That Dragon, Cancer is a difficult game to review. Games are reviewed based on their merits. A game with incredible graphics, a unique art style, interesting and well-realized gameplay mechanics, a moving or engrossing story, or a combination of those qualities and other intangibles is seen as a great game. That Dragon, Cancer is a game that has an interesting art style, basic mechanics, and a story that will certainly tug on people’s heartstrings. But does a game that focuses on emotion get to be qualified as a great game? That’s the question that makes reviewing That Dragon, Cancer difficult. It’s a great and beautiful story that is worth experiencing, but it’s wrapped in a game that could do with better pacing and mechanical adjustments to be fully realized.
Even saying that the game could do with better pacing feels wrong in some strange way since That Dragon, Cancer is based on real events. Ryan and Amy, the creators of the game, use it as a medium to tell the story of their son’s life. Joel, the son, is diagnosed with cancer at an early age. Ryan and Amy use video games as a way to express how they dealt with the news, how they lived through it all, and how they coped. It’s a beautiful story that I simply can’t ruin by going into detail here. That Dragon, Cancer is a short game and ruining some of it’s best moments would be criminal. I will say that the way the creators chose to recreate memories of Joel by using video game mechanics made for some of the most touching and powerful moments in the game. Cart races, platforming, and exploration have never been used in such a powerful and resonating fashion.
The majority of That Dragon, Cancer is played as an exploration game through both third- and first-person. Ryan and Amy have abstracted their experiences with Joel into strange, dream-like environments that do a good job of making you feel what it must’ve been like to be them in those situations. Some of the environments feel real and stifling, like a hospital, while others are fantastical and quirky. These environments are juxtaposed with the thoughts and conversations of Amy and Ryan that are very much grounded in reality. Ryan complains about the sterility of hospitals and how awful they are. Amy talks about tests and procedures and how terrible it all is. These conversations bring you into the lives of the parents and will certainly bring some players to tears. I for one, had a hard time dealing with the smallest bit of dialogue from Amy that made the point that Ryan wasn’t around as much as she was with regards to Joel’s appointments. It was a small, innocuous piece of dialogue that followed a much more important point, but it was still poignant and piercing.
Dialogue and story aside, the game has some issues that need to be addressed in a review. It’s a strange thing to point out the flaws in this game. It feels a lot like talking ill of someone who is sick. Regardless, That Dragon, Cancer is a video game first and foremost and a retelling of someone’s life secondly, and that much needs to be clear.
Pacing is perhaps the biggest problem I had with That Dragon, Cancer and it’s because the game is so powerful that pacing is an issue. There are moments that will make you stop and catch your breath. Other times you may need to pause or leave the room depending on your own personal experiences. These moments are moving and human more than anything else. The way Amy and Ryan talk to one another through it all, the way they discuss regular events and regular chores as if the world isn’t crumbling around them is awe inspiring. Human beings can be incredibly resilient creatures, and Ryan and Amy show that fact through their simple, friendly dialogue. Whether Amy is talking about diaper runs or Ryan is explaining to Joel’s younger brother why Joel is a little behind other kids his age, it all comes across as natural.
But there are a few sections of the game that feel like they drag on for too long, not giving you any important story details. When the story is this impactful, you don’t want to be floating around, waiting for the next big moment to occur. Instead of building up anticipation, the broken pace ruins the momentum that some of the bigger moments create.
That Dragon, Cancer won’t take you that long to complete but the emotions it leaves you with will stick around for a good, long while. Few people will call this a “perfect game” and that’s fine, it doesn’t need to be. This is a game that doesn’t need to win awards or be acclaimed for its gameplay and vision. No, this game is very different. That Dragon, Cancer tells a beautiful story in the most human way possible and the flaws the game does have can’t take away from that fact.