January 15, 2016 6 Comments
That Dragon, Cancer is not the most technically solid game. The mechanics can be clunky, the next thing you’re supposed to click can be unclear, a driving section literally controlled worse than the time I played Pole Position at a pizzeria with a broken steering wheel (how is that even possible?), a section framed like a retro arcade game has extraordinarily ugly hand-drawn art instead of pixel graphics (EDIT: Which I just found out were drawn by Ryan Green’s surviving children. Well fuck, I now feel like I’m just about the worst person ever. I’m grateful Ryan found humor in it, and hey, with all the dosh he’s making here, he can afford to buy them art lessons! I stand by my point that it should have had pixel art though). the character models make the game look like it could be an origin story for Silent Hill’s monsters, and I’m pretty sure if you hung your porch swing like this, your insurance would cancel on you.
Really, nothing I said above can’t be applied to any other point and click game, except the steering part (which lasts roughly a minute and has no fail condition) and maybe the graphics in general being ugly. A lot of the criticism being pointed at That Dragon, Cancer has to do with it getting a “free pass” on technical flaws because the game is the true story of a family who lost their child to brain cancer. I’m not, just like I didn’t excuse it for Walking Dead or Wolf Among Us. Games I enjoyed despite technical flaws. But That Dragon, Cancer is not presented or sold as a technical show piece, just as those games also aren’t. They’re story-driven experiences that use video games as the delivery method. Some of those I like (Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Walking Dead, Wolf Among Us) and others I loath (The Beginner’s Guide, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture).
Of course, what makes That Dragon different is that it is based on real people. In this case the Green family, who lost their beautiful son Joel to brain cancer in 2014. Many indie devs have used their real life experiences as the driving force for their creative endeavors, but this one is different. It aspires to present you the emotional journey as it happened. The ride you’re taken on is not a pleasant one, and every fleeting moment of joy is quickly (sometimes startlingly) replaced with feelings of emptiness, helplessness, disconnect, apprehension, fear, anger, loneliness, and most crushingly of all, that terrible feeling that you might just want it to be over with. For better or worse, it’s all here, and it’s more authentic than you can possibly imagine. While the imagery can be surreal, the emotions are always real. For that reason, many people don’t want to play it. It’s just too heavy.
But, what impresses me a great deal about That Dragon, Cancer, is the dignity. Nobody would have faulted the Green family for turning the story into a fluff piece where the characters behave the way they wish they had. Where they stood steadfast and strong at all times, their faith never wavering. Gaming is escapism, after all. Story telling is too. It would have been easy to tell a story of a family so confident in their faith and so full of love and family unity that a little thing like cancer couldn’t break them. Maybe even have the Life of Pi style reveal at the end where you learn that the person relaying the story admits they told it the other way because it was simply easier to live with. Hell, I don’t think That Dragon would have been any less moving or critically acclaimed if it had gone that route.
But it didn’t.
The blow is not softened here. At all. Cancer sucks. Learning your child is terminal sucks. Watching them die sucks. It’s going to cause you to feel things that are unspeakable. You’ll feel lost, and you’ll feel hope, and you’ll realize that life goes on, and sometimes that will feel okay, and sometimes it won’t. That Dragon, Cancer is unflinching, and unkind, because that’s what cancer is. It doesn’t push an agenda. It doesn’t present the Greens as some exceptional family. Some people are walking away from That Dragon with hope, though most of that I got from the fact that they’re still standing. I questioned myself whether I would be, given their circumstances. That they could make it makes me hopeful.
The most common question I’ve gotten about the game is the “religious angle.” I don’t feel there is one. That would suggest That Dragon, Cancer pushes a message that “through faith you will overcome all.” It doesn’t. Not even close. Religion factors into the narrative because religion is legitimately a part of the family’s life. The father even questions not only his faith but the nature of his deity. You know, sort of like any person in their right mind would given the circumstances. This is not a religious game. It’s a game about a religious family. It even ends noting that their prayers were not answered, and it doesn’t really try to spin that. While their faith remains strong, it doesn’t tell people they only made it through prayer and church. In fact, I was left believing the family themselves sometimes question how they made it at all. There is no ultimate message here, except that your life will be changed, in some form, and while you can come to peace with that, a full understanding of it is likely unobtainable. That they told THAT story with such class and dignity is one of the most remarkable things I’ve experienced in any medium.
This might sound weird, but I found That Dragon, Cancer to be insightful above all else. Statistically speaking, we’re all going to have experiences losing someone to cancer, and it’s never pretty. But, there’s something about watching someone lose their child that strikes us in a way that’s almost primal. When it happens, we all say the same thing: “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” Now, I think I can to a small degree. That’s the mark of a wonderful storyteller: that they can make you imagine the unimaginable. That’s why I’ll never forget That Dragon, Cancer. It articulates an experience even those who live through what the Greens did seem to struggle to put into words. You’ll cry, and you’ll hug your loved ones, and you might even wish you had never played it. But you’ll never forget it. And that counts for something.
$14.99 said “fuck cancer” in the making of this review.
That Dragon, Cancer is Chick Approved. I’ve decided not to rank it on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. It just didn’t seem right, since I don’t feel I can quantify the value of a game like this over games that are not real life experiences. That Dragon, Cancer is very good. I highly recommend this game.