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'That Dragon, Cancer' review: An emotional game unlike any other

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I was nervous to even play That Dragon, Cancer. Read any preview or write-up of the newly released game, and it often comes saddled with words like “devastating” or “profound,” leaving players in tears more often than not.

As its title suggests, That Dragon, Cancer is a game about the disease, and everything that surrounds it. Players witness the story of Ryan and Amy Green, whose young son, Joel, has been diagnosed with brain cancer. The game was made by a real-life Ryan and Amy Green from Numinous Games, whose real-life son Joel was diagnosed with cancer. Joel died while the game was being produced, fundamentally changing the Greens’ lives and the final results of what is now a virtual, eternal eulogy to their son.

But That Dragon, Cancer is more than a beautiful remembrance of a life cut short — it’s an exploration of the many little fights fought along the path of the battle, and a look at how faith and family play a role in those moments. It’s an act of grieving that at its best allows those experiencing it to grieve their own losses.

That Dragon, Cancer takes place across a series of scenes in the Greens’ lives with Joel. Some are pedestrian — a day at the park, a night in a hospital room — while other surreal excursions build on ideas surrounding the Greens. Little is required of the player other than walking though and interacting with items and characters in the world. Occasional trips into a go-kart race or arcade gaming cabinet to tell aspects of the story break up what is otherwise a constantly moving train through the triumphs and strife of the Greens’ collective story.

Those triumphs are small yet no less forceful. Successfully making Joel laugh can feel like a greater reward than saving any world in another game. It is actually when That Dragon, Cancer leans into its medium that it loses its way. Some of the more fantastical sequences feel too heavy-handed alongside the most honest, everyday scenes. Simple moments in a park deliver a stronger punch than whenever the game dips a toe into sequences that go beyond the simple act of moving through, observing, and interacting with the Greens.

At its best, That Dragon, Cancer does not shy away from the life-altering hardships of what the Greens, and what so many other families, must contend with. In one scene, Ryan sits with Joel in a hospital room, feeling defeated when Joel won’t stop crying. In another, doctors break the bad news to the Greens about Joel’s terminal diagnosis, and the player can zip into either the doctors or parents’ heads to hear their inner thoughts as the conversation they feel they’re supposed to be having takes place.

Joel Green did die during That Dragon, Cancer’s production, and, it should not be too much of a spoiler to say, the game addresses that event in a striking, powerfully haunting manner. Yet for as difficult to handle as some of the game’s darkest moments may be, That Dragon, Cancer is ultimately a message of hope, of love, and of perseverance. It is a remembrance to a young boy, and to those who have also lost loved ones (in beautiful ways best experienced unspoiled), while simultaneously looking forward.

As I said before, I was nervous to play That Dragon, Cancer. I was nervous because I lost my own mother to cancer seven years ago, and I feared so many of the themes in the game would force moment too painful to revisit to rise to the surface. At times, the game did dredge up memories of walking my frail mother down a hospital corridor, or of hearing her cry out in pain during the night, but That Dragon, Cancer did so much more than that. The game reminded me how making her smile on her most trying days could mean the world to me, and that even in her physical absence she lives on in those left behind.

That Dragon, Cancer is an exhausting yet rewarding reminder that grief can be a powerful force, and that even in the darkest of times, there is light to be found that can keep us going, even if it’s in something as simple as the sound of a child’s laugh.

That Dragon, Cancer is now available on PC and Mac.

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