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‘That Dragon, Cancer’ Is an Important Game That I Can't Bring Myself to Play

I'm grateful that this new indie game is challenging perceptions of video games, but I don't think I could play it without it wrecking me.

Video games are always asking us questions. They're not often big ones, or particularly meaningful ones, but they're always there. Take the easiest route to your exit point, or the more dangerous but potentially rewarding one? Are you a "lone survivor" or a "waste of skin"? Do you accept the generous offer from the Pro Evo version of Panathinaikos for an underperforming Shane Long, or keep him on your books as an occasional substitute striker?

That Dragon, Cancer, out now for Razer Forge TV, OUYA, Mac, and PC, asks a devastatingly simple question, but one that games have never really asked before, at least not with quite so much feeling: "Can you find hope in the face of death?" Sadly, I'm not sure that I can. Not enough to play the debut release by Numinous Games, headed by developer Ryan Green. That Dragon, Cancer is just too upsetting for me. I can't even watch the trailer without feeling a lump in my throat. (And yes, it's easy to just write that down on a page, but trust me: every time.)

'That Dragon, Cancer,' launch trailer

It is, however, a very important game, one that further "validates" this interactive medium as an effective means of artistic catharsis. That's one way of looking at it, anyway—I'm sure that Ryan and wife Amy, who also worked on the game, would rather see it less as a purging of emotions built up in the wake of their son's death, and more a celebration of the time they did spend together. That Dragon, Cancer candidly (and highly stylistically) follows the brief life of Joel Green, diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor in 2010 and given just months to live. He hung on until March 2014, dying at just five years old.

My oldest son is five. Like many of you, I've lost family members to cancer. Hell, even superheroes aren't immune to the disease. Putting these things together in my head leads to a place I don't want to be, and that's the main reason why I won't play That Dragon, Cancer. I can't. I know it would wreck me. But I appreciate its existence a great deal. I have so much admiration for Ryan and Amy, and the small team at Numinous Games, for seeing this project through to its conclusion. It's not just emotional hurdles that they've had to overcome—there were some funding problems, and its initially exclusive platform, the OUYA, was discontinued last summer. But this is a game that needed to be finished. I'm glad it was.

Gaming isn't without countless personal stories, told through both linear narratives and player-determined paths. Depression Quest and Papo & Yo are two that come immediately to mind. The former is a text-based work made using the Twine engine that, as its title so plainly implies, sympathetically addresses the subject of depression. The latter is its designer's means of articulating his feelings on growing up around an alcoholic, abusive father, presented as a puzzle-platformer. Neither is perfect. I don't imagine That Dragon, Cancer is, either. But where it differs, for me, despite its documented diversions into disruptive metaphorical imagery, poorly realized mini-games and heavy religious sentiments (the Greens are devout Christians), is in its rawness. There's no detachment from the subject. It's right there in your face, giggling as it bumps itself, himself, at the bottom of a slide.

I can see the comments, the barbed criticisms, along the lines of this "not being a game" without searching for them. They're absolutely out there, and will only multiply. Partially that's the fault of gaming's gatekeepers for not diversifying its extremely limited array of accepted genres. Steam lists That Dragon, Cancer as an "adventure" game, but that positions it in the same category as Far Cry 3 and Tomb Raider. It is, rather, a short meditation on the loss of a loved one, lasting for a couple of hours. It doesn't feature any fiendish traps or perplexing puzzles, any savage beasts to best or pirates to punch. Its difficulty, according to critics who have played it—like Eurogamer's Martin Robinson and Kotaku's Patrick Klepek—manifests through simply continuing the game to its awful conclusion. There's barely any real "control"; as Kelpek writes: "This is a guided story; players merely determine its pacing."

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Not being able to save Joel is another reason why I won't play That Dragon, Cancer for myself. I love to hold onto hope during the darkest times; but when I know in advance that no amount of concentration, care, comfort, or combat will battle away the untreatable unspeakables that grew within this small boy, and that continue to throughout the game's duration, I can't find within myself the strength to even begin. When a character dies in This War of Mine, because I've not barricaded my shelter sufficiently, I feel guilty for failing to properly prepare for the night. Likewise, when my mother-in-law passes away in Papers, Please, it's because I've been too slow, too slack, at the border crossing to make enough to afford the medicine that could have saved her. But those failures are on me and I can accept them. Joel's death is set. To allow the player to turn this desperate situation around would have comprised a dishonest memory for the Greens, making a terrible situation a hundred times worse. I get why he has to die. I understand why this game only has one ending. We all have but the one ending.

In a way, I felt cheated by the climax of The Last of Us, having any chance of choice taken away from me by a bullet. Not that I was expecting it to happen any differently; that game's rather older, battle-scarred Joel's selfishness mightn't have always been obvious, but he was exclusively in it for himself ever since his daughter's death, and the greater good wasn't about to change that. But the journey to that point, that fierce hospital shootout and the heartbeat-skipping epilogue, was dramatic, exciting, fun.

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I don't see any of those qualities in That Dragon, Cancer. Again: It's not an adventure, it's a predetermined true story. I see suffering, traveling on a one-way ticket, no salvation. I see me in absolute floods if I so much as get five minutes into proceedings. Other writers have expressed that they did feel hope within That Dragon, Cancer's brightly colored scenes—hope that they, too, could find a way to process any tragedy that may befall them, having fully appreciated what they had before it was taken away. That they found new feelings for their own closest through this experience. I'm not saying That Dragon, Cancer allows the Greens to breathe easier, that it in some small way relives the unimaginable pain of losing a child; but its existence has to stand for something good in their lives. Or else it stands for nothing.

I've too much of my own baggage to carry any more weight, right now. And I'm sorry about that, but this isn't about me, as That Dragon, Cancer seems remarkable in many ways, and is well worthy of these words, this spotlight, without my participation. I am proud, if pride is quite the right feeling (perhaps it's more gratitude?), of gaming for continuing to present ways and means for people to let their feelings find focus and form. The Greens' work will hopefully gain enough of a profile to show those who don't regularly play video games, or haven't for years, that there's so much more to the medium than military shooters and sports simulations. If it achieves that, it'll definitely be something more than its makers ever intended: a monument to possibility.

That Dragon, Cancer is out now. More information at the game's official website. Razer is donating proceeds from sales on its platform to the Morgan Adams Foundation and Family House SF.

Follow Mike Diver on Twitter.