That Dragon, Cancer

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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.

That Dragon Cancer
The Faceless Joel Green

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.

A moment of levity from the conclusion
A moment of levity from the conclusion

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.

The Depths of the Unknown: The Eldritch Teller

The Depths of the Unknown is an attempt to reveal and talk about games that are not talked about: games that are only a few bucks, last only a few minutes, and exist to stand by themselves and the purpose of this segment is to shine light on those experiences and pull something out of them.


The name
The Eldritch Teller stuck out to me. It’s a good name. It’s invocative of something grander than oneself, but it inspired quite a bit of apprehension in me because I’ve just grown tired of the “unknowable cosmic horror” tropes. I’ve grown tired of the unknowable because it feels like a waste of time to really concern oneself with what one can not know. Maybe that’s the point. Thankfully, The Eldritch Teller never seems to concern itself with that either.

Yes, I am a cool adult. It's very nice of you to notice.
This is the sort of humor The Eldritch Teller deals in and I love it.

The Eldritch Teller, by Arielle Grimes (@slimekat on Twitter), is a game with really one option and that’s what the player does when they hear their phone ring. The Eldritch Teller, of title fame, is a robed, antlered, faceless entity, that simply acts as narrator. The game looks as if it’s running on a faulty CRT run through a fish-eye lens. Pixelated geometry spirals and a space-scape acts as the letter box. The distortion makes some of the text hard to read, but the actual art in the game is well made. Silhouettes are vague enough that it doesn’t bring any strict definition to the “You” of the story, leaving the story open to anyone participating. There’s no attachment – The Eldritch Teller knows what it’s audience is. The game plays like a ghost story being told to you, about you. The Eldritch Teller has no time to really consider what you do. It knows what you’d do. The story being told is a vague enough story that it feels like “your” story and doesn’t suffer from being so vague.

The screen flashes to convey small story beats and focus from high detailed figures to explosive bits of pixelated lines portraying, well, the unknowable. The art is pixel art, but it’s not overly stylized pixel art – it’s a means to create indistinction. Nothing is very clear, as something set in a cosmic horror setting should be.

I had mentioned earlier that I had a slight bit of fear – not a psychological or primal fear, but a fear of disdain. Between friends, I’ve referred to the cosmic horror tropes as “Cthulhu shit.” There’s two camps: those that have been trying to separate the roots from the mythos and concentrate on the kind of horror that is found in those stories, a pure fascination and healthy fear of the unknowable that has no time nor regard for you, and those that find delight in the lore of the Cthulhu mythos – a paradox in itself. The idea of a mythos behind something defined as unknowable is silly, or maybe it’s expected. It’s putting structure around something one can not know and adding your flairs to it. The second worst thing HP Lovecraft did, after being a terrible racist, was describe Cthulhu and inspire an unknowable amount of merchandise to spawn after his death.

I am so ready.
The combination of casual tones and a simple color pallet is really striking.

The Eldritch Teller falls squarely in the first, personally, more interesting camp. It’s the camp that is more interested in what it means to interact with the unknowable. It’s friendly, it can come in contact with you, but it feels less like looking over the edge of a cliff and more like being talked down to by a teacher.

The narrator’s tone is frank and casual, toying with the player’s expectation of, well, an Eldritch Teller. It’s a character that toys with the player’s expectations of itself. My favorite line in the piece is “You’re a cool adult who definitely deserves respect.” It’s that tone that I enjoyed. It’s not a narrator that’s going to blow anyone away, but I appreciated that. It brought levity to the parts that would be dull and got out of the way when action began.

The balance of the tones creates an interesting effect. The humor leaves the player just open enough to let the turn take you. When it switches to a bit of cosmic horror it’s a slow shift, easing you into it. The harder turn is a return to normalcy and that’s where the narrative is at it’s most interesting to me – The Eldritch Teller is a tragedy. It’s a comedy that trades not in the unknown, but uses the unknown to set up it’s ultimate joke and the punchline is depression. The story being told is about waiting for a phone call. The Eldritch Teller tells you that you await this call, but you’ve always wanted to adventure, just as most kids have. Regardless of which of the three storylines you choose (to casually get the phone, spring forward for the phone, or to sit paralyzed in anxiety), you’re ultimately ending the call to adventure. The adventure is the moment of “abduction,” of being taken away, but in the end, the phone call needs to be answered and the job needs to be taken. That’s the state of the world once you leave it. The extravagance of adventure is brief, fleeting, and wouldn’t accept you, no matter how much you crave it. There is really only one path where there is a true interaction between “you” and the cosmic horrors. The great irony is they’re quite polite. They’re not lording over you the fact that they’re of some higher headspace.

It’s a short little experience, it’s about 5 to 10 minutes. It’s not going to revitalize a joy for cosmic horror, but it feels like a good response to the exhaustion in those ideas. It treats it as window dressing, as opposed to the window itself. It’s the kind of way I want this setting and set of tropes to be explored. The initial idea behind the settings is a shallow well that can only sustain a few stories, or at least that’s my opinion. That’s because stories seem to want to constantly question the unknown, as opposed to interacting with the unknown. It’s limiting, narratively, when your only interactions you can have with the void are to go mad. What I liked about The Eldritch Teller is it felt like I had fallen into the void’s living room and it picked me up and asked how I was doing, sent me on my way, without any significant conversation. The Eldritch Teller is not going to change your life. It’s not going to unlock some big dark secret of the universe or lead you to an epiphany, but it’s entertaining – even if it’s whole purpose is to just let you know just how insignificant you are.

If you’d like to play this for yourself, you can go here. Pay a few bucks and you can experience all of the choices in the story. If you play for free, you’re restricted to whatever choice you pick – there’s no reloading the game and starting over to see the rest.