Gameplay, however, is just the means used to convey an engrossing story which is the focus of That Dragon, Cancer and yes, I’m trying to remain vague as to spoil as little as possible. What I want to tell you is that the story is gripping, grueling, unsettling, warm, and overall paints a pragmatic and unidealistic portrait that conveys the love a parent has for a child. I can honestly say that That Dragon, Cancer is the hardest game I’ve ever had to play through. Not because the the game is difficult to play or understand mind you. As a father myself, the narrative is so harsh and down to earth, it brought me to tears. Not necessarily because the tone is grim, which it is through more than half of the game, but because very few times have any of my experiences struck a cord so close to home. I, as I’m sure many of you, have all been affected by this unbearable disease. What I love most about That Dragon, Cancer is that at no point did the game become a billboard soliciting support. We all have been inundated with the global outpouring to rally and fight for the cause at some point, which is very admirable. But I will at least admit that it’s very daunting to keep up with.
That Dragon, Cancer aims to provide a window through gaming into what it’s really like to deal with cancer on the home-front. In this case, a child named Joel, who isn’t a fictional character at all. Ryan & Amy Green (the designer and writer for the game) actually lived this experience with their real life son Joel who was diagnosed with cancer (atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumors) when he was just 12 months old. Joel would struggle and fight his diagnosis until he was 4 years old, overcoming the original 4 month diagnosis. This is their story. An unabashed, tearful, but real look into your worst nightmare as a parent. The personal notes, letters, and dialog all meld together to convey the strength and endurance that proves the power of true, unfaltering love. The moment I realized my experience was related to someone’s real life, everything immediately became less video game, and more storytelling. At times, I felt like Ryan & Amy were telling me their story in person, like we were having a Skype session on my computer.