FEAR’S OIL SALESMAN
About halfway through That Dragon, Cancer, I came across a scene that was very solemn like most of the scenes before it. I explored the area, looking at handprints of children in a cancer ward until it opened up to reveal several greeting cards strewn around the room. I checked each one before leaving the room, revealing that the whole center was littered with them. Each card was different in tone, some positive and some negative, but all were about cancer patients. Some were survivors, some were still fighting – many had lost. It’s a powerful moment and as I started to read the cards in the bigger area, I started to cry. The sheer attrition from each card I read overwhelmed me. Even after I composed myself, I wound up crying again later. And yet, this is all completely optional. As soon as you enter the bigger area, you can very quickly see the way to leave this scene entirely. You don’t need to read all the cards, you don’t need to read any of them really; I didn’t have to cry. However, I was determined to read each and every card in that section. I refused to leave one card unread, one person ignored, and that’s what That Dragon, Cancer does so well. It makes you care, it gets you invested, and appeals solely to your emotions, for better or worse.
That Dragon, Cancer tells an abstract tale of baby Joel, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Told through various perspectives (some of which are omnipresent), you interact with various scenarios and minigames. These will uncover the timeline of events as well as the means Joel’s parents, the creators of the game, take to cope with their situation. There are also scenes that deal with the impact cancer has had on others, such as the scene described previously. The game tells this story using a fairly elementary graphical style, with an emphasis on pastel colors and polygonal models. Facial features are noticeably missing, perhaps to allow the player to create their own in their mind, and there’s virtually no textures. Add in a calm, atmospheric soundtrack that complements the visuals and it makes for a simple aesthetic that’s visually appealing and inviting, contrasting the heavy subject matter. It also makes for a personal experience, especially with the voice acting in the game done by Joel’s family. This is a true story created by the people who experienced the events in the game, a rarity not just in video games but most forms of art. And they do a fine job with the abstract dialogue that in the wrong hands would typically feel hackneyed and pretentious. This is all presented to the player unfiltered and that raw yet fully realized vision makes the game’s presentation flawless.
You play through That Dragon, Cancer solely with a mouse, clicking around the area to move and interact with toys, people, phones, cards, and more. Each area allows you to get a better feel of the family as well as the situation in abstract and subversive ways via dialogue, recorded messages, and letters. You’ll play with Joel in a park, fly around an ocean filled with bottles with messages in them, and more. One particularly well done section is in an office where a child’s See n’ Say toy allows you to experience the conversation from different perspectives. Another is a heartbreaking scene that has you take care of Joel as his father inside the ward. It was the third time I cried while playing. At times, you’ll also participate in minigames, such as a go-kart race through the medical facility and an action-platforming sequence which culminates with you fighting the namesake dragon. This game excels at allowing you to explore and discover sections of the story as well as more detailed elements of the characters. As a result, these minigames typically feel like attempts to remind the player that this is a game and typically don’t work. Some, most noticeably the final minigame, are too obtuse and I never understood what I was supposed to do before the game just decided to move on. It’s a flawed experience as a result, but when it does successfully convey its purpose, it does so with flying colors.
The Verdict: 7.9 out of 10
At just slightly over two hours, That Dragon, Cancer is not a long game. It’s an explorative adventure game with minimal replayability that those looking for a more active experience won’t enjoy. There’s also no fail state, meaning that some will cry “walking simulator” or will claim it’s not really a video game. Debates over the format aside, That Dragon, Cancer is a sublime piece of video game artistry, expressing a perspective of a depressing, yet all too common situation that other media formats would struggle with. It’s a crushingly personal game that has no interest in entertaining or even appealing to the player, but does show what video games can do artistically and most importantly, do successfully. It’s difficult to recommend a game like this. To do so would recommend you be sad for two hours and the impact it leaves on you afterward. To do so would also mean recommending a piece of art that will give you pause, make you think, and inform you on a personal level. It’s ultimately up to you. Your mindset, your own experiences, and your demeanor will all determine whether this is something you should play. I’m personally glad I played it because I feel it was important for me to do so but I don’t think I’ll ever play it again. Ultimately, if nothing else, I do think you should consider That Dragon, Cancer.
Review copy provided by developer. For more information about what the score means, check out our official review scale.