‘That Dragon Cancer’ is powerfully intimate and reflective

By Chris Mudd, Staff Writer

Everyone deals with tragedy in their own way. Some turn to spiritual outlets, others to creative ones. One family turned to the interactive artform of video games to create one of the most powerful games I’ve ever played.

Developed by Ryan and Amy Green, “That Dragon Cancer” follows their intimate recollection of the tragic death of their 5-year-old son, Joel.

It’s easy to wave off the game as some kind of moody art piece, but it felt like a much more uplifting game, leaving the player with a new perspective of their own life story. It was not nearly as pessimistic as it sounds. And while there were certainly moments of soul-crushing sadness, there were also bright moments.

The artistic style of the game was a geometric amalgamation of shapes and characters. The character design was akin to that of a polygonal game from the Nintendo 64 era. But the main focus of the game – the child Joel – was noticeably without a face. He clearly had a personality, but served as a vessel for the audience to implant their own experiences into that character.

Everyone has a Joel in their life and the choice to reflect that with an anonymous character model was brilliant.

There were times where the goal of the game is unclear and becomes muddled in emotional on-rail sections where you had no influence over your character; this was another reason why the game can’t be approached the same way as a typical video game. This wasn’t so much of an adventure but a first-hand look at the experiences of two grieving parents.

However bleak the game seemed to be, there were brilliant moments of levity that created the sense this was more than a melancholy look at one of the most terrible experiences a person can have. It’s rather a celebration of a child’s life. It was heartfelt, genuine and truly a privilege to experience.

“That Dragon Cancer” transcended the limitations of a traditional game, where the line between gameplay and story seemed to merge to create an altogether unique emotional experience. Living with these characters, even for just a short time, was enough to leave a truly haunting and lasting impression.