Utter Despair and Hope in That Dragon, Cancer - Preview

By Karl Koebke, June 18, 2013
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Playing games for most people is fun partially because it allows for an escape from reality. Recently, though, we've seen an emergence of developers using the creation of a game to better deal with and accept reality. That Dragon, Cancer is one such game.

Whenever someone asks an expecting family what gender they're hoping for the classic answer is “I just hope he has all his fingers and toes”, which is a funny way to say what every parent thinks: they just want their child to be healthy. There's little in the world more heart rending then when someone you love has a life threatening illness because you know you're powerless to do anything about it.

That Dragon Cancer 2

Cancer in particular is an overly simple term for what is really an array of different conditions which each require their own strategy with little hope of a single magic bullet cure. I've been to quite a few seminars on the topic and there's a lot of work being done in the field with some really heartening results. Even these are usually years off from human testing, let alone being an affordable drug. Right now the best you can do is hope and try to deal with the situation in some way for both you and your loved one.

Ryan Green is a developer whose son Joel was diagnosed with an Atypical Teratoid Rhabdoid Tumor when he was one. He had brain surgery to take out the tumor, but has had multiple recurrences. Near the age of two Joel was given a max of four months life expectancy and in the two years since he has had five more tumor events treated solely with palliative treatment meant to ease his suffering, but he's still here. That Dragon, Cancer is a game made by Ryan to tell the story of his family and Joel's struggles.

That Dragon Cancer 1

The gameplay is a simple first person on-rails experience. You can click and drag to look around, find something to interact with and then click on the icon to do so. I clicked on a chair near a window and the polygonal representation of Ryan sat down and started thinking about the colors he saw and what they represented, all voice acted with a notable twinge of desperation and grief. Text appears on the screen naturally as Ryan speaks. Joel begins to cry in the background and when you interact with his hospital crib you can tell that Ryan has no idea what to do. Eventually he prayed at a window and found peace as Joel finally went to sleep. I felt guilty at looking at such a private moment of someone's life, even if they did invite me to do so.

After trying to fight back tears and not cry on the E3 showfloor I asked Ryan if they were planning for the whole game to have that feel. He said that this was one of his most desperate moments, but he planned to add in many of the happy moments from his time with Joel as well. Choosing to love a child that you know you could lose isn't always as sad as this particular scene. There were some definite religious overtones, but even as an atheist I can never begrudge someone what brings them comfort in desperate times.

There's no set release for That Dragon, Cancer yet but if you're someone who likes a tear wrenching story then you should keep this game in mind. I wish Ryan the best of luck in the game's development and the situation that inspired it, and I don't think I've ever meant that sentiment more.   

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