Saying That Dragon, Cancer is a game about a family’s struggle with illness isn’t doing it justice. You are not only presented with the series of events that happened to Ryan Green and his family, you experience far more than that. What you get is a very thorough artistic representation of everything related to what the family went through. That Dragon, Cancer is a game that you have to go into somewhat mentally prepared. Because even if you’re braced for what’s coming, you’re still going to feel pretty ragged by the time you’re done. That Dragon, Cancer is an example of games transcending what we consider to be standard gaming conventions. Much like Dear Esther was merely a narrative with exploration elements, That Dragon, Cancer is more an interactive story than an actual game. At the time, Any actual gameplay seemed clunky and unfinished, but I feel that’s because I was thinking like a gamer. I now look at the game for what it is: a story of a man and his family lamenting the loss of their son to cancer. Any issues with controls or gameplay could be viewed as deliberate choices to give the player the sense of confusion or lack of control that such an illness can bring to a family. That might be a little too meta, but there are moments where the game makes several decisions to drive home what the family was feeling. You certainly see this in the game’s aesthetics, with cancer primarily represented as this menacing, shadowy, tree-like parasite that lurks in every corner. Any issues you have with gameplay might seem to sour the experience, but if you view them as part of the experience instead, then any frustration fades to sympathy.
What the game does benefit from is beautiful writing. The dialogue feels very real; I wouldn’t be surprised if it were line-for-line from actual conversations during the Green family’s struggle. Heck, the entire Green family is even voiced by the real family. But perhaps what stuck with me the most in the end is the introspection by the parents, Ryan and Amy Green. Ryan’s thoughts are profound and poetic, and Amy’s thoughts on her faith are equally moving. Personally, I’m not terribly religious, so I initially wasn’t sure how I felt about witnessing a family attempt to stay faithful in a very difficult time, but of course, it’s very moments like this when you need something to cling to. For some, it’s family and friends. For others, it’s just trying to keep a routine or a sense of normality. But for many, it is religion and faith that helps them deal with such hardships. In fact, it made me remember something about my grandmother. While she wasn’t very religious herself she was a strong believer in fate and that when things happen regardless of if they’re good or bad, they just happen. Coming to terms with death is a central theme of That Dragon, Cancer, and seeing that progression in the narrative is heart-breaking for both the Greens and the player.
In the end, you have a game that isn’t a game but more a story of one family’s struggle with a disease that takes so many away from us. I am grateful to have had the chance to experience something incredibly moving. You’re not supposed to feel good about playing That Dragon, Cancer, you mourn with the Greens instead.