Games are a medium that can invoke emotional responses and deep philosophical thinking just as well as books, art, music or movies. In fact, some people think that the potential of games surpasses that of those other mediums, as it combines elements of all of them, while also involving the physical interaction of the player.
Simultaneously, you can appreciate the art of the game world, the music, the lore, the dialogue and the entire cinematic experience of the game itself. Through your actions as the player, you can explore each of these and by progressing through the game, further develop the experience. You become an integral part of making the “art” of the game happen, and thus, can become even more profoundly affected by it.
That Dragon, Cancer is a game that works to succeed this potential. It was created by Ryan Green and Josh Larson, and inspired by Green’s experience with his young son suffering from terminal cancer. In the game, you play through a series of episodes and scenes, seemingly randomly linked together with a variety of different things to be done in each.
For example, the intro of the game has you playing as a duck in a pond, floating around listening to the Green family ruminate on their life. The only thing to be done here is to click to eat the bread bits sent to you by Joel, allowing you to move closer towards the family and listen further. Other scenes have you in the viewpoint of a bird soaring above watching the goings on of below, or playing a Mario Kart-esque level collecting “power-ups” – the power ups being Joel’s medication and the laps of the race representing a year in his life.
The game acts as the story of a family trying everything they can for their son, but ultimately ending in the loss of their child. The game uses the interaction of the player to develop the story, but through it all the player has no power to choose their own path. You act basically as the environment experiencing itself, an inside observer. Nothing you can do through the game changes the outcome. There are no cheat codes, no glitches, no hidden tricks. All you can do is be there through the experience, and do the best you can with what you have.
Green used the project as a way to deal with his son’s condition. It became an outlet for his creative passion that also allowed him to be able to better cope with the trials of what he and his family were going through while living with the tragedy inside their home.
From the very first demo, it was clear That Dragon, Cancer held something different. The demo consisted of Green’s son Joel sitting in a hospital room, crying frantically. The player could interact with everything in the room in order to try and console poor Joel, but nothing worked. No matter what you chose to do, Joel’s crying just became worse. As this occurred, the mutterings of the players character (voiced by Green) became more and more frantic itself. This continued until finally, Green’s voice broke down and prayed, unable to cope with the stress, at which point the demo ends.
Anyone and everyone who played were deeply affected by what they seen and experienced in that demo. A Kleenex box was provided at the booth because so many people kept tearing up or outright bawling. Green had created a game that held a part of himself within it, and people responded to that.
If after playing this game, you did not feel melancholic, or reflective, or in any way moved by it, then you may want to get yourself checked. When you pick up the controller, you’re not just playing a game; you’re interacting with the deeply personal emotional journey of a family who went through one of the worst human experiences known.
You’re not just moving from level to level, you’re also seeing the progression of a family’s battle through the warzone of their life, and the chaotic, hopeful madness that drives them forward despite knowing inside that the war is lost. That’s the kind of hope at the core of human existence, the hope that ignores odds and chance and drives us forward in the face of oblivion and has made us what and who we are today. If that is not something that affects you, then you my friend, are not human.
That Dragon, Cancer is beyond a game. It combines all of the things at its disposal – music, art, physical interaction – and uses it to engage the player in a story that will affect even the most cold-hearted of individuals. If you’re looking for something to show people that games can be about more than shooting zombies and repelling space invaders, show them Journey or a Tell Tale series. If you’re looking to show people that games can touch you in the deepest places of your soul and leave you wondering about what life is actually about, give them this.