In class on Thursday, one of the complaints that people had towards That Dragon, Cancer was that it wasn’t really a “game;” instead, it was more of an interactive narrative. They went on to say that, since they were expecting a more gameplay-driven experience, the extreme focus on story and lack of choices that That Dragon, Cancer had left a disappointing taste in their mouths. However, I would argue that lack of choice is incredibly important to the story. Furthermore, I would argue that That Dragon, Cancer does count as a game, because the very act of playing serves a purpose and communicates core concepts to the player.
A major theme of That Dragon, Cancer is the sense of helplessness that Ryan and Amy feel. At a certain point, they realize that there’s not really anything they can do to save Joel’s life. While faith (specifically Christian faith) gave the pair a way to cope, by the end of the game they realize that there is nothing they can do. While it is subtle, much of the gameplay in the game leads you to have the exact same feeling. The scene shown in the screenshot above is a good example of this. In it, you play as Joel and eventually a man who died of cancer in the family’s church. While there is a lot going on in this scene, one thing in particular stands out. If you are good at fighting the dragon, Cancer, (see what he did there), then you will realize something interesting; no matter how long or how well you play the game, you will eventually succumb to the dragon because the dragon will never die, but stay at 1/2 heart until you eventually die. What is interesting is that the game is not exactly hard; if you’re good at retro video games (which I am not) and figure out the pattern(which I did not), you can theoretically stay alive and continue fighting indefinitely. However, if you want to continue the game, you have to give up.
There are many other places where you have to give up in order to continue. Specific scenes where this is a theme are the Temple of God scene where you have to stop moving to continue and the scene where you play as Ryan and the only way to continue forward is by swimming deeper into the ocean. These scenes serve to make an important point-moreover, they make you, the player, feel the point in a way you would not from simply hearing the characters describe it. This is why I consider it, and many other “Walking Simulators” like it, games: because games aren’t just narratives that you affect, they are narratives that affect you in ways that a novel or movie does not have the ability to. Thanks for reading and I hope to hear from you guys in the comments!