That Dragon, Cancer Review

The father, son, and the holy spirit.

Spoiler warning: This review discusses plot elements that may be considered spoilers.

There’s a section of That Dragon Cancer where Amy and Ryan Green, the game’s creators and lead characters, have to tell their two older sons exactly what’s happening to their baby brother Joel. The most straightforward answer to that question is one no child--really no parent--should ever have to hear: Joel is diagnosed at a year old with a merciless form of brain cancer, and given less than a year to live. This is not the story Amy and Ryan tell their other children.

The tale they tell is a bedtime story, recorded, and given life in That Dragon, Cancer as a pixelated Ghosts n’ Goblins riff; Joel is a brave knight who shoots enemies with spears. At the start, he's bound to succeed in his quest because of divine grace, the light of God helping him out, eventually forced to do battle with a physical manifestation of the titular dragon, cancer incarnate. The battle stops dead, however, when one of the boys mentions a neighbor who also died of cancer, and asks, in that guileless way only children can, where the neighbor’s grace was when that neighbor died. Amy answers that: sometimes, the grace manifests when the brave knight doesn’t have to fight anymore, and they can rest.

More than it is any sort of game with a victory-state, or a satisfying climax, That Dragon, Cancer is Ryan and Amy’s abstract, dream-world document of the continual search for, if not their own grace, then at least respite for themselves and their lost child. As such, it’s hard, bordering on impossible, to judge as a game in the strictest sense, even under looser Gone Home/The Beginner's Guide terms. It has no need or interest to entertain anyone who plays it. The existential terror and disorientation of the experience has no real satisfaction, just the hope that expressing it can let its creators lift the burden. There are no Achievements, no points to be gained. There is only the ability to weave and work abstractly through the pain of its creators as they did, the interactivity of the medium allowing them the freedom to craft often virtual cathedrals to stand in monument of it.

Ryan and Amy struggle to help their other children understand Joel's plight.
Ryan and Amy struggle to help their other children understand Joel's plight.

Crucially, every emotional breakthrough, every new revelation, every gut-stab of a memory in That Dragon, Cancer must be discovered, confronted, and processed, as it undoubtedly had to be in the minds of its creators as it happened. The only tools you have to do so are the ability to look around, and a single button to interact. A single button lets you hear recorded family memories, the narrated, desperate thoughts of the parents. A single button keeps Ryan from drowning in the seas of his depression, to view the endless “thank you” cards at their hospital, to experience even the sheer mundaniaty of life with a loved-one's lethal illness staring you in the eyes. In That Dragon, Cancer, coping is a gameplay mechanic. The fact that it’s difficult to do so is deliberate and appropriate. Even as rudimentary as many of the obstacles are in That Dragon, Cancer, there are still moments where the game prevents the player from moving on without struggling with the decrepit, Myst-like point-and-click-to-move control scheme. In that regard, it actually has more in common with early horror games of the medium than it does any of the “walking simulators” that have cropped up in recent years.

The miracle isn’t that Joel’s tumor goes away. It’s that, for a brief moment, Joel sleeps. The screaming nightmare is over for a night, with the knowledge that it will return. It is terrifying, and more frighteningly, it happens to millions every day.

Joel was expected to not last the year, and lasted four. It’d be so easy to call his defiance of those odds a miracle, but the game has no compunctions of bursting that bubble before it ever inflates. The scene after we hear Amy talk of grace and miracles to her children is a sequence where Joel can’t stop crying because of the pain in his head, to the point of banging his head against the crib to make it end. You have the ability to walk with him around the hospital room, to try and feed him, to give him juice that he promptly vomits up, with Ryan finally resigning to prayer and, ultimately, complete surrender to the fact the crying won’t end. The miracle isn’t that Joel’s tumor goes away. It’s that, for a brief moment, Joel sleeps. The screaming nightmare is over for a night, with the knowledge that it will return. It is terrifying, and more frighteningly, it happens to millions every day. Imagine there’s a disease that causes that level of agony to very real children. There is no physical means of stopping it, and despite Ryan’s constant pleading to God for deliverance, the Lord neither takes Joel away, nor does he give him peace in any sort of timely manner.

That Dragon, Cancer effectively conveys real, complex emotions.
That Dragon, Cancer effectively conveys real, complex emotions.

God plays a huge role in That Dragon, Cancer. This family is in dire need of a savior that won’t come, and it may very well depend on the player’s own relationship with God how one chooses to interpret the fact that, despite that absence, they remain hopeful. That said, there are moments where that faith is questioned, where the dissonance that comes with having faith in something that doesn’t seem to have much faith in you must be sorted out. While Amy’s faith remains true from beginning to end, Ryan’s faith seems to take the biggest hit during the game, particularly during a sequence with the detritus of his tiny life displayed as an inconsequential dot in the middle of a vast ocean, crawling with malignant, throbbing tumors.

The game never flinches from the evil of cancer, which ultimately makes the moments of happiness, as simple as they are, mean the world. The game is constructed to let players find the beaming light in less grandiose moments: finding time, even after a hard doctor’s visit, to get excited for dinner, roadtripping to California, watching Joel feed ducks at a lake, letting him ramble about how loud lions can roar, or watching his favorite cartoon on a tablet. Surrounded by immeasurable pain, the tiny details have lingered in Ryan and Amy, enough to pockmark the darkness inherent in this game with a simple, untouchable joy.

This family is in dire need of a savior that won’t come, and it may very well depend on the player’s own relationship with God how one chooses to interpret the fact that, despite that absence, they remain hopeful.

That Dragon, Cancer ends on a deliberate image; it’s an image that, at first, feels entirely unearned, schmaltzy and cute in ways that, even at its most playful, the rest of the game isn’t. In narrative terms, we see a written ending, showcasing a faith in something beyond all the death and disease that gives us all what we love most in this world. From the side of its creators, it’s a permanent place where a mother and father have distilled everything wonderful about their child. This is the only place where we truly meet Joel. Not his disease, not his limitations. Just the child they got to know, surrounded by everything he loved.

It’s virtually impossible to not bring one’s own biases into That Dragon, Cancer, because death and disease are universal. Just as it’s impossible to quantify whether the exploration of those two heavy topics is worth the time and considerable emotional energy, it’s impossible to truly quantify the immeasurable value of being able to not just forever present the best version of a person to the world, but being able to earn his presence in every way his parents did.

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The Good
Powerful meditation on life and death
Spirituality presented without taking any one side
The language of old video games used to wonderfully imaginative effect
The Bad
Clunky controls and glitches sometimes get in your way
About GameSpot's Reviews

About the Author

Justin Clark was able to finish That Dragon Cancer in about two hours. He WAS going to make pancakes for breakfast the next morning. Those plans have changed.
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Avatar image for zedetach

A game that centers around a disease is struggling to sell despite rave reviews. How ironic.

Avatar image for dculex

A game about cancer omg , now why should i play this even if you give it 10/10 not touching that .

Avatar image for Crazed8

Boy cancer stinks. Didn't realize it till now.

Avatar image for Blk_Mage_Ctype

Am I the only one who finds the premise of this game to be extremely offensive and views it as nothing more than a cheap attempt at provoking a strong emotional response in order to create the illusion of depth?

Avatar image for bobbo888

@Blk_Mage_Ctype: Well considering the lead developer of the game, Ryan Greens son had recently passed away from cancer at the age of 5, I'd say it's more of a way for him to express his feelings. Not offensive. No illusion.

Avatar image for PicklesHardly

@Blk_Mage_Ctype: I hope that you are. The premise of the game was for two parents to share the experience of their intensely personal journey through their son's cancer... How can you call that 'extremely offensive'? If you think this game only has an illusion of depth, then I think you need to have some serious time reflecting on what it means to be human.

Avatar image for sladakrobot

I am no intellectuall or the smartest person around but whats the fuzz about terms of "game" and a "video game"?

Avatar image for kenundrum7

@sladakrobot: Because close examination of this title reveals there is no game component to it.

Avatar image for sladakrobot

@kenundrum7: what are games components and what video games components?

Avatar image for NTM23

@sladakrobot: Sorry, this is late, but I just beat the game. While I understand the topic of saying something is and something isn't a game, and I usually say it doesn't matter, it's a game (like Gone Home), to me, I feel like in this case, it'd be a bit insensitive to call it a 'game'. Interactive experience is a better way to put it.

Avatar image for punksterdaddy

This game is b*llocks!

Avatar image for jenovaschilld

This game is a simulator, much like a flight simulator of the early 90's. It's a simulator that allow someone to experience the struggle parents go through with a long painful disease that their child eventually succumbs to.

If you just need to label the game in order to understand it, just think of it as a zoo simulator, but one in which there are alot more tears.

Avatar image for sploitz85

@jenovaschilld: #wow #sodeep

Avatar image for ntwha

Over here there is a heated debate in the comment section about the proper use of labels and whether this is a game or not. Over on IGN there is a heated debate on whether it is in good form to ask someone to review a game ( or "Interactive Art Piece" just to cover my bases) that is based on a real life personal tragedy... I can't believe I'm starting to miss the good old days where everyone just argued about whether the reviewer got the score "right" or not. Excuse me while I go over to the Skyward Sword comment section. I feel like reading some rational even-tempered comments.

Avatar image for paradingwolves

Oh dear me, all this fighting over whether this is a "game" is hilarious. Call it a movie? But you don't get to control the actors in a movie will be the cry from the closed minded fools below.

Games don't have to be "fun" that's not in the definition of the word game. I find Scrabble terribly boring but you don't see me on the Hasbro page saying "SCRABBLE'S NOT A GAME BECAUSE I DON'T SEE HOW IT COULD BE FUN!" this generation is doomed, so many of you think that if you have an opinion on something it's final and you can't see that things can be viewed from many different angles. I think it stems from everyone getting a damn ribbon for just showing up now.

It truly is disgusting that these parents did something to honour their child's memory and tell the story of an incredibly brave little boy who knew very little other than pain in this world and turning it into something that will benefit others going through the same struggles. (All proceeds are being donated) and all you arrogant, self righteous clowns focus on is it's classification as a game. Get over yourselves for 5 seconds.

Avatar image for kenundrum7

@paradingwolves: Calling it a game does not make it better. It is a powerful story. It has some interactivity. It is an interactive story. What is wrong with that?

I get your point, comparatively it seems and is very petty to speak of classification, but sadly life goes on. We cannot remain down because of the terrible things happening today.

If you believe in God, you can have a wonderful hope for the future, where things like cancer and death will be no more.

Avatar image for paradingwolves

@kenundrum7: To me it really doesn't matter what it's called, it could be classified as a novel, the review is very detailed and you know what you're getting. It doesn't fit 100% into any of the main mediums; movie, novel, video game and video game is probably the most fitting in my opinion but you have a valid point as well.

The problem I have is that when I read this review it invoked emotions and made me feel for the little kid and the parents, never did classification cross my mind. It just reinforced a lot of the opinions I have about people on the internet, they'll use any platform to try and start a pointless argument that only has one answer, the one they agree with.

Also some also instantly started accusing the parents of trying to profit from their child's death without stopping for two seconds and typing the name of the game into google and realizing the proceeds are being donated to related charities.

Avatar image for kenundrum7

@paradingwolves: I am generally like a robot, but this story moved me. I knew what it was about, but when I saw the little boy it reached me, and the real picture at the end. Wow. To think families have to go though this stuff is terrible. We may think we have problems, but when you see things like this, it puts things into perspective. Then our problems do not seem so big after all, unless you are going though something similar.

Avatar image for timepasser

@justinclark I don't understand why you didn't make pancakes the next day?

That Dragon, Cancer More Info

  • First Released Jan 11, 2016
    • iOS (iPhone/iPad)
    • Linux
    • + 4 more
    • Macintosh
    • Oculus Go
    • Ouya
    • PC
    That Dragon, Cancer is an adventure game that acts as a living painting, a poem, and an interactive retelling of Ryan and Amy Green's experience raising their son Joel, a 4-year-old currently fighting his third year of terminal cancer.
    Average Rating31 Rating(s)
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    Developed by:
    Numinous Games
    Published by:
    Tap Happy LLC, Numinous Games