Game design course offers new insights

THIS INNOVATIVE GAME INVOKES emotional and positive responses from players and reviewers.

This fall, I am taking History and Culture of Games, a class that typically is taken by first-year game design majors, even though I am a junior studying computer science and information technology. As part of this course, our professor, Dr. Jim Malazita, selected a variety of games for us to play through. At first, I assumed these games would be boring, but I was very wrong.

For the first game-related assignment, we needed to play through That Dragon, Cancer. This indie point-and-click adventure game was conceived by Ryan and Amy Green as a tribute to their son, Joel, who passed away from terminal cancer at just five years old. The game takes you through a number of scenes that depict different components of a family experiencing a child with cancer. Some of the scenes were very emotional—though others were more perplexing than saddening—as the game gave a unique look into a life that no family should have to experience.

Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the game was released on January 12, 2016 to a number of platforms. Reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, and the game has been nominated for—and given—a number of awards in the past nine months.

The game’s graphical style includes more “blocky” compositions for character models, where characters’ faces lacked eyes, noses, and mouths, often leaving them with blank faces, excluding facial hair. There are a number of reasons for this design decision. Firstly, and most obviously, more intricate designs would have required more time and resources while not adding much more to the game functionally. However, after thinking a little deeper, I personally believe that this choice was more strategic, as it allows the player to experience these scenarios without being directly biased by the emotional responses of the characters. Instead, That Dragon, Cancer allows the players to empathize in any ways they choose.

I think the most intense scene was one where the player navigates through an otherwise unoccupied pediatric ward of a hospital. Lining the walls and tables, and hanging from the ceiling, were greeting cards of varying colors and styles. As you quickly learn, in point-and-click adventure games, everything is worth a click, because you never know what is a part of the story, and these greeting cards were no exception. Each card had a heartfelt message from families, either congratulating someone on their recovery, or commemorating someone in the wake of their passing. This mix of relieving and heartbreaking accounts left me feeling a variety of emotions, which is likely what a family endures while going through such a traumatic experience.

I think the emotional response this game invokes adds to the positive experience of the game. Especially considering how small the development team for the game was, I was wholeheartedly impressed. For anyone who’s interested in seeing a different perspective of the emotional and physical effects of cancer on loved ones, or for anyone looking to play a game that is different than the average game, I highly recommend That Dragon, Cancer.