Most games are easy to review, some are hard, and a small handful impossible. That Dragon, Cancer is firmly the latter. My struggle comes from the fact this interactive experience is as much therapy for a couple who lost their son, as it is a product. It touchingly documents their child Joel Green’s life, from cancer diagnosis, through treatment, to his eventual passing.
Because of this, how you interpret and appreciate its narrative’s various twists depend entirely on your own life experiences.
That Dragon, Cancer is only in the game section because it uses certain interactive tropes associate with videogames. But, how much you actually “play” or even influence the outcome of its poetic narrative, is minimal at most.
The ineffectualness of your actions are part of the message though, because – as That Dragon, Cancer makes perfectly clear – you can’t control if cancer is going to win or not.
Many scenes from That Dragon, Cancer’s disjointed narrative are casual meandering areas that allow you to explore a snapshot of the family's memories. You may find yourself in a park feeding ducks, a hospital, or an operating theater.
Exploring these allows you connect with the family, offering an odd sense of expectation, dread, and monotony. To move the story forward you have to interact with a particular element in the world – you may have to play with Joel, or perhaps pick up a phone to hear a recorded message that puts the current events in context.
Interaction as communication
Through all of this That Dragon, Cancer utilizes sound and its color palate to give insight into what the family is going through. One particularly powerful moment has you walk up to Joel turning the world grey and monochrome as you do.
Its impactful because its meaning is open to interpretation, from a lack of joy to a numbness. The only thing that is certain is that to move on from this moment, you have to leave Joel behind.
These passive experiences lack interaction, but they are successful in the point they make – something that cannot be said for the "game" elements. Whether you guide Joel floating on balloons past cancer cells or take part in a cart race around the clinic, these sections are ill-designed with awful controls.
The thing is, they do not need to be good to get the point across. You can’t guide Joel successfully past the cancer cells, they always win, and your route around the clinic collecting shiny items simply result in you discovering everything you collect represents another treatment for Joel. The message is incredibly powerful, even if the interaction is not.
Not a conclusion, more a thought
All of which is why this is not a review. Partly because I can’t decide if it’s meant to be an interactive movie or a game, and partly because even the awful bits work within the context of the incredibly powerful narrative.