As gamers eagerly wait for big title releases this year, the world of indie games has had some very exciting drops as well, including the edgy adventure game, Norco. For any True Detective or Skeleton Key fan out there, this game is sure to pique your curiosity. Situated in small-town Louisiana calls on charming southern customs as well as the mysterious, dark secrets the geography holds.
Southern Gothic Meets Point and Click
Norco is based on the real Louisiana town, Norco, located 25 miles outside of New Orleans. It is infamous for its heavy pollution due to the high number of oil refineries in the area and the consequences it has on residents.
The collective, Geography of Robots, analyzes the havoc pollution has caused on the region with various narrative mechanics working in tandem, including family mysteries, magical realism, and supernatural elements that suggest a network of cyberpunk folklore.
Norco has received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Many have compared it to the Disco Elysium for its nostalgic 80’s aesthetics and moody, immersive writing style. In fact, in 2021, Norco earned the first-ever Tribeca Games Award at the Tribeca Film Festival.
The absolute knockout of Norco is its unflinching, vulnerable writing style. Taking on the mechanics of a visual novel common with point-and-click adventure-style games, the writers are careful not to bombard players with too much text. The story is also broken up into several vignettes to keep the gameplay dynamic as readers learn more about the town’s secrets. The vignettes contain scenic backgrounds, portrait-style closeups of characters speaking, and text windows so players never experience a dull moment during gameplay.
Another interesting, somewhat risky quality of Norco is the amount of storytelling they allow players to control. Players have choices as seemingly meaningless as choosing where they were at a certain place and time as they tell characters a story about their lives. Little do they know, these choices heavily influence the outcome, resulting in multiple endings.
Norco uses these liquid, loose narrative mechanics that allow players to interact with the story more than a traditional one to understand the land itself as a character. Blending southern goth, magical realism, sci-fi, and surrealism, the world of Norco starts to reveal itself and the mystical elements that lie just below its surface.
While Norco was released just last year, its artistic style doesn’t show that. Preferring the retro pixel art style over modern graphics or technological innovations like virtual reality, Norco situates itself in a sort of timeless past where advanced technology hasn’t touched them yet.
Of course, virtual reality isn’t as new as it seems. One of the first VR experiments took place in the late ‘60s and was meant to create a new cinematic experience rather than gaming. While many game developers have chosen to modernize graphics as augmented and virtual reality become mainstream, Norco calls on the legacy of Roberta Williams, the Sierra pioneer who crafted several prolific point-and-click adventure games in the same style, including Monkey Island and The King’s Bequest.
As video games in the ‘90s and 2000s became more cinematic and immersive with VR, Williams used a unique, comic book style. She employed a series of vignettes across the screen to break up static moments, which created a beautiful and unmistakable signature in point-and-click video game aesthetics. This is an interesting trend that seems to be back on the rise, as titles like Moonscars have also adopted this 2D pixelated artistic style.
Yuts, the Norco-raised writer who crafted the game’s narrative, describes the place that point-and-click games and pixel art have in his heart from playing them as a child. Explaining how they accompanied him through what he describes as both personal traumas and the region’s traumas, using nostalgic graphics a la Roberta Williams made more sense than modern, VR-based graphics. In that sense, using pixel art espoused a certain hauntological element to the game.
Hauntology was originally introduced by French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, and later elaborated on by cultural theorist Mark Fisher. The concept describes how certain elements from the cultural past persist like ghosts. In the case of Norco, the oil industry and politicians’ indifference toward the residents’ health and wellbeing has created generations of quite literal ghosts and trauma that have yet to be addressed.
Adding an extra layer to the game’s paranormal ghostly presence, Geography of Robots incorporated hauntology as a music style. They leaned on ambient, electronic, and industrial musical elements to create Norco’s unmistakable environment.
A subtler yet irreplaceable feature of the game, Norco’s hypnotizing, dark ambient soundtrack immerses players in the story. Many gamers have noted that they hardly noticed the music at first, but as tension grew at certain parts of the gameplay and their anxiety increased, they finally realized the music had affected their emotional response to the game.
Geography of Robots collaborated with local Louisiana musicians, including Baton Rouge’s sludge metal band, Thou, and the post-industrial composer Gewgaly I, who also hails from the greater New Orleans area. FmAura contributed to the rich, complex soundscape with their sound mixing and field recordings.