'Norco' maps the dark heart of the Gulf Coast

The roots of this thrilling point-and-click noir stretch from Texas to Louisiana.

Norco

Norco

Norco/Geography of Robots/Raw Fury

Norco is an unusually acclaimed game. It won the first-ever Tribeca Games Award earlier this year and is a shoo-in for year-end plaudits across the internet (including, spoiler alert, on this very site). It’s also an unusually writerly game, equal parts William Faulkner and William Gibson, an ocean of text we mediate through the interface of the screen. 

Here's the other thing about Norco: It rips. Divided into three acts, the game never lets up its pace, using its point and click puzzles to build tension before a reveal. Full of cliffhangers, betrayals, and Chandleresque entrances, it’s a game the player devours, blasting along with its protagonists through a climate-ravaged New Orleans and its surrounding neighborhoods toward an unlikely, unforgettable climax. 

When the game slows down, it slows down for maps. "I feel like maps provide a little bit of perspective," says the game's chief designer, coder, and writer, who goes by the pseudonym Yuts. "I just love being able to see the way all of these constituent pieces of a region fit."

Norco

Norco

Norco/Geography of Robots/Raw Fury

This makes sense, given Yuts' unlikely path toward game design. He earned his master's degree in urban and regional planning before working for the City of New Orleans as a geographic information systems tech. His interest in the industrial infrastructure of his home lead to a project designing a series of interactive maps that helped him tell the story of the region. "From there it was a natural jump to a small JavaScript app," he says of the transition to games. 

And so it's no surprise when the game whisks away from the story of Kay, a Norco native recently returned home after the death of her mother, to take in a birds-eye view of the surrounding locale. Playing as both Kay and her mother on one of the latter's last nights alive, we're treated to gauzy, top-down views of the cities of Norco and New Orleans. In one segue, we see the regions of New Orleans fade in and out as they're described. We later view the surveillance districts around an oil refinery from the POV of a drone, the river paths and man-made logging wheels of Lake Pontchartrain in green-and-black sonar, even buildings drawn as floorplans, schematics to be navigated.
   
It's a geography Yuts knows well. He was born and raised in the real Norco, Louisiana amid the industrial machinery that dots the game's painterly pixel art. As development progressed, a small collective gathered under the name Geography Of Robots, including Aaron Gray, a co-developer based in Austin. Despite the game's eschatological fervor, Yuts has pushed back on its "dystopian" reputation. "I think the game is just somewhat of a funhouse-mirror reflection of reality," he says. "And it's messy and dystopian and uplifting and all of the other varying characteristics of life. It's a lot of what occupies my brain space as a resident of south Louisiana."

Norco

Norco

Norco/Geography of Robots/Raw Fury

What occupies Yuts' brain is the way those maps have been impacted by industrialization and climate change. Early on, the protagonist's house is described flooding three times. But then we flash forward to a McCarthy-esque future in which the Mississippi river changes course and the house is overrun by looters. It's one node in a broader unraveling of the social structure, wrought by climate collapse. "Maybe you've seen these memes," Yuts says, "but basically Louisiana's present is everyone else's future, because Louisiana is geographically and morphologically speaking at the forefront of climate change. So a lot of the disruption that others may experience later on down the road through climate disasters is occurring now in Louisiana."

Norco's signature triumph is finding a way to tell this story as, well, a story, something deeply human and propulsive: that old saw about a prodigal child returning home. Your first order of business is to figure out where your screw-up brother passed out the previous night. Things scale precipitously from there: oil refineries sabotaged, consciousnesses uploaded, cult compounds infiltrated. But Yuts writes about the region like it's home. Everyone is humanized. The oil refinery isn't a symbol of evil but a biomechanical fact of the landscape. The cult members, driftless young men who disavow pornography and videogames and all go by the name of "Garrett," are drawn with realistic portraits, their backstories etched lovingly. You can talk to their parents, try to coax them home. 

Norco

Norco

Norco/Geography of Robots/Raw Fury

All these maps bind the characters together, portraying their lived experiences as an outgrowth of the landscape in which they live and work. For all the game's futuristic verve, the precipitating death is from plain old cancer, the disease that gives the region from New Orleans to Baton Rouge the nickname "Cancer Alley." In one passage, we see the sickness spread through Kay's mom's body in an X-ray, yet another map-like interface. And if the plot ever loses you, you can click on a "mind map" in the corner of the screen, which charts all of the game's gradually developing plot threads into an almost shrine-like graphical interface. Maps, so often utilitarian in games, are a window into humanity in Norco.  

Norco belongs to a new wave of text-heavy games, like Disco Elysium and Kentucky Route Zero, which playfully interrogate political and philosophical ideas within a fantastical context. Like those games, it utilizes the medium's agency and slow-burn sense of immersion to create a distinct sense of place, telling narratives through the very spatial relationship between people and things. But Norco distinguishes itself with its strange combination of potboiler pacing and cartographic reverie. Its successor, whenever it comes out, promises to be no different. "I'm really interested in the Pine Belt region and then also the coastal parishes" he says, alluding to future plans outside of Norco's region. "Being able to devote a lot of research and time and attention to those three distinct eco regions would be really fun." Creativity begins with research, and it starts by getting some elevation.

Norco is now available on macOS and Microsoft Windows.

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