That Dragon, Cancer tells the story of one family going through the absolute trial that is a child fighting with cancer. It's based on a true story: creators Ryan and Amy Green saw their son Joel diagnosed with cancer at 12 months old and the child passed away four years later. The game is basically the Green family letting you feel the same experience they did.
People are unhappy about this. If you head to the That Dragon, Cancer's Steam community, you'll see a mix of forum members decrying the title, as others seek to defend the game. The game has proven so divisive within the community that the devs at Numinous Games took to the forums to say they wouldn't be deleting comments or locking threads.
"Our game has always been a difficult project for some people to relate to," the developer told Kotaku. "We understand that it is not for everyone. Throughout development, there has been a lot of discussion around the internet about what our intentions are and whether or not we are creating something that is acceptable and good.
"We knew that if we were to step in and make statements to defend our intentions it would have a dampening effect on the conversation, and we love good conversation and debate. We love that people are talking about what games can be, what makes something Art, and how we should value each other's work. We don't want that conversation to stop happening, and if we have to deal with a handful of malicious forum posts in order for that conversation to continue to happen we are willing to turn the other cheek."
I applaud Numinous Games in not locking threads or deleting comments. Because in the end, while many of them are quite uncivil, they are valid feedback. That's something which many facets of our industry struggle with, the idea that certain people should not say something because something might change in response. Why else would you give your opinion or thoughts if you didn't expect to have a tangible effect on the world? As long as you're civil in your statements you have every right to make your voice heard. I can disagree with them, while still understanding that they have a place in the discussion.
I do disagree with those I've read though. None of the arguments against That Dragon, Cancer have anything to do with the game's quality. (I haven't played it, so it's not something I'm going to tackle here.) The first major contention is that Numinous Games is making a profit on the game at all. To some, it's reprehensible that Numinous Games is making any money on a game, given its subject matter. These posters have neglected to realize that the game's publisher, Razer, is donating its proceeds to charity.
"We were thrilled when Razer let us know they would be donating their proceeds to charity. The Morgan Adams foundation helps fund the research of Joel's neuro-oncologist. He never gave up on Joel and did so much research to try to help Joel and continues to do incredible research to help other kids with rare cancers that still have poor outcomes. He has devoted his life to serving families like ours and we consider our whole team of doctors and nurses to be heroes and friends," Amy Green told GamesIndustry.biz.
The price of medical care in the United States, especially for a person fighting cancer, is exorbitant. Most of the profits that the Greens will probably make for the game - which are shared with the others who helped them develop it - will probably be put to use paying those bills. They aren't riding high and regardless of how the game performs, they will still have lost a child.
Even beyond that, to expect that people who poured their effort into a project not be paid for their labor is simply asinine. It speaks to a lack of understanding about what game development really entails, the sheer time and cost required to make a game. It's the kind of misunderstanding that underpins a number of discussions about how easy it would be to "just change X" or "just do Y".
To say that developers shouldn't make any money is to point to any number of Hollywood films based on true, tragic events and say those production crews should just suck it up for "the cause". Would you say the folks behind the film Selma shouldn't be paid for their efforts? What about Spielberg's Schindler's List, which itself was based off Schindler's Ark, a novel that the author probably made some profit off of. In many of those situations, you'd at least want the persons presented to be compensated for their story. In this case, the family in question was directly invovlved in the game's development. Think of it as removing a barrier in telling the story.
People still need to live. Making games, hell, making any product or work of art, isn't easy. If you have the resources to give the bulk of your profits and pay to charity, you rock. Not everyone can say that.
The second major argument is that the developer shouldn't be tackling a subject like cancer in a game at all. This is a specific type of person that thinks games should only be fun. Video games are medium, a medium that can tell a wide variety of stories. Some games are playful platformers like Mario or gritty murderfests like Gears of War, but there's room in our industry for a different experiences. Part of what differentiates gaming from other mediums is the interactive nature, which can help the player feel things that that may be foreign to them.
Papers, Please is a great example. Sure, you could do a documentary or television series about the problems with immigration and bureaucracy, but Papers, Please puts you behind that desk and asks you to make the tough choices. It's about stepping into different shoes to promote a sense of understanding and empathy.
That Dragon, Cancer wants you to know about the entire experience of dealing with cancer. The Greens wanted to share their story with you as parents and developers. They wanted you to understand that feeling. That sense of loss and hopelessness, that realization that you have still live your life and find something to believe in.
If you've personally experienced losing a family members to cancer, I can understand wanting to avoid the game. I can see not wanting to jump into a rather depressing experience; I've put off wanting to see a film or TV show about a depressing subject matter. (American Crime has been on my DVR for a while now, but the first few episodes were so depressing that I haven't moved on.)
But games are bigger than just fun. They're interactive experiences that want to show you whimsy, loss, freedom, depression, power, and powerlessness. They can be full of meaning and representation, because the developers behind many of our favorite titles are artists who have honed their message. Video games can be so very much and to limit them only to one thing or a single focus is to do a disservice to our great medium and community.
I want games to be more. I want games to be powerful tales of not only fictional characters, but ones drawn from real life as well. I want to have fun, but occasionally I also want to feel, to cry, or to think deeply about a subject. I enjoy living the lives of others to see how it feels to walk a mile in their shoes. If you disagree with that, by all means, let your voice be heard. I'll just be over here asking for something different.