game could bring me to that place on its own.
It did, although not immediately.
The game is broken up into scenes, and as they progress you can very easily follow along with the precise tenor of the anxiety that Ryan and Amy were feeling as their son’s cancer treatment unfolded. There are metaphors everywhere. The environments that you explore seem taken out of a dream, with lakes and oceans as a main focus. In several scenes you see Joel in a boat, and the urge to pull him back to shore is prescient. You usually play as a disembodied presence, but sometimes you become a bird or one of Joel’s parents. In one heart-wrenching scene, you become a doctor. You never have control of Joel.
The game also includes a few scenes that are modeled after more traditional video games. There’s a kart-racing bit in which you control Joel and his mom as they race around the halls of their hospital. These scenes are out of place, but intentionally so. They remind you that you’re playing a game, and when they end the abrupt juxtaposition is really quite powerful.
Since so much of That Dragon, Cancer depends on atmosphere, the moments that bothered me the most were when the fourth wall was broken by a bug or by frustrating controls. The game is brand new, so some bugs are expected, but the experience was extremely unpleasant. There was one instance toward the end of the game when I had to quit the application after five minutes of staring at a black screen and wondering if it was somehow part of the story. (It wasn’t.) Other times I would attempt to progress but have trouble getting the cursor to select the right spot. I hated that feeling, because it was so jarring with the mood that the game was otherwise trying to evoke.
There are other moments, of course, when you’re meant to feel frustrated. One horror of the entire situation was the helplessness that Ryan and Amy had to face, and as the story progressed, any semblance of control slipped further and further away.
You can see that Ryan and Amy handled this powerlessness very differently from one another. Here I have to give another disclosure: I am not religious. The Greens are. Naturally, their religion was a part of their experience, and it is reflected in the game. I wouldn’t ever have them change that; it is an integral part of who they are and of their grieving process. However, as an unreligious person, I felt pretty alienated, especially toward the end of the game.
Also alienating to me was the way that Ryan spoke in verbose, poetic language. It felt dishonest, somehow. But when I think about it, nothing about this game is dishonest. It is the real, literal expression of a real, horrible situation. And maybe that’s the point—no two people suffer in the same way. This game is a snapshot of one family, and when taken as that, it is incredibly honest and incredibly important.
My favorite part (and to me the most powerful part) of the experience was when the game brought in outside material from the community. I mentioned earlier that That Dragon, Cancer was funded through Kickstarter. It truly took a village to bring this project to life, and that is reflected as you play. Artwork and letters from other people who have suffered losses are often worked into the story. These contributions were a reminder that this story, like my own story, is just one small piece of a giant tapestry of human experience.
That Dragon, Cancer tries to do something that no other video game has done. I believe the fact that it was a pioneer will ultimately outweigh its independent literary merit. But looked at in a greater context, That Dragon, Cancer is an anthem for all of us leftovers. And that makes it incredibly important.