Norco is the debut title from studio Geography of Robots, a point-and-click adventure game about a young woman returning to her hometown of Norco, Louisiana, an old company town on the outskirts of New Orleans. It works just as deftly in metaphor as it does in actual storytelling, and its writing is beautiful, haunting, hilarious, and tragic.
A Future Haunted By Its Past
Norco’s story follows Kay, a young woman returning to her hometown in Louisiana after her mother passes away. When she arrives, she finds that her brother has gone missing and must search her hometown for him. The game flits between Kay’s story and flashback sequences from the perspective of her mother, Katherine, before she passed, filling in details and setting up questions to pay off later.
Norco’s setting is vaguely futuristic, involving sentient robot servants and a corporation selling a technology that encodes a human mind onto a hard drive. These science fiction details are powerful narrative devices that let Norco explore themes of memory, self, and the connections between a place and its residents. The stories told in the margins of its primary plot revolve around the massive refinery at the heart of the town and the ways in which corporate interest and power compromises technology that people rely upon.
Beyond these details, the rest is difficult to describe without spoiling the story or making no sense at all. While Norco’s prose is sharp and poignant throughout, its story also becomes more metaphorical and surreal as it unfolds, taking on increasingly supernatural elements.
Comedy and Tragedy
Norco’s narrative is rooted in the Southern Gothic style of fiction, a genre characterized by examination of the profound scars left on the American South by slavery and the Civil War, often blurring the line between real and supernatural, literal and metaphor. It’s also a genre that I don’t have much familiarity with, which likely a lot of my experience with Norco especially novel.
Norco dances between disturbing and offbeat in a strangely grounded way, offering a sort of grim humor that functions like it’s own variety of classic point-and-click adventure humor. Characters are bizarre but also grounded and believable, delivering all manner of strange commentary that, for lack of a better phrase, seems like the sort of thing a certain kind of guy would really say. Even the narratory writing sometimes delivers dry observations about the strangeness that Kay and her mother encounter while they explore the town.
But hand in hand with this is a sense of melancholy and desperation, of unhealed scars and words left painfully unspoken. Characters feel stuck or disillusioned, turning wherever they can to find purpose and meaning. The town itself lives in the shadow of a huge refinery and robot factory, where deadly accidents have taken the lives of members of the community over the years.
Maybe this is a reflection of my unfamiliarity with the genre space, but I was constantly impressed by how often the writing could be incredibly dark and still very funny, and never quite in a typical nihilistic way. Even if Norco’s writing style is uniquely impressive to genre newcomers like myself, it certainly doesn’t have a lot of contemporaries in video games.
Of all the games on my list this year, Norco is the one that I feel least equipped to talk about intelligently. It’s steeped in metaphor and drawing on genre conventions I’m fairly new to. But its prose is so dense and evocative, its art so vivid, that the experience works at a surface level just as well as it does at the layers beneath.
Norco is literary in a way that few games I’ve played can quite compare to, and it makes me hungry for more games that can deploy this caliber of writing and imagery to support their storytelling. I’ve honestly struggled quite a bit to figure out how to discuss it, because most of what I have to say about it is interpretive and difficult to organize, especially without spoiling important details.
I guess the way I should put it is this: play Norco, and then lets talk about it.