Welcome to I’m Still Talking About… My 2016 end of the year feature where I find ten games that defined the indie game scene for me this year.  These aren’t the best games of 2016, they’re not the must-plays, they are the games that have refused to leave my thoughts, the games that got under my skin.  For better or worse, these are the games I’m still talking about.

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It was hard what to make of That Dragon, Cancer when it first arrived on the PAX circuit a few years ago.  The game received massive coverage from an assortment of high profile game press, but when I got a chance to play the game it was still largely a buggy mess.  You could see the vision of developer Ryan Green and Numinous Games, a intimate, interactive adventure game that told story of the Greens’ son Joel who battles the titular cancer, but the emotional gut punches were impeded by bugs and the quiet moments were undercut by the roar of the convention hall.

That Dragon, Cancer is a game that is best played by yourself on a quiet Sunday morning, with no distractions to get in your way.  In a moment like this you can really let yourself sink into the game that Green and Numinous have crafted, getting close to the story and the wonderful family that is at its core.

Games have a tendency to be dismissable in a larger context.  I don’t think Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a bad game, I think it’s quite excellent, but I would struggle to call it impactful or important.  When games do tend to aspire to high art, it’s usually in a cold or cruel way, like Bioshock.  I don’t make these comparisons to ignore the contributions of great artists, but I do it to show how rare a game like That Dragon, Cancer comes along and actually works.

It’s easy to dismiss That Dragon, Cancer for it’s emotionally touching story, and the strength it takes to make, but that’s all kind of window-dressing.  That Dragon, Cancer is a legitimately great game.  It’s bucks narrative conventions, while still finding smart ways to remain cohesive.  The game finds ways to show and not tell – a struggle for even the best games.  If you ever need proof of the power of games and what they can do as a medium, That Dragon, Cancer is one of the first games I would reference.

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Is it really THAT good?

That Dragon, Cancer is unique take on visual storytelling and interactivity.  A lot of times the actions that you’re taking on screen don’t seem to be relative to the bits of story you’re hearing.  For instance, the opening sequence, where you are a duck swimming above a pond, eating bread that Joel is throwing in the water, a lot of information is communicated effectively.  We’re informed of Joel’s personality, the symbolism of water is established (something that is revisited a few times), we quickly get a sense of the Green’s as a family – that’s a lot to pack into a couple minutes of gameplay.

Another example of getting so much out of so little is the moment when Joel’s room is filled with get well cards.  Without spelling it out for you, there is quickly a sense of community to the game.  A community the Green’s interacted with and must have known through their time in the hospital.  The moment offers reflection for the player, acknowledgment for those with loved ones suffering from cancer, and adds another unexpected layer to Joel’s story – again, this all happens in a matter of minutes.

There are a few moments when That Dragon, Cancer might hit the metaphor a little too cleanly on the nose.  Some of the imagery threatens to land over the top – but so much strikes the right chord it can be easy to forgive the missteps.  There’s also some moments where the game tries to offer familiar game mechanics as metaphors for Joel’s life, and while I didn’t find these sections to be bad, they did take away from the emotional core of the game.

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Okay, that sounds alright.  But what is the real reason I should play this game?

My life is pretty far removed from the Green’s.  I don’t have children, I’m not married, I’m not a person of faith.  Almost everything about their life is alien to me.  If you were to drop Ryan Green and myself into a room, I don’t know how much we’d really have to talk about.  But That Dragon, Cancer connected me to the Green family.  If the game had only a decent design and rested on the laurels of its emotionally-impactful story, it would have felt voyeuristic – I would have felt like an outsider looking in – but it avoids that pitfall by being so honest with itself and the audience.

The most surprising element of That Dragon, Cancer, for me, was Amy.  Amy Green’s work on the narrative helps give That Dragon, Cancer more perspective that it might have had otherwise.  Her character handles Joel’s battle with cancer differently than Ryan, and the two characters collide and reconcile in some of the game’s more understated moments.

Lastly, even without playing the game, it’s easy to imagine how sad the experience might be.  But That Dragon, Cancer isn’t a sorrowful game.  It deals with grief and fear and anger, but it refuses to be bleak and grim.  Instead it’s a celebration of a game, it shades much of Joel’s life with beautiful colors and touching moments.  It makes That Dragon, Cancer a beautiful game that is as uplifting as it is sad.

So you’d recommend it to anyone?

Anyone and everyone.  The more I reflect on That Dragon, Cancer, the more I want to share it with people.  It’s not only a great game, but a great work of art, embodying everything that artists strive to accomplish.  I could list a bunch of superlatives to try and describe everything that the game is, but the words would grow repetitive and empty.  That’s because That Dragon, Cancer isn’t a game that is supposed to be described, it’s supposed to be played.  So go play it.

About The Author

The Glorious Predecessor

As I write this, I am listening to Striking Matches and eating a blueberry muffin. The music is good, the muffin is even better. I dance when I drink and have been known to occasionally free-style rap, none of which benefits society.

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  • I think I am interested in many of your “ISTA” picks. But I can’t help but feel like we are rehashing the same titles that have already received a lion’s share of press attention this year; and probably last year too. It makes the world of video games feel vanishingly small. A beating heart in an abyssal echo chamber. At a time when there are probably thousands if not millions of titles to navigate. Per year.

    How the hell do we get our noses out of the same corner? There has to be a wider world out there, that is if not more interesting, at least not more of the same served with a twist. Sorry.

    • Josh Hinke

      You’re not wrong. A lot of these games are games I played or wrote about earlier in the year. However, ISTA is about that reflection on that past year and revisiting what I’ve already discussed. Also, you’re not wrong about the thousands of games that go unplayed and undiscovered. So to be honest, this is also a kind of article that works well with that amount of time I have at the end of the year. Day jobs ramp up, family time ramps up, friends come into town, ect and there isn’t much time to play and discover new work. So instead, I like to use the time to rehash my favorite games of the year.

      • I understand. Of course. I just lament it. I feel underserved by everything I read about video games online. But part of the problem for me, is I no longer play the games; I just read about them, so I don’t bear the burden of digesting them myself … but at the same time, I am just reading about them, because I cannot justify playing them, because I find them all so malnourishing.

        I feel like the coverage needs to get ahead of the medium itself somehow. I don’t see any meaningful coverage anywhere. I feel like we could do without these “GotY” musings. Especially because everyone does it. It just pays more lip service to already well tread ground. There’s no diversity that I can see. It’s incestuous.

        P.S. Ed Smith unwittingly issued a great overview of so many core problems the other day ( http://www.gameobjective.com/2016/12/20/contentious-interview-game-critic-ed-smith/ ) but it doesn’t address coverage directly, since it only vilifies glad-handing outlets and the audience itself, but not independent writers; arguably like Ed himself. Presumably like yourself. On some days I feel like we are just doomed. Sorry.