Wednesday, 20 January 2016

That Dragon, Cancer - Review

Developer: Numinous Games
Publisher: Numinous Games 
Platforms: PC (version played), Mac, Ouya

I planned to write something about dread or how video games craft a sense of horror and dread sometime this week. I wanted to discuss how good horror games use their gameplay in order to disturb the player and create that sense of terror.  

That Dragon, Cancer feels like that at times. Based on the real-life events of Ryan and Amy Green, the game deals with the emotional turmoil that they encounter when they discovered that their youngest son, Joel, had terminal cancer.

That Dragon, Cancer genuinely conjures up feelings of dread. It’s not a game that you want to play at times, moving through painful scenario after painful scenario. Hearing a child scream in pain after vomiting up everything he drinks, listening in on a family’s inner thoughts as they attempt to, in some way at least, come to terms with the fact that their son will no longer be around.

Rather than have you playing first-person as a character, That Dragon, Cancer instead casts you as a loose observer, floating in and out of each of the game’s mini-scenarios. In one moment, you’ll be at the eye-level of a lake, watching this family throw pieces of bread to ducks, in another, you’ll be sat in a hospital room, listening to the steady “blip-blip” of a nearby IV drip. 

It’s an appropriate way to handle player interactivity. You feel like an intruder on a family’s personal experience of grief when playing That Dragon, Cancer. Whether it was intentional or not, there’s a weird sense that you don’t quite belong as you play, that, even the game itself, not just the Green family’s grief, is somehow completely their own and not to be intruded upon.

The whole experience is incredibly dream-like, with the entire world designed to look almost like statuesque wood carvings. Throughout most of the scenes, pitch-black trees and bundles of thorns sprout out of the ground or bob around along the surface of the water. A metaphor for death, perhaps? Or grief, maybe? Possibly both, occasionally, the bundles of thorns will vibrate and divide like cells – a clear visual reference to cancer, but also a strangely disconcerting image in those early scenes.

Whilst the game's visual aesthetics are no doubt impressive, its sound design is no less important.. Audio plays a huge part in the game (it even recommends using headphones), with snatches of conversation echoing around you as you walk through silent hospital hallways or click at a new message on a mobile phone.

Despite all the visual and audio emphasis, That Dragon, Cancer is still a game and interactivity plays a huge role in the story it’s trying to tell and the emotions it wants to convey. In fact, the most powerful moments involve the game using “traditional” gameplay mechanics in order to hit you with the actual situation that the family is going through. 

At one point, you’re left to race Joel around the ward in a makeshift cart, complete with gleeful giggling from the little boy and exaggerated car noises from his father. It’s a charming scene with you guiding the cart, hitting “power-ups” as you go. Power-ups, that, whilst you’re playing, seem completely useless. It’s only when you finish the race, and the game displays the victory screen, that it hits you with the gut punch. All those power-ups you’ve collected are then displayed on the screen; they’re the near endless list of drugs, with impossible to pronounce names, that Joel is taking to keep him alive.

These are arguably the stronger moments in That Dragon, Cancer when, for brief moments, it bares its teeth and comes at the player with a little bite. So much of That Dragon, Cancer is about the player gliding from one scenario to another that these moments are a real jolt to the system and brutally effective.

If the interactivity is arguably the game’s greatest strength, its written segments are certainly its weakest. Ryan Green’s narration typically punctuates each scenario and, whilst obviously heart felt and brimming with emotion, can seem overwritten and in a few cases awkwardly forced and verbose. Perhaps that’s the point; that it’s impossible to convey through language how you’re truly feeling when you’re in a situation like this. Still, for a game that so often lets you make your own emotional connections, moments like these can feel like a sledgehammer by comparison, as the game suddenly hammers home how it wants you to feel. 

The game also takes something of a right turn into different territory during its second half too. Whilst the initial story is about a family’s battle with cancer, the latter half turns into a story about faith, or rather, the battle to maintain it. The Green family are devout Christians, and many of the later scenarios deal with them attempting to keep their handle on God, love and heaven even in the face of death.

No doubt this will lose some of the audience. Perhaps for those that don’t have faith it’s harder to make a connection here, as the game seems to veer off to explore this other aspect of the Green family’s battle.

Still, it makes for a powerful penultimate scene in a church, which I won’t describe here since it deserves to be explored for yourself. It’s a powerful scene, and easily one of the strongest moments in what, during its latter half especially, can be something of an uneven game. 

Ironically, for a game that’s so self-consciously art-house, That Dragon, Cancer’s best moments are where it subverts traditional gameplay elements, and uses them to tell its story. Likewise, the weaker moments come when it tries too hard to be poetic, rather than simply letting the visuals and the gameplay take control.

That Dragon, Cancer is no doubt an important game, not least as an example of art-as-therapy. It uses its brief two hours in a unique way to craft a genuinely original and brutally moving experience. It’s not perfect, and there are indeed stumbles, but it’s the kind of game that’s important to see in gaming as a whole, and some of its moments are likely to stick in your head long after you’ve finished playing.


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