That Dragon, Cancer: ‘Legitimacy’ and pace of play.

This piece is a response to the prompts in NoEscape’s great post about the legitimacy of non-play game experiences, where they detail their interaction with games through other people’s play experiences.

I’d say firstly that I totally believe these are legitimate experiences, since the question of legitimacy that is repeatedly brought up with non-play games media feels at best redundant and at worst an ideologically facistic and privileged way of making a hierarchy out of art. Legitimacy is a lawfully recognised conformity to some notional ‘truth’ of experience, widely mocked in other mediums like music, film and painting as priviliged snobbery. Videogame snobbery is no exception and the mediums that make the world of games more accessible and broad are a lifeline for people into games, nostalgic gamers themselves and the entire industry.

That said. Yesterday I played ‘That Dragon, Cancer’, a game which the developers of made virtually no sales on compared to its widespread press, because of its reputation as a Let’s Play experience. Who actually wants to play a game about cancer and facing death? I mean, I do, but the widespread discomfort with terminal illness and care in Anglocentric popular culture likely pushed this game into the same territory as inspirational videos about disabled heroes and people using hearing implants for the first time. As a disabled person I’m well aware of the tingling sense of excitement, dread or total eugenic insensitivity that able bodied people conjure, all at once, whenever the topic is brought up. It’s not a surprise the game didn’t sell well.

Which is a shame, because I can imagine there definitely is a missing element to the experience of watching a Let’s Play of this game. For one I can’t imagine how annoying a commentated playthrough would be as a family narrate in stereo their poetic processing of a journey with a terminally ill child. Like, fuck that. But, even without commentary, the gameplay experience for me was the most powerful and moving in the moments of non-essential interactivity throughout.

Specifically, the passage ‘Saying Farewell’, which opens in a hospital room filled with cards, on every surface and hanging on strings, Amy Green rocking her sick son Joel in a chair. You could entirely chose to move from this room to corridor to next passage without interacting. However, that’s not the point, and you click on Amy, and she tells a story of the future she wants to see with Joel, specifically of how tired he’ll be of being reminded of this time in his life, and how that’s okay, because she can hold that for him. A unique, honest and painful moment.

But then there’s the environmental interaction of the cards, which operate in a different timeframe to the scripted interaction with Amy. I opened one and find a message of farewell to a passed on relative. Then one to a mum. One from a cancer doctor to all their patients. Another in Spanish. Then I left the room, and the hospital corridor is covered in cards, there are hundreds of farewells here, from real families to their loved ones, preserved in digital perpituity. Move down the corridor and you’ll find another room with cards, side corridors with cards, this environment is built of farewells and you will never read all of these cards. That’s not the point. The point is processing that these cards exist here in the same space, all together.

Describing this feels hollow, and I don’t want you to watch somebody else on their own journey through moments like, at their pace, and choice of what to process. That Dragon, Cancer feels important to experience at your own pace because it is designed around non-essential moments, overloads of grief and compassion that there can be no satisfying 100% or speed run of. The personal pace of this game feels so much more important than its acknowledged visual ingenuity.

Stating that there is a richer experience than the Let’s Play is, I guess, it’s own form of experience snobbery. I aim it specifically at those who would treat the game like a simulator for their own abled bodied guilt but I don’t intend to invalidate Let’s Play experiences of it as ingenuine, since there will be so many who watched playthroughs of That Dragon, Cancer for their own needs, for accessibility.

Since there is no real answer in my observations, I feel they instead pose a further question, can the personal pacing and level of engagement in a game’s interactions be replicated outside of play?

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