The question of “are video games art” is not a new one in the medium, and there is a very loud group of the gaming media that desperately wants to convince everyone that yes, they are. While I personally believe that games can work as an artistic expression, they are only successful at doing so if they are taking advantage of what the genre is. For a videogame to be art it needs to be a videogame first. Recently we’ve witnessed the rise of the “walking simulator”, games where the developers attempt to plumb emotional depths to the detriment of gameplay and the delight of critics. That Dragon, Cancer seems like it could easily fall into this trap, but it doesn’t. For one, it feels like a more personal and honest effort than most of the games it could conceivably be compared too. It makes an effort to be more interactive instead of just having a 3D backdrop for the developer to add whatever message they want to convey. It is clearly a personal work of art done to cope with a tragedy most of us will be lucky enough to never have to experience. Ultimately the game does accomplish what it sets out to do, that is to show in a couple of hours the experience of a four year battle against childhood cancer.
It feels that every year we do the spooky picks I am the editor that seems to struggle the most finding things to put on my list. It’s not that games don’t scare me because I am some bulletproof tough guy who isn’t afraid of anything. The issue is that my fears are much more mundane than those usually covered in the horror genre. I am not afraid of zombies or old gods. The death of a child, on the other hand, is completely terrifying. That Dragon, Cancer is clearly the result of a person trying to come to terms with a devastating trauma most of us can only hope to never experience. It is difficult to discuss the game without really spoiling it, although if you’ve followed the story of its development you already know what the ending is. If you want to avoid spoilers, the summary is as follows: This is a very personal work clearly born out of pain and used to cope with a tragedy. As a game, it aims to convey some of the distress and effects an illness like cancer can have on a family, and in that endeavor it is successful. That being said, it is very hard to recommend this game to anyone who isn’t very, very interested in the subject matter.
Spoilers start here:
That Dragon, Cancer was developed by Ryan and Amy Green in the wake of their son’s death due to cancer. The game clocks in at about two hours long, and in that time, it attempts to show what their family went through. The game is not so much about Josh, their son, although he is obviously central to it. It is about the experiences of Ryan and Amy themselves, how they coped, and to a lesser extent, how it affected their other children. The game itself starts with a happy scene of the family feeding ducks on a pond, while dialogue plays in the background of the older children asking why their younger sibling isn’t growing, or talking.
As I mentioned before, That Dragon, Cancer does attempt to make these scenes interactive to the extent that it is possible. It often has mini-games that serve as metaphors for the larger themes the games tries to present. In one such area, you play a racing game through the hospital, representing the rounds of chemotherapy, and the years in the cancer ward. The mini game itself is not very good, but it brings the point home in a pretty fun way (or as fun as cancer can be). A better example is a side-scrolling mini-game where you play as Baby Knight Josh fighting the titular dragon Cancer. The level design is simple, but the controls are pretty decent. In fact during the final boss fight with the dragon, I fought him for a full twenty minutes before I decided to just let him kill me because you cannot kill it even if you deplete its health.
Not all of the game is this interactive. Once it passes the point where it becomes clear that Josh is not going to make it, the tone changes drastically, and there really isn’t room for clever interactive sequences. It is still heavily metaphorical with some scenes that can be genuinely hard to listen to as Ryan and Amy come to grips with their child mortality and try to cope in their own way. A particular stand out is a section where Ryan is trying to console a sick Josh, who is in constant pain and is unable to even drink some juice. A sick child is something every parent goes through at some point, except most of us have the luxury of knowing that eventually our child will get better.
That Dragon, Cancer can be heart wrenching, and it does a good job of showing what the journey its creators went through was like. It does this in a way that can only be achieved by being an interactive product. It is a game, and it remembers that as it moves along to its tragic conclusion. Nevertheless this is a title that is very difficult for me to recommend. It is not a bad game, and it does what it sets out to do. But when you ask who this game is for the answer is clear, this game was at least in part meant to help Josh’s parents to process and come to terms with the death of their child, a goal I certainly hope it has achieved. Even so, unless you are particularly interested in the story or the subject matter, I’d skip this one.