That Dragon, Cancer Released This Week

Thursday, January 14th, 2016

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Father and son moment

Father and son moment.

Singular indie experience “That Dragon, Cancer” released this week on Tuesday, January 12.  It released on PC/Mac via Steam and also released on OUYA.  The game fits nicely in that growing subset of games, particularly indie games, that are often considered more of an “Experience” than a “Game”.  Your mileage with the terms may differ, some would use the term experience as a pejorative, while to others it may just be considered a tool to describe a fairly new category of gaming.

The story of That Dragon, Cancer is intricately tied to the creation of the game itself and the motivation for doing so.  From the game’s website it is described as:


An immersive narrative videogame that retells Joel Green’s 4-year fight against cancer through about two hours of poetic, imaginative gameplay that explores faith, hope and love.

The game was created by Ryan Green, a programmer and game developer, and Amy Green, a writer, speaker, and stand up comedian.  The game/experience is about their son Joel who was diagnosed with Atypical Teratoid Rhabdoid Tumor (AT/RT) at the age of one, and their family’s experience with him over those 4 years.  The game can best be described as an impressionistic experience or adventure game attempting to describe to the player an event that may be difficult, or even nigh impossible, to describe.


Release day pancake party.

The game’s release was celebrated in Loveland, Colorado, with a pancake party.  This is where the developers make their home, a fairly small town just north of Denver.  The pancake party was because “Joel loved pancakes”, and the developers invited others who were interested in the game or touched by their story to host their own pancake parties as well.  Judging by Ryan’s twitter there were indeed many who followed suit.

Early Response to the Game

Thus far the game has received a very positive response from the game critics.  With a small sample size so far, it is an indie game after all, the Metacritic is 78.  Many critics are praising the courage it took to open their life’s story in such an open and honest way.  And also the inventive way it deals with challenging subjects.  This seems to be one of those games that is destined to come up in the future during the Games v Art debates.

However, if you look at the User Review score on Metacritic, another story is also presented.  It is currently at 5.8, and my sense of looking around the internet is that it may even end up going lower.  A good example of this is over at Penny Arcade where Jerry Holkins is a fan of the game and they created a new web comic about it’s release.  However if you read the forum posts regarding the strip and the game it paints an interesting picture.

The problem isn’t so much whether the game is objectively good, if there could even be said to be such a thing as objective opinion.  The problem seems to be whether you want to put yourself through the experience of playing the game.  Particularly the comments of those who are parents themselves, to a lot of people that answer seems to be no.  While there is a sector of the population that does not watch movies that are too emotionally harrowing, when that experience extends to games that sentiment is even more stark.  Because gaming, as an interactive experience, is normally a much more involving and empathetic experience than movie watching.  One can also imagine that with the rise of VR in gaming, pronounced especially this year of 2016, that gaming is going to get more immersive, not less.

As the gaming medium gets ever more mature in it’s techniques and it’s audience, this situation will crop up at an increasing rate.  And, to me and many others, that is a good thing.  It creates valuable discussions.  And while, to me, you would be far better off experiencing the game itself before you make your own judgement.  It is still great that we are having these discussions and that in this case, creating a game helped a family both cope with a major loss and to help the memory of their son live on.  This is the medium as a maturing art form, folks.



About William Haderlie

Born in the 1970's, I've been an avid participant for much of video game history. A lifetime of being the sort of supergeek entrenched in the sciences and mathematics has not curbed my appreciation for the artistry of video games, cinema, and especially literature.

  • Iyamtebist

    I don’t know if it is more so an issue of whether some gamers would want to play something that focuses on a strong emotional experience rather than a game. Games have had the ability to invoke strong human emotions ever since the 90s (and some even earlier than that).

    Generally the thing is that, while I greatly enjoy anything that can invoke a strong response or that is unique, games like Gone Home, Depression Quest, and Her Story just have not been able to do so for me, and I imagine the case with a lot of gamers, is that these types of games often try way too hard to avoid being either games OR movies, and tell their stories in a way that alienates their entire audience. Depression Quest was entirely in second person and relied entirely on telling the player how they are supposed to feel instead of invoking said emotions. Gone Home had the player wandering through the house finding recordings that only described the events in a way that could have been done easier as a forum post. And Her Story is told through a bunch of random clips that makes the player find out how they are connected and the entire experience is lost if one just looks up a plot summary.

    These games are more often made for the creators themselves rather than anyone else. They intentionally defy basic conventions of entertainment in general, so it is only natural that they would not be well received by a lot of people. As for That Dragon, Cancer, I wish i could be interested given that it is clear there is passion put into the game, but I’ve kinda learned my lesson with previous games of this type.

    • William Haderlie

      Your point is definitely a valid one. This is definitely a case of the developer providing this experience because of a need for themselves to do so. Although I would argue that true art should usually be done in that manner instead of to make a living or make money. And it certainly can be the case that there are some experiences that can be intentionally emotionally manipulative. But that is, once again, entirely a subjective opinion. Many of my favorite pieces of entertainment are painted with that brush by some critics.

      Either way you should not feel pressured or shamed to play this game or any other. Come at it on your own terms or avoid it accordingly. However, I must point out that your response was quite thought out and a good one, and I’m thankful that games like this exist in the first place so that we can have such discussions. There is room in this world for both the most dude bro emotionless game, and also for this little indie darling.