That Dragon, Cancer is dealing with the heaviest of material, the death of a child, and the game does not feel equipped to carry it. An autobiographical game, by couple Amy and Ryan Green, That Dragon, Cancer is the story of their infant son who was diagnosed with cancer and, eventually succumbs to his illness, and how they cope with that reality.
When I first heard of the game, I let out an audible “Oof.” Cancer sucks. I went in with an open mind. The death of anyone from cancer is tragic and couple it with the death of an infant son and it’s all the worse. I expected to feel bad when I left the game. I did not expect to leave the game feeling disappointed.
Disappointment is a tricky word when talking about something like this. It implies that there was expectation – it implies that there was something worth going into this game for – an almost excitement at the possibilities. When talking about material like this, having expectations or anything of the sort can put one out to be a monster craving a tragedy, but I was excited because it looked promising. It looked like it would take a mature look at life and death.
I’m going to be straight about this: I did not like this game. I didn’t not like it because of its subject matter. This isn’t a case of “Well, it made me feel sad, so it wasn’t fun.” I was disappointed because the subject matter is close to the Green family and I was looking for this tragedy to be explored with a deft hand or a raging fist or something more than what was actually put on display.
The art style is completely minimalist in nature. The art creates a layer of separation. A faceless child is not a child I’m looking to know, but that’s what’s in this game. It’s a distracting feature. It doesn’t seem to bring any meaning to the game or bring any element besides being the throw away art style of the game. The father, Ryan Green has his beard and glasses, and the mother, Amy Green, has her eyebrows and hair, but Joel, their son, lacks any identifying marks. It creates this layer between the player and the drama unfolding.
It’s totally understandable that they wouldn’t want to model their son’s face for this, but nothing looks well made. The art style instead of elevating any sensations actually puts a barrier up between the player and the game. The fantastical elements feel more like shadow plays than something to be believed. It works to cohere the magical realism and the realistic bits but at the cost of making the entire game suffer and harder to connect with.
The small interactions between the player and Joel feel more intrusive than actually revelatory, and this is the part that feels strange to mention in a game like this, but so important to highlight. A lot of progressing involved turning around and then turning back to allow the “objective” to load in. There were moments where that wasn’t clear. There was moments were it felt like I was waiting for the game to move on. The gameplay feels sluggish, when it doesn’t feel like it’s bugging out and breaking.
These interactions feel cumbersome and they intrude upon some larger moments of the game.There were moments where I had questioned if the game was making me wait, as some sort of statement towards waiting for results or waiting for the inevitable, or if I needed to restart because the actual game was broken. When given control, everything feels so floaty and “game-y”, which is to say there’s too much feedback, too much control to the player, while simultaneously, frustrating to control, using a click to move style of movement. It felt like the “game” sections were added to adhere to some strict guideline of “game-hood,” but there’s no goals to them but connection, and again, the art style gets in the way. The “games” instead of bring the player closer actually act to push them further away.
These small little hitches and frustrations continue to snowball and get in the way of the narrative, but pushing that aside, it never dug deep enough. The writing touches on questions of faith and grace and religion, but instead of plunging into them, instead it feels like it plays on the surface, while simultaneously never being subtle. It never rises to try and answer any questions, but instead just…comes to a conclusion of the son ultimately dying.
The game is split into 14 tragic little vignette of magical realism and fantastical ideas. Few seem connected enough and instead it feels like a smorgasbord of suffering. It makes it hard to make a connection. There’s special emphasis on Ryan, it seems. A lot of moments center around his suffering. His narrative arc follows the story of acceptance of their son’s death. Amy’s on the other hand, felt far more interesting. She was the one waiting out for a miracle. She was waiting for something to save the day. Her story felt caged away though and never touched upon.
It feels like it’s fumbling with itself. It introduces symbols and metaphors and seems to either reveal them too early for them to pay off, or never returns to them. The beginning of the game involves feeding ducks, but never does anything with it. It feels out of place. The landscape, if one pays attention, has the striving motif of the game, which is budding black branches, symbolizing cancer. Instead of letting that bloom, within the first three chapters, it’s obvious what they mean and instead settle into the background and lose their power for being revealed so early.
The mini games feel so out of place. There’s a point early in the game, wherein Ryan dreams of his son, soaring through space on balloons, and being bombarded by those black branches. It quickly becomes obvious there’s no end but to succumb. The problem is, the process is so long and there’s no content to revel in or any interactions to do besides dodge, that it actually becomes a game of running into them to end the section earlier, as grim as that might be when you extrapolate that metaphor.
The game’s imprecise nature is highlighted through a small little faux-cart racing segment. That Dragon, Cancer attempts to use this segment as a way to highlight the ways in which cancer can seem like a loop around a track. Each lap, you’re collecting medication, and it’s costs are shown at the end. The problem is, the game never goes into the Green’s fiscal lives. It’s the only section of the game that hints at a sort of financial struggle, if there even was one. The controls are imprecise and feels clunky and strange. There’s no objective, but the insinuation of just to collect stuff. It becomes clear though that there’s no choices, or again, any interaction, it simply goes around.
One of the final chapters, taking place in a church, went on for so long that I had to look up a video to see if there was something I was missing – if there was some puzzle I had perhaps missed. Instead, I had to just wait. But that was one of my problems throughout the game. I wasn’t sure what was intended, and what was a glitch? Was I clicking an objective too much? Or was I not turning around at the right time? Was I waiting too long or not waiting for something?
That Dragon, Cancer never focuses. The second half of the game takes on an extended metaphor of a sea of misery, but besides that, everything seems very disconnected – that sea is left fairly quickly, and constantly interrupted. Everything seems to come together to distract the player instead of giving any enlightenment.