It's a game filled with powerful, often surreal imagery. In one chapter, Joel floats toward the moon, held aloft by a cloud of helium balloons. The player must guide him through a maze of black, spiky, pulsing cancer cells, touching any one of which will cause a balloon to burst. As you float closer to the moon, the screen becomes more and more filled with black, and steering Joel successfully becomes next to impossible. Another involves a rather mawkish kart race through the hospital corridors, collecting what at a glance look like sweets. But when the race ends and your score is tallied up, the sweetness of victory is tinged with a bitter aftertaste.
It's fair to say that That Dragon, Cancer is not an easy game to experience, and this goes both narratively and mechanically. Interactively That Dragon Cancer is very simplistic, and a few of the design decisions are just bizarre. Movement, for example, is performed through pointing and clicking on the environment, rather than using traditional WASD keys. This results in a sluggish and lumbering momentum which is restrictive and distancing. The game also frequently pulls control away from the player for lengthy camera transactions which, again, serve to obstruct the game's message rather than facilitating it.
Away from movement, you interact by reading letters and other documents scattered around the environments, listening to dialogue, and playing various types of minigames. The former two work well enough, while the latter are inescapably rudimentary, interesting in the context of the part of the story they're telling, but dull to actually play.
As the game nears its conclusion, it becomes both a darker and increasingly spiritual experience. Overall That Dragon, Cancer does an excellent job of communicating the horrific reality of cancer in such a way as to be bearable without being disingenuous. Toward the final chapter, however, it uses one scene to confront the monster full in the face,
demonstrating the ceaseless pain and exhaustion it causes with devastating force. It is genuinely traumatic to sit through, and the sounds of it will echo in my head for a long time.
The spiritual aspect I found more surprising. This is because it emerges quite late on, as Ryan's faith is shaken by his experiences while Amy's is reinforced. As an atheist it is weird to hear God spoken about with such matter-of-fact certainty, especially given the subject matter. Nevertheless, I appreciated the earnestness with which both parties describe their beliefs, feelings and the differences between them.
I'm glad to have played That Dragon, Cancer, but I don't think I would recommend it outright. Instead, I will say that it is a deeply personal and brutally honest depiction of illness and the battle against it, delivered in experimental and not always successful vignettes. It is not an especially enjoyable experience, but it is a fascinating and enlightening one. The decision over whether or not to investigate further, I leave to you.