What is it? Point-and-click narrative adventure.
Expect to pay $15/£11.39; act 1 demo is free on Steam
Release date March 24, 2022
Developer Geography of Robots
Publisher Raw Fury
Link Official site (opens in new tab)
You might have heard of Norco, the new point-and-click adventure praised for its gorgeous pixel art, sublime writing, and poetic exploration of class, identity, faith, and materialism. You might have heard about its white-hot social commentary on capitalism and environmental destruction in the real-life town of the same name—Norco, Louisiana—home to a powerful oil refinery that both feeds and bleeds the people around it. When people talk about Norco, they often talk about its discerning use of science fiction, its hyperlocal focus on a particular part of the Deep South, and how much it resonates as a universal story about place and personhood (if you're looking for an easy Kentucky Route Zero comparison, I've written about that lazy shorthand, as well as the game's punk roots here).
My favorite part of Norco is far less noble. It happens in an abandoned mall in Act 2, where the player sows discord among a cult of insecure boys who call themselves the Garretts. Armed with a voice memo app on my in-game phone, I gleefully tick off boxes for Unethical Modern Behavior—secretly recording the shit people say, pruning away context and using it to turn them against each other. Finally, a game that understands the weakest, pettiest, most chaotic parts of humankind. Finally, I feel seen.
Norco is the first game from the collective Geography of Robots, founded by writer/designer Yuts, who was born and raised in Norco. The story follows Kay, a young woman who returns home to Norco to find her fragile brother, Blake, in the wake of their mother's death. Kay's been somewhat of a nomad, running from her roots and surviving in a post-apocalyptic America marked by homegrown militias, widespread gentrification, and fraying infrastructure. The player switches between Kay and her mother Catherine—not long before her death—as they get pulled into a surreal, tech-noir mystery. With its intense examinations of real present-day problems, including a darkly funny look at the invisible moving parts of the average gig economy job, Norco is at once profoundly somber and bitingly funny.
In the finest tradition of old-school point-and-click adventures, there aren't really any mechanics beyond a few mini-games and small QTEs. The puzzles are simple enough by point-and-click veteran standards—if you've played enough of them, it's really about how and what the dev is hiding on the screen—without diminishing the sense of satisfaction you get from solving them. Playing Norco is a full-throated commitment to the story. To this end, each character in its ensemble cast has a well-formed persona—at least to the best extent that their allotted screen time allows. Every laid-back security guard, prickly neighborhood drug dealer, blasé partygoer, and insufferable Airbnb guest are small but scathing caricatures of the modern social scene, brought to life by Yuts' gift for dialogue and humor.
Private investigator Brett LeBlanc is a particular treasure, as well as Catherine's high school friend Keith—LeBlanc especially is a neat character study into the value of unexpected community ties and found family as Kay is forced to re-examine her relationship with her home. There's a comfortable sense of siblingry in Catherine's chapters when she encounters these old buddies, something that resonated deeply with me as an only child who's all too familiar with the idea of projecting family bonds onto friendships (or understanding but never wanting to acknowledge these ties at all).
The mindmap system—a connect-the-dots-style web used to nudge the story along—is a simple but effective way of dressing up the (nominal) role of player agency in Kay's journey. It mirrors both the player and Kay's need for clarity, with the added function of being a place where the player can keep track of the game's major threads. On another level, the mind map is an insightful alternative to point-and-clicks that rely on manipulating the game environment and collecting items – it forces the player to internalize and contextualize Kay and Catherine's decisions on a deeper level. It's worth noting that Norco's physical environment is already altered beyond repair, and the only thing left to do is find solidarity with the people who can survive and subvert the indignities of technocapitalist 'progress.'
This isn't to say that most point-and-click adventures are mindless—I'm a huge fan of what Wadjet Eye has done to elevate storytelling and characterization in Primordia and Unavowed. But perhaps because of Norco's roots in a real hyperlocal setting, drawing on the devs' lived experiences, as well as issues like class divide, gentrification, and alienation, it forces us to re-examine our relationship with videogames as a medium for escapist pleasure. I've never been to Louisiana, but probing Kay's mindmap conjures uncomfortable echoes of my own relationship with my family and hometown. This is where Norco offers a refreshing challenge within its chosen genre, in the myriad ways it forces the player to pay attention to the problems of their own world without turning away.
A huge part of understanding the heart of Norco comes from understanding the Garretts, who I feel are the true protagonists of the story. They evolve from pernicious "mall Nazis" to a group of degenerates who tried, in their own misguided way, to actualize a sense of self and community. They are, perhaps, the easiest characters upon which players can imprint themselves thanks to the range of subcultures and petty, painfully human foibles that flourish among them. There's a depth to each Garrett subtype that transcends average point-and-click characterization, elevated by Yuts' unparalleled ability to build empathy and connection between the most disparate social identities.
On a good day, Norco is a bastion of beautifully evocative storytelling that invites any player to take refuge in its world. On a bad day, it cuts deep as a sobering, but loving portrait of a modern dystopia—a community on the edge of great change. But on a personal level, it's a game that understands who we are and what the internet has made us—how this digital constellation of fragmented subcultures has shaped the way we see the world and our place in it. There are few games in the world like Norco, and it belongs unequivocally in the highest tier of narrative experiences in the medium today.