“To someone in a garden many lifetimes ago.”
Every iteration of Norco, from the game’s initial demo to the release of the first act, has clarified its weird, haunting voice that little bit more. That’s an obvious enough observation, but it was a voice that promised more than most. And as each iteration expanded the art’s dimensions, that voice’s potential was amplified. Still, I was uncertain of its reach. Now Norco has arrived, having deliriously flung open its doors, and my first trip down the rabbit hole is over.
Thinking about it some hours later, I’m pretty sure it’s one of the best games ever made – or at least a fresh direction of travel for the medium.
When her mother succumbs to a persistent cancer, Kay returns to her hometown of Norco, Louisiana, after an exile’s journey across a collapsed America. Beneath a molten sky abused by smokestacks, the family home is empty except for an android whose face sparkles like stars in a pool. Kay’s brother should be there but he’s vanished, leaving bad vibes in his wake. With some prompting from the android, Kay sets off in search of him, exploring shadows old and new as an arcane mystery quickly devours what’s left of her life.
American greats like McCarthy and DeLillo and even Dos Passos percolate in Norco’s mystic dystopia, but the language is its own. As a piece of eco-criticism, Norco is a revelation, crafting a world we both know and do not know. Possibly the last world we’ll ever know if we can’t take apart the dead-end capitalist perdition we’ve all but committed to. Norco, with exceptional clarity and imagination, demands nothing less to avert an apocalypse that connects every one of us.
But for the developers, that apocalypse has a personal nexus. Sat on the Mississippi River just west of New Orleans, the Norco of the game is a strange and sinister dreamscape, textured with history and biography. Like a reflection on a beloved memory of home. Only that memory has been contaminated, phosphorescent light blinking on sallow water. Stretched into its own future, memories like these are up for grabs and committed to servers, taking the last piece of home.
When I went looking for Norco in the present, I was struck by the hotspots on Google Maps: they were almost all oil companies, as if that passed for an identity. Somewhere in the ley lines connecting this unforgiving industry, the tragedy is very real in a place that’s only ever been owned, cultivated and drilled. The accumulating tragedies become something like a scream in the game, channelled into a statement about the singular tragedy of the failed American system. And as I write that, I want to reach for The Wire – Norco is that damn good.
As a point and click narrative adventure, Norco is just as exploratory. There are items to gather and people to speak with, but the genre’s hallmarks are kept to a minimum. Instead, Norco is a layering of experiences, always mindful of perspective – whether that’s Kay’s or her mother Catherine’s, who share the narrative. Perspective informs what players do.
In one sequence, you’re slinking through a rainy night at the behest of Superduck, a horrifying artificial intelligence that operates like a self-aware Craigslist. Superduck’s mission spins into infiltrating a motley crew of gross white dorks, who have shacked up in a local mall. To gain entry you need to utilise their leader’s mobile app to find digital signposts across town. It’s weird as heck, but also completely believable, and it’s the framework for your back-and-forth between locations and characters.
The action unfolds organically, opening nooks and crannies in Kay and Catherine’s respective nights that find the profound nestled in the mundane. Small scenes that indulge anecdote and myth, deepening the flawed, broken, and messy humanity splattered over Norco. Small scenes that don’t ever lapse into whimsy; each one inserts a fresh layer, building towards catharsis. You rarely run into such snapshots in games, making them all the more special here.
Creatively, it’s not easy producing something fundamentally about Now – and Norco really is about Now, in case there’s any question. It’s a problem that pops up in far too much literary fiction – reflexive observations on the present that lack authenticity. But there’s nothing reflexive about Norco. Its understanding of digital languages, and their impact on self and our internal and external landscapes, is behind all the amazing pixel art, the dreamy, eclectic music, and every perfect bit of prose.
The game just sort of gets what matters right now, which is what the best science fiction does, right? The water is rising, the institutions of government fraying, and the collective madness building, yet still we retreat into the loveless inhumanity of corporate systems. Even their own creators can’t escape them in Norco, in one of the game’s many quietly devastating moments.
Which is all just to say Norco is a vital piece of videogame art that absolutely everyone should play immediately. Its dreamscapes shift beneath us, bending towards the quasi-religious until you want to cling tight to the few hands left in reach. Because as unrelentingly bleak as it can be, Norco is still holding out for a better world than the one it sees dead ahead.
Review based on Steam media account copy. Please read this post for more on our scoring policy.