That Dragon, Cancer, which I backed on Kickstarter at the end of 2014, is a difficult game to write about. To be more specific, it’s a difficult game to critique. Part autobiographical documentary, part abstract adventure game, but mostly something entirely new, That Dragon, Cancer is the true story of young Joel Green and his four-year fight against cancer (diagnosed at age one), created over the span of several years. As a love letter from Amy and Ryan Green to their son, who passed away in March of 2014 at age five, and a meditation on that terrible dragon known as cancer that corrodes so many lives, it is powerful, beautiful, and devastating. As a piece of interactive art, it’s new and interesting, but flawed. And finally as a piece of programming, it could use some more refining. This is a work that is full of inspiration and made with endless passion. That Dragon, Cancer is a mess of emotions and it’s not an easy thing to digest and appraise. I have issues with it on a technical level in some areas. I have some issues with the way it delivers its “narrative”. But who am I to tell Amy and Ryan Green how they should deliver their tribute to their son? Obviously, That Dragon, Cancer is extremely personal, but it’s also extremely real. So what can I say? I guess I’ll begin by trying to tell you how That Dragon, Cancer made me feel.
It made me feel sad. It kind of wrecked me in some places. It was also an anxious game for me. I think new experiences like TDC are so important for video games as a medium, but I get very anxious when it comes time to play a game like this. I have anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, and games where I’m tasked with investing myself in an emotional story, judging an interesting new work of art, and that also involve a lot of looking around and examining details stress me out. All this coupled with what is already a very emotionally trying experience made TDC very difficult to handle for me.
The early moments of That Dragon, Cancer did not do much for me honestly. The game opens in a pleasant and interesting way, from the viewpoint of a duck on a pond eating bread that Joel is throwing on the water. The controls are simple and accessible, mostly relying solely on moving the mouse from side to side and left-clicking when prompted, and this is a game that definitely benefits from being accessible. Shortly after, the camera moves behind Joel and the player is prompted to hand him some bread to throw, but in the process a voice over from Joel’s family plays as well as sound effects, all recorded from an actual day at the park. I’ll say right now that the sound design in That Dragon, Cancer, from the music to the way the voice overs are mixed to other ambient noises, is very strong throughout, and is honestly where most of the emotion comes from, but more on that later. Anyway, since I didn’t want to miss anything, I waited to hand Joel the bread and simply listened to the dialogue…but as soon as the dialogue ended, the screen faded to black and the game moved on to the next scene, without me ever giving any bread to Joel.
This was jarring and distracting to me. There are several times in the game, especially early on, where I felt as though I had missed something, or to be more specific like I had missed out on parts of the story. The game is split into several “scenes” or chapters and sometimes I would inadvertently move on to the next scene or the current scene would suddenly end on me and I’d feel left in the dark. There are few if no comparison points for That Dragon, Cancer in video games, but one game that does come to mind is Gone Home, another narrative-driven adventure game that involves slowly moving through an environment. But Gone Home involved exploring a family’s home in one continuous motion, and the home was designed in such a way—locking off certain areas, subtly guiding the player towards certain things, etc.—that even though it was largely nonlinear I still felt like the story was mostly delivered in a proper way and like I didn’t miss any of it.
By comparison, That Dragon, Cancer doesn’t feel like it has that elegant kind of level design and it also often feels disjointed. It gives small snippets to me of the Greens’ and Joel’s life before snatching them away, sometimes abruptly when I know I’d missed content, and this made it hard to get invested in the emotion or the story sometimes, both because of me feeling like I’d “missed something” and also because the story’s delivery wasn’t exactly clear, and often feels fragmented.
Most of these gripes come from the earlier scenes in the game, however, and there was a point when a shift came and I began to become invested. The first scene that really got to me came maybe a little under halfway through the game. We are taken to a recovery room where Joel’s mom holds him in her arms, and we hear her talking to him about the awful ritual of waiting for him to wake up and about how someday in the future his victory against cancer will just be a distant memory and largely something his parents will cheer, how he’ll tire of hearing about it and have better things to think about and be proud of. Shortly after, we are left to explore the recovery rooms in the hospital. Several colorful greeting cards are littered around Joel’s recovery room. Upon picking one up and reading it, I realized that it was a message from one of the game’s Kickstarter backers commemorating a loved one who had battled cancer. Reading others, I realized they were all memorials of some kind. Thinking there would just be a few to peruse before the story moved on, I read all of the cards in the room and then exited. I stopped in my tracks. A sea of colored rectangles. The cards are everywhere. Hanging from the ceiling. Sitting on chairs, on tables, on the fridge. Dozens and dozens. My first thought was one of anxiety, of knowing because of my OCD and my fear of “missing something” that I’d have to pick up and read each and every one of those cards, and that I was pretty sure this game was going to take a lot longer for me than the advertised two hours. But almost immediately after this thought, I came to the tragic realization that every single one of these cards represented real human lives somehow affected by cancer. The first tears came after looking at just one or two more cards. This entire chapter of the game is nothing but reading about countless people affected by cancer.
This is where I remembered that I wasn’t playing through a fictional story like in Gone Home, that I wasn’t trying to invest myself in fictional characters, that every way I usually tune my brain to think about video games and stories did not apply here. This was all real. These were real people who lost their mothers, fathers, children, and best friends to cancer. Amy and Ryan Green actually went through this. Joel actually went through this. Joel died of cancer. The Greens lost their son.
One particular scene that comes later nearly destroyed me. It involves Ryan sitting by Joel’s hospital cribside one evening as the child begins to ceaselessly begin crying. As Ryan, I walked around the room, trying everything I could to try to stop the crying. The sound of it, to understate it, was heartbreaking. And after remembering that it was real, it became even more devastating. Finally, I (Ryan) managed to caress Joel and calm him down, but not a second later did he begin crying even more ferociously. I (Ryan) tried giving him something to drink and Joel immediately vomited it up. “He won’t stop crying,” I hear Ryan say. “I don’t blame him. He feels miserable.” Then: “I hate that we’re here. I hate that he’s sick. I just want him to feel better” as Joel’s howls tear a hole right through me. It was almost too much. My whole face tightened and quivered in tears. The scene mercifully ended shortly after, but that scene didn’t end there for Ryan. That was just one moment.
That Dragon, Cancer uses a lot of visual metaphors and in addition to the scenes that are grounded in reality, there are also several very abstract ones. Many of these “abstract scenes” left me somewhat bewildered rather than invested though and often took me out of the story. One scene involves encountering Joel undergoing some kind of procedure from an ominous-looking machine, before we are transported to space where Joel begins riding constellation animals, and the whole meaning of it left me dumbfounded. Sometimes these more abstract scenes would be juxtaposed with more grounded scenes of real raw emotion, and the switching back and forth caught me a bit off guard, and again left the experience feeling disjointed for me.
One metaphor that works exceptionally well, however, comes in the form of a more light-hearted and “fun” scene that involves the game surprisingly shifting into a side-scrolling platformer game starring “Joel the Baby Knight”, controlled with the arrow keys and spacebar. Basically, Amy and Ryan’s other three sons can’t sleep one night and so the parents begin to tell them a story, and as their narration unfolds, the adventure is created around the player as Joel. So they say something like “and then Joel went into a forest” and trees fall out of the sky and are laid out before the player. I reached an impassable gap just as the Greens were outlining Joel’s powers, including, conveniently, a super jumping ability that is suddenly unlocked just when I needed it. Quite frankly, it’s brilliant. At the end of the journey, Joel, of course, confronts a massive dragon boss that is a daunting challenge. This whole scene is so simple and effective, and it’s actually sort of ironic to me that this particular section succeeds so well given that it is the one that mimics a stereotypical classic video game (even being initially accessed in-game from an arcade machine).
I guess that latter point stands out to me because I’m not sure what to think of the way That Dragon, Cancer uses interactivity to tell its story. On the one hand, we have powerful scenes like the crying one that are partly so effective because we walk in Ryan’s shoes, the card scene where the player can walk around and read real memorials (and also a later scene where fully voice-acted letters from Kickstarter backers are read that is even more emotionally harrowing), and of course clever parts like the sidescrolling one. But then there are the numerous occasions where I felt that a simple mouse click here and there may have only served to annoy me and get in the way of my investment in the narrative. Sometimes I found the interactions cumbersome and unclear (I fumbled a bit trying to figure out how to push Joel on a swing, for example). I feel both simultaneously that TDC could have used more interactivity and that perhaps it could have benefited from less. The thing is, TDC is so barely interactive oftentimes that it feels like perhaps it should have had a lot more interaction or at least used it to tell the story more or perhaps it should have just taken it out altogether and just have been a game that involved moving around spaces and listening. In fact, a lot of times I found myself just sitting and listening, and sometimes didn’t even have my hand on the mouse.
No, this is not a critique on the storytelling capabilities of the interactive medium as a whole (nor is it a condemnation of unconventional “not-games”) and I still think there is enormous potential in this department. This is more an indictment of the way TDC does things than of the medium as a whole (there are many other interactive experiences already where the interactivity wholly benefits the narrative or reinvents the way a story is told and there is so much future potential in this area). I also don’t think That Dragon, Cancer would have necessarily been better suited to film, citing the previous handful of scenes I mentioned as strong counterarguments to that notion. Also, having me saturate myself in the Greens’ and Joel’s experience, linger there and inevitably feel some of their pain, is what makes this experience what it is. At the same time, like I mentioned way earlier, most of the emotion does admittedly come from the voiced sound clips rather than what’s actually happening on screen or what the player is doing. Perhaps the game’s simplistic, polygonal visual style also may hurt it somewhat as well, as it was hard for me to get invested in a blank-faced Joel, and sometimes these empty-faced characters came across as eerie. While That Dragon, Cancer is unquestionably an interesting game and while it is something I believe to be positive for video games as a medium, I just question how well it actually uses the interactive medium to deliver its experience. Perhaps this is just me trying to wrap my brain around something entirely novel though, because although comparisons can be made, there really is nothing else quite like TDC in video games or any other medium (that I’m aware of, at least).
Basically That Dragon, Cancer is a back and forth experience for me. Some scenes are powerful and raw and punching, while others fell a bit flat for me. The penultimate scene of the game was another that left me a bit lost. I found it clever at the start and it is also one of a few scenes where the game’s simplistic art does shine, but I eventually ended up being confused as to how to advance the scene, which took me out of the experience, and also what the whole thing was trying to represent exactly. The very final scene that followed, however, struck an appropriate chord, and the credits brought more tears streaming down my face.
It feels tacky to nitpick about technical shortcomings in an experience like this, and I probably wouldn’t do so if not for the fact that one instance had a large impact on my experience. It’s hard to explain this, but certain scenes just feel odd…almost like they are missing something or incomplete somehow, and in sections that do require a bit more movement than usual, the control is very stiff and awkward. This all lends the game a clunky feel at times, but most notable of all and the reason I even bring any of this up is the very unfortunate glitch I encountered where the game locked up on me. For those that have played the game (and a warning to those that haven’t), shortly after the “Drowning” chapter started, I backtracked a bit (while in control of the bird) because it seemed like I may have passed by a certain section of the level. Apparently the game didn’t count on the player backtracking at this part and it seemed to “softlock” at this point; I could look around and the music was still playing, but the prompts that normally appear that let the player move around would not appear anymore. I tried everything, but I was completely stuck. This obviously shattered my immersion and at a point late in the game when I was extremely invested. I was crestfallen at first at the thought of starting the whole game over (there’s no saving and it’s obviously meant to all be played in one sitting), but upon going into the pause menu, I remembered that I could select chapters individually. Luckily, I had just started a chapter so I didn’t lose any progress, but it still momentarily took me out of the experience in a large way, which is a huge shame in an experience like this.