Developer: Numinous Games
Publisher: Numinous Games
As I write this review for That Dragon, Cancer I still try to find words to describe what I have experienced, and critiquing video games is what I do here at Geeks Under Grace. In our previous coverage of this game, Drew wrote “To call this project a game, would be doing it injustice–an incredible injustice.” After my time with this project I have to agree. I feel uncomfortable giving this game a score and writing down the positives and negatives like I normally do. This is much more than a video game; this is somebody’s life.
Developer Ryan Green describes That Dragon, Cancer as “an autobiographical interactive memoir.” With the help of his independent company and various members of his family, something truly unique has come from a tragic turn of events that they have already had to experience once before. To create this game, Ryan had to relive all of it, including everything from the precious moments Ryan and his wife Amy had shared with their son Joel down to the roller coaster of emotions. They have chosen to share it with the world.
Joel Green was born on January 12th of 2009, and was diagnosed with brain cancer only a year later. In That Dragon, Cancer, we get a look inside the lives of Ryan and Amy Green as they care for their son during his battle. Ryan looks to find answers as he struggles with the inability to control the inevitable, while Amy stands so firm in her faith and believes God will create a miracle and heal their son. Though they seem to be having their own ways of fighting through the grief, they are both in search of hope. A hope that can only be found in Christ.
This project is heavily influenced on the family’s hope that they have found in Christ. People of different faiths and religions may find this one tough to get through because of it. One of the scenes I found particularly hard to make it through is when Ryan is taking care of Joel in the hospital. Joel is violently crying in pain and Ryan struggles to get him calm, making this one of the most pivotal chapters as a result. When I say “hard to make it through” I mean emotionally, this game explores a very heavy theme that many people probably have not experienced for themselves, and has some pretty tough moments throughout.
The way the story is told does not shove the religious theme in anyone’s face, but this project has the ability to encourage others—not just those who have gone through a similar life event, but those who are probably facing some kind of struggle or hardship. Sometimes we tend to pray for a certain result, and it just doesn’t happen the way we probably want it to. That Dragon, Cancer explores what can be found when someone makes the decision to put the result in God’s hands. The message here is that true hope can only be found in Him no matter what the outcome might look like.
Though I still dislike calling this a “video game” it has the qualities and content which make it out to be. The way That Dragon, Cancer is played can be described as a mix between a walking simulator such as Dear Esther or Everybody’s Gone to Rapture with a point and click adventure game. It begins with a quick tutorial which takes place during a family outing at the park. You begin from the perspective of a duck in the pond, and as you swim closer and eat bread, the camera moves over to Joel and has you now throwing the bread. While all of this is going on, you can hear actual recorded footage of this family’s day at the park. What is unique here is that you don’t play as any one character in the game; it is told from many perspectives throughout the entire story.
As I began the story, I discovered that the controls felt very unfamiliar. When the project finally has you walk from one point to the next, my brain had me pushing the WASD keys to walk. What I found is that they turn your head which is also done by the the mouse as it should be. This is where the point and click adventure feel comes in—to move in the proper direction you must left click the mouse when the reticle is shown as a set of footprints. This isn’t exactly an issue; it just may take some time for a PC gamer to break themselves of something that has become second nature after all the time we have spent playing video games.
To mix up the gameplay, the developers have created a few mini-games which also add to the creative storytelling. During one of the game’s few lighter moments, the player is treated to a kart racing mini game in which Amy is controlled. Elsewhere, Joel can do laps in the hallways of the hospital while collecting different things that are actually involved in the treatment of cancer. Another one is personally my favorite part of the project: in this section, you hear audio footage of Amy and Ryan telling their older kids a bedtime story, that story being Joel’s battle with an evil Dragon called Cancer, hence the title of the game. As they are telling the story, you are dropped into a 2.5D sidescoller as Joel, players are given armor and a spear and to fight off monsters and the “dragon” itself.
Numinous Games have not just told a great story—the way they have told it is outstanding. The imagery and symbolism that is used in That Dragon, Cancer brings together many underlying themes that a simple documentary could not. There are instances when the emotions and feelings of Ryan and Amy are projected directly onto the player, likely creating an experience where you will be compelled to share in that same sadness and happiness. Within this project’s two hour length I suggest you play it from start to finish in one sitting; you will have experienced a wide range of emotions in a short time, from the very beginning to the very end of the credits.
The art style which has been chosen here makes things interesting as well. There were moments when I stood in awe at a certain image that the project had given me, such as staring at a painting on the wall. I also happened to notice that the characters did not have faces, but I feel like that was a decision the developers made for a reason. It is obvious what these characters are feeling, and having no facial expressions gives the player a chance to feel these emotions for themselves and the ability to fill in the details with their own imaginations along with the audio recordings that are playing in the background. If the art style was more realistic, it would have probably taken away from some of that imagery and symbolism which is essential to this project.
That Dragon, Cancer has caused me to look at video games in different way. When I think of this game I think of others like Flower and Journey. Gamers spend so much time hacking, slashing, shooting, and beating up bad guys while games like That Dragon, Cancer are around. Video Games are not just for entertainment; they are a form of art. If games like this were more widely recieved by the gaming community, it might not be so stigmatized.
Ryan and Amy could have written a book or filmed a documentary, but they stepped out in faith to create something that is in a league of its own. This project was not meant to be a tool for grief counseling, but could possibly be very special to those who have gone through some of the same things. This is not just an ode to their son Joel—it is for those who have lost somebody to “that dragon.”
This project was released on Joel’s birthday and could not have come at a more appropriate time, considering that this dragon has recently claimed the lives of some big names in the entertainment industry. Going into this project, I thought I had the emotional fortitude because of my own battle with grief, but for the record, I admittedly did not. I have never cried so much during a “video game.”
The Bottom Line
The Green family's interactive memoir dedicated to their son's battle cancer is not just a video game—it is a work of art. The way that Numinous Games has chosen to tell the story is absolutely superb. That Dragon, Cancer is something everyone should experience for themselves.