When I decided to review That Dragon, Cancer, I had no idea how difficult it would be. I was thinking of it as a video game, as a product for the consumer, but really it isn't. It's a piece of a family's heart and soul. How can anyone be a judge of that, let alone a mere video game critic?
Backed heavily on Kickstarter, That Dragon, Cancer is a walking simulator/point and click narrative of Joel Green's four year battle with cancer as told by his parents. Most of all, I hope that the experience of creating That Dragon, Cancer was healing for the Greens. I also hope that the ability to interactively share their experience with others and share a piece of themselves was therapeutic. There were several places where I found their efforts in emotional attachment successful and some where it fell a little flat for me.
When I was in university, I studied German and the holocaust was a part of the curriculum. In the first year our lecturer asked if anyone had been to Auschwitz and a boy raised his hand. Our lecturer then asked him how it had made him feel. Honestly and perhaps extremely naively, he had admitted that he hadn't felt very much at all. From that moment he was no longer Dave or Matt or whatever his real name was but "The boy who went to Auschwitz and felt nothing" and I thought maybe that was me. I would be "the girl who played That Dragon, Cancer and felt nothing." I'm not a mother, nor have I ever lost a relative to cancer. While I am an emotional person, the triggers put in place in this game simply didn't resonate with me much of the time. Of course different people experience things differently, but I can only portray what That Dragon, Cancer did for me.
The decision by the Greens to do their own voice acting was an absolute triumph. I sometimes thought that the audio was captured directly from the time that Joel was sick because it felt so real. In particular, voice messages from Amy to Ryan throughout the story could have passed for authentic had the audio quality not been so good. The emotion here is real, not acted, and that helped give the game a punch it otherwise would have lacked.
Some scenes are carried out extremely well. I felt connected to the opening, I felt the struggle when I battled the non-metaphorical dragon that is cancer, and I felt involved when I sat in the doctor's office hearing the prognosis. The credit roll was the closest I came to shedding a tear as you connect the real family with the game, but it hadn't quite "got" me. Many scenes felt too arty or too abstract for me to really connect with them. Scenes where I was placed in the body of a seagull or some mysterious other floating around rather than in the mind of Ryan or Amy displaced me from the situation. There were also times when I couldn't really figure out what the game wanted me to do. Not in a "I'm trapped, confused and helpless" kind of way, but in a way I believe was unintentional and reminded me I was just playing a game.
I have read a lot of criticism of the religious aspects of this game. The Greens are clearly deeply religious people and experienced their son's illness in an extremely spiritual way. Despite being non-religious, I don't think this affected my experience. I was more intrigued by the way that the Greens dealt with their son's cancer using religion as a tool for hope.
In the end, That Dragon, Cancer didn't work for me. What it really needed was a mechanic to choose between Amy or Ryan. I couldn't connect with Ryan because men and women are at their core very different. I couldn't feel how Ryan felt, and while I understood Amy's emotions far better, I was only with her for but a brief moment. I connected to Amy through her messages to Ryan but really, I wanted to experience being her. Perhaps then it would have delivered the punch it needed for me personally.
Because of this disconnect, I didn't relate strongly enough to Ryan or Amy to feel involved or feel the weight of what was happening. I was very aware the whole time that this was just a game I could stop playing or skip through or simply turn off and never play again. If you have more in common with Ryan, if you are a parent, if you have had a relative who was sick, if you are a man, American and religious I can see this game being a deeply emotional and beneficial experience for you. Though I believe it has failed to reach that emotional place for every player. It is easy to connect with people like you, but if it could have reached the people who they have nothing in common with that would have been a triumph.
While That Dragon, Cancer isn't a completely successful experiment, I have to applaud it for doing something challenging and different. Perhaps the next time a game like this comes along, it will go even further.
Oh and it's beautiful.
A review copy of That,Dragon Cancer was provided courtesy of the developer. You can purchase yours from Steam.
A beautiful game but not quite successful for me as a social experiment.