I like to think that I’m good at motivational speeches and sentimental talks from past experiences, but some topics are beyond words. Like, sometimes it’s just better to show your support by keeping your mouth shut. I know what it is to lose a loved one, though my case wasn’t cancer, and I know people close to you mean well by saying stuff like “it’s gonna be okay” or “calm down”, etc., but what they fail to realize is that sometimes it’s not so easy to do so. People who have been through this know what it feels like, so they are the ones who know that they have to offer silent compassion. Anyway, That Dragon, Cancer is a game touching upon a delicate topic – the battle of a 5-year old with cancer. I can only imagine what it would have been like or what the parents have gone through, but the game provides us with a glimpse of their journey throughout this suffocating desert.
That Dragon, Cancer won the award for most emotional game in 2016’s The Game Awards and I can totally see why. The game itself didn’t manage to bring me to tears, I admit, probably because I am a piece of sh*t, but I was not left without understanding and compassion towards the family and its hardships. The ending managed to get to me though and it’s not because of what happened (though probably most of you can guess without me putting that *spoiler alert* sentence) rather than we are talking about a deadly disease here and not everyone who tackles it or rather is forced to tackle it, comes out the victor. But we shall talk more about this later on in the story section, which comes up right now.
Okay, I will put a SPOILER warning, because I will comment on the story in detail as it is fit. That Dragon, Cancer is a heavy narrative game, which tells the story of Joel Green, a 5-year old boy, who fought cancer for the majority of his short life. The game also features heavy motives of faith, support, love and ultimately hope, as it tells us how Joel’s parents and siblings coped up with his deadly disease. The game is about 2 hours long and that is if you take your time to explore each chapter separately very thoroughly just as I did. I think there were about 13 chapters but I’m not so sure as to the exact number (quite frankly, I forgot). The story itself is touching, I will give it that, because even if I am usually a coldhearted piece of sh*t, it managed to unleash my compassion towards the family. Story-wise I have to say that it definitely is dynamic, because we experience moments of ups and downs all the time. I mean even from the start, it begins so peacefully, everyone is happy and everything, then boom, straight down the abyss and it rinses and repeats – again moments of relief, just to be followed by sh*t hitting the fan. In a sense, the game manages to convey exactly how Joel’s family felt in these times and in a way make the player feel it too. At times, the story just doesn’t make any sense though. I guessed that maybe they were trying to portray how Joel was feeling from his own point of view, which I believe is unique. I definitely have to say, don’t try to find logic in the story, just let go and allow yourself to immerse in it. That Dragon, Cancer, features other combatants against cancer as well, as their stories were shared in the ocean part of the game where you read (basically the game narrates to you) letters from other people with this disease or relatives of such people. A particular one of these caught my eye, about a girl who was playing an online game and how she did everything she wanted to do in real life, inside the game before her remaining time ended. In the letter it said something about a screenshot being sent to her mother, I don’t know if it was featured inside the game or not, I did check every bottle I could click on, but I would have liked to see a feature of the screenshot if it could have been possible. The other thing, I loved was how the cancer cells were portrayed inside the game’s world as these black thorny amalgamations and it can get really creepy when they overtook that part of the hospital. Ina sense they plague the game world, just like they were plaguing Joel in real life. I did mention that the ending managed to catch me the most. Why? Because this is actually one of the few conversation we are having with Joel himself and the actual setting where he is sitting on the blanket on the meadow, with his dog, both eating pancakes … I mean come on now, this is touching, okay. And when he says he always wanted a dog, them onion cutting ninjas stepped up. Seriously though, not to mention that the game made me feel both as a child and as a parent as well. On these moments (for example where we got to play with Joel on the playground in the beginning and then we got to go on the swing and slide and the other ones too ourselves and at the end with the bubble toy, which I so used to play with a lot when I was a kid too) they just connected me with my inner child so much and the feeling was just amazing. The other side of the coin – the parent – I felt bad for what Joel was going through, I was happy when he was happy, I was sad when he was in pain and I was frustrated at how hopeless it all seemed – I guess ultimately this is how a parent would feel for their child. That Dragon, Cancer manages to immerse us to such a depth that we feel and experience the story in 2 different ways and for such a linear story … kudos to you Numinous Games … I applaud you for that.
I guess the game touches a lot of the motive of acceptance. Mental hardships usually go about the same way for all people and we all strive to reach the same goal at the end … acceptance. No matter the journey, acceptance is hard to reach … in fact it is very hard to reach and sometimes it might take a very long time. This is ironically because of … hope. Because that saying we all know too well that hope dies last and people always choose to cling to hope even if things are basically hopeless and this is the case in every hardship ever. But once you reach acceptance … you get that relief and this is how moving forward goes a little bit smoother. Once you let go of hope, acceptance embraces you. Here it’s even harder because we are talking about the hope of parents, whose child is basically dying. And of course they will hope for Joel to get better. But sometimes, this might sound a bit harsh, but I know they have thought about it too … sometimes we have to hope for an ending. Even if the ending is bad for us (or them in this case), suffering is worse. And let’s be real, cancer is having to suffer for life. I’ve experienced the “having to make that choice” even if I wasn’t the one directly making it and it’s not related to cancer specifically, but it is tough.
Anyways, the narrative itself is told in different ways. By interacting with objects or walking somewhere triggers a conversation. Sometimes it might be a voice message left on a phone, it might be a memory, as I like to call them, which are like conversations between the family members or between them and a doctor or even them interacting with Joel and most of them have subtitles on the screen placed in very creative ways. Other aspects are featured in mini games, but more on that a bit later when we reach gameplay.
But at the end I can’t really critique the story or what it contains, because this is how the main characters of the game (the Green family) felt, so this is how they want us to experience it as well. But in all I said up until now, I am actually glad Joel reached peace one way or the other.
As far as gameplay goes, That Dragon, Cancer is basically a walking simulator combined with aspects of point and click and some featured mini games, which I believe were very flavorful to the whole experience, because there is only so much for you to do as a player in the game, beside experience the story. Basically the player moves around the camera and clicks on paths to walk towards or objects to interact with. Speaking of camera I actually want to complain about how wonky that is. I boosted the mouse sensitivity option to the maximum and it still felt super sloppy. I was struggling so much with camera movement that I had to use both mouse and W, S, A and D to help myself out. Other than that finding out what to click on was fairly easy enough and I liked that the game provided opportunity to experience from multiple points of view. For example I started out as being a duck … yes a duck (I loved that), I also got to be a seagull, the Green family, the doctors, and of course the third person in some occasions.
The mini games happen occasionally just to break up the flow of the original game, but continue on the story. There are a few with Joel, which take you into this dream or just some unrealistic reality, in which you experience something crazy that makes no sense, but still immersive, there is also one which is basically a kart racing mini game and to be honest I had no idea what the eff was going on. However my favorite one was about the brave knight Joel, who as fighting the dragon (which is cancer in this case). For all of my gamers out there who remember the old arcade machine games, which were in arcade clubs … well this is exactly like it. You basically play as Joel, who is portrayed as a brave knight (he even has armor and a spear) and all there is to it is jumping, walking forward and throwing spears at enemies. The narrative of this game is told as a child’s fairytale just like a mother tells her children stories at night and the text is in that old arcade font we all know and love. Ignoring the fact that I sucked so bad at it, because I just do at these types of games, it was something unexpected which managed to surprise me in a positive way.
There is one part of the game where … okay, devs you cannot do this to people … One of the chapters is basically a hospital corridor with a few rooms, in which there are so many cards with all sorts of messages inside. Okay, I have to say, yes I did look inside every single one of them and that did take me about 30 minutes, but holy sh*t I have to say that was annoying. You might say “well why did you look?”. BECAUSE I HAD TO!!! Like one part of me was “you know, these are just well wishes and miss you cards for people who have faced cancer or their relatives and friends, so just move on forward” but another part of me was like “but what if there is that one message that is going to be really touching and awesome and I MUST KNOW!!!”. Truth be told, that message never came. Probably because I was expecting something which would capture me in a sentimental point of view, but it kind of felt just like generic well wishes. I know I may sound harsh, but for a person who spent 30 minutes reading well wishes cards in a game … I am feeling a bit salty. Nobody forced me to, yes, but just to point it out, this is an entire chapter we’re talking about here. Also I was kind of hoping for the last well wishes cards to be related to Joel, towards the end of the level … well giving a nope to that too. There was also another similar section, though, it was more enjoyable to get through. Basically it’s in the hospital again (wat a surprise) and it shows paintings and drawings and pictures of people. Honestly, I will say here that I do not know how related they are to their subject, but I did fancy a few of them and googling them I managed to find them, meaning they were actually real works. There was this one called something like “galactic treasure” or something of the sort, on which a message was placed in a circular manner … to the one who painted this … I got neck crams while trying to read it – just so you know. Also … puppies. I am a simple person, I see a fluffy dog – I like. Nuff said.
I’m actually going to end this review now. I won’t talk a lot about music and art style of the game, because they were simply flawless and there isn’t really anything you can eff up with music here (sad tunes will always be impactful, no matter what). I would love to search for a soundtrack. Also, the art style of the game is unique and it’s like this cubicesque manner (that isn’t even a word, but welcome to my reality, making up words for reviews is what we do here). Nothing to complain about art and music, so let’s go to the verdict. I can give this game an 8/10. It is definitely a worth it experience, which I feel everyone should go and … well, experience, but even with the delicate topic and all and the compassion I feel for the family and their struggles, I can’t really give a perfect score. Sorry, but hey devs, I love your game. It’s totally worth it, definitely deserving of its emotional award. And no matter what I said up to this point I just wanna say, at the end of the day, I’m glad that you managed to pull through and remember your son in happiness, not the harsh reality he was facing and the tragic end. So thank you for the happy ending.