March 25, 2022
Geography of Robots
NORCO is a point-and-click mystery that calls itself a “Southern gothic” tale, and it wears that label on its sleeve. It’s set in the real-world town of the same name, located just 30 minutes from New Orleans, USA. To its North-East lie lowland swamps, and back in the bad old days, it was the site of a number of sugar cane plantations that profited from slave labour. It’s a rich history, if a melancholic one.
This isn’t just set dressing – the story is subtle yet intrinsically linked with the town and its history. The fictional Norco’s oil refinery actually exists in real life – though it’s owned by a fictional company called ‘Sheild’. The details layered within this narrative masterpiece could only come from the mind of someone intimately familiar with the town and its people, like NORCO’s developer Yuts. It makes the game’s alternate future hit close to home, sometimes uncomfortably so. The protagonist Kay, her family, and the town at large all bear the weight of Norco’s history.
Kay has reluctantly returned to town after the passing of her mother Catherine. Upon arriving, however, she learns that her brother Blake has gone missing. She and an A.I. android called Million must investigate his disappearance, but soon discover a tangled web of secrets connecting her mother, the oil refinery, a strange cult, and the town at large.
NORCO does not market itself as a Cyberpunk tale, but it shares many of the themes and hallmarks of one. I have long been of the opinion that the best Cyberpunk stories are ones that focus on individual struggles. What better way to explore the ways in which our futuristic society might fail to fix our societal problems than focusing on a small cast of characters that actually face those issues? Stories about grand cyber conspiracies might sound good as the elevator pitch, but it doesn’t often allow the subtler, more intimate themes of the fictional world to come to the forefront.
NORCO excels at just this kind of worldbuilding. The mystery that begins with Kay’s brother’s disappearance grows into something larger, sure, but it always remains local. As the story progresses, we learn more about Kay’s mother and the terrible loss the family has experienced, which puts the characters’ actions and motives into context. Things that seem to be individual struggles turn out to be connected to other people in the town, and to the oil refinery that dominates the town landscape. Even when things take a turn to the truly bizarre, it is still at heart a family mystery. The journey is a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, at times intriguing, weird, funny, or very very depressing. The shining star of NORCO is by far the narration, which guides you through each twist and turn with wonderful detail.
The pixel art accentuates the emotional nature of the story every step of the way. It isn’t always exactly pretty – the people, in particular, aren’t portrayed very charitably. Some even look quite horrific, keeping with the game’s gothic tone. So much emotion is conveyed through these illustrations and backgrounds, showing the ugliness, dilapidation, and beauty of the town. Every character you speak to, no matter how minor or eccentric, slots perfectly into the story and is completely believable within the world. The result is an engrossing mystery story told by a narration so well written it reads like poetry. Animation is limited, but that only serves to make the town seem eerier.
“The result is an engrossing mystery story told by a narration so well written it reads like poetry.”
NORCO is heavy on story and light on gameplay, so you’ll want to be prepared for a lot of narration and dialogue. You do need to figure out what to do and where to go, but the game telegraphs these very clearly so it’s rare that you’ll find yourself stuck. On a scale between What Remains of Edith Finch and something like The Witness, which is just puzzle after puzzle, it definitely leans more to the former. However, there are a few times where a bit of classic point-and-click “use item on person/object” is necessary.
NORCO changes up the gameplay every once in a while. In a few parts, you will beat up a few unfriendlies in your way or explore the nearby swamp in a boat. These moments break up the narration and serve to introduce you to more of the town of Norco.
At the end of NORCO’s 4-5 hour runtime, I was incredibly touched by the story it told. The experience was far more engaging and three dimensional than I expected, a lot of it in subtle ways that don’t bash you over the head with its message. In fact, the message is perhaps a little too opaque – the game leaves some plot threads not fully explained, which might have an effect on what you take away from it. The story has two main endings: a good ending and a bad one. The good ending does not reveal anything more than the bad one in terms of the mystery and lore, but provides closure for the characters, which was more than enough for me. But your mileage may vary.
- Engrossing mystery story that leaves you wanting more
- Beautiful narration with perfect blend of atmosphere, horror, and humour
- Atmospheric pixel art that illustrates the town perfectly
- Some plot threads are left hanging
Even if you don’t normally enjoy point-and-click adventures, Norco is a must-play for anyone interested in story-driven games. It’s one of the best-narrated tales since Dysco Elysium, rich with the real-life history of the town of Norco with some imaginative fiction mixed in. It’s dark, funny, and scary in all the right places, and even if the ending doesn’t wrap up all the mysteries it opens, it’s still sure to leave its mark on you.