Numinous Games’ debut title is a heart-wrenching true story about a five-year-old taken too soon.
For me, cancer is a familiar beast. Over the last three years two of my family members have been diagnosed with it, with one sadly passing away as a result. This is not an uncommon story these days – so many people’s lives have been affected by the disease. Even still, crumpled into the ball of emotions and tears I was throughout playing That Dragon, Cancer, none of this quite prepared me for the experience delivered by Numinous Games and the Green family.
Games have been sad and emotion-packed before – the power of That Dragon, Cancer, is that it actually happened. It isn’t merely a game – it’s a love letter, a grieving note, from Ryan and Amy Green to their passed son.In March 2014 Joel Green, aged five, passed away from brain cancer. He was diagnosed at a very young age, outliving his original prognosis, but ultimately his tumours were untreatable. There’s a lot of hope to be found in the game, especially during the first half, as we watch Joel undergo chemotherapy and celebrate his “end of treatment” day – culminating in a Mario Kart-style race. Drifting between the real and the symbolic, That Dragon, Cancer isn’t just about sadness, it’s about the love and hope of a family.
Sadly, the inevitable looms ever present after chemotherapy fails. The revelation of this information proves to be one of the game’s most moving and well crafted segments. Sitting in a hospital room, the player is presented with a spin and say toy, first using it to make animal noises to keep Joel laughing and happy, before it morphs to show the faces of Ryan, Amy and the two doctors present. This is the pivotal moment, where everything changes for the family. They’re told that Joel has only months to live and what the next steps are.Rather than letting this moment fly by, by interacting with the toy and rewinding time you’re able to view each segment of the conversation from all four perspectives, hearing the thoughts so often hidden. You’re allowed time to just live in that moment, and it was then that I felt more connected to the family than ever – feeling the weight of the doctor’s words and the all consuming hopelessness welling up. Music, metaphoric visuals, and the dialogue all come together perfectly. It was quite truly something I’ve never experienced in a game before.
As the story gets heavier, there’s a large exploration of religion interwoven into the second part of the narrative. While this may be a little polarising for some, I found it raised a lot of questions much bigger than Christianity itself, with both Amy and Ryan laying huge amounts of faith in God for their son Joel. That Dragon, Cancer never tries to force this down your throat however, because the experience is about so much more than religion alone, it’s about the love this family has for their son; the hope in life, the grief in death. It’s about understanding the invisible weight of their situation.
While the inputs for the game make it a simple point-and-click fare, it’s the blurring of real and dream like segments that make it special. You follow the story in chronological order, broken up into smaller vignettes that ebb and flow with the tone of the piece. Hope and whimsy followed by sadness and anger. Even when things feel a little odd or out of place, drifting in a metaphorical ocean, there’re voice snippets and real letters from Amy that pull it all together. Notes from others, real cards dotting the hospital rooms and voice segments from home videos all anchor it in reality.In its finest moments That Dragon, Cancer is emotionally resonant, and in its weakest merely experimental. It doesn’t ask you to understand every moment – and in some ways, how could anyone on the outside – it asks you to experience Ryan and Amy Green’s introspection and grief as they experienced the tragedy themselves. It’s paving the way for a future of self expression and experimental game art.
I came out of my two hour journey with the Green family feeling quite sad, but ultimately thankful that they chose to share this experience – I can’t begin to imagine the courage it took to produce. That Dragon, Cancer is firmly locked as a game I’ll point to when people question the artistic quality of video games, their capability to be something more. Although it may hit close to home, it’s extremely valuable as a piece of self expression, a piece of someone’s life given. It’s incredibly special.
That Dragon, Cancer is an experience full of equal parts sadness and hope. All it asks is that you take a few hours to journey with the Green family through this tragedy. It may be challenging, but it’s an experience I highly recommend you take.
Developer: Numinous Games
Publisher: Numinous Games
Platforms: PC, Mac, Ouya