The unnerving tone of Southern Gothic point-n-click adventure Norco fascinates me. Its conflation of a recognisable 21st-century Louisiana, and dystopian science fiction, creates an oppressive darkness that weighs on my mind as I click through the game’s “mind-map” menu, where memories and ideas can be connected via dialogue choices. Closing that down to remember I was standing in a regular kitchen, the microwave in the corner possibly containing a cockroach shell somewhere in its works, was dizzying.
Clearly taking some heavy direction from Disco Elysium, including the formatting of its text in panels on the left or right of the screen, Norco is a stunning piece of magical realism fiction. On its surface, this is a story about a woman in her 20s, Kay, returning to her childhood home in the aftermath of her mother’s dying of cancer. Her brother is wayward, missing, the house is still alive with her mother’s half-finished chores, and, well, there’s a robot in the backyard.
Your first tip that this isn’t quite our world is the years. They’re denoted as letters and numbers, “YX2R” for instance. The second is definitely the incredibly sophisticated, self-aware robot called Million, whose translucent face swims with star-like lights. And yet, despite this, Norco far more often feels like our recognisable reality than some sort of science-fiction dystopia. Instead, all its dystopian ways are far more immediately relatable.
Set along the banks of the Mississippi, this is a grim, rundown place where frequent flooding has left its stain on the land. Developments from big business are creating environmental catastrophe, while a more prevalent sense of melancholy infects the area’s citizens. There is an all-pervading lack of hope here, into which you can lean, or avoid, in how you respond to the game’s narrative choices. Choices that range from the nature of your relationships with family, decided arbitrarily by you near the start, all the way to moment-by-moment actions.
The story grows as you play, from this family matter to one that reminded me (in superb ways) of one of the best pieces of television ever, The Leftovers. Both share that same subtle mendacity, the creeping feeling that far too much is far too wrong, even though at the surface things may appear fine. There’s a peculiar cult, a concerning corporation, and the nagging lack of your brother’s presence, all weaving their way through both Kay’s tale, and those of her mother told in alternating flashback.
While there are inventory puzzles to solve, this is a game primarily focused on its writing, overlaying its wonderful pixel art. (It’s one of those games that when I think about it, I see in lavish watercolour, and then am surprised again when I see the pixel art in the screenshots.) Thankfully, it’s also the writing that shines the brightest, itself embracing that magical realism theme, often poetic, yet stark and pessimistic. As an example, I want to share a couple of chunks, out-of-context. The first is just a dismissible description when looking to the West near an overpass.
“West is the suburbs that Catherine calls home.
West is the concrete expanse that breaks clean and sharp at the Saint Charles Parish line and gives way to the cypress swamp.
Tupelo crowns spire above the overpass, silhouetted by an unnatural glow that leads to Norco.”
Then this is from a puppet show you can choose to watch, in which a crocodile tells the story of the loss of its child, which itself then develops into a peculiar diversion in which you can seek gruesome revenge for the croc.
“Deep in this cypress hollow I hide. I mourn this evening. My last child has died.
They hang hooks from the trees with chicken thighs. They shoot bullets in our heads behind our eyes.
It is a curse that I am the last to survive.
I was once captured by a fisherfool who called me is own. He walked me like a dog along the sinking streets.
He fed me strange plants and deli meats. He even covered me with blankets when I went to sleep.
I left on the night of a monstrous flood. The fool has not rested a single night since.”
I love it. I love how it all leaves me only three-quarters understanding, which is true throughout the game. This is especially true of characters who speak in deranged riddles, reminding me a lot of Stewart Lee’s cruelly forgotten 2002 novel, The Perfect Fool. I love how, despite the obviously underlying themes of environmental disaster, the game never feels preachy or “cautionary”. It just is.
This is a fascinating creation, brilliantly unsettling and uncanny, that plays its cards with enormous subtlety. It’s so interesting to see Southern Gothic depicted so effectively in a video game, and leaves just the right amount of mystery by the end.