That Dragon, Cancer is an autobiographical game created by Ryan and Amy Green about their son Joel’s fight with cancer. The majority of the game is a walking simulator, with the player taking the role of both parents as they struggle to cope with their son’s illness. The game focuses on ideas of love, loss, religion, and purpose, abstracted as chapters in their life with Joel.
That Dragon, Cancer does an amazing job showcasing what games are capable of, and I believe is an excellent example of an art game as it embodies values and affordances of both contemporary art and video games. The game defies the conceptual affordances laid out by the gaming community immediately. This isn’t a heroic game, or escapism, it’s a game about a real family’s struggles and hardships that are unavoidably brutal. Ryan wants players to face the harsh reality of death and to know that no matter what they may be going through that they are not alone.
The game also subverts formal affordances with its strict limits on the player’s agency. Often you can only walk and interact with objects, with little to no choice throughout, furthering the idea that this journey is inevitable. The characters are also abstracted, with the simple geometric faces not going for hyper realism, but a more or less blank canvas in which the dialogue from the real, struggling family can convey their emotion.
Finally the experiential affordances are entirely different from what one thinks of as the typical video game. There isn’t an inherent challenge for the player to conquer, or enemies to shoot. The player is living the lives of a family who is trying to survive, and is powerless to change anything. That Dragon, Cancer is about the player to facing and eventually accepting the harshest realities life has to offer, not escaping them.
As a whole, That Dragon, Cancer is a wonderfully unique game, both in it’s subject matter and approach to game design. It is unflinchingly real, not avoiding any of the paranoia, fear, or cowardice that comes when faced with an enormous struggle. The game design itself is incredibly minimalistic, with the undeniable focus being the story itself. It’s a game the provokes long and thoughtful reflection, and that captures a unique essence of fear and love that so many games fail to replicate.