That Dragon, Cancer is an Indie Adventure game developed and published by Numinous Games that follows the story of the Green family and their son, Joel, through his four-year battle with cancer. This game is driven by family’s very real struggle to deal with the woes of terminal illness. It gives the player an insight into the anger, despair and hope a family with an cancer-stricken son faces. Where That Dragon lacks in gameplay it excels in a simplistic design that leaves an emotional impact on the player.
That Dragon, Cancer takes the player through critical moments in the Green family life. Throughout the game you control various ‘beings’ including a non-descript person, a bird, and at times even, Ryan Green, Joel’s father. Each of these characters guides you through the Green family’s struggle to keep their faith while being ready to face the possibility of Joel’s death.
The “gameplay” of That Dragon is hard to categorize as it doesn’t follow any one specific game mechanic but primarily employs a point-and-click adventure style. Certain aspects of gameplay create a weird disconnect between the emotional pull of the game and ‘actual’ gameplay.
At times it seems like Green purposely threw in more ‘game-like’ scenarios to make this more of a ‘game’ and to say that it failed would be an understatement. In one instance there is a go-kart racing simulator which is very poorly controlled and comes out of nowhere and does nothing but hinder the overall impact of the story. Instances like these affect the pacing of the story and playability of the game. There are a few times throughout That Dragon where these “game-like” situations slow the player down and even stop progression all together because there is no sign of what to do next.
This isn’t to say that the game does nothing right; in fact the game does a lot right including the soundtrack/audio. The game flows between a beautiful and serene soundtrack and in an instant you are taken into a hospital room with beeps and only the cry of a child in pain to accompany you. The dialogue in That Dragon moves from everyday conversation between the family to a series of hospital visits and cries of pain from Joel, and this makes the whole experience feel very real. While neither the audio or visual aspects of the game are outstanding, they work together to really bring the player in to experience the pain and distress the Green family faced.
A huge criticism of this game is the exploration and importance put on religion; many players may feel that the message and emotional impact of the game is lost on them. However, through playing the game, there are many other powerful messages present in the story including hope and perseverance through troubling times. Gamers with strong feelings against a faith-focused game should skip this game for another title. However those open to the exploration of faith in a game will most likely be able to find a meaning in That Dragon, Cancer.
There is a lot to be said about a game that so forcefully attacks a huge issue that doesn’t necessarily have a place in the video game word and that Dragon,Cancer deserves credit for creating a very real and very beautiful game. That Dragon, Cancer has opened the door just a little bit more for developers to explore and create new ideas, even the sad ones.