This game is available on Steam for fifteen dollars. That price will never come up again in this article. The value of That Dragon, Cancer
is decidedly not something you can measure or weigh. You cannot take its play time (2 hours), the depth of its mechanics, or its visual presentation as a measure of its quality. If you don’t enjoy any story without those components – this game might still be the one to convince you to give it a try. It is without a doubt one of the most human stories that has ever been conveyed to me through any art form, ever.
This game tells the tale of a family’s hardship when one of their children develops cancer at a young age. The mother and father made this game to tell that story, and it comes across with incredible authenticity. The story is primarily conveyed through audio sound bytes, actual recordings of the family, the mother, the father, and Joel, the child himself, as you play through the game. More or less every actual mechanic in this video game, or interactive part of the experience, is made to invest you in their story. Whether by pushing Joel on a swing or blowing bubbles for his enjoyment you as the player get to play the part of both the parents and an onlooker throughout the experience.
I want to get some of the popular criticisms out of the way. Religion plays a part in this story, and that part grows heavier as That Dragon, Cancer comes to a close. I am Agnostic, do not practice any kind of religion, and its presence within the game felt nothing but essential to the story that the Green’s are telling. Even if religion is not a large factor in how I live my life, it obviously was for them during this experience and it would have diminished the story to force it out of the telling. It is part of what they went through, and understanding that and the struggles it represented is part and parcel to what makes this game such a great and authentic experience.
Another primary concern is the design of the mini games that you encounter while progressing through the story. They are often designed to mirror the emotion that the story is depicting at that point in time. Often that emotion is frustration, though sometimes it differs, and I found the simple games-within-games to add to the experience even if they were not as polished as one would expect from games released today. At least in my case, they never once took away from the story, and usually they added to it in a way that made it better.
Playing through this game provoked me to think about a whole host of things. Connections to my family. Connections to anyone. How I cope with trauma, or difficult decisions, and how that will affect the people around me. I truly feel that just experiencing this game has been beneficial to me as a person and as a storyteller. The depth of emotion that it conveys is something that not only video games but art struggles with in general, so it is nice to take That Dragon, Cancer as a game that really accomplishes driving the player to have that deep a connection and investment into its heartfelt narrative. Not only that, it does it in a point and click game with no other action needed beyond looking around and clicking on things.
That Dragon, Cancer accomplished all of this with 104,491 crowdfunded dollars. Any team who can create a story or tell a real story with this kind of heart or authenticity, but with a bigger budget, will have a masterpiece on their hands in the form of a video game. That Dragon, Cancer probably doesn’t represent a masterpiece as a video game, but it did create a masterful telling of a story within a game.
My heart and best wishes go out to the Greens for what they went through, and I thank them for taking the time to tell a story as painful as this one. We the players are better for it.