Review: That Dragon, Cancer – a game about loss, grief, and hope

A game that will stay in your mind long after you finish it

Warning: This review discusses specific moments of the game that could be considered spoilers

If you play games to win, to feel that you’ve beaten something, then That Dragon, Cancer might come as something of a shock to you because it’s not a game in which you can overcome the odds. It’s an autobiographical game created by Ryan and Amy Green which tells the story of their son Joel who was diagnosed with cancer at the age of one and battled with the disease for four years. The story spans 14 chapters, and takes around 2 hours to tell. It’s 2 hours I absolutely don’t regret, and I’ll state right here that I think anyone who has an interest in the narrative possibilities of games and their capacity for eliciting empathy should buy and experience this one.

I say That Dragon, Cancer was an experience, because it is as much of an experience as it is a game. The gameplay mechanics are not complicated; you use the mouse to look around and find action points, and then you click on those action points to walk, examine something, or interact with something. It’s very much a linear point-and-click game. But because of this lack of complexity in terms of mechanics, I found myself able to consider other elements of gameplay the creators were able to use to communicate and connect with players. That Dragon, Cancer had a massive emotional effect on me, and I’m incredibly interested to consider how, beyond its story, it connected with me as a player.

Something I really liked was the use of camera angles. The game starts off with you, the player, controlling a duck on a pond. You can hear the family at the edge of the pond talking about Joel, talking about their lives, sharing the experience of throwing bread to the ducks. As the duck you slowly move towards the family, gently gliding across the water. When Joel throws bread to you, clicking allows you to eat it and move closer. I found this a really effective way to start the game. Taking up the perspective of the duck gliding across the pond makes you feel light and soft. Drawing closer because Joel is throwing you bread and wants you there is an excellent way of making you feel that you’re not intruding, unwanted into the family moment.

There are a few moments where you take up the perspective of a bird in the game which have the effect of making you feel like a natural observer of the moment, and I greatly appreciated that. Other times the camera swoops you into the first person perspective of Amy or Ryan and although this an example of the game at its most intimate, it works; the change of perspective takes place with a gentle swing of the camera and it never lasts too long. That Dragon, Cancer, is a game which tells a very personal story, it has many intimate moments, and allowing the player to feel that they’re being invited into its telling without detracting from this feeling of intimacy or feeling voyeuristic is important, and difficult to achieve. But by using the camera like this, by making you feel light and unobtrusive, almost like a spirit inhabiting different perspectives, I’d say the developers have managed it.

Inviting players in is one thing, establishing an emotional connection is another. Before playing, this is what I imagined That Dragon, Cancer would have the most difficulty doing. I’ve cried at games before, they’ve made me feel, certainly, but this isn’t a common occurrence and I don’t generally associate the evocation of significant emotion with gaming.

Interactivity is one of the most significant ways a game will establish a connection with its players, and I thought That Dragon, Cancer used its limited interactivity to good effect; it got the point across most of the time. There are two moments that especially stand out to me; one is when you find yourself in Joel’s hospital room and it’s filled with cards. You find that you can reach out, pick up, and read every one of these cards and that they’re filled with messages from people saying goodbye to or fondly remembering cancer victims in their lives. Then you leave the room, enter the hospital corridor, and find even more. They’re everywhere. They’re all personal and touching and I felt every one of them deserved to be read. It’s an exhausting scene to play through.

Another moment is when you’re sitting in a hospital room with Amy, Ryan, Joel, and the hospital staff, hearing devastating news that Joel’s condition isn’t improving. Unaware of the bleak conversation around him, Joel is fixated with one of those talking toys, where you pull a lever and different animal sounds come out. Instead of animal heads, though, they’re the faces of the adults in the room and you find you’re able to pull the lever and hear their personal thoughts, rewinding the scene over and over until you can hear what was going through each person’s head at every moment of the grim diagnosis.

These moments are examples of how the developers have used interactivity to create a layered pacing that I think is only really effectively achievable by games like this. You could speed through these areas to reach the next chapter, but you’d be missing the point. That Dragon, Cancer doesn’t force you to explore these areas deeply, to read every card, or to rewind the toy to hear every single thought before moving on but it gives you the chance to do so and that’s what’s important. The game exists as one linear story but it could have a different intensity of effect on different players because you’ll only get as much as you put in; you really have to meet the game halfway in what it’s trying to do. This ability to set your own pace, to feel that you’re ‘unlocking’ (excuse the crassness of the term) more emotional depth by giving more time is evidence that games are a kaleidoscopic storytelling medium that have a lot more to give.

That Dragon, Cancer frequently uses the fantastical in its levels to attempt to convey the emotional state of Amy and Ryan, for example, at one moment where they receive bad news the room begins to fill with water, literalising the feeling of drowning. But there are moments where these fantastical elements and interactivity meet resulting in ‘traditional’ gaming features being brought in. In one scene you take part in a kind of Mario Kart race collecting ‘power ups’ which are actually Joel’s different medications and the laps represent the years passing. In another you play a side scrolling arcade adventure game in which Joel is a knight fighting a dragon called cancer. At first I wasn’t sure about these moments; I thought they felt shallow compared to the rest of the game. But then it occurred to me that having these moments really justifies That Dragon, Cancer’s own method of storytelling and reasons for deviating from more traditional gaming as it does; a ‘traditional’ game wouldn’t have been the appropriate vehicle for a story of this emotional weight. Having these moments in the game really reinforces the decision to tell Joel’s story in the way it has been.

There are, however, moments where the game interrupts its effectively established emotional connection with the player. This comes about when, because there aren’t any crosshairs on the mouse, it isn’t always easy to see where or on what you ought to be clicking. There are also moments where it’s not clear whether you ought to be doing something to make a sequence end, or whether it will do so of its own accord. This can be frustrating , but I’ve begun considering it a part of how the game expresses the experience of Amy and Ryan; in their time with Joel I imagine there were many moments when they felt they could take actions to actively change their situation and move it forward, and moments when they could do nothing but wait and hope things would move along. It was no doubt frustrating for them to decide which of these situations they were in, and whether they should act and risk it being fruitless, or wait.

That Dragon, Cancer is a game that will undoubtedly have a serious emotional impact on anyone that plays it. Hours after closing my laptop I still found myself pondering the effect it had on me. Though it’s not a perfect game, it’s a narrative achievement, telling an intensely personal story that uses inventive ways to communicate and connect with its audience, managing to move past the elicitation of sympathy towards something more like empathy. It’s a sign that gaming is maturing as an artform able to tell real human stories and I can’t express strongly enough how we need more games that do this.

That Dragon, Cancer is available to download now on Steam.