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That Dragon, Cancer Review

See PixlBit's Review Policies On 01/22/2016 at 11:05 AM by Matt Snee

Numinous Games presents us with a gut-wrenching experience that elevates the interactive medium.
The Bottom Line: For those interested in the future of the medium, and are willing to experience other people's pain.

"That Dragon, Cancer," is a game about hope -- its presence, and its absence. While forged in the anticipation of triumph, the end result is a meditation on failure and loss that is pretty hard to take, and without a doubt breaks new ground for the interactive medium. Created by Brian Green and his company, Numinous Games ("numinous" means "having a strong religious or spiritual quality"), this "game" (we have no other word for it that's adequate) is both gut-wrenching and an incredibly simple exploration of a young boy's four year battle with cancer. But while it takes on loss in a new way, it is also a commentary on games in general that is both surprising and profound. It is not without flaws, but the all-encompassing heart of it more than compensates for its failures. 

There have been other "art" type games in recent years, some loved, some reviled, but what this game has is an earnestness that could never be confused as simple self-expression. Green bares his and his wife's soul here, in a way we knew was possible in other mediums, but have not yet experienced in games. And while some of these "art" games have been poetic, others have been masturbatory. "That Dragon, Cancer," obliterates them all, and sets a new stage for the interactive medium.

However, while the game presents a family with their warts and all, the game has its missteps as well.  Often clunky, sometimes obtuse (not in subject matter, but in regard to what the player must do), and not necessarily easily approachable by people who do not play games who no doubt deserve the experience as well as those who do. However, these are minor quibbles. In honesty, all art, and all things, are flawed, but that doesn't mean they can't be wondrous and great at the same time.

While some parts of it are simplistic and rough, there's also a polish over even these sections that is easily visible. While sometimes the player might not know what to do next, the game always comes to the rescue, or the not so obvious suddenly becomes obvious. What's especially riveting is some of the transitions between spaces or time periods, facilitated by changes in color and light that are stunning and almost impossibly perfect.

The pinnacle of the game is the sound design, made up of recorded conversations, music, and various sound effects that, frankly, have no parallel in the interactive medium. Most of the story is told through sound rather than through visuals, which are both in front of you and pushed to the background at the same time. There's something very pretty about the graphics, as rudimentary as they are, but they're just there to frame the audio. We are trained by our senses and through games to interact and perceive first through our eyes, but in this game, it's sound that is the dominant sensory instrument.

It's really quite amazing.

In addition, the game has a slight commentary on other games, which both longs for their simplistic joys but also judges them as empty experiences for the most part. One section of the game sets the player into a cart-racing dynamic that feels bitter, but the true moment here is the action platformer section, which comments on the fairytale nature of our beloved medium, and how it can be both wonderful and beautiful, but also pathetic in comparison to real life. This dichotomy, of a love but also an embarrassment with games, is concluded however with the simple fact of "That Dragon, Cancer." Instead of writing a memoir, or making a film, the developer made a game, and perhaps created something that bests these other mediums in its immediateness.  So if anything, the game may criticize the interactive medium, but is also enrapt with it. 

"That Dragon, Cancer," is one of the most amazing experiences I have had with the interactive medium, and fills me with promise I had always anticipated about the possibility of games, but had not yet witnessed. Despite its flaws, I can only recommend it.   


Review Policy

In our reviews, we'll try not to bore you with minutiae of a game. Instead, we'll outline what makes the game good or bad, and focus on telling you whether or not it is worth your time as opposed to what button makes you jump.

We use a five-star rating system with intervals of .5. Below is an outline of what each score generally means:

All games that receive this score are standout games in their genre. All players should seek a way to play this game. While the score doesn't equate to perfection, it's the best any game could conceivably do.

These are above-average games that most players should consider purchasing. Nearly everyone will enjoy the game and given the proper audience, some may even love these games.

This is our middle-of-the-road ranking. Titles that receive three stars may not make a strong impression on the reviewer in either direction. These games may have some faults and some strong points but they average out to be a modest title that is at least worthy of rental for most.

Games that are awarded two stars are below average titles. Good ideas may be present, but execution is poor and many issues hinder the experience.

Though functional, a game that receives this score has major issues. There are little to no redeeming qualities and should be avoided by nearly all players.

A game that gets this score is fundamentally broken and should be avoided by everyone.



Julian Titus Senior Editor

01/22/2016 at 07:28 PM

I just became aware of this game yesterday. I'm interested, but I'm behind on these artsy games. I just bought Gone Home.

Matt Snee Staff Writer

01/22/2016 at 07:48 PM

I haven't played that. I've heard mixed things. This one is pretty good though.  

Nick DiMola Director

01/22/2016 at 08:49 PM

This does seem interesting, but I... don't think I can do it. Just reading stuff about it (like Matt's review) is painful. Maybe before I had kids I could've done it, but having two kids around the age of the one the author of this game lost makes it all hit way too close to home.

I thought Gone Home was a bit of a disappointment. Chessa and I pinned down the conclusion of the story almost immediately and after that it was very much just going through the motions.

Matt Snee Staff Writer

01/23/2016 at 09:34 AM

yeah it's pretty intense. I don't have any children and still had no problem relating to the pain, so I can only imagine....

Angelo Grant Staff Writer

02/17/2016 at 10:44 AM

I keep thinking about playing this but it hits just a little too close to home. 

Matt Snee Staff Writer

02/19/2016 at 03:42 PM

it's pretty difficult to play, Angelo.  But it's also beautiful as well.  


02/19/2016 at 01:25 PM

It took me a long time to actually realize what the title meant. For a few minutes, I was kind of confused by it, but it took me until then to figure out that "cancer" is the "dragon".

Matt Snee Staff Writer

02/19/2016 at 03:43 PM

yeah the title's a bit awkward, but it sort of fits too.  And they refer to cancer as a dragon multiple times during the game. 

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