The idea of games being considered as genuine art has heavily grown in recent years. High-profile titles like The Last of Us have presented incredibly written and involving stories and characters, and the rise of independent developers has given us beautiful and unique games such as Journey and Bastion. We’re even starting to see games like Flower that transcend the ideas of traditional mechanics, to the point that they’re difficult to have a conventional genre assigned to them.
This leads us to That Dragon, Cancer, which is the latest title to aim for a unique experience and an emotional response rather than multiplayer, levelling up,and DLC. The reasons and circumstances behind its development alone are among the most fascinating and tragic I’ve ever seen. After finishing the game, I can’t call it the masterpiece I was hoping for, but it’s still a very unique, inventive, and often emotional experience.
That Dragon, Cancer was created by newcomer indie studio Numinous Games, which was formed by the husband and wife duo of Ryan and Amy Green. The story follows the raising of their son Joel, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer as an infant and continued to fight it until his death at the age of five. Through several self-contained chapters, players make use of a basic point-and-click interface as they’re presented with an abstract retelling of key moments in Joel’s life and how the parents dealt with it.
Perhaps due to both its low budget and for artistic reasons, the game presents its visuals and gameplay in a streamlined and minimalistic style. The characters lack facial features and have a low polygon count that makes them resemble papercraft, and the controls mostly utilize a very straightforward point-and-click interface. However, in terms of audio, the game is striking. The simple but moving soundtrack knows when to come in and when to stay silent. Also, every scene utilizes voice acting by the Greens, along with what I assume are archive recordings or recreations of Joel.
The Green’s dialog partially centers on conversations with friends and family that range from sweet to heartbreaking in tone, but it’s the inner monologues that deliver some of the more memorable moments. One of the game’s best scenes lets you jump between the inner monologues of both parents and two doctors when some very bad news is delivered. It’s captivating to hear everyone’s initial thoughts as well as how their mindsets change with each passing moment, and the gradual introduction of a visual metaphor summarizing the overall mood adds to the experience.
I’d argue that the game’s standout moment is Ryan sitting by himself in a hospital room, hearing Joel continually cry and scream from the pain of his illness and surgeries and wishing he could find a way to stop his son’s pain. Green delivers an inner monologue that gradually deteriorates into complete misery and desperation, and while the scene is very straightforward visually compared to other moments, its progression and delivery left me in tears. It’s very likely that it will go down as my pick for one of the most effective gaming moments of the year.
The ways the other moments are represented are quite varied, such as visual representations of how both parents are having different reactions to their situation and peaceful moments simply focusing on Joel having fun and using his imagination. While there are still effective moments spread throughout these, they still don’t prevent some of the game’s flaws from becoming apparent.
It’s worth warning gamers who expect deep and immersive mechanics that That Dragon, Cancer really focuses less on substantial gameplay and more on just being an emotional experience. You have controlled movement in most scenes, though you have to point and click to walk to each spot instead of doing it freely. There are some context-sensitive button presses, but few that mix things up in a major way. While this wasn’t a big problem for me, I do think that many gamers will desire a more hands-on and interactive approach. It admittedly does make the few moments where the game throws a curve ball at you and adjusts itself to resemble other iconic titles that much more special.
My biggest personal gripe is that the pacing can feel too slow for its own good at times. There are a few scenes in the Green’s house where not only did I have trouble figuring out what I should be doing, but wished I could move around it faster in the process. There are also some moments early on where you have to do several straightforward and repetitive actions to progress, with the problem being that a lot of them feel like optional easter eggs in other games more than something engaging.
It also felt a little strange that the final scenes of the game didn’t hit as hard as the previous highlights I mentioned. One of these contains the only genuine puzzle in the game, and I still am not sure how it worked or how I figured it out. Also, the game can be finished in about 2 hours and is severely lacking in replay value.
These issues prevent That Dragon, Cancer from being a truly stunning title, but they don’t stop it from having those high points that justify a playthrough. No matter what people may think of it, I doubt many will deny that it is a very unique and personal labor of love. It’s a game of highs and lows, but when the highs end up being as powerful as previously mentioned, it results in something that I think gamers should give a chance, regardless of preconceived notions.
This review is based on the PC version, which was provided to us.
The minimalistic approach and slow pace That Dragon, Cancer takes won't appeal to everyone, but it does contain some fiercely moving moments and a very unique overall experience.