Wot I Think: That Dragon, Cancer

You want to meet That Dragon, Cancer [official site] more than half way. It’s a game made about Joel Green, a young boy who at twelve-months-old was diagnosed with cancer, and it was created by his parents to memorialise his life. The story – which tells of his treatment, his parent’s struggles with hope, despair and faith, and his eventual death aged five – is communicated through a series of vignettes. Each one is an explorable 3D environment containing audio taken from home videos, short poetry, and limited moments of interaction. To praise That Dragon, Cancer feels important: as an affirmation of the power of games to tell real, human stories; as an act of support towards his parents in recognition of the terrible ordeal they had to endure; as an acknowledgement that real life is far more important than videogames, anyway, lest you think I feel otherwise and dislike me.

To condemn That Dragon, Cancer also holds some sway, of course. It is cool to be the person ‘brave’ enough to tell unpopular truths in the face of something heartfelt. I don’t wish to be guilty of either.

These are the thoughts that were in my mind when I started That Dragon, Cancer, but they’re also the thoughts that any story about the fundamentals of the human experience must overcome. In this specific case especially, since we have all been inured to the cancer narrative through seeing it so many times in films, television shows, books, comics, songs, adverts. I find that if any one of these stories fails to strike a chord, it’s not because I lack sympathy for the characters, real people or not. It’s because the story couldn’t escape the weight of familiarity reminding me at every turn that I’m watching something constructed.

That Dragon, Cancer has benefits and hindrances in this regard, and both are that it’s a videogame. By being interactive, and therefore distinct from most other stories of this type, it presents an opportunity to make something which surprises, washes away the memories of old tropes, and in doing so reunites artifice with honesty. There is also ample opportunity to frustrate however, by adding a new divide between a player’s actions and feelings.

The game contains more of the latter than the former, sadly. This is a point-and-click game, with a camera that alternately swoops around the environment and lets us see through the eyes of Joel’s parents. In any situation, you move by clicking on positions on the floor to walk there or to wherever the next approved position is, and you click on objects in the environment to trigger scenes and actions. In the game’s first moments, this involves steering a duck in third-person towards clumps of bread being thrown into a pond, before a swoop of the camera changes the perspective so our clicks are instead handing the clumps of bread to Joel to throw. Later, clicking might open letters for reading, cause the bird you’re controlling to fly between platforms, or one of two-dozen other scene-specific actions.

I don’t mind that through this the level of control you have is limited. I have no problem with linear, story-only games. I did find it frustrating at times not knowing what a scene required of me, and there was a distracting anxiety attached to not knowing whether a scene would end on its own or whether it was waiting on me to trigger something. I found myself at a distance from the people I was inhabiting when the speed of my mouse movements did not map to the speed of the camera turning. I found it finicky when the lack of crosshair made it hard to pinpoint the clickable hotspots within the environment.

The great hope in making this experience as a game is surely that people might engage more fully with something novel and over which they have at least a modicum of control. This did not happen for me. I felt more aware of myself and less engrossed than I would have if I had simply watched this as a short film.

That sense that the medium has not benefited the experience is not helped by two instances where traditional game genres are used as metaphor. In the first, Joel and his mum race around the hospital corridors in a kart racer, collecting powerups representing Joel’s various medications while their time is recorded in the days, months and years that pass during cancer treatment. In the second, which lends the game its name, Joel is the protagonist in a sidescrolling platformer fighting against the metaphorical dragon, cancer. Both are crude and faintly ridiculous, both as games and as metaphors, and offer no greater insight.

The only time when I felt like the game used its interaction to good effect was during one brief vignette in hospital, where you’re in a room surrounded by greeting cards. They’re blank on the outside, but inside have short messages saying goodbye to or remembering other cancer victims. The cards are slow to open and there are around a dozen in the room, and I dutifully opened each one in turn, reading the similar messages inside in an attempt to honour the subject matter.

Then I left the room, and of course there were more cards, on every surface and hanging from every wall, in every room and corridor, and each had more messages like those I had already read. It felt like the game understood my desire to meet it more than half way, and in some way was turning on me. It was exhausting in the exact way I think the game intended, briefly puncturing the critical distance I felt the rest of the time.

Otherwise, the game’s best aspect is its level design, which renders the world in splotches of colour with sparse detail, and which is more concerned with allegory than realism. Whether in a park where Joel is playing, or in the mundane environments of the hospital, or in the mindscape of Joel’s parents, they’re expressive works of sculpture.

It feels monstrous to write these criticisms, but I think it’s important to talk about where That Dragon, Cancer succeeds and fails in its attempts to communicate. It aims to be more than a parent’s memorial, and what it’s trying to communicate is important. There’s little more easy to sympathise with than the horror and tragedy of a dying child, but that’s a remote idea for most of us comfortable enough to be buying and playing videogames. We need art and stories, games included, to shake us from that apathy and to take us past sympathy and towards empathy. That Dragon, Cancer is an important game because it tries, but not because it succeeds.

That Dragon, Cancer is out now for Windows and MacOSX via Steam.


  1. MrLoque says:

    $14 seems a bit too high for this game. Am I wrong?

    • Beanbee says:

      Medical Bills

    • theWillennium says:

      People pay that much to see a movie that takes the same amount of time without a second thought. Especially given that this was made by bereaved parents who poured their life savings into it, I don’t really have any qualms paying for an artistic experience. In general I find that people have skewed value perceptions of games.

      • JuergenDurden says:

        they kickstarted it apparently…. which leaves a bad taste in my mouth tbh.

        • ribby says:

          I thought about it for a while and me too I think. You’re asking for money to commemorate the life of your son, sure. You’re charging $14 for it too? Oh… okay

          • TheBloke says:

            Yeah this is a bit odd. When I saw the price, I thought fair enough – they probably have a lot of costs to pay for. Then I heard it was Kickstarted too, so I thought: OK, they’re now raising money for cancer charities.

            Well, maybe they are, but if so there’s no mention if it anywhere on Steam or on their own website. Which seems a very strange thing not to mention if they are donating.

            So I don’t know what to make of that. Maybe the kickstarter brought in far less than the total costs – bearing in mind they did have to use an outside agency, definitely for the Mac port and probably for more as well. Not having played the game, and not being in game development myself, I don’t know how much these things might cost. Nor do I know how much the developer father was able to do himself – probably not any graphics or music, at least.

            Their website does mention taking out loans in addition to the Kickstarter, so I suppose they do have money to repay.

            It does still seem slightly off, though. You’d think they’d want the largest possible audience to play it, so as to spread the message far and wide. And £11/$14 for a short game is pretty unusual in itself these days, let alone one that’s intentionally uncomfortable and un-fun.

            I hate to say it, but the first thing that jumped into my mind was remembering this recent ClickHole article I Was Never Able To Accept My Son’s Autism Until I Monetized It Through Blogging :(

            But overall I’m still giving them the benefit of the doubt, assuming that they spent way more than $90k on the game and have to recoup some costs, and that the game will drop heavily in price later.

            I still don’t understand not stating a donation to a charity though. If they are doing so, they really should say so. If they’re not, if they really can’t give anything out of $14, I would have made it $15 to add a $1 donation. To support the charity, but also so that it can say that it’s doing so as well.

          • gwathdring says:

            If $14 is an unreasonble price for the game by some other metric, fine I suppose. But plenty of games have been Kickstarted and still get sold afterwards.

            What’s wrong with artists making money off of their produce? If it is good produce, they deserve it. It sounds like this isn’t good produce, but hell that’s what reviews like this are for. There’s far worse on Steam.

            I really hope lurking around in here isn’t the idea that they can’t monetize it because tradgedy is involved, as though artists who make art that involves pain and sadness cannot ethically also get financial success and joy as a result of the thing they crafted from pain and sadness.

            Are we going to throw out all commercial albums that involve songs about dead loved ones unless we can see clear paper trails that all money for those songs goes directly to funerary costs and medical bills and charities?

            I really, really hope that’s not the intent of any of these comments in this thread … but some of them read suspiciously like that’s part of the problem.

          • klops says:

            14 dollars is worth two beers in the city centre here! And they want me to pay that much money for a game! After being Kickstarted?! How dare they!!!1


          • Kala says:

            “You’re asking for money to commemorate the life of your son, sure. You’re charging $14 for it too? Oh… okay”

            Curious. Did you back it, then? Because “All backers who supported the game at a level of $15 or more will get their codes”. You don’t pay twice, so there is no ‘too’.

            If you didn’t donate, then you’re just paying once for the price they’re selling (like anything else).

          • Phades says:

            It’s probably worth mentioning that the proceeds from sales on this game are going toward cancer research…

          • Marr says:

            It would probably be worth mentioning proceeds going toward cancer research somewhere on the game’s website and steam profile, then. Where did you even find this information?

        • christmas duck says:

          I don’t see why it should, the money for the production came from several different places, which included but was not limited to Kickstarter (there was also personal funding). The game was made by a 7 person team in all, so the 5 people who were not the parents will have needed to have been paid for their work, and the couple themselves will have needed some money to enable them to take the time out of their usual professions to pursue this.

          This is a nieche title so it’s unlikely to make much in the way of pure profit, maybe enough that the parents can take some time off for a while or start college funds for their three children or maybe just pay off debts, I don’t know. Frankly even if it took off massively and they got rich off the whole thing I’d just wish them well, they processed what was happening to their family through a creative work and it resonated well enough with other people that they were able to get themselves into a position of financial comfort. That would be lovely, not something that left a bad taste at all.

          • ribby says:

            fair enough. For some reason I was thinking that the family had made the game themselves

        • pepperfez says:

          And I imagine their backers will receive copies of the game at no additional charge.

      • BrazilanChap says:

        Saying videogames are cheaper than movies does not imply that videogames are cheap or have a fair price.

  2. Nasarius says:

    Videogames remain an extremely difficult medium for many types of expression, except when they’re just being slightly interactive movies that can simply do whatever a movie does. Dys4ia is probably still the best thing I’ve seen in terms of personal artistic expression in a game-shaped package.

    I’m glad that people are trying, though. Eventually we’ll figure it out.

  3. Matt_W says:

    Very nice review of the game, both acknowledging that it’s doing something incredibly difficult and, in many respects, untried, and that it ultimately doesn’t quite reach what it’s grasping for. I was a KS backer, so I’ll play through it regardless. And I’m incredibly interested in art that has, at its heart, trying to convey experiences and emotions that are far outside my own ordinary life. And I have two young children, including a son who is 5, so their neighborhood is terrifyingly close to my own. I respect anything that tries to push beyond conventional narratives in any medium, even if it uses conventional storytelling methods to get there. And I think That Dragon, Cancer, even with its missteps, can’t help but be an important and consequential game.

    • JuergenDurden says:

      this game was kickstarted?

      • Matt_W says:

        I’m not sure why it’s surprising or inappropriate to seek patronage for this kind of project. It’s certainly not unusual.

        • JuergenDurden says:

          i was really only asking a question, guess i just could’ve googled– which i did eventually.

          and as expressed further down as well as further up, the entire monetary side of this project somehow doesn’t sit well with me for reasons i can’t quite put into words.

          • JimmyG says:

            Thanks for being honest and trying to express yourself, but I’d urge you to give this “bad taste” some more thought. Maybe read some more of the comments around here. I’m worried your gut is being unfair, or even inconsiderate.

  4. TaylanK says:

    Thanks for the post and I am glad the game is out, although as a parent I don’t think I can ever muster the strength to actually “play” it.

    As for the criticism, I don’t really see it as something that needs criticism. You know when something bad happens sometimes you just need to talk about it, to express yourself and to get things off your chest, and you want to be heard just for its own sake, not get feedback on your enunciation? I see this game as that.

    Kudos to the devs (parents) for finishing their project. I can only imagine how painful it must have been.

    • Wednesday says:

      That might be the case if it was not released in the public market for a sum of monies.

      It’s is art which means it invites a reading.

    • Sam says:

      I think criticism is valuable even for the most personal of projects.

      Games that manage to convey a powerful emotional experience are still very rare, and criticism has an important role in exploring how they can succeed in that goal. I don’t imagine this family are going to start a series of similar games, but many other developers will be looking on and trying to learn from it. Good criticism elucidates the successes and failures of a game which can be highly valuable as a learning aid.

      There is also the matter of it being a paid-for game. Is it worth the £10.49 to play it, better experienced as a video playthrough, or just not worth the time?

      None of these roles of criticism are aimed directly at the game’s creators. It’s inaccurate to think of criticism as being telling someone if they did a good job or not.

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        gritz says:

        “It’s inaccurate to think of criticism as being telling someone if they did a good job or not.”

        While I agree with this statement, Graham’s critique seems particularly hung up on making exactly that kind of judgment.

        I don’t know how this kind of thing should be approached, but it’s clear that the standard tools of gaming criticism are either unnecessary or inadequate.

        • wwarnick says:

          I don’t know that he was saying they “did a bad job.” Instead, I think he was judging whether or not the game accomplished what the creators intended. As he stated, it’s unpopular to criticize something like this at all. What’s popular is to treat anything like this as a masterpiece whether it is or not because it’s taboo to say anything otherwise, which I think is a mistake. As long as proper respect is given, which he did, an objective critique should not be frowned upon.

          • LogicalDash says:

            I don’t know that he was saying they “did a bad job.” Instead, I think he was judging whether or not the game accomplished what the creators intended.

            Explain the difference, please?

          • gwathdring says:

            One is a judgement of the performance, the other is a judgement of the produce of that performance. How different these two are and how important the difference is to you personally is, well, pretty personal. This isn’t territory that all languages are particularly prepared for.

            But to perhaps strengthen the paradoxical language, consider this: I’m hired to make a movie with a bad cast, a bad script, and too little time. I do an incredible job putting things together relative to what I started with and I have an amazing crew and editor who help immensely. We may have, some of us or most of us, done an excellent job with what was in front of us. But the final product contained elements we could not entirely account for through sheer effort and individual skill.

            Consider, too, a film we wanted to act as an allegory for the film-making process. Our film was critically acclaimed, every aspect of it praised. It was financially successful and loved by audiences. I won a major award and was nominated for several others. But no one was interested in the bit we saw as central; few critics engaged with our allegory and some of them who did even explicitly cite it as something that didn’t work for them. Most discussion of the film compeltely ignores what, for us, was the heart of the project. We did fantastic work, stellar jobs … but we failed to achieve our goal.

            There are hopefully pretty clear illustration, at least conceptually, of the difference between doing a good job and succeeding at your artistic goals.

          • JamesPatton says:

            I’m not sure the “I made an allegory and nobody realised it was an allegory” example is helpful. Artworks are not a set of goals which can be ticked off: “Did people like our allegory? Check. Did people like our love plot? Check.” They’re more like objects that are created and resonate with each audience member individually. Whether or not they achieve whatever the artist wanted to achieve is irrelevant: critics and audiences can like, dislike, interpret and deconstruct to their hearts’ content. As soon as they’re published the artist becomes largely irrelevant, though they may be able to provide some interesting insights into the work that other people might not have thought of.

            To get back to the “what’s the difference?” point, though, I think that reviews (“should you buy it”) tell us whether a work is good or not (ie. worth our money), and criticism (“what is this work and how does it operate on us”) deconstructs a work and tries to understand how it works, what works, what doesn’t work. Graham’s piece tries to do both: it’s ultimately a consumer review so it gives us his honest opinion about how good the game is, but it also does some critical work and tries to explain what the different pieces of the game are, how they work together, what this game’s genre and form and aesthetics have to do with each other and what the result of that interaction is. Ultimately I think it’s helpful: he doesn’t just say “it’s good” or “it’s not good”, but picks out specific scenes and mechanics and explains whether or not they work and, briefly, why or why not. I found this helpful since it pointed me towards a mode of interaction that was calm, respectful and trusted the player to in turn respect the subject matter (the card scene) but away from modes of interaction that are more obviously “gamey” – the platforming and racing sections – since these only undermined the gravity of what the game was talking about by shoehorning them into an unnecessary (and jarring/inappropriate?) gaming framing device.

  5. anHorse says:

    “In the second, which lends the game its name, Joel is the protagonist in a sidescrolling platformer fighting against the metaphorical dragon, cancer. Both are crude and faintly ridiculous, both as games and as metaphors, and offer no greater insight.”

    This rings true to my impressions of the title. When I first saw it I didn’t immediately assume it was a game about cancer (I was half-expecting it to be a poorly translated japanese game), the “dragon, cancer” title came off more vague than I think was intended.

    It’s definitely interesting as a case study, if not as an experience. Making a game about such a personal experience is a challenging thing to do since more player agency and interactivity increases the chances of the player moving away from or not engaging with the central narrative.

    Personally That Dragon, Cancer failed in its goal of making me engage with the story, and it’s frustrating because you feel like an absolute shit for not being able to go along with it.
    There has been a recent case of a deeply personal game that I did get along with in Cibele but that had the advantage of being less heavy in subject matter (lessening the investment required from me) and being at least somewhat about videogames (making the interactive parts better and tying them more cleanly to the narrative).

    • Josh W says:

      That’s a fascinating thing actually, if someone tells you a story of something terrible that happened to them, you know how to listen. It’s something that we’ve all practiced in life, listening with empathy, holding back our immediate reactions, watching their emotions and their reactions very carefully.

      And people telling stories about things that have happened know how not to make it painful, don’t joke about things you can’t really joke about, in case someone tries to join you in the joke and it hurts more. Keep it flat, specific, and direct. Or if you joke, let your real emotions show at the same time.

      Or sometimes just rage and complain, where the audience knows their part is just to hold back, to let the storm pass. Or talk about the philosophical unfairness of it, suffering in general, why these things happen, and let your audience join in with that as well.

      In a game, the task presented to you as audience is much closer to the person who tears their own heart with their own jokes. Our participation is complex, and our empathy is put in a fraught situation. One difference with a game is that the other person is not there, only a computer replaying their perspective, asking for our participation.

      That doesn’t change our desire to listen properly though, to participate sensitively. Even if they cannot specifically perceive it, knowing how to participate is important, treating the emotion as real is important. It’s like there’s some Turing test going on here, as we feel the authors presence at a distance, and want to express something back to them, even though it is impossible.

      Years from now, this will be like paintings made to commemorate terrible pain. We will understand the distance, and we will be able to choose to engage with it to gain some understanding. (If it’s even possible to play the game with our future hardware.) I remember seeing Guernica just up on the wall of a cafeteria, thinking how awful it was and yet appropriate that an abstract depiction of suffering should be there.

      But even if time makes it easier to fail to connect, that doesn’t mean we’ve found the techniques to communicate suffering and the human moments around it. And maybe if we did find the genre, so that players can be helped to understand how to respond, it would be all to easy to transform it into the heartstrings-tugging section of a big budget game, as with films or soap opera now..

      • pepperfez says:

        I remember seeing Guernica just up on the wall of a cafeteria
        I have so many questions for the person responsible for this.

        • Josh W says:

          It was some kind of public or semi-public institutional cafeteria, and I thought about the way that other public spaces seem to decorate themselves with rolling news with the volume down. “You may find the following pictures disturbing” says the newscaster, muted.

      • JamesPatton says:

        Very interested that players instinctively want to play the game in a “correct”, “appropriate” way. I think there’s a tension there between the player and the game: games often work through experimentation, throwing stuff around the see what works and what doesn’t. Players have to muck around a bit to even get started. I think part of the reason Graham liked the “reading cards” section was that it was fairly clear what he could do, and the game invited him to *participate*, not to *play*.

        But I also feel there’s a tension between doing the “appropriate” thing and the reality of chronic/fatal illness. Someone giving a presentation about their experience of cancer might be sombre, serious and considered, but that’s because it’s a fifteen-minute presentation. When you’re living with something like this, EVERYTHING becomes part of the illness situation: your jokes, your grocery shopping, your daydreams, whether you eat at the table or in bed. Sometimes being 100% appropriate feels really *inappropriate*, because you can’t be on your best behaviour all the time with yourself and your friends; sometimes cracking a joke about medication/symptoms/how sh*tty the doctors are is completely natural.

        Maybe there will be a future game which is able to use the playfulness and inappropriateness of games to explore that side of illness. That’s a massive undertaking, though, and would require a very delicate touch.

    • emshort says:

      Re. “In the second, which lends the game its name, Joel is the protagonist in a sidescrolling platformer fighting against the metaphorical dragon, cancer. Both are crude and faintly ridiculous, both as games and as metaphors, and offer no greater insight.”

      I felt like the game was not only about the cancer, but about the process of making sense of the cancer, through faith and other mechanisms. In that context, I felt like the platformer showed us a model (of divine grace as the assistance against an otherwise unbeatable boss monster) that the protagonists clung to for a while, but that wasn’t actually useful to them in the end. During the inconsolably crying baby scene, the platformer appears again as an arcade machine incongruously stuffed into the hospital bathroom, asking us if we want to keep playing over and over.

  6. Laurentius says:

    “I felt more aware of myself and less engrossed than I would have if I had simply watched this as a short film.”

    I don’t really want to bring it here but it is important and very true sentence. Video games aren’t alwayes the right answer and I have the feeling that they won’t be able to champion other mediums in certain subjects, I think interactivity will get in a way.

    • yhancik says:

      From Darius Kazemi’s “FUCK VIDEOGAMES”

      In 2012 I realized videogames were holding me back, artistically speaking. Or rather: my tunnel vision focus on videogames as “my” medium was holding me back.

      Let’s say you have a thing you want to express or an idea you want to explore. Maybe it’s best explored with a game. Or maybe it fucking isn’t. One time I wanted to make an autobiographical game that summed up how I felt in the spring and summer of 2009. I labored over it for a month, building a shitty platform game of all things, before I realized that I could just WRITE IT DOWN:

      “My girlfriend at the time treated me like shit and I really fucking hated her.”
      While it wouldn’t be novel to write such a thing, it would be better than making a platform game, in that it would better express what I was trying to express to the audience I was trying to reach.

      • Gaminggumper says:

        The thoughts from the article are important, but miss the difference that VG can provide. The author says he “struggled” trying to tell about his experience, in that case writing would be the better fit, as he was just writing a narrative in visual form.
        I think this game attempts to place you in the shoes of the parents/Joel in a way that the written word probably can’t do as well. But from the article it appears that one of its key flaws is that the designer was too close to the work. He didn’t see that there were prompts the player needed to know when the perspective shifts or a given chapter requires action, because he knew what was coming.
        As a caretaker of someone that struggled with cancer for a time, and a father myself, I don’t know if I can bring myself to experience this game. I do agree with the review though that flawed or not the attempt was noteworthy on its own merits. The one critic I feel was too quick is regarding the two “gamey” bits (cart racer/platform). There is a monotony in the regularity of trips through the hospital, moving from one medication to another but without any sense of progress other than the ticking of the calendar and the toll it takes on the patient’s mind and body.
        Even now years after my wife’s “clear” diagnosis she resists going to the hospital/doctor, even if its likely necessary, as would a captive release from her torture chamber wouldn’t want to return.
        The “platformer” section serves as a fitting analogy of the near misses of setbacks just on the cusp of apparent victory.

  7. teije says:

    Appreciate the honest and thoughtful review. I’m sure it was not easy to write.

    • Premium User Badge

      gritz says:

      Do you think your frustrations with gameplay decisions separating you from the emotional investment has anything to do with the fact that you played this game specifically to evaluate its merits and flaws? Would those frustrations and separations exist for someone who’s not playing a game just to write an article about it?

      Not to get too meta, or to suggest that anything is above critique, but this reads like someone who’s struggling to approach that critique as they would, say, any other game, even though you seem to acknowledge that this is something else entirely.

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        gritz says:

        Not meant to be a reply. Ugh.

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        Graham Smith says:

        I think someone who approached it uncritically would get on with it better.

        Which isn’t as damning as it sounds. It’s not that I was playing it for review, it’s that I was playing it with the memory of all the other games I’ve played and all the other cancer narratives I’ve read/watched/experienced. If someone came to That Dragon, Cancer and hadn’t played as many games, or hadn’t experienced so many of these kinds of stories, then they might like it more.

        But this problem isn’t unique to reviewers, to me, to games, to That Dragon, Cancer. All art must struggle out from under the expectations of the audience, and use novelty to wash away the memories of the last time the audience experienced a similar story. The responsibility for that is on the game or film or work of art, I think, not the viewer.

      • Sin Vega says:

        In my experience, “I’m playing this to write about it” isn’t much of a factor (if that’s the main reason you’re playing it, the game is very likely to be flawed at best) compared to the fact that I’ve played thousands of games before, and so am invariably coming to them with expectations, hopes, and assumptions based on those other games.

        In the case of more artistic, personal, or otherwise unconventional games, this tends to result in outcomes like what Graham describes. Whatever the merits of those games, the medium and our expectations of it are obstacles more often than not. I don’t know if that’s inherently true of games or if it’s just that they’re still a relatively young medium, certainly for telling stories or conveying feelings and experiences like this (which has only become a viable thing to do with any hope of gaining an audience, let alone breaking even financially, within the last few years).

        I suspect that it’s the latter, and the situation will get better in time even for us curmudgeonly ancients.

  8. GWOP says:

    The review couldn’t have been easy. Thanks.

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    Aerothorn says:

    Emily Short’s review is also really interesting: link to emshort.wordpress.com

    • Matt_W says:

      As always. I appreciate that she covered the aspects of the game that have to do with the Ryan’s Christianity. I’m a staunch atheist, but have huge sympathy for the way their faith both helped them and failed them during their experience, and am glad that they included that in the game.

  10. JuergenDurden says:

    thanks for an honest review of what seems to me like a rather cynical attempt at game-ifying and also commercialising something that doesn’t lend itself to either of those two things. i don’t wanna belittle these parents’ pain or their grieving process, but i have no interest whatsoever to pay 14$ for a piece of barely interactive narration that gazes into the intimacy of other people’s tragedy.

    this is about as appealing as depression quest, but it seems a little more honest- if you disregard the price tag.

    • Chiselphane says:

      It does feel like it would be more successful as a short film. But I think it’s a worthy *attempt* even if it doesn’t make its goal.

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      gritz says:

      “i don’t wanna belittle these parents’ pain or their grieving process, ”

      Then you failed.

    • Gaminggumper says:

      At what point did $14 become “too much”? This is the price of lunch at a middling sit down restaurant, an experience that probably take about the same time.

      Clearly if its money you don’t have, then sure this could be more money than you have to spare. But I really hate this race to the bottom in the game space. I don’t even think the OP of this price point comment is too blame. Its a cultural movement away from given developers the true value of their product. Is it AAA? Then of course its worth $60. If not, “Ah I guess $10 bucks is fair”.

      • JuergenDurden says:

        the last time i spent anything close to full release price for a AAA game was over a decade ago, i have no problem with paying for a game and i’m not in the “x dollar per gameplay hour” camp either. but this seems like paying money to read somebody else’s diary and leaves me with a feeling of voyeurism on the players’ and exhibitionism on the dev’s part. i get the intention, i think i do at least, but it feels exploitative and manipulative to me and, all those subjective and personal and most likely wrong opinions aside, it just doesn’t seem fun. and if i spend 14 bucks on a meal or a game or a book i want to get something worthwhile out of it apart from a profound feeling of sadness caused by ‘look our kid died, isn’t that awful? now give us money, we’re grieving here!’.
        the intention i have when i start up a game is very different to the intention that makes me open up a book, start a movie or read someone’s blog, all of which seem like more appropriate mediums for this project.
        i’m not even saying games can’t be profound or tackle serious issues, but i’m honestly not sure if this was the proper concept for tackling this very personal and very sad story.

        • Gaminggumper says:

          Very well said, and I agree that in most cases this is the same reason I approach video games. I think though that for the medium to grow it can’t be purely power fantasies and escapism. I don’t think we should chase films or books, but the variety of topics has to broaden if it ever wants to be viewed as anything more than a “toy”.
          I can also understand the view that this feel either exploitative/voyeuristic, but for some people part of dealing with pain is sharing it with others. This of course should be for a willing audience.

        • Kala says:

          Re: games being less appropriate than books or movies – I’d offer that for this subject, a medium so useful for evoking empathy; literally being able to put you into someone else’s position, is a great choice for communicating these emotions and experiences. That placing you directly into the world/narrative is also something only games can do. Whether the medium has been utilized effectively to do this in this instance (or is in general) is another matter.

          (and not one I’m in a position to comment on yet, given it’s been sitting in my steam library waiting for me to pluck up the courage to play…)

      • Don Reba says:

        At what point did $14 become “too much”? This is the price of lunch at a middling sit down restaurant, an experience that probably take about the same time.

        Or food for a week for many.

  11. waltC says:

    I am sure this is very cathartic for the parents, which is why it exists. I think it should have stayed that way–as something private and special just for the relatives of the Joel to share and appreciate, because they can all relate to it personally. But I have no objection to the parents offering it for sale except that it seems just a tad over the top; and frankly, watching a loving mother and father lose their only child as an infant is not a story I especially want to visit. I find these stories poignant and frustrating at the same time because I want to be able help in some way, to solve the problem for everyone, it just wells up in me–but I know before I begin that it isn’t possible. Ironic, too, as I had a childhood friend I have never forgotten named Joel who died at 19 of Leukemia. That was sad enough…

  12. ZippyLemon says:

    The people picking over the price, saying it’s “dishonest” to charge for a Kickstarted game, making assumptions about the creators’ motivations and financial situation, essentially projecting themselves onto intensely individual circumstances that are unknown to them… those people make my skin crawl.

    Bitching about the monetisation strategies of corporations is one thing, and it’s pointless enough when you could just vote with your wallet and move on. The same applies here, except that it’s two bereaved parents who you’re shitting on. Get a grip.

    • Eddy9000 says:

      Yeah, I agree with you. People have been expressing themselves, including deeply personal expressions of grief and anguish through different forms of sold media like art, books and film for centuries. Saying whether their art or writing expresses this well or will move its audience is one thing, but criticising the artist or author for selling it is absurd. Should Francis Bacon not have sold his paintings because they’re expressions of the guilt around his sexuality that eventually led to his suicide? Should films depicting real life people’s struggles be shown at the cinema for free? It’s ridiculous, and indicative of how despite the medium moving forward to place interactive experiences as forms of expression, audiences still think of them as ‘products’.

    • pepperfez says:

      I don’t even understand the complaint. Like, is it supposed to be wrong to sell something inspired by personal grief? Or something (partly) crowdfunded? Or just games of those sorts? Or short games of those sorts?

      Or is it about protecting our precious gamer fluids from contamination by art and feelings?

      • christmas duck says:

        The only thing restricting games like this to free experiences does is limit their scope. If no one can ever make anything no one can ever spend anything; no money for artists, no money for composers, no money for licensing, not even money to allow people to work on game projects full time.

        I love the kind of tiny intimate games you get out of game jam events or in the Freeloaders column here but the idea that this should be all that personal emotive games are permitted to be is just…sad.

    • RabbitIslandHermit says:

      Completely agree.

    • Comco says:

      The argument being thrown around that it’s ‘wrong’ to sell a Kickstarted game is absolutely mystifying to me. How many games that are crowd funded are NOT sold?

      • JimmyG says:

        I can’t think of any Kickstarted games that’re now free, off the top of my head. Kickstarter is most frequently used to gather that start-up money, to cover costs-of-living during development, because most indie devs can’t spend 2 or 3 years working on something before it earns a single cent. Now, early access seems to fill that role for many devs. But Kickstarter did a fine job. Who doesn’t own a copy of FTL, Broken Age, or Pillars of Eternity?

        And as christmas duck said, waaaaay up above, this game was put together by a 7-person team. Not just a couple.

        • anHorse says:

          Duelyst was kickstarted and is now at least f2p but I’m not up on the details of how it ended up that way

        • JuergenDurden says:

          i don’t own any of the games you mentioned

    • Kala says:


  13. SoulStatic says:

    If you haven’t listened to this week’s ‘Reply All’ podcast, it’s the story of the creation of the game. I’d recommend giving it a listen – it includes insight into the night in the hospital that left the Greens feeling the need to create a video game, how difficult the design iteration became, and how a feeling of control and activity is precisely the opposite of what they felt was the appropriate character for the experience. A profound but beautiful, and alien in some ways, listen, but one that moved me greatly (my father is dying of cancer as I write this – is that relevant? I honestly do not know. Objectivity is hard).

    If you’ve never listened to Reply All or the other Gimlet Media podcasts, do yourself a favour and subscribe. They are some of the best in the business.

    link to gimletmedia.com

    • SoulStatic says:


      1. Clickhole story already linked & discussed above
      2. a) Go listen to Reply All story, or watch the mini-doc following the case that’s been filmed, or read any of the interviews with the parents over the years of illness, treatment and then loss of their child
      b) then find any nearby tea tray, block of wood, or glass ashtray and SODDING SMACK SOME HUMANITY INTO YOURSELF, YOU SMUG TWAT.

      Thank you for listening. Have a good day, and enjoy watching South Park and telling yourself everyone is as corrupt, idiotic and self-serving as Matt and Trey tell you they are. Cheerio!

      • SoulStatic says:

        Sorry to everyone for that sudden outburst. I can’t believe I got into the discussion online about something I actually care about. You would have thought I would know better. Too easy to wind up when you feel something for people other than suspicion and contempt.

        I’ll be removing myself from this point on. As you were.

        • Crowgasm says:

          Ah well, you might have bent the ‘rudeness’ rule, but I think many will applaud your alliteratively angst against all things completely cynical.

          • Kala says:

            Yeah. It might’ve been rude, but it certainly wasn’t wrong.

        • Premium User Badge

          Oakreef says:

          Thanks for that. The cynicism in this comments section was killing me. Normally RPS has the one comments section on the internet that sometimes actually adds to the piece for me but the people calling foul on this for having a kickstarter for this was getting to me.

        • drewski says:

          I completely agree with you, for what it’s worth.

    • -funkstar- says:

      I’m so happy that posts can be deleted. Aren’t you happy that post can be deleted, swampzero? Because gosh, it could be highly embarrassing if all of one’s inappropriate posts were to be preserved.



      • christmas duck says:

        swampzero actually already made the same comment a few hours before this one, only that got deleted by a moderator, and has repeated it on the other recent That Dragon, Cancer article. How nice of them to make so very sure no one has to miss out on their amazing insight.

        • -funkstar- says:

          It wasn’t quite the same comment, though. But I see that it is still in the comments to the other article as I post this, and, yes, it’s the same (incredibly callous) comment that swampzero posted here, before it got deleted.


  14. Michael Fogg says:

    Personally, I find myself allergic to any sort of ‘message’ video game that offers a facade of interactivity and a load of ‘content’ to be passively experienced. If I don’t get to make decisions or exercise skills I am not going to sit for hours in front of the screen. I especially resent the notion that these sort of game-like products represent in any semblance ‘the forward progress’ of the medium.

    • Crowgasm says:

      This was an interesting comment, as I browsed by. Michael, I’m curious as to why you’d, “…resent the notion that these sort of game-like products represent in any semblance ‘the forward progress’ of the medium.”?

      Do you mind ‘messages’ in games at all, or is it the ‘facade of interactivity’ that troubles you, moving it to be something other than a game at all?

      I think it might be fair to state this isn’t a ‘good game’ or that it’s poorly executed; perhaps even that it’s a bad idea for a ‘game’ – all these are speculative since I’ve not played or experienced it – still, isn’t anything that’s different, outside the box and trying something experimental welcome? Don’t we all (or many) tire of the endless parade of clone-like games that are mostly upgrades of earlier titles, in substance?

      I don’t know – this may move toward a broader question of whether ‘video games’ are really or can really be art, which is a different kettle of herring entirely. In that case though?

      • Michael Fogg says:

        Because I think interactivity is the essence of games, and so token actions, with outcomes largely predetermined, cannot be really meaningful, no matter the voiceover/music/art you package them in. I hate to use this comparison, but I see games as more than Powerpoint slideshows with very glorified ‘next slide’ prompts. A slideshow is still just a slideshow, even if it contains a wonderful lecture on the Meaning of Life.

        Of course I don’t mind all messages in games, on the contrary, I marvel at games that have them, an example being the recent game from World of Goo creators called Human Resource Machine, for instance. But they must enrich the gamplay, not aim to replace it.

        • gwathdring says:

          The outcomes of gaming systems are by nature largely predetermined. What is not typically predetermined in your typical AAA game is the player input; the outcomes are all by necessity entirely predetermined. That you are easily mesmerized by a large number of possible outcomes to forget that those outcomes are delineated is part of the art of game creation, certainly. But it is that prestidigitation–if anything–that defines gaming as a medium not some underlying reality of consequential action.

          The art of interactive media to to make the player feel value in their interaction–and even that comes into question when you start to poke at stranger experiences. To act as though these stranger experience are not worthy of being acknowledged by the gaming public as having continuity with gaming is to have the same petty snobbery held by literary critics, musical critics, and other artistic critics over and over across the millennia. All these statements do is mark you as an absolutist zealot who sees art as the fine practice of following the party line rather than the fine practice of creating experiences for an audience that they value and/or that achieve the artist’s goals effectively.

          When you find a powerpoint slideshow with the intricacy of The Stanley Parable, the lovable cast of The Secret of Monkey Island, the pitch-perfect genre distillation of COJ: Gunslinger or the tense conversations of Alpha Protocol, let me know! That sounds like one hell of a powerpoint presentation. While I’m waiting for the annoyingly long boot-time of Microsoft Powerpoint perhaps you can explain weather you believe–and if so why–AAA singleplayer shooters are such richer exemplars of what games can be than the games I listed.

          • Michael Fogg says:

            Do you happen to be a software engineer? You are probably technically correct about outcomes being predetermined. But in any practical sense? If outcomes are correlated with player input and player input is not-predetermined then the outcomes surely can’t be certain from the outset. I mean, is the plywood labirynth I made in Fallout 4 in any way pre-existent and I only fall victim to the illusion of free will?

            I think accusations of snobbery are off base, since I made it clear that I’m talking about my personal reaction to these types of experiences. If you feel touched when you press X to light a candle while sad violins play in the background – good for you. I just feel mildly impatient. Can’t help it, that’s the way my brain operates apparently, and keep in mind that all it takes is a Pixar movie to make me cry like a baby. So I’m probably not a robot, I just like games to make me do, not ineptly try no make me feel, okay?

            I don’t get your point about PP presentations in the last paragraph, I think I made it clear that I consider stuff like HerStory or Cibelle to be ‘slideshow-in-disguise’, not freaking Alpha Protocol. If you meant to insinuate that I only like dumb shooty-bang stuff – again, Human Resource Machine is a thing of beauty in my eyes.

    • gwathdring says:

      I resent the implication that games have an obligation to be a static, easily understood medium with clear genres and parameters. When I seek entertainment and art, sometimes I want a very specific experience. But sometimes I want a specific sensation or emotional state and don’t care if it comes in the form of clicking a mouse or reading text or watching images flicker past or listening to recorded audio or some combination of all of these.

      Other times the feeling I seek is one of interest and novelty. I can play TF2 for hours but sometimes it isn’t enough to experience something I like but I want to experience something new. To act as though gaming is somehow immune to this concept of novel experience, that games are part of some separate artistic order wherein everything can and should be neatly categorized as FPS, RTS, TBS, Platformer or at best a mix of two or three of these with clear intentions … to act as though gaming is some fundamental creed rather than a convenience of discussing proximate media is, I feel, deeply disrespectful of games, game makers and gamers.

  15. geldonyetich says:

    Well, I feel for the parents and I’m sorry they lost their five-year-old son to cancer, but I’m afraid that’s just not the premise I need to enjoy computer games.

  16. Comco says:

    “There’s little more easy to sympathise with than the horror and tragedy of a dying child, but that’s a remote idea for most of us comfortable enough to be buying and playing videogames.”

    Thanks for the review, Graham. I have to say though, while I get where you’re coming from with the rest of the piece, that quote strikes me as one of the oddest comments I’ve ever heard a games journalist make about their own audience.

    I’d wager that a sizable portion of those reading this review have children. I’d also wager that a decent percentage have lost friends or family to Cancer. It’s an inevitability in our world if you hang around on it long enough. If you’ve yet to experience that loss, then I am genuinely happy for you.

    But regardless, I’ve read and reread that phrase – ‘but that’s a remote idea for most of us comfortable enough to be buying and playing videogames’ a number of times and I have honestly no idea what it means. To anyone with a child, the thought of the devastation that would occur if you ever lost them is not a remote concept. Keeping your child safe and the inevitable realisation that there are eventualities beyond your ability to carry out that duty (eg, cancer) are part and parcel of this parent’s experience and I doubt I’m the only one.

    Otherwise, an excellent review. Thanks.

  17. SuddenSight says:

    I am surprised at the number of threads complaining about the monetization of this game. Much of the counter-argument seems to focus on what Kickstarter stands for or whether or not it is ‘okay’ to monetize grief.

    But I think something deeper is at work here. Because, to be honest, the mere existence of this game makes me somewhat uncomfortable too. This is about something very personal, which normally isn’t discussed much in public. I haven’t even played the game, and reading reviews about it give me the heebie-jeebies. The idea of something about death, especially the death of a child, just feels wrong to me. This shouldn’t happen because children shouldn’t die.

    But I think the focus on money is misattributing those feelings. It seems like, if someone is (possibly) making money from the death of a child that must be wrong.

    But I also feel it is important to remember what is actually happening here. Joel had cancer independent of this game. His parents took care of him until he died. This isn’t an abused child actor, this is the true story of an actual child.

    My discomfort with this game has more to do with reality – the fact that children die – than it does with money. I hope more games like this get made, because we (or at least I) tend to suppress upsetting stuff when we should be discussing it.

  18. RabbitIslandHermit says:

    Lots of people here who object to the existence of the game that they aren’t interested in. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a fan of Hollywood blockbusters object to the existence of art films. Make fun of, maybe, but decry as illegitimate and not a real film, no.