Updated: Mar 31, 2020
Stories that create catharsis for players are hard to create. It takes a certain level of design and story telling to make players cry- especially on a human level. Stories that give lasting impact, like Undertale’s, Chrono Trigger, The Last of Us, What Remains of Edith Finch, and even Her Story, keeps us involved and engaged outside of gameplay or story. If people want to talk about games from the last decade, I submit a small independent game that’s not a game by conventional means but a story of heartbreak, hope, and loss. That game will dig its claws into you, like a terrible beast. A selfish dragon with breath of coal ash; its name is Cancer.
That Dragon, Cancer, developed by Numinous Games with Ryan Green, is a narrative driven first person point of view game in which you play through the experience of game developer Ryan Green, his wife Amy Green and family. This autobiographical game taking place throughout their trials and tribulations as you play through Joel Green’s last months of living a four-year cancer battle.
Gameplay wise, That Dragon, Cancer is a first-person exploration game with mini games to break up the waves of emotion that hit you like a tide on a beach. The linear storytelling method keeps the dramatic beats with real recordings of Ryan, Joel, and his family throughout the story. Both Ryan and Amy give monologues from their perspective, from having conversations about doctors, to arguments about what to do next. Interactive items like cards, animal noise toys, organ keys, and even a small go kart section that goes into a wrecked city are used to show the trauma and stress the Green Family went through.
From a narrative standpoint, the game hits its notes perfectly. From the starting narration with Ryan giving a spite filled dramatic speech about Cancer, giving it its title as a dragon, to the art style keeping a very simple aesthetic that creates a fantastical environment and a terrifying situation on an emotional and parental level. There are no other words to put it, other than the mindset you into when playing through the two hours of play. If you or a loved one have been through a journey like the Greens with cancer taking someone too soon or ending a long loved one’s life, then this game may prove to be hard to go through. It was hard for me to play through it; I couldn’t go through the section where there were photos of people in the hospital or brief cards with names or sayings in them all relating to cancer.
That Dragon, Cancer is not just a game. It’s a father’s journey towards acceptance, it’s a mother’s story of healing, it’s a story of a family grieving over the loss of a life that should have been. There are moments when their mental health and faith is tested from hours of going into Chemo and days of uncertainty. When people say video games aren’t platforms to tell stories or be an art form, this is one of the games proves they can. Apart from small technical errors that aren’t worth mentioning, That Dragon, Cancer is in the category of stories that have created an impact with gamers on a human level, which deserved its award for Games with Impact at 2016’s Game Awards.
If you have a chance after playing this two-hour game, I suggest watching Thank You for Playing, the companion documentary of the Green’s lives up to the last years of Joel’s life and the development of the game itself.
That Dragon, Cancer is rated Everyone 10 and up and available on PC and The App Store for $9.99 and $4.99 respectively. It was released in January 12th and October 5th, 2016 on both platforms.