That Dragon, Cancer … and Issues With Reviews

So, I still do peruse the Feminist Frequency site, and recently came across this review of “That Dragon, Cancer” by Carolyn Petit which manages to, I think, represent the precise type of review that I don’t find helpful, and advocates for the work in ways that I think many people are becoming upset with across the board, in video games, TV and movies, and science fiction/fantasy novels. So, first, let me invite you to go and read the review, in its entirety. Don’t worry, it’s not long. When you’re done, I’ll have two questions for you.

Done? Okay, now answer me this:

1) What is the actual gameplay of the game?

2) What does the gameplay of the game do to enhance the overall message that the game conveys?

If you can’t remember the answers to those questions, feel free to go back and read it again. I’ll wait.

Okay, now maybe I’m just missing something and maybe there are answers to those questions in the review, but as far as I can tell the reason that you can’t answer those questions upon reading the review is that those things are never talked about in the review. So, she’s reviewing a game, and yet doesn’t seem to mention anything about what the game is like, well, as a game. It’s all about the message. In fact, after reading it the first time I actually thought that this was some kind of web series or something, and not a game at all, and then looked back and found at least three places where she calls this a game. So, I guess this is a game. But from her review, I can’t even tell if it’s a game, and I certainly know nothing about it as a game. How in the world do you get a game review that doesn’t even mention the parts of it that would, in fact, make it a game?

Even worse, nothing that Petit mentions are things that wouldn’t work equally as well in a short animated film, film or novel … and, in fact, they might work better. For example, she praises it for this:

The game reveals how living with Joel’s cancer for years was simultaneously a source of tremendous difficulty and exhaustion and pain for the Greens, and how, when you live with something like that for so long, it becomes woven into your normal, everyday lives. We hear a voicemail from Amy as she’s on her way back from the hospital in which she tells Ryan to preheat the oven for the lasagna they’re making for dinner. Life doesn’t stop. You have to keep on living, doing all the things you’d normally do. But when your life is full of hospital visits and impossible conversations with doctors, you also learn to hate some of the “normal” little specific things that become part of the texture of your life. At one point, Ryan mentions how he has come to hate the way the vinyl of hospital chairs sticks to his skin. Precise details like this put you in the day-to-day lives of the Greens.

But all of this can be conveyed very effectively in films and in novels. While I’ll say that games can indeed be art, what games are going to bring to art and to conveying messages is the fact that you are the one doing it and the one who is in this situation, and so aren’t merely voyeuristically observing the lives of other people. For a game to really have an impact here as a game it’s going to force you to make those decisions, to deal with those situations, and form those opinions with you in the role of the people involved somehow. Petit comments on none of that, and in fact implies that that isn’t the case; you observe them as they live their lives, with no real ability to alter or change it or else you couldn’t really be experiencing what their lives were like. Yes, games can pull off that sort of thing, but there’s nothing in her review to suggest that any of that is what happened, as you don’t seem to play as yourself, and all of her examples are of you listening to their words and their reactions, not what your reactions are in response to that situation.

In the artistic games that work, you either are doing the things yourself and so get to experience it from the first-person perspective, or else you are forced to make choices that impact the lives of the people in the game and how things play out. An example of the first is “Papers, Please”, which I recall (but cannot find quickly) Shamus Young raving about, and saying just that: the game, as a game, is utterly frustrating and not fun, but it’s great because it forces you to actually live that life, and face the same choices — and outcomes — that they do. Another game whose title I don’t even remember that was also talked about on his site somewhere is one where there is a family with someone who is trying to be an author, and you have to make decisions for the family and how they react, which impacts what kind of life the family ends up with at the end. What these games do is leverage the one thing that games bring to the artistic table that pretty much nothing else does, which is the interactive nature of it.

Without that interactive nature, it’s hard to say that they’re games at all, let alone good ones. Another example from Shamus Young (and I can find the link this time) is “The Path”, but it’s debatable whether that’s really a game or not. You get to explore the world to experience the stories of the girls, but if that exploration is nothing more than the equivalent of “walk across to room to get your non-interactive cutscene” then maybe it’s not really a game at all. If That Dragon, Cancer is just you clicking around to see cutscenes that simply show you what’s going on with the characters, then it might not even rise to the level of interactive novel/movie, let alone a good and quality game.

Look, to be a game, in my view, you have to do at least one of two things that play on the interactivity. You either have to have my actions matter to the game, or you have to give me a lot of things to do in the game that are preconditions to my getting to the non-interactive cutscenes that advance the story. So a game where I have conversation options that, at the end of the day, ultimately change — even in small ways — how the story plays out and how it ends would count (the traditional interactive movie/novel model) counts, or alternatively a game where the story is fixed but I have to engage in puzzles or combat in order to advance (RPGs, adventure games, FPSs, strategy games, and the like) definitely count as well. And sure, games without stories count as games as well, because they are all about the things you have to do in the game, and so all about you interacting with them. From the description in the review, I’m not convinced that this is even present in the game. Now, I haven’t played or even looked up this game, but it seems to me that if you claim to do a review of a game and I can’t tell anything about the gameplay and can’t tell if it’s even really a game from your review, then you didn’t really do anything that should count as a review of the game.

Which leads back to my starting point: Petit seems to be engaging in a “message” review, where she is extolling the virtues of the message the game delivers — and, to some extent, how effective it is, in her mind, at delivering it — while completely ignoring the details of the game itself. If you add in the fact that most people won’t want to praise a work for delivering a message that they dislike — at least cancer is a relatively politically neutral topic, but some others, especially some advocated for on that very site, are not — and you hit the sort of politicized reviews that I loathe and that people are complaining about: people with vested political interests positively reviewing a work because it aligns with their worldview, not because it’s a good work. Petit clearly thinks that the message is profound and meaningful, but provides no details on the work itself or how it works as a game. Thus, her review is, in my opinion, worse than useless.

If this is the future of gaming reviews, then I want no part of it.

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2 Responses to “That Dragon, Cancer … and Issues With Reviews”

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    I’ve googled the game, and heard Radio Lab’s podcast about it. I think it really does have something to say as part of the gaming aspect of it. I recall the Wired’s review of the game being pretty good, though maybe it’s only because I knew the gameplay elements already – I can’t remember.

    I do know that, while the game contains mini-games and some choice aspects, the key point of it is that what you do has incredibly LITTLE effect on what happens. Joel dies, and your final choice in the game is how much time you spend with him before you finally let him go.

    But the game aspect of this is essential – only a game can specifically have you interact with the situations going on and still not have it really do anything except superficial stuff. A novel can convey that, or a movie, but not in the same way. So in that sense, I think the game works…at least in theory, as I haven’t yet played it.

    I don’t think I ever will, either. WAY too creepy for me. I get why people would find it cathartic, but I’m not one of those people.

    That’s why, when I mentioned “To the Moon” awhile back, you’re right in that it’s pretty close to being a simple interactive novel with a couple of puzzles in it more than it is a game…but I’m still really glad it exists in the way it does.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I was indeed more commenting on the purported review than on the game itself, since I didn’t play it. As described, what you’re supposed to be getting out of it is just an insight into their lives, not really an experience on your own of what that’s like. I completely concede that it’s possible — and given the review itself, likely — that she’s describing it completely inaccurately … and that was rather the point of my post: either she’s describing it wrong or it’s not a game, meaning that at a minimum she’s going on about and insisting what’s great about the game are the things that, well, don’t make a game great, even in an artistic way.

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