I say that simple word and you almost certainly have an instant emotional reaction. Maybe you yourself have faced this Dragon, and you almost certainly know someone who is fighting, or lost the fight with That Dragon Cancer.
But we don’t like to talk about That Dragon.
Amy and Ryan Green’s son Joel fought the Dragon, and along with the rest of the team at Numinous Games spark discussion about this uncomfortable topic with possibly the most important game to launch this year. In a sea of cookie cutter space marine shooters and annualized sequels, That Dragon, Cancer stands out as a game that puts a human face on a part of life that we all don’t want to acknowledge, the end of it. It could be said that gaming, more than any other form of entertainment,needs this discussion. How many times do the words, “Game Over” appear on our screens only to be followed by “Continue?”
While That Dragon is definitely present in the game, lurking in the edges with pulsing black spines, it is not the game’s main focus. This is Joel’s story, a courageous boy who fought the dragon for four years. The game is very approachable, needing only directional control and one action button, making the game accessible to many players. The story is split up into chapters, and each chapter is like walking into a snow globe, an encapsulated scene along Joel’s fight with the Dragon. Many of the earlier scenes with Joel are bright and happy, and the game allows you to linger here; pushing Joel on a swing, hearing his infectious laughter as he tosses a whole loaf of French bread to a duck in a pond, or counting down to “go” as he giggles down the slide.
Time with Joel was the highlight of the two hours I spent playing That Dragon, Cancer, and I appreciated that the game allowed me to hang out with him as long as I wanted, not pushing me to the next scene. Other stories are woven into That Dragon, Cancer as well, in the form of paintings, photos, and cards honoring others that fought that Dragon. These messages were collected by the team at Numinous games, and their inclusion pushes the player to acknowledge the fact that this is an epic battle going on all the time. The messages share loss, pain. They celebrate victory, express hope. Including these other voices was a gracious choice by the developers, brought even more humanity to the game, and instilled the sense that we’re all in this together.
That Dragon, Cancer handles a heavy topic with incredible sensitivity and grace. It manages to be an incredibly personal, yet universal story. The choice to make all characters faceless allows the player to bring their own experience into the game, maybe seeing themselves as the father, Ryan, drowning in despair, or the mother, Amy, clinging to faith and hope no matter what. Through the medium of games, complex human emotion can be explored by symbolism such as water filling a waiting room, drowning out conversation, then changing into rough sea. I have never seen helpless despair visualized so well.
Although the game explores the emotions of despair and frustration, it has many moments of joy, and truly concludes in a hopeful, uplifting way. The game will challenge the player, but it will not lead you into a dark tunnel with no light at the end. There is hope here. There is laughter. For everyone affected by That Dragon, for anyone who has watched a love one fight it and survive, for those who have lost a loved one to the Dragon, there is love and hope here.
Oh Joel’s laugh! You need to play this game just to hear that.