Uncontroversial opinion: Kids dying from cancer is not a fun topic. In fact, pediatric oncology may be the most depressing subject imaginable. Yet the video game That Dragon, Cancer tackles such material head on. The game is an autobiographical work primarily developed by Ryan and Amy Green whose young son Joel was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
That Dragon, Cancer can be described as an exploration game, or derisively as a walking simulator. Most of the gameplay is spent wandering around an environment while hearing voiceover from the Greens. Yet despite its simplistic gameplay, this may be the most difficult game I have ever played. Most games are difficult in the same way that sports are difficult; they require effort, fast reflexes, and a hunger to win. That Dragon, Cancer is difficult in the same way consoling a loved one through heartbreak is difficult.
The most difficult scene in the game is when Ryan spends the night in the hospital room with a dehydrated Joel. Play this scene with headphones on, and Joel’s piercing cries will stab your soul. Nothing you can do will stop Joel’s suffering, and that weakness will drive you insane. You will want to pull your hair out, scream at a sick child, and find something, anything, that will make you not feel powerless. Those few minutes are not a fun experience.
But video games are supposed to be fun. Traditionally, a good game is synonymous with a fun game. This is not true for any other medium. Fun movies are good movies, but good movies are not exclusively fun movies. Nobody uses the word “fun” when describing Schindler’s List. Imagine if the only movies people cared about were comedies; film would be an extremely limited art form. Yet that is the exact situation video games find themselves in.
Games need to expand the emotional palette they play with. Frustration is not a positive emotional response, but That Dragon, Cancer uses it effectively to get closer to the human condition.
The first game to truly use the negative range of the emotional spectrum was Metal Gear Solid 2. Hideo Kojima would boldly use disappointment and boredom to affect the player experience. At the time of MGS2’s release, the hype was unimaginable. Gamers were pumped to play as Solid Snake on a bigger, better sneaking mission. And in the first part of the game, the Tanker chapter, that is exactly what players get. But the much longer Plant chapter fails to live up to those expectations. You play as the whiny upstart Raiden, not the legendary Solid Snake. In comparison to the Tanker, the environments of the Plant seem stale and boring, almost like they were ripped from the original Metal Gear Solid. In the third act, the player controls a naked Raiden while receiving strange Codec calls. And the ending of the game is a confusing mess that leaves more questions than answers. Most players felt let down when experiencing MGS2.
However, the ending of the game reveals this was intentional. Due to the S3 Plan, the “Solid Snake Simulation” [[Technically, S3 actually stands for “selection for societal sanity”, but let us not go all the way down the Kojima craziness.]], the Big Shell Incident is meant to be a recreation of the Shadow Moses Incident from the first game in order to develop the next super soldier. Raiden lives through a recreation of MGS1 in order to become the next Big Boss or Solid Snake, and the player’s rejection of MGS2‘s derivative gameplay mirrors Raiden rejecting the control of the Patriots. The game is self-aware of its shortcomings, and they have a purpose in the narrative.
Using negative emotions in video games carries a huge risk at turning off the audience. In most art forms, the emotional response of the audience is indirect. If you read a book in which the protagonist’s wife dies, you empathize with the hero of the story. The author does not come and actually kill your own mother. There is an level of abstraction to the emotions you feel.
With video games, that abstraction does not exist; you experience the same emotions as the main character. If the game character is frustrated when fighting an invincible enemy, the player himself also gets frustrated. Video games have create direct emotions in their players that mirror the narrative instead of merely causing an indirect empathetic response.
There are plenty of different types of negative emotions a game designer could develop in their audience: anger, apathy, greed, jealousy, and so much more. However, most designers are too afraid to do so, preferring to make their players feel the some repetitive mixture of fun and accomplishment like every other game does. That Dragon, Cancer and Metal Gear Solid 2 showcase that another way is possible. You just cannot be afraid of pissing your audience off.