Norco is a many-headed creature—a narrative hydra of place, personhood, nostalgia, and spirituality. But to start with the basics, it's a real Louisiana town named for the New Orleans Refining Company, a monumental piece of psychogeographical storytelling, and in March 2022, I'm ready to call it my game of the year.
The tiny dev collective Geography of Robots has called Norco's style "petroleum blues," a nod to the area's relationship with the oil corporation that has defined both the town and the environmental decline that colors its existence. The game pointedly avoids the disaster porn and fetishization that tend to dominate media portrayals of the Deep South, and while a big part of Norco revolves around grief and trauma, it's also full of rousing punk momentum channeled from the DIY music scene. The result is nothing short of incredible.
Norco is a bristling pastiche of Louisianan references, pop culture, and satirical moments distilled into a point-and-click pixel art adventure. The townscape and Greater New Orleans area take the form of distant highways, refinery stacks, and familiar snapshots of suburbia; impossibly careful, subtle dithering imbues each scene with warmth and life. Norco isn't just for Louisianans, though residents will get a kick out of seeing real locations like Kenner's Esplanade Mall—closed due to Hurricane Ida and now being repurposed for political events—rebirthed as the Promenade Mall.
Despite its hyperlocality, Norco has a universal reach that touches on widespread issues like the gig economy and automation. For starters, the non-descript bar Saint Somewhere is an instantly recognizable fixture of gentrifying neighborhoods across the US.
On the surface, its story is simple—Kay is returning home after roaming around post-apocalyptic America doing piecemeal jobs, hitching rides, and fighting in fragmented militias. Her mother Catherine has died of cancer, which means reconnecting with her fragile younger brother. The player alternates between Kay and Catherine to uncover something strange and sinister in their hometown, culminating in a fascinating exploration of faith and identity. But while Norco is most obviously about external destruction and decay—the oil corporation's environmental harm is critical to the story but overwhelmingly dominated its media coverage—it's also about so, so much more.
If Norco's aesthetic is "petroleum blues," then its existential milieu can only be described as "bummer vibes."
Creator Yuts, who was born and raised in Norco, began working on the beginnings of the project in 2015 as a series called Bummer—a handful of short films and an experimental sidescroller starring Norco's robot Million, with original music by Norco collaborators Gewgawly I and Andy Gibbs from sludge metal band Thou (opens in new tab). "The game was going to be Bummer 4 where it was just going to be like a short little vignette," says Yuts. "So yeah, bummer vibes is the word."
Today Norco has become a small but mighty sensation in the indie game world, winning the first ever Games Award at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2021. Geography of Robots isn't just Yuts anymore, either—it includes musician Gewgawly I, artist Jesse Jacobi, sound designer fmAura, and coder/designer Aaron Gray; orbiting this core are other collaborators like Yuts' sister, who's helping to produce the artbook.
Jacobi, who comes from a traditional painting background, took to pixel art so fast that Yuts redrew and replaced all of Norco's older art last December to maintain a cohesive aesthetic.
Gray brought some of his gaming favorites to the table, namely Undertale's use of humor and pacing. "The way they use combat more as a narrative device than as a skill-test is a philosophy we've stuck to for various parts of the game," he says. Yuts wrote an exchange between two characters about their favorite game "Fantasy Horse 6" after being inspired by Gray's love of Kingdom Hearts (as well as weird 2.5D platformer Tomba! 2).
"I used to boot up Kingdom Hearts when I was a youngun and just pretend to coexist in those spaces with these fun characters," says Gray. "I feel like Norco has a similar vibe."
Norco's characters are lively and beautifully written, but infused with a pervasive sadness that brings us back to bummer, which sits in my head like a mantra throughout the game. It's not as bleak as "depression," but a very nuanced form of disappointment with a hint of playfulness. The word comes from the old German word "bummler," which means "loafer." In a modern American context it took on more antisocial connotations, and can be used interchangeably as a noun and a verb. It's also a great way to understand the Garretts—a cult of teen malcontents who form the backbone of the story.
The Garretts are all right
Norco comes from the same DNA that you'll find in DIY music scenes and punk collectives—a formative part of Yuts' youth and several others in the collective. "The informal nature of DIY punk as well as… almost a proto-internet of zine exchanges and informal and esoteric knowledge in those spaces was something that carried over into the game," Yuts says, explaining where he first shared his art. Punk subcultures are directly referenced in the game world, like a book called Crisis LARPing that chronicles the early days of disaster tourism before "collapse became the zeitgeist."
There's nothing that delves more into this rich ecology of subcultures than the game's introduction of the Garretts—blue-shirted boys who answer to a sociopathic pseudo-religious leader named Kenner John. Their home base is the abandoned Promenade Mall, where they wander its hallways reading, playing video games, doomscrolling, and bickering among themselves. The Garretts are working on something important—something that John has promised them—while the rest of the town (particularly the patrons at Saint Somewhere) derides them as "mall Nazis."
"There's the whole rift between the Garretts and what they call 'the scum,' which are basically crustpunks and DIY punks, who they don't like," Yuts explains. "The insular, often small-minded nature of those scenes… is worth analyzing and critiquing [and] is incorporated into the game, but it also in certain oblique ways tries to touch on the value of those kinds of scenes as we become more atomized. That there are these new emergent forms of community to be built."
The Garretts mostly come into play in Act 2, which Yuts describes as the most collaboratively-constructed part of Norco. Gray designed a Voice Memo mechanic and the team iterated on that idea to create a clever exploration of quarreling social identities and performativity. It's also got some of the funniest moments in the game. While a few Garretts are goofy caricatures of some of the dev team, there's a little bit of Yuts in all of them. "It's all of these infantile 4chan-esque tendencies that we keep buried in our personalities," he says. "This was a way of exorcizing those things."
No, this isn't Cyberpunk
Norco is full of near-future tech like headdrives and sci-fi-like ephemera but Yuts doesn't consider it cyberpunk.
"I will use the conventions of the genre, to the degree that they're helpful to tell a story about the world that we live in today…[Norco's] narrative elements are an organic outgrowth of the region. It's a regional work, and any kind of speculative technology or anything like that is, is a reflection of that, and an outgrowth of that."
Some of these emergent Garrett-like communities coalesce around faith—a huge social and cultural pillar for folks in the South. And while Kay goes through a very personal spiritual, quasi-religious journey, Yuts deliberately avoids offering the player any crumbs of objective truth. But he did still weave pieces of his Catholic upbringing into his work. "If you try to over-secularize your life and your community, and you lose the rootedness, and the kind of folkways that religion offers," he says, "then when you return to it, you lose a lot of its material application, and it becomes what you see with the Garretts… just this bizarre perversion of what it should be."
For all their impotence, the Garretts are in many ways the true protagonists of the game. Yuts didn't want to make a didactic narrative around these desperate, problematic little bummers. "I wanted them to be more or less identifiable sympathetic characters," he says. "I tried to avoid any kind of binary thinking when it comes to that stuff. The Garretts' place in the larger world is most evident towards the end of the game when a bunch of hipster partygoers—gathered to watch a Garrett-created spectacle of epic proportions—reflect on what the Garretts have managed to accomplish.
"These punks are like, 'we've just been drinking and hanging out doing the same shit,'" says Yuts. "And so in a way it's like, respect for these kids. Maybe we're more confused than they are."
It's a material world
Perhaps the most significant impact of Norco as a game (and a piece of interactive art) is its place in a small but vital group of hyperlocal narrative-driven point-and-click games—yes, Kentucky Route Zero (opens in new tab) included—that focus on the material world: class and social and economic issues that define distinct regions and industries across the US. This started to feel like a trend with Night in the Woods, which came out in 2017, and reached peak hype around 2020 with the final acts of Kentucky Route Zero.
Kentucky Route Zero is doubtless a landmark game, but it's also been an exhausting point of reference for Norco: the default framing being that Norco is the next KR0. It's easy marketing for a game with so much to say, and it feels like games critics and fans haven't yet cultivated better ways to talk about this sub-genre. Yuts played the first part of the first chapter of KR0 and stopped, partially because he didn't want to deal with the anxiety of influence. "I don't think it's an unreasonable comparison to make," he says. "But I do see Norco as very different mechanically, thematically, and everything else."
If there wasn't a distinct movement around hyperlocal material games, back when KR0 ended, there should be one now with Norco. "I think people are exhausted by the alienation and the dematerialization of the internet, and I think there is kind of a new emergent regionalism as well as a new kind of emergent sincerity that I can kind of see in my filter bubble," says Yuts. If collapse already became the zeitgeist years ago, perhaps this emergent sincerity is simply the result of younger generations' increasing desperation and frustration with climate change, widening class divides, and virulent technocapitalism. It's not romantic to be cynical and disaffected when we still have the power to do something about it, at the very least, in our own backyards.
However we come to talk about games like Norco, I don't think they need a quirky catch-all "-punk" label. "It's like advertising, to construct some kind of identity that stands against [something] kind of just makes you seem like you're even more psyop'd than everyone else," says Yuts wryly. "I'm not even interested in trying to construct some kind of outward facing identity that seems subversive or something."
For now, Norco has been a way to make sense of his relationship to his hometown, his home state, and even his old faith. It's been a way to make sense of Louisiana as a region and a cultural identity. And even if you've never been to Louisiana, one thing is certain—Norco is a testament to the transformative power of politics in art, and proof that even in the midst of the world falling apart, games remain potent vectors for love and humor in the most unexpected places.