I don’t really know what That Dragon, Cancer is. It’s a tribute, it’s a celebration, it’s a drama, it’s so many things at once that form a uniquely unfathomable experience. It’s hardly a game, but it really only works because it is at the same time the fullest examination of what games can be.
You already know it’s a heartbreaking thing. Made by Ryan and Amy Green (and the other folks involved at Numinous Games), it relates the traumatic, overwhelming story of their very real son Joel, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at twelve months old but survived for four more years. But looking deeper into the actual construction of this game, it somehow becomes even more shattering to ponder.
Calling it confidence would be errant. That supposes that there was some amount of unsureness to overcome, some push beyond a hesitation that this wasn’t ever supposed to be. This instead feels like a necessity, like in the same way a documentary simply points a lens at the truth. This game is the only possible culmination of the tumultuous years to follow for the Greens.
It unabashedly presents this story through their own lens. I’m not saying we get over the familiarity of the tragedy and ruthlessness of cancer, but the fact that it comes through the filter of the Greens’ stoic and remarkable faith and Christianity is somehow…refreshing? Or maybe that’s not the right word. It’s more like it unearths a facet of this classically debilitating hardship that is not often seen, forcing a new digestion and reaction to it all from the player.
You won’t enjoy playing That Dragon, Cancer. You won’t walk away feeling empowered or excited or full. It hollows you out, but it does so in such a way that you are better for it. It’s not a fun game, but my goodness is it important. So very important.