It’s somewhat frustrating to try to cover this game, since I feel woefully ill-equipped to do it justice. As the atheistic child of a “I believe in something but I don’t really go to Church” mother and a seriously lapsed Catholic father, my ability to speak powerfully about God in any real specific, theological sense is almost nonexistent. I did what I could with what I could grasp, but honestly, my knowledge of 21st Century Christianity ends at what I can pick up through cultural osmosis. Which is a shame, because I sense there are subtleties in the way the game frames God, His will, and the way Amy and Ryan deal with it that I could never pick up on. Here’s hoping someone with a stronger background in religious studies runs with it and makes a great read of this game.
That said, the transcript:
The moment that That Dragon, Cancer, broke me was in the room with the cards. Going into the game everyone knows it’s about childhood cancer and it’s not like that’s a happy subject, but you also expect it to be a small, intimate story. It is, after all, the real life tale of Joel Green’s battle with cancer from a very young age as told by his parents. But what that room full of cards did was take Joel’s story and explode it out beyond an autobiographical account – which this certainly still is – and make it a game about all cancer. Every cancer. It wasn’t just this one faceless boy I was seeing struggle. Every one of those many, many cards had a similar story behind it: a survivor’s tale, a remembrance of grandparents, a tribute to a sibling’s strength, a spouse taken too soon. It was like a Lovecraftian horror-in-knowing moment – suddenly all that pain and all that suffering I had seen and prepared myself for was multiplied a thousand times over, and the sheer incomprehensible scope of cancer’s terror became overwhelming.
But as profound as that moment is and as deep as cancer’s roots go in this game, it’s arguably not about cancer. Cancer is the inciting incident and arguably the antagonist of the game, but it’s not really what the game spends it time focusing on. Instead, well… The Greens have made no secret of their belief, and That Dragon, Cancer is arguably more about God then it is about tumors. The real journey here is spiritual, not medical. If you’re feeling crass you could say that the game largely presents Joel’s cancer as a test of his parents’ faith, but that invokes a bunch of cliches that don’t really happen here. The Greens don’t lose faith entirely and have to find it again in some dramatic fashion – this isn’t something as banal as Shyamalyan’s Signs. Instead the game focuses on how the Greens use their faith to overcome this impossible challenge of fighting cancer. Their belief isn’t destroyed and rebuilt; but rather it’s their faith that buoys them in this storm. Joel’s mother, Amy, becomes more fervent in her belief of immediate and divine intervention. At every turn she sees no choice but to believe harder. She’s pregnant as Joel is diagnosed, and worries that people will see her next child as a replacement baby, and so she reject’s Joel’s death as part of God’s plan. Later, as she sees Joel suffering, she decides to lean in to her faith as Joel’s only hope. She views God’s mercy as undeniable and inevitable as the alternative proves unthinkable.
In contrast, Joel’s father Ryan retreats inward. If the game has any arc it’s his – where Amy’s faith is made more resolute by Joel’s illness, Ryan takes a while to process it. He wallows in despair, uncertain of whether to allow himself the hope that God will show any mercy at all. Again, he never loses faith – this isn’t that kind of story – but Ryan knows how few prayers are directly answered. He’s afraid of being hurt, afraid of what that sort of disappointment might do to him. But in one of the game’s most emotionally trying scenes, Ryan gets something of an answer. One night, Joel won’t stop crying. He’s in pain and suffering, and what starts as normal crying slowly grows to shrieking and writhing in agony. Carrying Joel around the room doesn’t help, food doesn’t help, and slowly Ryan realizes that he is incapable of providing comfort to his own son. And in that moment of powerlessness, that moment of despair where he admits it’s only God that can help Joel find peace, the screaming stops and Joel finally goes to sleep. God doesn’t often deal in showy miracles, but sometimes he can offer the desperate and suffering a bit of grace.
It’s also important to note that while the That Dragon, Cancer is undeniably sad, and at times overwhelmingly so, the message is not one of despair but of hope. Throughout all of this pain, the Greens are a family that refuses to give up – on Joel, on the fight against his disease, on each other, on God. It’s their resilience in the face of the whole ordeal that manages to give the game its core light, and even as the game closes and you can hear the sadness in their voices, there’s still hope – that somewhere Joel is happy, and that someday they’ll see him again. And that one-two punch of open-hearted honesty and unyielding optimism are not only what helped the Greens endure Joel’s cancer – they’re what make the game more than an exercise in wallowing in pity.
In order to tell the Greens’ journey, the game makes some interesting systemic choices. Despite being in first person where the mouse controls the camera, the game is structured like a point-and-click game. That is – there’s no freedom of movement, but rather nodes you can click on to traverse the environment. As someone who has played a lot of games, this can feel really awful and disempowering. But this is done for two obvious reasons, and I think, ultimately, it’s for the betterment of the game overall. The first is that it allows That Dragon, Cancer to take full advantage of the player’s field of view since they will only ever be at fixed points in space. So, for example, turning your head to go from night to day is possible where it wouldn’t be in a game that allowed freedom of movement. The same goes for, say, spawning assets in behind you to change scenes dynamically – instead of artificially designing levels to play like tubes or putting invisible walls up everywhere the game abandons the artifice of free movement altogether. After all, it’s not really a game about traversing a space, but a game about exploring these events emotionally. The fixed movement allows scenes that fade in and out of one another to produce an experience that is something of a blur, and you get a real sense of how all of theses hospital visits and overnight stays in recovery rooms start to blend together. The game – especially its more realistic scenes – come across as a fading memory or a nightmare, and that resonates with the idea that this is a retrospective on dealing with childhood cancer as a parent.
The other benefit of limiting input to mouse movement and clicks is that it renders a game about important and broad-ranging topics far more accessible. Traditional gamers kind of take the ability to traverse a 3D space for granted; most of us have been doing so for years. But it can be rather alienating to those who aren’t used to it. By limiting inputs to mouse clicks instead of asking players to master WASD control schemes and 3D spacial processing, That Dragon Cancer gives itself the opportunity to be playable by far more people. And that seems to be a core value the game holds – it feels like it wants to be played by elderly Sunday school teachers for their classes and parents of cancer victims as an empathetic ear as much as it wants to be played by a traditional Steam-sale raiding, first person shooter playing audiences. This is, decidedly, a game that is eager for you to get your mom to play it – and that’s not a bad thing. Its themes are universal, even if its hard to get people to play “that cancer game.”
There are bits that maybe don’t work, but they tend to not work for tone reasons – the game jumps in and out of metaphorical language and jumps back and forth with character perspectives, and not always successfully or without feeling jarring. Super-grounded, super-literal reenactments of the rituals of chemotherapy or sitting in a waiting room for test results or the realities of just getting your doctor’s attention are cut against a metaphorical ocean and abstract dream spaces. The most egregious of these is early on, when Amy races with Joel around the cancer ward. It’s purpose in the game is clear – the race timer conveys just how much time Joel spent in hospitals, but the laughter and racing trying to underscore the fact that happy memories were being made, that his life wasn’t just sobbing and chemo. But it’s so off the wall and so full of cutesy imagery and optimism, and it goes for such a blunt gut-punch at the end sequence that reveals all the drugs and procedures during that time that it almost borders on self-parody. Similarly there’s a bit that apes sidescrolling action games. And again, the scene does some important legwork – it gives the other Green children the opportunity to react to their brother’s illness, and it ties in Ryan’s game development job as a sort of in-text explanation for why this is a game rather than a movie or book. But it’s the only place where keyboard controls are required, making it one of the more alienating segments for people new to games. And it’s also the only part of the game where you can fail and be forced to retry bits, which just feels weirdly out of place in a game like this. That said, in the face of what the game accomplishes emotionally, it’s hard to get too hung up on a few tone quibbles.
It’s interesting to follow The Beginner’s Guide – a game critical of the idea of authors being able to inject themselves into their work – with That Dragon, Cancer. It’s hard to deny the intimacy, the… specificity of this game. It is at once a memorial to Joel Green, a slightly abstracted cancer journal, a tribute to cancer survivors and their families, and a game about belief all at once. And it is those things explicitly because the developers poured so much of themselves into it – their lived experiences, their worldview, their love, and their loss. If anything it makes The Beginner’s Guide seem cynical in retrospect – fictionalized metatext on top of fictionalized metatext designed to distance and obfuscate the author from his own work. That Dragon, Cancer, on the other hand, is nothing if not earnest. This is the developers putting themselves out there in a slightly fictionalized, but nevertheless autobiographical way about something profoundly personal. And more than anything I think it’s that act of bold vulnerability that is That Dragon, Cancer’s biggest success. This isn’t the first autobiographical game, but it is perhaps the highest profile one we’ve seen in years. Whether this game reflects your experiences with cancer or not, whether it reflects your faith or not – it does reflect that of the Greens in a direct and very real way. And maybe you don’t get to know the Greens in the way Davey thought he knew Coda – but you do, I think, come to understand them more. And maybe… maybe that’s more important.