That Dragon, Cancer is one of those games that you want to recommend to people because it’s an capital-i, capital-e “Important Experience.” It is however its subject matter that makes it also difficult to recommend. It is not an enjoyable experience by any stretch of the imagination. Nothing that approaches with the topic of terminal disease with the kind of intensity that That Dragon, Cancer does can be. What it is is an educational and heartbreaking way to spend two hours.
The control scheme for That Dragon, Cancer is fairly straightforward. You can play the entire game using only your mouse but you can also use the WASD keys to look around if you like. To move around, you click on objects in the environment and in doing so, you are taken on a walking tour of a parent’s waking nightmare. There are puzzles, but like the disease itself, they can’t really be solved. You attempt to solve them and often no definitive answer presents itself. It is only when you stop trying to solve them that the game moves you forward.
Split largely between your own perspective as an omnipotent observer and from the perspectives of two parents, you witness the torturous grieving process that accompanies your young child being diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. As both parents attempt to grapple with the gravity of the situation, you are escorted through a number of vignettes that explain the tragedy of their circumstances in terms both mundane and abstract.
One sequence involved the weary father begging the young Joel, who is in agony from his chemotherapy, to stop crying. He won’t. He can’t. My headphones were a cacophony of excruciating, very real toddler weeping for almost ten minutes and when it concluded I found myself wondering how anyone could go through that for months or even years on end as the treatment ran its course
Graphically, the game is quite simple. Everything is comprised out of flat, coloured geometric shapes, the malevolent disease looming in the periphery as black, tendrilled masses. The character models are minimalist in design but still convey a surprising amount of personality. That Dragon, Cancer cleverly leverages its simple visuals to craft its often startling imagery in ways that communicate its message through feeling more than anything else.
I don’t know how you score a game like this and I’ve had to think quite hard about whether I should given how deeply personal it is. It will devastate parents and chill everyone else to the bone. The reality is that you should play it. That Dragon, Cancer is educational, emotional, powerful and very simple experience. You won’t enjoy yourself one bit but that’s kind of the point.
Review Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Lovely visuals; Powerful storytelling
Lowlights: That Joel and the Green family had to go through such a terrible thing at all. Rest in peace, Joel.
Developer: Numinous Games
Publisher: Numinous Games
Released: January 12, 2016
Platform: Windows PC, Mac, Ouya
Reviewed on PC