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Ryan Green sent me a review code to play That Dragon, Cancer just before Christmas, but I was distracted by the Holidays and missed it. He sent me a reminder on Friday, just a few days before the game’s release (Tuesday on Windows PC and Mac). The game is only a couple of hours long, so it wasn’t a problem for me to play it, write about it and record a video over the weekend, but it meant that I didn’t have time to go through the whole rigmarole of a fully structured review.
I don’t mean that it’s tough in the sense of it being hard to beat. I just mean that it’s harrowing.
This is, I think, for the best. The idea of giving That Dragon Cancer a review score or of laying it out to the cool, analytical treatment of traditional video games critique seems faintly grotesque. There may be many books and films about the suffering and death of children, and they may be accommodated within their own established critical constructs, but themes like this are a new challenge for video games and for video games reviewers. We spend a great deal of time writing about dudes with guns or happy little cartoon chaps bouncing through wonderlands. Games don’t generally feature kids with cancer.
The time for talking about the “graphics” or “addictiveness” of games is already long past. The assigning of statistics for “audio” or “control” is an embarrassing memory. Still, we work within the shadow of all that nonsense. Even at the best of times, it doesn’t sit well with me to give works of art numerical ratings and scores. On this occasion, it wouldn’t feel right at all. That Dragon, Cancer is something new in the world.
What I really want to say about this game is that it is upsetting, from the beginning to the end. It is challenging, enriching and devastating. I think it might have changed me in some way that I’m yet to fully understand.
That Dragon, Cancer was written by Amy and Ryan Green. It’s the story of their child Joel, who suffered from cancer from the time he was a small baby until his death in 2014, at age five. It’s a series of short vignettes in which the player explores multiple elements of life with a very sick child.
Each story is told as a journey through a physical or emotional location. The player touches toys or lights candles or clicks on a juice box or feeds bread to a duck or many other light flips that propel the game forward.
The player floats through dreams and nightmares, often doing little more than steering themselves along the passing experience and gazing at ephemera. But these minimal player actions are greater than mere symbolic additions to the shock of traveling within the lives of a family going through hell. They impel the player to seek and to find the memories that must be sought and found.
Audio clips are played from the family’s time together, allowing us to share in normal moments, like playing together at the park. Voicemail recordings remind us that life goes on, even in the midst of desperation. Letters between Ryan and Amy are read out, revealing their innermost fears and —most upsetting of all — their dearest hopes.
This is a tough game. Obviously, I don’t mean that it’s tough in the sense of it being hard to beat. I just mean that it’s harrowing.
There’s one scene in which the player walks through a children’s ward filled with greeting cards. Each one is the story of a life, told in a few words, a line or two of love and loss. There are too many to read. Or perhaps, they become more difficult to read.
Nobody wants to know what it feels like to be a mother sitting in a doctor’s office, being told that your child is definitely going to die. When you play this powerful scene — unless you’ve been through that in real life — I suspect you still won’t know what it feels like, not truly. But you’ll grasp some previously unsuspected sense of such a dreadful moment.
Nobody wants to know what it feels like to be a father sitting in a hospital room with a screaming baby, trying to quiet the child down, begging for peace while seeking to come to terms with the enormity of the silence that awaits.
That Dragon, Cancer is more than just a story of illness and decline. It’s more than just a startling illustration of the wretched unfairness of life. It’s also a discovery of faith, hope and belief.
There are sections that are uncomfortably frank about religion. Ryan and Amy are Christians. That Dragon, Cancer explores Amy’s devotion and Ryan’s doubts, but it’s more layered than that. It also explores Amy’s complex relationship with her faith and Ryan’s struggle to come to terms with his own fundamentally empirical nature. It’s a reminder that faith comes in many forms, even at an individual level.
Most of the religion I see in the world is ugly and destructive. But what I saw here was something beautiful, delicate and curiously liberating.
This is a game that shows us the symbols of its church, that tries to explain the spiritual joy of belief, but it ought not be accused of being too preachy because it also acknowledges doubt, limitations and powerlessness.
That Dragon, Cancer manages to remind us how faith is a necessary conviction for many people, something to hold onto, something more useful than hopelessness. The Greens repeatedly return to the theme of drowning, of forcing themselves to stay afloat, to turn their faces toward the light. At one point Amy writes, “Even if I’m wrong, this is where I stand.”
That Dragon, Cancer is the best of games. It reveals to us what it means to be a fellow human being finding the strength to survive terrible circumstances. It shares through words, pictures, sounds and actions. The actions give us a sense of the pain of others. They show, rather than tell. This story is unique in that it tackles the most dreaded of human experiences in the form of a video game. If you play this game, it may change you.