Norco is a climate-conscious point-and-click adventure, and the first game to win an award at the Tribeca Film Festival, but it’s actually pretty good. The plot concerns a young woman, Kay, who returns to her eponymous Louisiana hometown following the death of her mother, Catherine. More than anything, though, the plot is simply concerned. Concerned by Kay’s brother, Blake, who has disappeared. Concerned by Million, Kay’s household android, whose glassy cranium appears to swirl with nebulae—which may indicate deep constellations of thought, or an absent-minded screensaver. And concerned, most of all, by the Shield Oil Refinery, which provides the town with a steady supply of employment, pollution, and bereavement.
That last point is, perhaps, a little up in the air. Mind you, if you have any doubts that’s exactly where you ought to look: the skies are a molten slurry of ochre and Hershey brown, as though one of the refinery’s waste pipes had gushed all over the clouds. The pixelated art direction, by Jesse Jacobi, burns with familiar sights. In a wink to Blade Runner, we get a closeup of an eye, in which is reflected the flames that belch from cooling towers, billowing along the curve of an iris. To match the imagery, the script—written by the game’s creator, who goes by the pseudonym Yuts—is given to Roy-like downpours of poetry. We are told, of Kay, that “The years carried you through overlit suburbs of the vast American Limbo,” which sounds good but doesn’t exactly give us a clear picture of her life. Then again, Norco is, more than anything, about the unclear picture. The meat of its action is a mystery, through which we sift, gathering clues; and most of the characters are grappling with their own private obfuscations.
Early on, I worried that Norco would hitch down the same literary highway as Kentucky Route Zero. That game, developed by Cardboard Computer, was also fixated on the vast American Limbo, tackling its subject with verbiage, and there weren’t always strong enough images to carry us through its overlit sentences. What a relief, then, to find humour in Kay’s investigation. It unravels upon a marshy foundation of Southern gothic, and at one point we stumble upon a director, filming a tenebrous cop show. He is eager for regional authenticity—or, rather, for the kind of deep-fried dialogue that might pass for authentic—and Kay has the chance to convince him that to “slather ’em with the oyster-flavored peanut butter” is local slang, meaning “to murder.”
The question of whether Catherine’s death was the result of such slathering is what pulls us through Norco. She died of cancer, and the plot is interleaved with playable flashbacks that tell of her final days. Years before, she was involved in digging up information on the refinery’s doings—as was another character, whom we learn also perished from cancer, as though the disease were on a monthly retainer for Shield. Before Kay’s homecoming, Catherine was searching for something elusive, and that search, along with her daughter’s, is strung across a landscape of strip malls, bars, gasworks, and the shores of battures, slimey and sloping, at day’s end. It’s exactly the sort of needlework that Charles Cecil is so good at, wherein distrust is stitched into the surroundings; think of the uneasy opening of Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars, in which the peace of a Paris morning is called into question long before it is blown away.
Indeed, it is that epoch of adventure games that Norco calls upon. Its puzzles are tethered to touchable clues: a riddle scrawled on a receipt, a bottle of painkillers, a nest of hissing circuitry, harboured within a ceramic statue of the Virgin Mary. And they require no brain-frazzling lateral leaps, as did the conundrums of LucasArts games, such as The Secret of Monkey Island and Grim Fandango. But the developer, Geography of Robots, wreathes its puzzles in surreal fumes; what we are doing makes mechanical sense, but the mechanisms grow increasingly weird. We get a robotic cat that rockets through a ceiling. A cult, seeking salvation within a mobile app (note the recurrent twining of tech and religion, both offering ways to augment one’s reality). And, at the heart of the refinery, a masked ball thrown in a plantation house—a fandango of unrefined grimness.
If all this sounds too arch or pretentious for its own good—and, certainly, no game that claims to have “liner notes” can be said to have ducked the charge of pretention—then Norco redeems itself with doubt. It frets over the cost of its pixel-rich vistas. In an early scene, in Kay’s bedroom, she reads of the “Punks from across the country” that ventured into the region to make art of its environmental ruin. “Collapse became the zeitgeist,” we read. “New Orleans became a plastic dystopia, a marketplace for crisis.” Compare the description, in the liner notes, of Geography of Robots, as “a small collaborative of artists and devs strung across the United States.” Translation: the punks dread the thought of collapsing into the zeitgeist. Same old story. But what saves it is that the visions on offer belong as much to the imagined as the troublingly real. Yuts grew up in Norco, Louisiana (named, in 1911, after the New Orleans Refining Company, established by Shell Oil), and the crudeness of the game’s art style is sticky with the memories of old games. It’s impossible to see a catalytic cracker and not flit briefly back to Midgar, from Final Fantasy VII. Thus, the perverse beauty of the place is plugged into a childhood of play—consoled, as it were, by unreal echoes of the world outside.
Developer: Geography of Robots
Publisher: Raw Fury
Available on: PC
Release Date: March 24, 2022
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