That Dragon, Cancer ReviewPrice:
Described by developer Ryan Green as "a love letter to his son," That Dragon, Cancer is a virtual memorial to Joel Green and his lifelong battle with cancer, as well as being a meditation upon Ryan and his wife Amy's efforts to support him. It is a unique and brave creation, unflinching in its exploration of the disease and the cruel effects it has upon those who suffer it. Yet at the same time it is keen to emphasise the individual as well as the illness, savouring moments of joy and retaining the notion that the struggle is always worthwhile, even when it is ultimately lost.
It is also quite a problematic game, structurally disjointed and employing a mode of interaction that can often distract from engagement rather than complementing it. Given the experimental nature of both its systems and its subject matter - a difficult thing to tackle in any context, this is not entirely surprising. But there's no escaping the fact that That Dragon Cancer can often be tough to play for the wrong reasons.
The game opens on an idyllic woodland scene, zipping through artfully textureless trees and undulations before focussing in on a pond, where a five-year-old Joel is feeding the ducks with his family. The player briefly assumes control of one of the ducks for the controls tutorial. It's a typical family scene; lively and happy children, parents watching on from just behind. Then one of the boys asks why Joel is unable to speak despite is age - the first instance of the dragon rearing its ugly head.
From here the game gradually introduces us to the beast that lurks behind the trees. As we wander through the forest, we hear the thoughts of Ryan and the voice of Amy, the latter through phone calls which describe Joel's treatment and the family's day-to-day life with remarkable frankness. In fact, Amy's phone calls are a highlight of the game. I don't know whether they're recorded from real life, or acted out based on real conversations, but either way they are extraordinarily effective.
The other highlight is the visual artistry. The bold colours and abstract style strikingly convey the mood of each individual scene, whether it's the bright daytime colours of the woodland, or the dark blues and purples of the hospital at night, illuminated mostly by the glowing, irradiated green of Joel's chemotherapy fluid. The style also softens the game's frequent transitions between realism and metaphor. Perhaps the most striking example of this is when the Greens receive Joel's final prognosis, at which point it begins to rain inside the room. The rain quickly becomes a storm, while the doctors transform into vast, foreboding islands in a turbulent and uncaring ocean.