As a reviewer, my opinion on That Dragon, Cancer is a very challenging thing to convey and voicing it with the correct terms and delicacy as the subject requires has also been somewhat of a challenge. In the most part, I guess you could say this review will be split into two parts; or told with two states of mind.
In November 2010, Ryan and Amy Green were told something that no parent should ever have to hear. Their twelve-month-old child, Joel Green, was diagnosed with a brain tumour that his doctors predicted would leave him with little more than four months to live, but despite their fears, Joel continued to live for another four years and each day was considered a blessing. The tumour left him mentally underdeveloped and in turn caused him to require more parental care than his age would have needed. On top of the stress of having to support Joel through his palliative care and chemotherapy treatments, these incredible parents kept their faith in God and their hope that their son would recover. Despite all of their love and efforts, sadly in 2014 Joel died at the age of five and his memory lived on.
What really struck me first and foremost about That Dragon, Cancer is the story behind its creation, not the one the game portrays. It wasn’t a product created to raise awareness of the condition or to show how cancer is effecting millions of families – despite it raising awareness anyway – nor is it a vote of sympathy for the parents, but instead it’s a tribute to their son; to show how hard he fought and how much he was loved by his family. That is a beautiful thing.
The design is striking. Anyone who knows me as a gamer and writer, the first thing I find attractive in a game is its appearance and this simplistic design is just perfect. The geometric, stylistic design using modest, smooth shapes to make up the environment contrasts brilliantly with the rough, black masses that are scattered about the scenes like dead trees and wasted bushes. I assume this is meant to portray an ominous feeling to starkly contrast the light, colourful aspects of the happier moments. The same goes for the way the characters are shown. Not only does the design of them keep to the general theme, but by leaving those faces blank it gives players the opportunity to put themselves in the family’s shoes. No faces means no distractions.
In its two hours, the one consistency That Dragon, Cancer maintains is its dramatic inconsistency. Switching from a duck in a pond to, a no-bodied player, to Mr Green himself, it’s a flurry of different angles and viewpoints. That also applies to the length of the chapters and how long it’ll take to get from one piece of information to the next. Despite this however, there’s something quite endearing about these random sequences when looking at certain scenes. For example, in the hospital when the Greens were told there was nothing more the doctors could do, you look at it initially through the eyes of Joel to then use your farmyard toy to hear the voices in everyone else’s head. This broke up the scene quite nicely, changing it from something single and linear to something collective.
The most powerful scene of all throughout the game, and the one that Mr Green himself said inspired the making of The Dragon, Cancer, was toward the end. We’re in a room with Joel and he just won’t stop crying. It’s a dreadful, heart-breaking sound that makes you understand how helpless they must have felt with him being so uncomfortable in the hospital. During this mass of screaming Mr Green prays to God to comfort his child and Joel stops crying. Emotionally, this hit a solid ‘8’ of the ‘I-swear-I’ve-just-got-something-in-my-eye’ scale, and again reinstates that through this awful experience they still found their comfort in God. That being said, as someone who isn’t religious I found it hard to connect with the messages about God and his will – and that’s my own bias. I’m not saying anything against their faith or the things they sought in it, I’m just saying that my beliefs don’t swing that way and as such never fully connected with some of the messages.
In terms of it being a bit of a videogame inside of a videogame, it kind of works and kind of doesn’t. Splitting into two minds here…the consumer in me agrees that it’s a nice way to break up something that is essentially just an interactive point-and-click story; while the reviewer in me feels like the random array of videogames, although keeping to the consistently inconsistent theme, makes it jarring. Whether it’s personal preference or not, the somewhat awkward controls to manoeuvre around the mini-games pulled me out of that story involvement and made me start the connection all over again. I know why it was there, of course; especially the platformer game of ‘Joel’s fight against that dragon, cancer’, but I would have been quite content to just follow the story as a whole. The reviewer in me would also like to point out a very irritating bug in ‘Drowning’ that forced me to restart the game.
On the negative side of things – and looking at this as a videogame, not an inspirational story – I found the whole thing to be a touch too slow at certain points. Whether it’s because I’m impatient or simple-minded, during most sequences I felt like they were played out a little bit too long and toward the end of the longer chapters, bar ‘Waking Up’, my patience with the plodding pace had somewhat run out. Looking at the mechanics of it, though it’s beautiful and artistic, it’s clunky with a disconnected feel to it. Where arrow keys (or WASD) are used for the car track mini-game, they’re then irrelevant for moving around, and where direction is concerned, in certain sequences I had no idea what I was doing, i.e. in riding the stars/animals.
As you can see this is what makes it so hard to review That Dragon, Cancer accurately. If I was looking at the story and the story only I’d say ‘yes, it’s wonderful, 10/10’, but it’s advertised itself as a video game. Unfortunately that means I’ve got to give it some degree of criticism because as a game it’s not fun or enjoyable to play. It makes me wonder whether they would have been better off just choosing one direction for it to play in, instead of the mismatch it wants to be at the moment. It’s light-hearted and heavy; bitter and sweet; happy and sad all at the same time but in this format I don’t know if it works for a tale such as this.
From the eyes of a consumer I can say that this is a wonderful re-telling of a family’s bravery and strength. That Dragon, Cancer tries its best to represent such a difficult subject in an approachable manner that’s neither inappropriately light-hearted, nor depressing, and they do a good job with it. Ryan and Amy have created something that conveys their feelings to the world, trying to describe something that no one could possibly understand unless they’ve been through something similar. From the outside looking in, they’ve done their son justice and I’m very honoured to have shared in that story.
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