That Dragon, Cancer is less of a game and more a series of interactive abstractions, writes Joseph Harper, but that only makes it all the more effective.
I don’t know if morons who hold the view that video games aren’t art still exist. But if so they should play That Dragon, Cancer.
An autobiographical game, created by Amy and Ryan Green, That Dragon, Cancer leads the player through a series of interactive abstractions following the Greens and their four year old son Joel’s battle with cancer. Joel was diagnosed at 12 months old. This game is his parents expression of all the emotions that came with it. It’s an experience that is bursting with sadness that you can barely grasp. But it’s also an exploration of hope and most of all, love.
It’s extremely moving. You float along through the beautifully crafted diffused light and sanded down textures of parks, hospitals, and surreal, starry dreamscapes. You feed ducks, rock gently in a chair, and float through the universe on a flock of inflated medical gloves.
There isn’t anything practically challenging about the game but emotionally there are some levels that are pretty tough going. You’re led through the narrative, and often the only thing you can control is the pace at which you move through levels. You can turn your head and examine pieces of the game more closely, but most often those examinations just reveal further heartbreak once you realise where the game is leading you. At times, That Dragon, Cancer feels like you’re trapped in a nightmare. There’s nothing to do but endure endless crying, or swim deeper into rising waters.
The Greens are a Christian family and the game is filled with biblical imagery. That could come off as confronting to a secular player. I found myself asking how they could have faith through the situations the game places them in. But rather than creating resentment, it bolsters the game’s authenticity. You’re confronted by the truthfulness of the strands that make up the game.
There are times where it feels overwrought. But ultimately this is the Green’s game. It’s not for the player alone. It’s something that is shared. And it feels wrong to question what is expressed as their lived experience.
It only takes a few hours to complete and you can get it on Steam for $17.99. For that you get a game that’s unlike anything you’ve played before and challenges not only your understanding of games, but probably your understanding of life.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.