That Dragon, Cancer on PC

Developer – Numinous Games

Genre – Adventure, Art, Walking Simulator

Platform – Steam on PC

Cost at time of purchase – $52.50 HKD ($6.69 USD)

Play time – ~2 hours

Following Lucy I decided to go through more games in my back log before the summer sale kicks into gear over the next few weeks. I’m a sucker for a good emotional journey but the sensitive nature of this game deterred that usual enthusiasm for over two years. You know a game like this probably wouldn’t have been made if the child had survived his battle with cancer, so it’s like strapping into a roller coaster that you know ends in disaster. There are some quirks along the way but this treacherous journey of grieving told through the perspective of the parents can provide players with a much greater appreciation for the simple gifts of life.

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At its core the game is mostly a walking simulator where each chapter is cut up into its own little sandbox segment that contains multiple objects to interact with. The simple graphics and textures help to keep the player’s attention focused on the narrator who provide the majority of the context for each scene. A really subtle detail about the game that’s obvious from the get go is that players who explore each environment fully can get a much deeper experience. There’s no restriction preventing players from simply moving to the end point of each scene as soon as possible, but they’re missing out on a good chunk of the depth in the process.

One particularly powerful scene involves the player navigating their way through an empty hospital ward. In place of the usual sounds and people are greeting cards that decorate each room and desk. Each of these cards contains their own message in the form of a quote, a farewell, or a declaration to keep on fighting. Players who are impatient can simply beeline for the light at the end of the long hallway, but clicking through the greeting cards really helps to hammer home the far reaching impact of terrible diseases like cancer. The slow and sombre piano piece playing in the background here certainly doesn’t help to make things any easier either.

It’s unfortunate that these types of powerful scenes are often intertwined with clunky interaction that genuinely pulls you out of any sense of immersion. One particularly bad scene lies further into the game where the parents try to explain what Joel is going through to their other children, using the analogy of a brave knight fighting a dragon that embodies cancer.

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As part of a scripted sequence Joel is supposed to get hit by a fireball regardless of what the player does, and he respawns with a new set of armor and jumping ability to continue the scene. Despite multiple attempts Joel would constantly spawn off the screen for me while the narration continued. If I jumped the screen would move upwards to show that my character was indeed alive, but nothing I did would bring him into the playable area. After restarting the chapter multiple times from the beginning I somehow managed to spawn back on the regular path and continue the scene, but I was certainly more annoyed than empathetic at that point in time.

The game recovers in the next scene though. Joel actually fights the dragon and there are several spots on the lower platforms where Joel can endlessly throw spears without being hit by fireballs. After throwing enough spears the narration stops and it goes without saying that Joel cannot beat cancer, so players are left trying different things to trigger the next sequence. Some players have managed to macro their way to the high score screen but you’re supposed to lose interest eventually and just get hit by the fireballs as a sign of submission. It’s a subtle yet haunting analogy for the sense of helplessness where the only relief available lies in the eternal peace of death.

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There are plenty of other scenes where the win conditions aren’t explicitly stated for the player either. In one of the hospital visit scenes the mother carries Joel on a wagon and races around a track in their ward with random objects scattered along the course. During the race it is unclear which objects you want to avoid or collect and this mirrors the sense of uncertainty of someone going through this type of ordeal for the first time. It’s not until you finish the race that all the different medication and treatment options are revealed. Despite appearing harmless and lighthearted this is easily one of the strongest scenes in the game with how crisp and clean it is.

Overall

The storytelling jumps around a bit which clouds the sense of time slightly but I think it’s designed this way to help outsiders like us to get a better feel for the experience. There’s no neat blueprint to follow when attempting to navigate terrible events like this, one things happens after another regardless of whether you’re ready or not. The softer approach certainly helps to enhance the overall impact of the game for me and I wish a lot of other more story oriented games could follow this style.

I’ve tried recommending the game to a few friends but some of them voiced strong objections due to the depressing tone of the game. Their rationale is that they want to use games as a means to get away from reality and have fun, while these types of games will make them sad and guilty. I can’t fault them for thinking this way as it certainly does leave a rather emotional impact but I think these types of experiences can be a good way to balance out the mindless fun of other games like Overcooked.

While I don’t regret purchasing the game I have to admit that it’s certainly slightly lower in the value for money tier. Even at the $50 HKD price point you can find a lot of other games that offer over 10 times the play time and depth, so it really boils down to whether you are looking for that type of emotional impact or not.

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