‘That Dragon, Cancer’ a Powerful Exploration of Grief

Avi Vogel, Columnist

Editor’s Note: This article contains references to cancer and death.

You may have noticed that each of my columns has followed roughly the same formula: I include an image from that week’s game, introduce the game’s genre and gameplay, survey its pros and cons and offer a final opinion on the game as an entire package. But I can’t do that this week. Not with this game.

That Dragon, Cancer is a story and an experience made by people who have been impacted by a certain sort of emotional trauma, intended for those who might not have been through such an experience. It is an independent “game” released by a small team, including Ryan and Amy Green. Ryan and Amy are married and had a son named Joel, who was diagnosed with brain cancer at age one. After living with it for four years, Joel died. This game is about Ryan, Amy and Joel’s lives.

The controls in That Dragon, Cancer are as simple as they come: You look around the game universe with either your mouse or a control stick and interact with objects and people by clicking or pressing a single button. There are some sections where the gameplay changes, but I don’t want to spoil these, as they are powerful punctuations within the story. Overall, you look and you touch; that is the totality of your control over the characters. You don’t choose what they say, only what you hear.

The game is split into chapters, each focusing on a period in Joel’s treatment. You’ll find yourself at a pond, talking about Joel and his condition, at the hospital the day he’s released and at a church in prayer. These aren’t just places, but symbols that persist throughout the game, each culminating in their own unique and powerful way. The chapters and locations move the experience forward, never overstaying their welcome and finishing in intriguing ways.

I’m not going to talk about the pros and cons of That Dragon, Cancer. That would be like commenting on how “well done” someone’s grief is or how “complete” their mourning is. That Dragon, Cancer is a project of absolute love. It deals with love for one who is not present, love of a child that even the parents never really got to know. Joel was only a child and That Dragon, Cancer makes sure that we understand how that innocence was destroyed.

For a long time, people have thought of games as time-wasters or diversions only for children, despite the fact that, according to The Telegraph, the average gamer is 35 years old. We can’t say that games are just for kids anymore, so why do we color our views of the medium with games we despise and look down

upon? Why not go out of our way to find that one great gaming experience that proves our own unsubstantiated rule wrong?

For a while now, games have been trying to go beyond the confines of traditional narrative. Gone Home, Dear Esther, Her Story and The Stanley Parable are all games that utilize unique storytelling devices to turn the medium on its head. That Dragon, Cancer does this as well but in a uniquely powerful and uncomfortable way: It talks about death.

While numerous mediums have confronted death in their own ways, That Dragon, Cancer exposes someone’s death on a level that feels highly personal. Joel is not just a character; he is a person that we truly get to know over the course of two hours. And in those two hours, we understand that there is a hole where he once existed that cannot be filled. This painful reality is the crux of That Dragon, Cancer.

I’ve played a lot of games since I initially became interested in gaming. I can recommend at least one game for basically anyone’s preferences. I have no problem recommending most games that I love, but That Dragon, Cancer is a special case. I don’t know who I would want to give it to. This game is about a pain more profound than can be explained. It’s visceral. It hurts.

However, I really can’t stress enough the achievement of this game. It’s one of the first experiences to combine visual metaphor well with simple, preestablished controls. Tone is consistent throughout, whether expressed in its mechanics, art or narrative presentation. The ending — a scene I assumed would only accentuate the grief — instead serves as a reminder of permanence.

If you can imagine yourself doing so, play That Dragon, Cancer. If you feel you can’t, know that its creators understand.