That Dragon, Cancer is one of the most heart-breaking games you’ll ever play. Ryan and Amy Green, the developers of this game, lost their five-year-old son Joel to cancer in 2014. This autobiographical game follows their struggle through his four years of life after being diagnosed. It’s, unsurprisingly, absolutely devastating. I would recommend that you only play this if you’re emotionally prepared to cry buckets and you also have someone nearby to hug afterwards. Yet, it’s such an important game, I also recommend you take the emotional hit.
The world of That Dragon, Cancer is rendered in crude, brightly coloured polygons. You begin as a duck in a cheerful pond, swimming towards a laughing child. The voices of Ryan and Amy explain to their other son, while their words are illustrated on the screen in unobtrusive calligraphy, why Joel has developed slower than some of the other children. After that you’ll go through vignettes of Joel’s short life, experiencing the highs and lows of his battle with cancer.
The game feels so deeply personal that, at times, it feels almost voyeuristic. You’ll listen to the voicemails left for each other by the couple, discussing Joel’s treatment and their fears and hopes for the future. As Ryan, you’ll try to comfort Joel during treatment (one deeply upsetting segment has you trying to stop Joel crying, to little avail). Through reading her letters you explore Amy’s struggle with her faith, as she tries to reconcile her deeply held belief in God with the sickness that’s killing her child. Much like Fullbright’s Gone Home, you feel like you’re intruding on someone’s most private and vulnerable self but, unlike Gone Home, this story happened.
The game effectively evokes the emotional turmoil experienced by these two: the tone varies between bright and hopeful, dark and nightmarish (with large, menacing cancerous cells omnipresent) and ethereally dreamlike, eyes towards a hopeful Heaven. This is all scored by the most hauntingly beautiful scoring, ranging between melancholy and gentle hope. Dark, fearful sections are underscored by heavy, oppressive beats which evoke a sense of anxiety and despair. The game does have some problems though: the controls are clunky and slow to respond. This is notable because it’s sometime immersion breaking: at one point I wasn’t able to interact something vital, so I just had to move on to the next chapter.
That Dragon, Cancer is an emotionally draining experience that tells an important story of loss and acceptance. Lasting only about 1 ½ – 2 hours, it’s an experience that’s definitely worth your time.