Perhaps a little disclaimer before we get too far into this. I fully respect and appreciate That Dragon, Cancer. The game has gotten a lot of flak from users who are claiming a number of different transgressions of which the game is guilty. Many claim the creators are just monetizing the concept of child cancer (particularly because the game is largely crowdfunded). Others complain that it misrepresents itself as a ‘game’ rather than an ‘interactive narrative’, or something along those lines. Some argue that the creators are using the game to push Christianity upon users. None of these are issues that I have with it, and none are, for the time being, worth arguing. That Dragon, Cancer exists primarily as a project through which two distraught parents found solace and receptivity , a much-needed way to creatively and cathartically process and remember the death of their child. But let’s not pretend it’s good art.
Now, I’m a full proponent of our postmodern, all-things-valid, context-contingent, quality-is-subjective artistic world. But, let us also recognize the dangers in an “everybody gets a trophy” modus operandi of judgement, particularly in a medium like gaming, which is yet still so young and full of potential. That Dragon, Cancer, taken out of its context as a coping mechanism, utterly fails as a piece of artistic content for a number of reasons. Firstly, the writing was unnatural, eloquent, and hardly representative of the human psyche grasping at reason and understanding in the face of total tragedy and loss. Any emotion in the speech was tactlessly fabricated, as if a computer program was assigned the task of conveying the deepest and most intricate human emotions. And, regrettably, any merit the writing itself may have had was lost in starkly affected, overdone voice acting. I understand, again, that the majority of the writing and acting was likely done by the Greens themselves, and I regret that it turned out to be so limiting a factor that any emotion in the narrative cannot help but be perceived as simply inaccessible and ingenuine.
Of course, a child dying of cancer is one of the saddest things most people can imagine. For many of us, it’s not even worth imagining what it must be like, as a parent, to watch your child die. We wouldn’t come close to a workable understanding. So, it becomes the impossibly hard work of the artist/creator to get us somewhere a bit closer to that experience. That Dragon, Cancer fails in this endeavor unfortunately due not only to the poor writing and acting, but also the decisions made regarding certain aspects of the game mechanic. The game often operates in a way that forces the player to interact with it for essentially a specific amount of time before moving on. To take but one example, consider the scene in which the family receives the news that Joel’s cancer is terminal. The entire scene is controlled via the speak-and-say toy in the office, the only two changeable parameters of which are time of day and person (ie: whose point-of-view). The scene only begins to progress once the player has explored every possible combination of person and time of day, each iteration sitting through numbing repetitions of vaguely the same script. It is only through pure chance and time-spent that the player finally gets to move on. Consider another scene, in which the player takes on the perspective of a sea-dwelling bird, flying from bottle to floating bottle in an ocean in which the family struggles to row a small lifeboat. Each bottle has yet another poorly written and read musing on the struggles of dealing with a dying child, the emotion in which is all too predictable and pseudo-human. The player must fly from bottle to bottle to bottle, and again, only through pure chance, time spent, and number of bottles visited does the scene progress. By the end, the lucky player is merely bored, while the typical player is frustrated and seeking justification to quit the game.
We like to be sad. Sadness is therapeutic. Perhaps it’s a healthy release of the friction and stress of daily life. Perhaps it’s training for real situations in the future. Perhaps something about the cascade of neurotransmitters just feels good. We like (and need) a healthy amount of sadness in our lives. But what we don’t like is being told to be sad. The missteps of That Dragon, Cancer do not accomplish real sadness. They merely tell the player to be sad.
“We like (and need) a healthy amount of sadness in our lives. But what we don’t like is being told to be sad.”
“Be distraught! Be torn up! Despair! Feel our pain, for our baby is dying, and feel it in this way, and for the exact amount of time that we prescribe you!” This is what the game seems to say, for there is no room left to interact with the game according to one’s own manner of interacting with sadness. There’s no room for interpretation, no surface onto which one may apply his own experience, and there’s no space nor allowance for any personalized human emotion – much less a personalized worldview, as the entire game does operate within a fiercely Christian dynamic, another alienating and weakening aspect of it (though a conversation for another time). The game just expects you to be sad, because the narrative is inherently sad. And it forces you to deal with it at a pace that forces you, in utter vain, to feel it in their way. And as much as I wish it were (for the game’s sake), that’s simply not an effective way to make someone feel something.