A few weeks ago, Nominous Games’ released That Dragon, Cancer. It’s safe to say that moment was a fairly monumental occasion for Ryan and Amy Green. The launch of the game signified the end of what would have been one of the most challenging experiences the two have ever faced, I have no doubt about it.
The debut title from Nominous Games could well be the hardest thing the Green’s ever make as developers. And while the subject matter is incredibly dire – that being the journey of cancer-stricken five-year-old Joel, who sadly passed away in 2014 – it again showcased the power of expression in video games, and how far this medium has come in such a short amount of time.
Real events, particularly those occurring centuries and decades ago, have had a strong affinity with video games. Given gaming’s strong correlation with escapism, it’s fairly clear as to why this medium has been so successful when it comes to this. The likes of Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, and Assassin’s Creed have been a few notable successors in this historical endeavour, allowing players to jump into various time periods to craft their own bitesized tale of history. It’s not quite a history lesson, but it’s a fascinating way of acknowledging some of the world’s most important events and their respective impact on the society we live in today.
Of course, developers also like to use these time frames as a ground in which to work and build upon – and that’s arguably even more effective, with titles like Chivalry: Medieval Warfare and Ark: Survival Evolved being distinguished examples.
Irrespective of taking bits and pieces of history’s momentous events and bridging them into a video game, I’ve always been intrigued by films and documentaries depicting real stories. Stories that can happen to all of us, given a particular set of circumstances.
I’ll never get over the feeling I have when an opening title of a movie or a tv show begins with ‘based on a true story’ or ‘inspired by true events’. It changes my thought process about what I’m about to watch almost instantly. We’re also beginning to see it in video games.
Video games have been changing fairly dramatically over the last decade or so. New technology, the influx of independent developers, and an almost endless amount of potential means video games and their creators now have a palette almost free from any restrictions. They can make what they want, and that’s pretty exciting.
Throughout the last few years in particular, I’ve had a few very emotionally connected experiences with video games. The Last of Us’ first fifteen minutes, the ending of Gone Home, that moment in Spec Ops: The Line, the ending of The Walking Dead: Season One… a few very hard-hitting examples of entertainment that really, really got to me. And as we enter the new year, filled with promise and potential, the likes of That Dragon, Cancer no doubt stands out to me as another jump into a new kind of video game – one that’s entirely based upon a painstakingly emotional true story.
The idea of video games basing themselves entirely around a true story really intrigues me. You’re wiping away your Ezio, your Ghost, your Joel and your Ellie, and you’re replacing them with someone that actually existed in this world we live in. It’s fascinating.
This, of course, sweeps aside the fiction we’ve come to love in video games. The escapism you conjure up by launching into Destiny, or Halo 5, or The Witcher 3 is thrown aside for something a little more real – something a little more true to itself. And I’d be really interested in exploring this. The potential is fairly big here.
That Dragon, Cancer, while an extremely saddening experience, connected with me in a very personal way. Like many, I’ve had a handful of family and friends affected by cancer, and watching the Green’s deal with such a harrowing experience was something I could relate to. I felt their sorrow, the impact of life’s hard-hitting punches and the sadness that can bring, and it was powerful. And no matter what you did in the game, you couldn’t change the outcome.
It’s set in stone. It actually happened, and there’s nothing you or I could do to change that.
Given the circumstances and the subject matter at hand, it’s understandable that the game hasn’t sold so well. That Dragon, Cancer is not a fun game to play. It was never built to be such a thing. It’s more of an experience, as you watch over a child who was taken too soon. It’s a damn saddening experience, but I’m happy I played it. I’m happy that, if anything, I was able to show in one way or another that I feel for this family, and that I’m with them in the knowledge that cancer sucks in every sense. The experience and connection I had as Joel’s final few interactions played out was incomprehensible – I felt the angst, the anguish, and the anxiety that flooded through. And I really felt, and continue to feel, for the Green family, who went through all of the trials and tribulations.
As the credits rolled, I kept a few thoughts in my mind as I went off to do other things, in a state of calmness as well as a bit of sadness. Amongst all of the thoughts I had for the Green family and the awful effects cancer bears on such a vast majority of our population, I thought about how unique that experience was – to play something based on real events and the connection I’d felt with it. It was just… unique. Given the subject matter, it was hard, for sure – but it was different. It was taking me away from my fantasy worlds and my FIFA career mode, and strapping me in for something closer to home. And, if anything, I’d be rather inclined to try out more of this kind of thing in the future.
The potential is fairly endless, given tales spanning centuries, decades, and so on, and video games are suitably a perfect medium for this kind of exploration.