Video Game Review: “That Dragon, Cancer”

This isn’t something for everyone. You don’t point your gun at a bad guy and shoot, or kick a football to win the big game, because there is nothing to really win in something such as “That Dragon, Cancer.” There are no goals to storm the castle and save the princess, there’s no evil antagonist hanging over your head, there’s just you and what’s lies ahead of you. Much like a battle with cancer, this isn’t a game, this is an experience.

Based around the true story of Joel Evan Green, a 5-year-old child who tragically lost his fight against terminal cancer, “That Dragon, Cancer” served as the passion project of parents Ryan and Amy Green in order to not only share their experiences of fray and faith, but to commemorate the families who continue to fight. With all revenue of the game’s sales being donated to the Morgan Adams Foundation and Family House SF, this project serves as a great way for the Green family to commemorate the loss of Joel, and potentially help prevent some family in the future going through the same fate.

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From the beginning, one can be overcome with a sense of walking through a children’s story book with an array of bright colors and cherished childhood memories scattered about, enchanting to experience. Yet, when contrasted with the harsh realities of battling illness, it makes it feel all the more weighted and genuine. Much like the finest children’s story book, the reward is the journey within the story’s pages, and this is one powerful journey. Many of the memories scribbled within this game’s sheets are not only perfectly moving, but absolutely heartbreaking. Without spoiling too much about the episode “Waking Up,” if you’ve ever experienced the loss of a loved one passing, this scene is especially designed for you. There will be chills running down your shoulders and your spine, there will be tears held back with great resistance, all the memories will come running back to you at once, and that’s okay. In addition, the episode “Dehydration” will engrave an especially great mark on those who have had to watch their child struggle with pain, incapable of doing a single thing about it. Even to those of us who haven’t endured such a heartache, it’ll be impossible to deny the empathy you will immediately gain.

It would be easier to spoil what makes these moments so unforgettable, but this is something that deserves to be experienced first hand, something you won’t be able to feel by simply reading it in an article. Moreover, it just so happens to also be one of the most profound blends of religious reverence and the acceptance of death in recent memory. Where as most pieces try to hammer in religion as the focal point, “That Dragon, Cancer” instead leaves it as just one aspect of the family’s journey with Joel, and how their grace was the center of both their doubts and their optimism, making it feel all the more important to their story.

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However, much like most “point and click” titles, there can be a sense of misdirection and confusion at times of uncertainty. Some levels require you to check every nook and cranny before you’re able to figure out what’s supposed to be done, and sometimes you miss important pieces without realizing it. Yet, while it would have been a little nicer to have a smoother experience game-play wise, it hardly impacts those powerful moments waiting for you. A game such as this shouldn’t hand you everything on a silver platter, an uphill journey such as cancer treatment will never have such a luxury, but you will feel a part of Joel’s fight from beginning to end nevertheless, and that’s hauntingly beautiful.

In a way, “That Dragon, Cancer” serves as a beautiful swan song to those we’ve lost along the way. Instead of taking you on a linear journey from beginning to end, we’re led through a chain of episodes that all too many people have had to endure. It’s one of those experiences where, once you’ve watched the credits roll and set the controller down, all that remains is the silence that surrounds you; the calm of the world bearing down on all of your senses at once. So rarely is a game able to leave an everlasting impact on its player, but Joel and Amy not only have their family’s strength to be proud of, but also the impact they have left upon the world with this magnificent title. For those of us who continue to fight past the great losses of our lives, to our loved ones and to our fallen brethren alike, this is for you.

Rating: 9/10

​Donald Strohman is a Pennsylvania State University film graduate currently residing in Metro Atlanta, Georgia. Before being a part of The Young Folks team, he contributed to GameDeck and the satire website The Black Sheep. He also writes for the game journalism site GameSkinny. When he's not trying to fulfill his life long dream of becoming the "Hash Slinging Slasher", Donald enjoys watching movies, playing video games, and writing; sometimes all at once.