I’d Like To Talk About: That Dragon, Cancer

I’ve been on record before as having a certain disdain for gamers when a conflict arises between them snivelly lot and the journos, but in the case of this post you might see some rather anti-journo sentiment.

No one is safe from my ineffective literary jabs these days!!!

Anyway- if you don’t know what That Dragon, Cancer is, then to be as concise as possible, it’s an indie game by husband and wife Ryan and Amy Green. It documents their journey raising their son Joel after he was diagnosed with cancer at 12 months old, and it explores how each parent responded to the situation as their ideas of hope and Christian faith were challenged.

What makes this title truly remarkable- besides its universally recognised prowess for jerking tears- is that it’s probably the first legitimately autobiographical game out there, at least for commercial release.

I played Dys4ia by Anna Anthropy about a year back, an abstract flash game which rather successfully translated to the player feelings of discontent and emotional transition during hormone replacement therapy. But I played that on Newgrounds and it’s still available for free today. Similarly, I downloaded and played through Cibele only yesterday but there is a degree of fictionalisation with Cibele- many assets are real life photographs and real life poems written by designer Nina Freeman herself but on the other end, the narrative is not literally real. The events and characters are not those which transpired in reality. Without trying to grade the messages or worth of these games- and I wouldn’t- That Dragon, Cancer certainly garnered much more media attention than these two other autobiographical titles, the first three YouTube search results have a total of 10 million views. And the game even got it’s own documentary, which is actually currently screening in select theatres.

The concept of an autobiographical videogame might strike some of you as odd or at least you’d think it would be incredibly difficult to manufacture, in a medium recognised as allowing its consumers the most amount of agency in all of modern entertainment, surely in an autobiographical game we are limited by the linearity of the author’s reality… In any autobiographical work the narrative is not malleable- you cannot change the actual history which the work recounts- but as players we can navigate the space. It’s refreshing that That Dragon Cancer‘s design is as interpretive as it is. It’s grand, sprawling and unnatural design spaces allow for a greater sense of agency when you traverse them, greater than we would have received with realistic domestic environments.

The way critics talk about That Dragon, Cancer gives me a genuine sense of unease. What is undoubtedly a pioneer for its neogenre received critically middling reviews from otherwise reliable outlets such as the Escapist… even my beloved Chris Franklin says that certain segments of the game “border on self-parody”.

See for yourselves the kind of terminology used in these middling reviews:

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The language that we use to assess That Dragon, Cancer has some uncanny parallels with that of which we use to describe fiction- as nebulous as it might sound, we act as if the Greens are striving for realism in a fictionalised narrative or that they are overreaching to evoke sympathy for characters or a contrived kind of pathos… as if there is a story which lacks a pace…

But, of course, That Dragon, Cancer is entirely without characters or any kind of contrived narrative. Their story is not an Aristotelian arc and Joel is not aiming to be a believable replica of human traits- their story is reality. The collection of vignettes exhibited in the game are excerpts of the married couples’ own reality with real audio and their most honest written thoughts on suffering and struggle. We can’t even really call it a story; that word comes with connotation of arrangement and attempts at realism. This is not an attempt- this is an infallibly real exhibition. When we consider this the criteria for success changes dramatically. As an exhibition of reality this game cannot be faulted, something which critics evidently fail to understand…

When we re-frame the perspective of criteria we should understand that That Dragon, Cancer is not and should not strive to be entertainment. We should instead assess it as a conduit for the Greens’ emotions and experiences. What is this kind of art if not communication, after all?

Critics will talk of how disempowering the point-‘n’-click navigational style feels- about how they feel restricted as players but, beyond a possible consideration that this is a deliberate effect, is it not troubling that critics are willing to condemn this game for that aspect? What I find so troubling about this is that the critics expect to be challenged mechanically as well as emotionally from a game like this, that the absence of mechanics is stark and even unexpected. Again, both critics and users comment on the fact that they in some what disagreed with the religious commentary- stating that it elicited a cold response in them. As if it alienates them.

This is not our game and we need to stop acting as if it fails because it does not pander to us. You are not meant to be empowered or entertained.

This game is a fantastic exercise in solidarity with those who have experienced a similar kind of loss- this is why the Greens chose to share their space with many kickstarter backers who have experienced similar feelings of loss and frustration. The Greens bear their most private frustrations and difficulties with their Christian faith, their dwindling relationship with hope, their need to be responsible in the face of overwhelming adversity.

Their struggles are not meant to be yours. You are meant to feel uncomfortable and invasive. You aren’t supposed to relate or relax or enjoy during this game- you are supposed to be passive as you attempt to comprehend the misery inflicted on these very particular individuals who have had the courage to try and, through a poetic and interpretive medium, translate both their senses of grief and grace in this trying period of their lives.

We should not leave 12 Years A Slave feeling disappointed for a lack of adrenaline, for a lack of orthodox entertainment. We should respect these things as testaments to a harsh reality. That’s not to equate the two tragedies but to highlight critical disparity for two similarly harrowing autobiographical documentaries.

Mattie Brice’s online essay Death of the Player, while I believe it kind of misappropriates the title and sentiment of Barthes (if that’s what it’s going for? It doesn’t matter, it’s good), makes a powerful point that us players need to stop expecting to feel powerful in our digital environments, that we need to stop expecting to be the central focus of developers.

If the cynical and unappreciative critical response to That Dragon, Cancer, one of the bravest games I’ve ever seen, is not a testament to that problem then I don’t know what is.


7 thoughts on “I’d Like To Talk About: That Dragon, Cancer

  1. I honestly couldn’t continue this game. At the hospital room when Joel was crying, I just crashed down. I see this ‘game’ as an interactive story, it’s not exactly a game. I loved how it portrays the sadness, depression and doubts in different forms that they wanted the users to understand what it actually feels like. I understand that not everyone would agree about the religion element but the way I understood it, is that they were too desperate to save their child when there’s no hope left.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That particular section in the room where Joel begins to wail uncontrollably I thought to be so harrowing because we can’t escape. What agency we usually have to traverse is stripped of us and we are trapped to listen and be of no help to him.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very well spoken Vahrkalla. I haven’t player the game myself, but was excited to see the gaming medium taken in new directions. I grew up enjoying games as a way to explore fantastical realms of adventure, and that is still why i enjoy them so much. However, that does not mean that is all gaming should be. In fact, games like That Dragon, Cancer makes me wonder if the title “Gaming” is still the right name for a medium that is slowly but surely evolving.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the kind words!

      I really feel that critics should assess these games as individual entities. We do not have a universal criteria against which we assess literally any other form of media. In literature, we cannot assess poetry and prose against the same criteria just as we can’t assess SAW and Precious against a unifying criteria.


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