NORCO is an Old-School Adventure in a Grimy, Vivid World

NORCO is an Old-School Adventure in a Grimy, Vivid World

I have spent about seven hours with NORCO, which means I have spent a lot of time moving a cursor around its pixelated scenes, hoping to reveal some point of interaction. We decried this sort of thing in days of yore, when such “pixel hunting” signified a point-and-click adventure that was going to give you a headache unless you had a strategy guide handy. NORCO could probably use little interface nodes to expedite this whole process, to definitively mark what can and cannot be looked at, spoken to, or poked at in order to save some of the aimless mousing around. But, then, speed isn’t really the point of NORCO.

The point is to observe, to become enmeshed in its extremely specific setting: a futuristic Louisiana and primarily the real-life oil town that gives the game its title. (“Norco” stands for “New Orleans Refining Company,” which was purchased in 1929 by Shell, who include a fun little page about the place’s history on their website; the unscrupulous corporation in the video game is called Shield.) Developers Geography of Robots have realized it with meticulous care, each scene dense with memory and eccentric specificity: the placement of household objects, the people who frequent a dive bar, the sights seen in the distance.

We observe the rusted-out remains of lives that have been lived in the shadow of monolithic smokestacks. When those lives burn out, the black hole left behind pulls people back to the town. People like Kay, who left her mother Catherine and her brother Blake behind five years ago because drifting around the USA was preferable to staying home, even though the outside world was ravaged by localized little wars and generalized discontent where people are pulling down cell towers in protest. It’s one of the most evocative sci-fi stories I’ve encountered in some time (and certainly the one with the most references to pooping).


Lo-Fi in Louisiana

When Kay comes home, it’s more out of obligation than anything else. Catherine’s death is not mysterious: she got cancer, she got chemo, and then she died of the cancer anyway. And yet, mysteries abound. Where is Blake, whose resentment runs deep enough that Kay didn’t even inform him of her arrival? What was Catherine doing out in the polluted swamp waters? Why do people say she found something out there, and what did it have to do with Shield? The robot called Million fixes a rickety pickup in the fenced backyard of Kay’s childhood home, noting that Catherine left “a lot of loose ends” that led to things like a constantly warbling landline that they took off the hook.

Though futuristic, the technology of NORCO is a curious patchwork of the mostly old and the mildly new. The sentient, autonomous AI character co-exists with the old truck that’s missing a fuse; the ability to upload your consciousness as a recorded approximation of who you were is up the street from a puppet theater and a sketchy hot dog vendor. The internet decays, kids are enraptured by a turtle on the sidewalk, and one of the only clues to Blake’s whereabouts is the tab he left open to an imageboard. Cancer treatment still means a little orange bottle of pills to dull the pain.

The gameplay tools, too, are relatively low-tech, with no elaborate quest-tracking tablet or journal functionality. There are only the pictures Kay has in her head, a “mind map” tracing the half-remembered connections between all of NORCO‘s players, a gamut of weirdos and malcontents and people you wouldn’t want to sit next to on the bus if the town was big enough to support a robust public transit system. These pictures change over time, and when Kay stops to focus on one she might remember something important, as though repeating a phrase over and over to herself until something clicks.

You also get a rather nondescript smartphone, with apps to call for a ride or record characters’ dialogue for incriminating playback. Its most advanced feature is an AR camera for an app jimmied together by mall-bound cultists. By and large, technology is not to be trusted; several characters you enlist are grungy, off-the-grid types who seem to have things more or less figured out. What tech advancements there are seem largely out of reach for the commoners you interact with; beyond a chaotic sketch of the outside world, we’re not really certain if the whole world looks like this or if it’s just smaller places like Norco, which get so entrenched in their traditions and their fixtures that they shrug off modernity. There’s a store that sells paperbacks, the sort of place made immovable and immutable by the passage of time, a small-town staple.


Local Color

Certainly it’s tempting to compare NORCO to Kentucky Route Zero, even if this PC Gamer interview has read me for filth for even thinking to go there. But still: the comparison makes for an effective shorthand, given the story-driven nature of both games as well as their general sense of mystique, filled with odd little touches that express the broken peculiarity of their worlds.

With that said, NORCO has a much more traditionally game-like structure than KR0. It’s even got an inventory of acquired objects, though for all the pixel hunting I’ve done, I’ve never resorted to blindly rubbing an inventory item against every inch of the environment like an ineffectual charm. The path forward is generally clear if you take the time to look for it, to comb the scenes and talk to folks. There are things to be missed and choices you can make, but none of it halts your progress for long.

It’s also a lot funnier than the comparison to Kentucky Route Zero (which is itself hardly humorless) might suggest, given to odd tangents that produce a distinctive feel, rooted in local culture. I have never been to this part of the world, but I can sense the game’s specificity through its local haunts and observant caricatures: the irritable shopkeep, the mysterious Ditch Man, the narcissistic detective LeBlanc with irritable bowel syndrome, all written in a disarmingly colloquial tongue.

Some of the best comedy of the last few years  is designed around hyper-specific details, able to be surprising and odd and funnier for their rejection of bland universality: shows like Detroiters, South Side, and Joe Pera Talks with You. NORCO is not explicitly a comedy, but it taps into a similar vein that suffuses it with an uncommon amount of character.


The Bowels of Capitalism

The most overtly game-like element of NORCO is a combat system, which pops up so sporadically that I forgot about it on several occasions (I didn’t count the number of encounters, but if they hit double-digits, it’s not by much). At first, I wasn’t even aware there was combat; when some asshole blocked my way into the discount store, I chose “fight” expecting some kind of joke or at the very least a humiliating defeat. After a couple of combat turns that play out through timing and memory-based minigames, however, my victory ended up being the most humiliating thing of all: I inadvertently broke up a strike, and now I’m stuck with an achievement called “class traitor.” (I don’t really do guides on this site, but here’s a hot tip: don’t fight that guy. You’ll know the one.)

In retrospect, the presence of combat makes sense since, much like an RPG, the game constantly refers to characters joining and leaving your “party.” Except NORCO has no stat screens, no equipment to worry about; it’s not emptily referencing video game trappings so much as it’s expressing how every character functions as some part of a faction or aspires to belong to a cause, united with others by a common goal. It conceives of an abandoned population, corralled into the wrong places via desperation and discontent in a communal search for a way out of the (often literal) muck. What NORCO tracks most visibly is the proliferation of belief, the need to cling to others and what we might find in the process.

Along with much of its technology, NORCO‘s thematic concerns are rooted in modern movements, exploring the way some look for meaning in online groups by escaping into paranoia and warped religious dogma. An incel cult gathers inside a mall, desiring escape from autonomy and the haze of defeat that envelops the world— they all wear nametags that say “Garrett.” Another following develops around a digital currency proliferated by a bizarre entity called Superduck, who operates a phone app. Christian iconography pervades the game, even in the corners of Catherine’s home as signifiers of a belief system she abandoned earlier in life but returned to once the end was in sight. The Ditch Man has his own set of prophecies, written off by the Garretts as “Da Vinci Code shit.”

None of these avenues lead to solace. There’s no weepy companionship through found family, no deliverance from corporate influence or widespread purposelessness. In a bitter reflection of our current news cycle, where we keep hearing about how the world’s most prolific hoarders of wealth are dabbling in space travel, no one in NORCO can seem to conceive of answers on this planet. The game’s people look for something to do besides stew in the desolation, to hopefully fulfill a natural inclination toward gathering and purpose and a way to cope with a rotting home. But sometimes the coping only makes things worse.