It’s difficult to talk about THAT DRAGON, CANCER without talking about what defines a video game. Many an avid gamer will tell you that a game is an interactive experience characterized by player action, varied gameplay mechanics, and traversable world space. But THAT DRAGON, CANCER breaks the stereotypical video game mold. There is no combat, there are no enemies, no mini-map, inventory, or any similar convention of modern gaming. THAT DRAGON, CANCER is an interactive narrative, taking the player along a beautiful and emotional experience with no inherent objective, no quest marker to lead the player along. This is about living in one family’s story of struggle, pain, and hope and becoming a part of the experience.

Based on the true story of the game’s developers, the narrative details the young Joel’s fight against cancer across four years, and its impact on his family’s concepts of faith and even hope. Across several scenarios, spanning the four years, players will view memories in a gorgeous, impressionistic artstyle, listening to messages and dialogue while navigating areas to a musical score mirroring the tale’s sad, yet hopeful journey. It’s simple but effective and draws players into the world of the Green family, the highs and the lows.

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But the most powerful aspect of the game is its subtlety. It never whomps you over the head with exposition or long explanations of how far along the story a player is, instead offering clues, pieces of information for players to chew on and build the story themselves. Beyond this, most of the story is told in symbolic ways that complement the abstract art direction. Whether they are controlling the boy Joel as he dodges cancerous clouds in the sky or spinning a child’s toy to initiate dialogue during a particularly dark scene, the player is offered new ways to experience the world of the story in a way no other medium can offer.

And this is what is most important to note about the game as a whole. This is a story that could be told in a documentary, a novel, or a Lifetime special, but the Green family chose to tell their story through a video game. Through this medium, the Greens not only share their story, but also invite anyone to experience it firsthand, to be a part of it themselves. This can be seen in the very artstyle, which renders the characters with minimal facial features as a means to separate the player from the people of the story and focus on what is most important: the emotions and events of it all, the humanity.

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But no matter how heartfelt THAT DRAGON, CANCER’s story is, it is still a game, and its decidedly indie roots do crop up frequently. There were several occasions when the symbolic nature of the game left me confused and lost, but they never lasted long and I was brought back into the fold shortly after. Another section incorporates an enjoyable and fun diversion in the gameplay involving a race around a hospital, but controls awkwardly and seems to go on just a little too long. Thankfully, none of these things detract from the final impact that the game leaves on the player as they are mostly forgettable.

Cancer is something that impacts far too many people (there is a specific scene which showcases this to a powerful level) and THAT DRAGON, CANCER offers a new look at what it means to truly endure its devastating impact and what that means to a child, a parent, and a family as a whole. It is a hard story to play through, but there are glimmers of hope for a better tomorrow. This is something to be taken slowly over the course of at least two hours in a single sitting, letting it wash over the player.

THAT DRAGON, CANCER is not the greatest game I have ever played, but I think it is an important one, one that everyone should play because it showcases what the medium of video games is capable of in regards to emotional storytelling. What it lacks in technical expertise is drowned out by the voice it tells its tale with. The player really feels for this family, and when the credits began with photos of the real family, I nearly broke down into tears. THAT DRAGON, CANCER is a beautiful interactive experience that might not be for everyone due to its lack of common video game essentials, but is easy for me to recommend.


Reviewed on PC

Jason Pedroza is a Crossfader guest contributor who really likes stories and spends most of his time lost somewhere in his own imagination. He will love you forever if you offer him a Slurpee or some candy.

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