Sometimes it’s hard to know where exactly to start a piece. This is one of those times. After all, how do you tackle something like That Dragon, Cancer? It’s an intensely personal experience, one that can’t possibly judged in the same way that most games can – it seems like it’d be unfair for me to simply talk through the gameplay, the graphics, the story and assign a number to it at the end. That Dragon, Cancer is a short, ninety-minute experience about a young boy, Joel Green, and his very real, tragic battle with cancer.
I’ll be honest here, from a pure gameplay standpoint, there isn’t a lot to like about That Dragon, Cancer. You use the analogue sticks to point the camera, you get a prompt, and then press the A button to walk forward or interact with the appropriate object. Often times, this can be frustrating – when you need to walk, your natural instinct will be to use the left stick, and given that you usually have to focus the camera on a very specific point to get the necessary prompt, you’ll probably often find yourself trying to find your way back to the appropriate pixel.
But those are minor complaints, considering that the crux of the game isn’t how it plays, it’s what it means, and the story it’s trying to tell. There’s a really hard line to tow with something this personal; how do you tell the story of a family dealing with a child’s cancer, without coming across as exploitative, or as simply trying to evoke tears in the player, while also lending the appropriate gravitas to the experience? Cancer is a dreadful disease, one that touches many people, and dealing with such a sensitive issue correctly is a mammoth task.
In most respects, I think That Dragon succeeds in this regard. It starts off slowly – you play as Joel while he feeds some ducks at the pond, before switching to his father, Ryan, playing with his son at a park. And then it all begins to come crashing down. I think the moment for me that really solidified that I was in for a ride was an early scene, where you find yourself in a hospital room, littered with cards. As you leave the room, the whole hospital is covered in these cards, each containing a real message, from a real person, in memoriam of a loved one lost to cancer. From there, things just pick up, and at points, the game is genuinely difficult to play.
There’s one scene in particular that really got to me. You find yourself on a long, lonely night with Joel in his hospital room, Joel screaming in agony, and, no matter what you do, you can’t make it stop. The pain is stomach-churningly real, Ryan’s frantic, desperate inner monologue drowned out only by Joel’s very real, extremely visceral screams of despair. It’s incredibly disturbing, and Joel’s screams felt very, very real. This didn’t feel like some voice actor sitting in a booth and screaming, it felt like the genuine, sincere pain and suffering of a real human being. Getting through that scene alone was a trial – I can’t possibly begin to imagine what it must be like to have to live it.
The game does also struggle with being a little too on the nose at times – there’s little subtlety to having a room literally fill with water while the news that Joel is out of options is broken, although, to be fair, some of the more abstract scenes, such as Joel floating through space, are brilliantly done, and occasionally very poetic to boot. Of course, not every scene is particularly effective either. There’s a couple of sequences in That Dragon that attempt to use traditional game mechanics – in one, you play as Joel, taking on the role of a knight, in his battle with a dragon while his parents narrate, and it’s a neat, moving little scene. Then, there’s the other scene – a bizarre kart-racing sequence, wherein you play as Joel driving laps around a small section of the hospital, complete with laughter, bright music, and all the traditional kart racing pickups and speed-boosts. If this wasn’t a bizarre tonal shift as is, given the context of the game as a whole, the whiplash at the end – when you find that the pickups were actually cancer-treatment drugs – is so severe and on the nose that I almost broke my neck.
That Dragon, Cancer is more than just a tearjerker. While it is, obviously, extremely sad and mournful of Joel’s unfortunate fate, it also feels celebratory. There’s clearly a lot of love for Joel poured into the game, and a lot of faith on the part of Ryan and Amy Green that he’s now in a better place. The final scene is especially heartbreaking – but in a way that also gives hope that Joel just may be at peace, whether you believe in an afterlife or not. That Dragon, Cancer is a beautiful experience that touches upon love, faith, despair, hope and joy in a way that not many do. It’s worth your time, from the highs of its brief moments of happiness, to the crushing weight of it’s despair. That Dragon, Cancer is a rollercoaster ride of emotions, and a fitting tribute to a life gone too soon.