Note: Review code was provided to the reviewer by Numinous Games on January 13th, 2016.
Ryan and Amy Green have a story to tell you. It’s not about fantastical Knights shooting Lycans, or swinging off of vines, it is about their son Joel’s battle with an ugly dragon called cancer (hence the name).
That Dragon, Cancer is both a tribute to their son Joel as well as an admittance of the problems that wrought on their relationships. Over the course of the game, you get to truly dig deep down into Amy and Ryan’s emotional states and become very intimately aware of who they are as people. These are people who believe in God, and believe that, all in due time, God will make things right.
This game is gut punch after gut punch. During my time with the game, I cried about three times, occasionally having to pause the game because I just couldn’t stop crying. Even thinking about it now, I want to cry again, knowing the immense suffering that Amy and Ryan Green went through.
I can’t really critique this game. The game does not wish to concern itself with conventional means of consistency. In one scene, you’ll be tossing bread to a duck, in the other, you’ll be racing a go kart. The Green’s grasp for meaning within this sea of suffering relating to Joel’s illness is all over the place, but that’s the point. You are not controlling the events therein, but rather, looking from the outside in.
That Dragon, Cancer throws away everything we think a game should do. You’ll be stuck, unsure of the next step, because you’re supposed to play games with a “goal”. Again, not to harp, but that’s really the whole point. The Greens were searching for meaning, so why shouldn’t you get to experience that? After all, isn’t that what the whole game is about?
While all of this may sound like artistic mumbo jumbo, it really does play well. There was one case in which Amy is trying to explain Joel’s illness to her other children and the game switches your perspective to that of a side-scrolling platformer where Joel is fighting “that dragon, cancer” aided by the “grace of God”. Then, one of the children asks about “that guy from church” who died of cancer exemplifies what the game is trying to say: there are no easy answers, and sometimes “winning” isn’t as clear and defined as we may hope.
Not everything works. There’s this dream sequence Ryan is having about Joel where he has to dodge tumorous clouds, and there’s this racing mini-game that aims to be disruptive, but fails to achieve that. Although these video game sections were cool to play, they felt out of place in a game that the primary focus is on narrative.
For every high concept, there’s this underlying truth that grounds That Dragon, Cancer: the battle the Greens are facing is not the mere act of mourning, but how to mourn. Amy turns to God, while Ryan struggles with God. They get in fights, then reunite, then fight again. At the same time, you’re coming in and out of the picture as the curious and helpless observer as they plead to God, each other, and Joel. When it came time for the credits to roll, I couldn’t help but appreciate the game and the story the Greens want to tell the world.