That Dragon, Cancer Knocked Me On My Arse

That Dragon, Cancer Knocked Me On My Arse

I had been wondering when a game would make me cry. That changed over the weekend. A few games have made me teary eyed, but that's about it. That Dragon, Cancer not only made me weep, but I had to stop playing it a few times. I'm going to talk about some of the events that happen in That Dragon, Cancer. If you'd like to go into the game without any knowledge of what happens, stop reading now.

Many of us are desperate for video games to tackle more serious subjects, and few are more serious than That Dragon, Cancer. It's the story of Joel Green, a boy diagnosed with cancer at 12 months old. That Dragon, Cancer is about a family's struggle with the inevitable, and what gives That Dragon, Cancer so much power is that it actually happened.

The game's story, which takes place over roughly two hours, is split into a series of moments from the Green family's past few years. One is a conversation between Joel's parents and the doctors, as they learn Joel's cancer is terminal. Another has Joel's father rocking him back and forth, hoping he'll find peace in sleep. These moments slip between the reality and fantasy, as it looks for ways to express the complicated emotions the Greens were experiencing.

That Dragon, Cancer opens near a lake, with players controlling a duck slowly inching towards a young boy at the shore. One bread crumb at a time, the duck moves closer. Soon, the camera switches behind the boy and people begin talking about him. This is Joel, and Joel is special.

"He can't talk," says Joel's brother.

"That's true," says his father.

"Two year olds can talk," exclaims the brother, which his father confirms.

"Why can't Joel?"

"Well, Joel got sick right after he turned one," the father responds. "He's just slower than most kids. Eventually, he'll catch up."

Though the various scenes often take place in expansive environments, the player controls the game by looking around and clicking. This isn't Gone Home — you aren't meant to open every door, peek inside every drawer. This is a guided story; players merely determine its pacing.

Sometimes, the game grants you more control.

That Dragon, Cancer Knocked Me On My Arse

Other times, the game merely wants you to observe.

That Dragon, Cancer Knocked Me On My Arse

While at PAX East with my wife, we stopped by the booth for That Dragon, Cancer. By the time someone had finished explaining the game's premise, my wife was in tears and had to look away. By virtue of its subject matter, That Dragon, Cancer can prompt an emotional response before a pixel even appears.

Let's return to a line from a little earlier, though. "Many of us are desperate for video games to tackle more serious subjects".

If you read Kotaku, chances are you view games as art, a debate that was settled long ago by the medium's biggest fans, as we've simply been waiting for everyone else in the world to catch up. It's hard to imagine sceptics being won over by the next Call of Duty, however, which is why games that delve outside the norm — something like Papers, Please — are celebrated for bucking trends.

That Dragon, Cancer conceptually swings for the fences, proposing a video game was the way to express this nightmarish slice of reality. And while That Dragon, Cancer doesn't always live up to that promise — a series of dream sequences visualising Joel's struggles don't really work — the times it does suggest a medium of unexplored potential, with That Dragon, Cancer helping pave the road.

One of them happens early on, and is the moment I mentioned earlier, wherein Joel's parents learn there's little hope for a cure. The news is followed by silence, and the player gains access to a "toy" emblazoned with the faces of everyone in the room: mother, father, doctor, assistant.

That Dragon, Cancer Knocked Me On My Arse

By clicking each of the faces, the player can hear a line of dialogue from everyone in the room, hearing the raw emotions that often go unsaid. It works.

Restrictions set by the game's creators prevent me from showing you the game's most powerful scenes, ones that had me rocking back and forth, before placing my head in my hands. (The developers are, understandably, trying to preserve some of their game's biggest moments.) I wouldn't want to show you them, either — That Dragon, Cancer works best when you're the one playing.

I want to be a dad someday. I'm looking forward to it. Knowing that, I almost avoided playing That Dragon, Cancer entirely. Why play a game that you know will emotionally destroy you? But I play sad games, watch sad movies, and read sad books because it reminds me that I'm alive. I wasn't a person who cried. Maybe when my first girlfriend broke up with me? Then, out of the blue, my dad died of a heart attack over three years ago and everything changed. Life became real. Now, I'll cry at the drop of a hat, including sappy TV commercials.

That Dragon, Cancer is not sappy, and while it's sad, it's about hope. When I played That Dragon, Cancer, I thought about the people I loved — my wife, my dog, my possible sons and daughters. My dad. The game is two hours, and I don't know that I could have handled more, but for the time that I did, I'm glad I did.

That Dragon, Cancer is available now on Steam.


    We've got 2 kids - and having them changed my life. I would do absolutely anything for my kids. I couldn't begin to imagine the pain and heartache of going through something like this.
    Will definitely play and cry like a baby throughout.
    Bravo to the team that made this possible.

      I know what you mean - having kids has completely changed my life too. I would kill or die for them if need be.

      While I'm happy this game exists, I don't think I could handle it and won't be playing it.

        Same. I have 3 and I got teary just reading this interview.

        I think it's great though, but I don't want to put my emotions through the wringer like that.

        I even cry in Braveheart and I watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon the other day and my son says "Daddy why are you crying?" and all I could say was "Because it's so beautiful."

        I'm a total crybaby.

          My misses doesnt let me forget that i cried during an episode of My Kitchen Rules...

          They were all so happy and genuinely having fun dancing though - it was a real moment amongst the overproduced bullshit drama sub plots they try to create!

            Hahaha! That's pretty bad man!

              lol i'm ok with it - I'm comfortable in my skin so I dont mind sharing such an embarrassing thing lmao

        I backed the Kickstarter of this, and have the key sitting there.
        I have a 1 year old daughter the issues in this game are just too much, I won't be able to handle it.

        I won't be playing it, but love that they made something so personal and so affective in the medium of games.

      feel ya

      it breaks my heart when they just hurt themselves or something... I forever struggle to imagine how i would deal with a terminal illness when I read of all the families on the news doing it tough. Just gotta be thankful and enjoy each day ;)

      I have 1 son and this game is still shit, non stop god, prayer, heaven, god, god, god, god. its a fucking church sermon and boring as shit.

    Like others, I don't see myself playing this game but the developer behind it deserves the ultimate praise.

    And I say this as one who has had three family members with cancer. Two of then ending in "release" rather than remission.

    Last edited 13/01/16 11:17 am

    I've got two kids who are my life. The thought of losing either of them makes me feel sick to my stomach.

    I appreciate the work that went into creating this game, but much like depressing movies and music there's no way I'd subject myself to it.

    i will often tear up and get sad at the thought of something horrible happening to my little girl. i couldnt handle playing this game. i know my wife would be a mess too. maybe one day, but not any time soon.

    I lost my baby daughter to a brain tumor 4 years ago.
    She was born with the tumor which was diagnosed at the 20 week scan.
    She was not meant to survive her birth, yet she lived until she was nearly 2 years old. She lived on love.
    Since her passing I have met and connected with many families who have lost a child (including Ryan via FB). It IS absolutely harrowing and your life is changed forever. And I have found that every story is different.
    I absolutely applaud Ryan and Amy for this labor of love and legacy to their special little man. We each want to know that our little angels have left a mark, and I think the key message is to not miss a moment with your kids. Embrace it. Drink it in.
    I'm not quite ready to play this game yet, but good luck to TDC and Ryan and Amy.

    I'm sure it's a great article. Got a few paragraphs in and it hit me too close to home after last year with some family members and brought back too many immediate memories. I'm definitely going to check out the game, I've been looking forward to it a lot.

    But I'm sure it's a great article, I applaud you guys for following this game and doing these writeups. I've bookmarked it and will read it when I'm more 'ready and able' to do so :)

    And to hell with cancer.

    Last edited 13/01/16 12:05 pm

    My 11YO daughter has a disease that is killing her. There is no cure.

    She said to me 4 nights ago with tears in her eyes "Daddy, I don't want to die."

    There is nothing that can prepare you for that. We start a drug trial in 3 weeks that may help extend her life a couple of years. Maybe that will be enough time for a cure to be developed.

    This game is too much for me. I will try to forget it exists.

    "game" is boring and non-stop goes on about fucking god and heaven. Not very sad and any sadness that is building is broken up by fucking minigames.

      Congratulations, you've clearly established yourself in an open forum as having a strong opinion that differs from others, well done! You're obviously so passionate about voicing your opinions that you feel like it would just be completely unjustified to show any amount of manners or decency, regardless of how sensitive the subject matter may be. The world truly needed to know your disappointment in this game, and you had no choice but to express it in the way you did, because to hell with how other people may feel about the games themes or content! After all. your opinions are more important than respecting other peoples feelings.

      I truly hope that your self-oriented and obnoxious mindset follows you like a black cloud, and that every person you meet in your life continues to treat you with the same disrespect and indecency that you seem to think is appropriate for your own behaviour. May you live to be an pathetic, miserable old man who doesn't need to question why he's so alone, because he voiced his opinions exactly how and when he wanted to regardless of how much of a fucking jerk he was being to others, because his opinions were more important.

        Well good to know Mr. Guest (the tough anon) appreciated my comments. You seem to have an issue with me voicing my opinion but not others, Why would that be? Possibly your belief in the deity i was speaking about? Your last statements were not very kind things to say, what would your creator think?

        Butthurt religious folk sure can give but really cant take. As for feelings, i get upset when religion is rammed down my throat when i'm just trying to play a game but no-one cares about poor old me.

        Yeah its sad his kid is dead, i'd be sad if mine was dead. Not an excuse for a shitty, boring game though.

          Dude, chill. The religious aspects of this game are in there because this is an actual true story and the creators are very religious. It's used as context, not as an attempt to convert anyone. If anything, the religious tones in the game go against attempting to get you to believe in it.

          The stuff explored in this game is seriously heavy stuff, heavier than what's likely ever been done before in games. Cancer is something that has effected nearly everyone in the world I some way or another and is an extremely sensitive topic. People are gonna be touchy about it.

          I know it's likely that you're trolling here, but this is a pretty serious no matter what way you come at it. The slow death of a child because of no particular fault of anyone, with nothing that can ultimately be done? No one likes that.

          The game isn't meant to be fun. At all. It's an emotional experience. I completely understand that it isn't for everyone - obviously it didn't resonate with yourself - and that's totally ok. Again, I know you're likely trolling here to get this exact response, but come on man - a little respect for people who have gone through such horrific things goes a long way.

          For the record, I in no way believe in any religion.

            tbh not trolling at all. Pissed that because a games creator has a sad story he can be excused for making (in my opinion) a shit game. 1 part in particular hit home (crying baby not calming down) because i can relate but the rest was rubbish honestly.

    This is an awesome piece Patrick, about a fantastic piece of work that is the best monument someone in our industry could have created. Joel lives on in this story and this game, and might just help others through similar situations. An insane amount of respect for Ryan and Amy to put so much of themselves, their family and their horrific experience into this piece of work/art.

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