For the first time we see Norco, Louisiana in all its pixelated beauty, in an image that frames the chimneys and refinery equipment like a mechanical city. We are told that there is a hum – an “endless sigh” – and we see a soft glow that extinguishes the sun and moon, so that its inhabitants see only a translucent sky. This horizon, as we read in the preface, is all projected in flames, implying that the earth and the people below live their lives as a slow burning.
Welcome to the part of America known as Cancer Alley. And then “Norco” becomes strange.
The game is both familiar and outlandish, an interactive text-based and art-based adventure with a sci-fi twist. But this is not so much the future as an alternative reality. Norco paints a picture of a dying America, where the rich dream of privatized spaceflight and apps that turn talented people into niche celebrities. Sounds familiar? Don’t despair. Norco’s world is enticing – one that is, yes, full of web conspiracies and crazy jobs, but also the kind of crash we can’t look away from.
Partly because Norco makes us smile in surprise. “Norco” is our world, only slightly changed. It is also the best game released in 2022.
Moments after being introduced to a dead-end oil town, the game begins with us taking control of a grown woman named Kay, who has returned to her childhood bedroom after a family tragedy. A stuffed monkey sits next to a laptop while her brother hangs out on Internet message boards that he should probably leave unexplored. An inanimate monkey challenges us to a staring match, and after being distracted by a simple mini-game trying to match up a pair of circles, we accept the challenge and lose the match to the plushie.
However, the tone has been set.
For the next few hours, Norco takes us on a journey into a melancholy world full of imaginary wonders. We meet a giant bird with teeth the size of a head. We briefly interact with a crocodile who is on a mission of revenge through a puppet show against a man who tried to adopt him as a pet. And we see a world shocked by climate change, where robots will outlive us, but they, too, are gripped by boredom, spending hours in stasis, “like any discarded thing.”
The magical realism of Norko is both patient and tireless. Each scene is a pixelated canvas – the sort of work of art that modern Reddit users go crazy over – and filled with mysteries to uncover. We want to linger with them as much as we want to search them for clues that will turn this narrative into a hyperdrive.
But our mission is constantly distorted by curiosities, twists in the narrative, or witty writing. Details abound: the fellow traveler only listens to Christmas music. A bar filled with white kids culturally appropriating black dancing is in a “subcultural estuary, just one change of ownership to become an upscale wine bar.” And in the beginning, we can read a book that details how New Orleans can be reimagined as a live-action role-playing game for those who love disaster.
Family secrets drive the Norco story, but often they can wait. How less insane “Everything and everywhere at once” who also searches for signs of life and compassion among alternative views of reality, digressions can be found at every turn in the narrative. A cat, for example, challenges us to a memory game only to earn a pet whose eyes turn into hearts if we win the right to scratch it. Then there’s the hot dog stand that knows all the not-so-secret raps scattered all over New Orleans and the Silver Lake film crew that believes you when you tell them that in the South they would absolutely call someone evil. like a “cancer devil”.
Norko’s mode is grim but not foreboding – Blade Runner’s angst of hope feels like an influence, as do the enigmatic and sometimes ghostly attributes Playmate of “Kentucky Route Zero”. Both are reflections on American class and nuttiness, as well as making sense of a world that seeks to confuse. Like the Kentucky Route Zero, we spend time at Norco with those on the fringes of society, only in this vision there is no longer a center worth striving for.
Here, the city detective has juicy stories to tell, but he also can’t bother investigating if nature calls. There may be aliens out there, but these mysterious flying structures could also just be gases flying from the poisoned Mississippi River. It’s hard to say, but political and religious extremists will become the darlings of social media, creating a conspiracy around them. Who, after all, wants to deal with reality and all its complexities, formalities and paperwork, especially when the upper class views the increasingly uninhabitable Earth as a playground?
Our surrogate, Kay, is a young woman who ran away from her home in southern Louisiana to live as a drifter. Kay has already traveled the Midwest, Southwest, and West when we meet her, finding a world where war exists to create memes and the internet, and the lies and schemes she supports have become such a hindrance to society that there is a growing movement to tear down cell towers and destroy databanks. Kay abandons her phone in the Rio Grande before returning to Louisiana to take care of her lost little brother’s soul after her mother dies of cancer.
Only he is missing. Norco during opening hours – expect the game to be somewhere around 10 hours – is toying with players about what kind of game it will become. A detective adventure in which we hunt down our brother or sister? Possibly, but we soon learn that our mother was involved in shady conspiracies before she died. For example, her home was ransacked by Shield Oil, a less sophisticated replacement for Shell Oil, after her death, and we want to know what that firm is up to. It’s supposed to be something rotten – or mystical – in the river, and suddenly Norco becomes something of a heist game.
But we also run into cults that believe in the supernatural, led by kids who look like they’re playing Stranger Things. Their leader is implied to be some sort of social media star, but we know he’s nothing more than a suburban brat who accidentally read a few philosophy books. He and his followers have taken up residence in an abandoned suburban mall, where towering oil-drenched statues have now become images of escape to other planets, and recruitment is done via an in-game augmented reality app. Apps rule society at Norco and are the key to getting to just about anywhere, including city halls after hours, where even politicians are infatuated with conspiracy theorists.
Throughout, we move back and forth in time as either Kay or her mother, Katherine. Even though the game throws crazy theories at us in an attempt to explain depressing realities, we never get lost. Norco has cleverly created what it calls a “mind map”, a sort of family tree of every key person or place we encounter in the game. We can visit Kay’s mind map at any time, absorb her past and build her future as if we were flipping through the pages of an exciting book. There’s a lot of text here, combined with some easy inventory-based puzzles – fans of, say, Monkey Island Mysteries or Kentucky Route Zero will be right at home – but Norco also presents us with interactive twists and turns.
When, for example, we need to infiltrate the Shield Oil complex, we must complete a series of mini-games. Sometimes we fight robots with matching tiles, and sometimes we have to rearrange security drones to find a hacked oil company computer that sits on the site of a former plantation. We are given a limited number of “moves” to rearrange the drones on the digital map before we are discovered by the Shield’s security team. But “Norco”, developed for home computers by a small team called “Geography of Robots” – only Yuts acts as the lead designer and is experienced pixel artist – must be accessible to all skill levels.
Everywhere we see glimpses of free parties, learn about racial and class differences, and see the desperate swindled by tech companies that promise the ability to download memories. Suburban New Orleans, as written in the game, is drawn as a series of “chickens, car audio, mattresses straight to you, water towers and power lines, crumbling concrete and road signs, failed attempts at greening.”
In this familiar setting, Norco finds a mystery by giving us a main character in the form of Kay, who wanted to escape her hometown. She couldn’t, and Norco is turning the place into a modern-day mystery that we gamers don’t want to leave. We ourselves become “disaster tourists” in the representation of America downtrodden, allegorical and moderately unearthly.