Point-and-click games cemented the vast potential of interactive narrative at the turn of the century, employing innovative environmental/dialogue puzzles with evocative pixel art and chiptune music. Nowadays, we lose ourselves in impossibly large sandboxes with equally extensive choice-driven plotlines. It’s fitting, then, that Norco feels like a precious relic from the Sierra-led Golden Age of digital adventures. Geography of Robots’ debut title ponders unchecked capitalism and classism at the heart of America’s oft-neglected Deep South. Moreover, Norco’s retrofuturistic and net.art aesthetic is propped up by some of the best surrealist storytelling I’ve witnessed since Kentucky Route Zero.
Norco reimagines the bayou as a series of interconnected nodes on a map. I bounced around numerous venues, parsing historical manuscripts in rundown shops, buying dog food at the convenience store, fetching hallucinogens from grimy bathroom stalls, and speaking with the citizens. Each vignette pops with psychedelic hues – rivers sparkle beneath the tree line, half-light casts long shadows across grassy knolls, watercolor-clouds form above the empty freeway. Norco’s writing might indicate that the city is distorted and diseased, but it’s gorgeous to behold, nonetheless.
Protagonist Kay returns just as her titular Louisianan community is on the brink of erasure. Kay’s younger brother Blake is nowhere to be found, and her estranged mother, Catherine, recently succumbed to cancer. In the months before her death, Catherine was conducting research on a floating anomaly at a nearby lake, earning the suspicion of evil oil conglomerate Shield. As Kay, I wandered through a weird, modernized Norco, hoping to find Blake and complete Catherine’s lifework. Norco teems with delightful twists and frightening realizations that brought me face-to-face with washed-up detectives and grotesque machines, among many other eccentrics. There’s a lot of dialogue and world-building, but the prose’s dreamlike and philosophical quality makes every block of text a joy to read.
On the rare occasion that I had trouble keeping up with the lines, I accessed Kay’s “MindMap,” a smart subversion of the conventional quest log where important objects, NPCs, and locations are linked. Here, I could reminisce about significant events and relationships for additional details, progress the plot, or recall secondary objectives. Norco primarily touts puzzle-based gameplay, but don’t be fooled; the loop is chock-full of its fair share of nuance. At one point, a multi-part task required me to hover over backdrops with a cellphone camera to reveal invisible solutions, giving revisited areas an added level of depth and wonder. There are even peripheral puzzles that I could’ve missed if I hadn’t meticulously explored environments with my cursor, masterfully paralleling the enigmatic and illusory nature of the story.
My one gripe with Norco is its tacked-on combat system. From time to time, Kay and her ever-growing band of party members – e.g., a stuffed monkey, a fugitive security droid, etc. – cross paths with aggressors. Attacks are minigames that range from replicating on-screen patterns to clicking enemy weak spots in timed intervals. I quickly grew weary of these redundant encounters. In a game packed with unique design choices, fighting paled in comparison, and I’m relieved there are only a handful of these sequences.
I’ve never played a game like Norco, which elegantly celebrates and admonishes its cultural roots while simultaneously chronicling a strange doomsday scenario. Kay and Catherine’s shattered America is not so dissimilar from our own – burgeoning industrial complexes threaten to displace low-income families, automated systems supersede human workers, and the filthy rich work around the clock to deter upward mobility. The game isn’t always gloomy. One cool night, I sat atop City Hall and gazed at the constellations with a stranger. Hours earlier, I flipped through treasured memories on a faulty flatscreen TV. Norco is an unforgettable reminder that there’s an inherent beauty behind the madness.