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.