The End of Heartache
I’ll give full disclosure for That Dragon, Cancer. I wasn’t that blown away by it, and that’s the bad news. Why wasn’t I blown away with it? I honestly think its because I’ve endured the same first hand. So for me it didn’t teach me anything and I didn’t learn anything about humanity or the fragility of life. I walked away from the game with a sense of I already know what this feels like. Which, granted, is something that most people wouldn’t experience in their lives. (or at least I hope you never do)
All that Glisters…
There are a lot of things to love about That Dragon, Cancer. The uniqueness of its art style, which I’m personally mixed about, does have some stunning set pieces. Which adds to the dept and drama of the story that it is trying to tell. The story is where this piece truly shines though.
The story is about a young boy called Joel and his family, mainly surrounding his mother and father who are dealing with the diagnosis that their child has caner. From the time when Joel was one, and his family identifying with some of the earlier quirks that a child develops to Joels’ symptoms becoming worse such as mass vomiting. To ultimately a discussion with the doctors about how Joel’s cancer is incurable and a discussion about afterlife care.
These story beats are tender and full of sadness; dealing with various topics from Denial to acceptance to relationship strains. Journal logs talk about Amy’s (Joel’s Mother) progression through her grief and her tied belief in God. How she genuinely believes, right up until the end that God will save Joel. While, Ryan (Joel’s Father) hits a deep bottomless pit of despair and facing the reality of what his son’s fate is and how he is powerless to stop it.
It’s a deeply compelling and difficult story to tell, and the elements of gaming around it. Particularly around the end where Joel is dehydrated and you needed to keep him calm. Is as trying mechanically as it is emotionally. It give’s a really solid experience to the difficulties surrounding wanting to make someones pain go away, and being physically unable to.
Is not Gold…
However, the story doesn’t absolve it from some of its faults mechanically and game play wise. More often than not there are no waypoints, or at least nothing that I felt was obvious. Just interactions and set elements to go through. Some of these are skippable and some aren’t, and I think I would have preferred knowing the direction I would have been going – so I took the time to explore what the level had to offer rather then inadvertently wandering through an area and being taken to the next.
For a game that is so driven on exploring the narrative, it is also rather poor at allowing you to interact with things, what you’re interacting with is never obvious or what you should be interacting with to move the story onwards. Which I feel is more of a design flaw then anything else, but it does lend itself to much more frustration. As you’re trying to experience the story than having to deal with what you should or should not be interacting with to continue playing the game.
I’m also aware that I spent a lot of my time trying to adjust the camera’s orientation. This could just be a unique problem of my own experience but, not having the camera centred, or having it panning in too close or too far is a real killer for emersion. Like I said previously, it could have well been my own experience of things, but it really took me out of the moment!
Is it worth your time? For most people, the answer would be no. However, its may be uniquely suited to those who have been recently bereaved or suffered a loss to cancer. I think what is important to realise is that, this is a single representation of a families suffering and it may contrast with people who have experienced loss. This isn’t to invalidate the fact that they have gone through this, as there is some debate around it, and from my perspective – its impossible to be able to go into this level of detail without experiencing it first hand. It’s important to be aware that it may trigger responses that are not in line with your own experience of similar events. That is neither right or wrong, any of these experiences are highly subjective. If you’re going into it, be very mindful that it might not be what you expect!