That Dragon, Cancer review: Poignant, playful and profound
That Dragon, Cancer (PC/Mac); rating 9/10 ; age: 12+
AFTER his son was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive cancer in 2010, developer Ryan Green sought a way to find a meaning in that terrible blow. Few would have expected him to turn to making a videogame, a medium scarcely known for pondering life’s big questions.
But That Dragon, Cancer quietly shows how much depth lies beneath the surface of a genre still dominated by bombastic blockbusters such as Call of Duty.
Through short, poetic vignettes, TDC explores the relentless march of the disease as Green’s son Joel and his family experience joy, hope, setbacks and despair. Ryan Green makes no attempt to distance the family from the harrowing true storyline – this is Joel’s life retold as it happened, in the form of lightly interactive fiction.
It’s not a game in the conventional sense. It’s a not-game. Like others in the genre, the player faces no real challenges, pursues no high score, solves no puzzles or unlocks no achievements.
But its worth lies in the emotional punch of the writing – a co-production with Ryan’s wife Amy – and a haunting soundtrack by collaborator Jon Hillman. Perhaps most effectively, the voices are performed by Ryan and Amy themselves with contributions from their own children including Joel.
Listening to their laughter, their tears or Joel’s howling, inconsolable cries reminds you with a jolt that this is real. He’s dying and nothing they can do – not their resolute faith, not medicine, not blind hope – will help.
Its mechanics are slight, almost non-existent. Mostly, the player has no agency, no way to stop the terrifying inevitable end. But that’s exactly as the makers intend, a way to focus your emotional investment in the same way a book or film might.
Ryan and Amy intended initially to make a memorial for their son. But it’s become more than that, a method to turn their personal loss into art.
At a time when games can last for weeks or even months, TDC is measured in just a few hours. But it burns fiercely in those short chapters, mixing an abstract, oblique view of Joel’s world with the poignant words of his parents to touching effect.
• Read Saturday’s Irish Independent for an interview with Ryan and Amy Green on the making of That Dragon, Cancer.