That Dragon, Cancer is a tragically tear-jerking game created by parents Amy and Ryan Green, which reflects on the scale of people affected by cancer in one way or another, while also being a memorial for their son – Joel. Handling the effects of cancer with brutal honesty, raw emotion and grace, it is a game that I will remember more as a heart-breaker than just another experience.
Released on what would have been Joel’s seventh birthday, the game tells us the journey of Amy and Ryan as they hope that God would provide them with a miracle and save their son. Yet the only miracle they did get was an extra few years with him.
With cancer being a disease that brings suffering to many, this will continue to be a game that will stay relevant. As the couple said, the game is not just about their love for Joel, it is about “all the mess that comes with life”. I would say that includes doctors wanting to discontinue certain treatments of their son, or having to deal with the news when being told that their son could die.
In terms of the game’s design, it looks quite simplistic. The game’s colour scheme changes from vibrant to gloomy as the game and story go on. Every character, except Joel, has a fairly detailed character design. The lack of facial features of Joel makes it disconcerting to face him and perhaps that was the purpose of his design, to make it hard to watch his disease develop, knowing that his life could be lost.
Photographs, letters, cards, drawings and phone recordings from real life make the game a memento of Joel’s brief existence, as the game progresses with chapters. Yet the game is only a snapshot of the events which occurred over the years, the game only is about two hours, so even the dialogue itself is brief.
In That Dragon, Cancer, the player is faced with a recurring image, which is quite startling. Jet black trees in surroundings that are so colourful is a fine and figurative representation of cancer, lurking in the background. At one point they even look like pulsating tumours, it makes for a very sinister image.
Although occasionally the scenes are pretty abstract, this gorgeous exploration game lets the players see how cancer has affected many lives, from a variety of perspectives. We can all be fair and not expect to see things from the point of view of a duck or a pigeon when playing a game based on real life events, while also reflecting on such a difficult subject in a very emotional manner.
Coping, to me, is what the game’s main mechanic would be, and the creators used it perfectly. By providing a single button the player is given the chance to interact with the surroundings, the chance to view letters of cancer survivors, the chance to save a father from literally drowning in depression, or even to force him to face the mundane nature of life, to stare cancer in the face, knowing that he is unable to do anything but take his son to treatment. Even the sight of a heartbroken mother, who desperately clung onto faith and hope.
As a mechanic that is growing in popularity in many games now, the creators present us with a game within a game mechanic. Having Joel fighting a dragon called Cancer, only with a sword, spear and shield, it is a tough experience to deal with, and Joel’s brother doesn’t make it any easier. “Babies can’t kill dragons,” is one of the lines that resonate through the game. This is where the title of the game begins to make sense, and to me, it was a huge blow to the chest.
The most haunting of the scenes was when Ryan was in a gloomy looking hospital room, trying to comfort screaming Joel in the middle of the night. Except Joel isn’t anywhere to be seen. It is his screaming that fills the room, and that is more than enough for the player to know he’s there. It is a hard scene to play through from the perspective of the father, wanting to stop the suffering, but being helpless. Trying to at least give the child some juice to drink, only to have Joel vomit. The pain of hearing the screaming, suffering child was unbearable, and the sudden silence once he falls asleep is terrifying. Almost like the calm before the storm, and that’s exactly what this scene was.
The representation of death was very gentle, going back to the game within a game mechanic where Joel was a brave knight, the player is shown a broken sword and a broken shield by the side of Joel.
All in all, like I’ve repeated over this review, the game is a tragedy. Changing thoughts about grief, hope and faith is not something one ever really expects from a game, yet these are the complexities it makes the players face. Knowing the parents don’t have much time left with Joel, it’s difficult to hear the father say: “If I hold him tight enough, nothing will take him. Right?” A truly heart-breaking masterpiece.
Magdalena Kolodziej is a freelance journalist and contributor to PN2. You can find her on Twitter @magda_0019