We know a mature game by the things that rating systems tell us. Mature, PEGI 18, etc. These are labels defined by mostly surface things: blood and gore, suggestive themes, language and the like. But any child can see blood. Any child can hear bad language. Conversely, That Dragon, Cancer doesn’t have any of those things. Yet it may be the most mature thing I’ve ever experienced. It’s an invite to walk beside a family through the deepest waters of hope, despair, faith, humanity, loneliness, togetherness, joy, and sadness. You can’t give this to a child. You can’t expect someone to grasp this episode without the strength, patience and awareness to see, hear and feel what is meant to be conveyed. For my experience, it was almost perfect.

That Dragon, Cancer is a labor of love. The game is centered around the real life events of its lead developers, Ryan and Amy Green, and their son, Joel, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at 12 months old. That Dragon, Cancer is an abstract series of events that guides players through the years that Joel survived with cancer and Ryan and Amy’s long and arduous journey to remain strong, keep hope and love their child through the fight. The game plays out like chapters of a book or a living photo album. Everything the player sees is a memory or interpretation of events as told by Amy, Ryan, their children and friends.

For what it’s worth, this game guides the eye beautifully. The graphics do exactly what they are supposed to do, which is lead the player to a place where the next part of this story can be told. Every moment has a purpose and every purpose has distinct weight to it. There are reasons why you’re in a boat or cannot see facial features on anyone or light comes through at certain times. It was a game where I expected to feel something for what I was observing, but I was also genuinely impressed by how the artistry of the game guided me to those moments.

Numinous Games

This game is not simply a sad story. There are genuine moments of wit and even sparks of happiness. For instance, there is a set piece somewhere in the middle where players take direct control of Joel in a simplistic, yet very obvious nod to Ghosts n’ Goblins as a story is told with all the pertinence necessary to make the application fit. The game takes itself very seriously as it should, but it is not without evocations of certain happiness. As a journey through the life of Joel where there were clearly good times, genuine joy and not just sadness, this is important and it makes the entire game that much more touching. I felt Ryan and Amy’s love for their son in ways other than simply grief.

There are stretches of That Dragon, Cancer where the player is given free reign to travel and look at certain pictures, cards, and letters from other people outside of the Green family. Each observable thing in these instances briefly allows the player a glimpse at another person who had their own fight with cancer or had a family member or friend who was afflicted with the disease. They are numerous. I spent hours looking because I was in awe that in this game that is a blatant memorial to Joel Green, the spotlight is shared with so many who fought their own fight with this terrible situation. All of that is optional. You don’t have to look at all of them, observe every card, or look at every picture, but the fact that they are there is an unmistakably noble act of human togetherness.

My loitering aside, the game is not incredibly long. Making one’s way through the entire experience takes about two hours. Even so, it doesn’t feel rushed or insufferably long. For a story that spans almost four years, it feels complete. It tells an arc that rises, falls and finishes without any sort of misstep in purpose. I can’t imagine it being any longer or any shorter because it’s the kind of thing where it shouldn’t overextend itself at the risk of becoming indulgent, but nothing should be left unsaid. I felt it accomplished that exact feat masterfully.

Numinous Games

That Dragon, Cancer is dependent upon your eyes following where it wants you to follow and that’s one of only two issues I came across with the game. It relies upon guiding you to imagery in order to continue telling the story. In that way, players are capable of causing the game to stall or glitch if they don’t follow the context. There was the occasional place where I was looking around and I saw imagery pop in or out that I clearly wasn’t supposed to because of my erratic desire to see everything.

The second issue I came across regarded one of the letters. The letters in this game are given full vocal readings, whether by the Greens or guests, but there was one where the voice clip was noticeably quiet. It only happened once and I found myself wondering if that was merely the quality of the clip that was supplied for the game. That said, these moments were small and insignificant to the overall experience. They’re not simply nitpicks, but they didn’t break That Dragon, Cancer in the slightest.

That Dragon, Cancer is a difficult thing to approach. It is barely meant to be fun. It is dark and occasionally deeply disturbing, but that’s because it has to be. It is also full of hope and love. It will challenge a player to feel things that the Greens felt in their long emotional struggle with a dying son. It is not perfect, but it doesn’t need to be. This game deserves to be played, shared, and experienced, if not for the fact that it is a beautiful memorial to a beautiful child, then for the fact that it is also a beautiful work of art and a true gift to the world of video games and interactive media. I cannot recommend this to everyone because of the sheer difficulty of the experience, but I nonetheless challenge anyone who has lost a loved one or faced great trouble in their life to take this journey, share in human togetherness with the Greens and their friends, and observe the beauty that blossomed from the life and death of Joel Green.

This review is based on a download of That Dragon, Cancer purchased for PC.