Norco is a fantastic point and click adventure, delivered like a stylish text adventure game. Modernised and super cool with its pixel art oomph.
It’s by Geography of Robots, an indie team from Norco, Louisiana. It launched in March 2022 and is one of the year’s gaming highlights—a brooding, ultra-cool SOB steeped in industrial wastelands and curious suburban environments.
Enter Sleazy and Surreal Suburbs in Norco
Yes, so Norco is out right now on Steam, macOS and the like. The console ports all launched in November 2022, so you can get your fix there.
The developer based the game on his experiences growing up in Norco, the Louisiana town in New Orleans, a region with a heavy presence from the petroleum industry with Shell. It’s twice experienced catastrophic incidents there as a result.
These frightening experiences, with landscapes often dominated by petrochemical facilities, that shape the flow of the narrative.
But Norco is a game you just need to launch yourself into and find everything out as you go along. If you’ve played a point and click game before, though, that’ll be somewhat handy for you.
In the game, you star as Kay. She returns home to Norco (an alternate reality version of the town). This follows in the aftermath of her mother’s death, plus several major hurricanes in the region, all while she’s been AWOL for personal reasons.
You wake up in the family home.
Then begins the process of piecing together your mother’s final few months, your brother Blake’s whereabouts, and all while catching up with the helpful family robot Million. Here’s a bit of it in action.
In the early stages of playing, you’ll notice Norco’s mind map feature nods to the excellent Disco Elysium (2019) amongst other point and click games.
Thematically, it’s very different though, and its core gameplay is vastly different. Norco is more like an interactive novel.
And it’s always much more accessible than the curious and complex world of Disco Elysium. At least to begin with.
Norco’s narrative arc takes the player through an unusual journey. One increasingly surreal and steeped in a sense of an alien world.
The game’s opening nods towards Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and the excellent synth heavy soundtrack is rather reminiscent of Vangelis’ compositions (more on this further below).
To complement those hits, the glorious retro pixel style of the game really complements the seedy, retro-futuristic nature of the world you’re in.
You begin travelling around Norco with a simple interface, clicking on new areas to visit before being presented a new setting. There you must gather objects, evidence, talk to people, and explore the region of Norco.
There’s a lot of text to be read with the characters (and things) you come across, much like a book in many respects. The dialogue remains to a high standard throughout, often having a poetic/lyrical quality.
But there’s dark humour in there, too.
Plus, an occasional RPG style battle system! It’s basic, but adds an interesting dynamic to go alongside the puzzle solving, exploration, and synth beats.
Complementing the narrative, Norco draws you in with its atmospherics, seedy characters, the need to keep exploring. The urban decay dragging you in as you unearth a bizarre, seemingly alien underbelly to your world.
The city of Midgar from Final Fantasy VII was a big influence for this.
However, American writer, urban theory, and historian Mike Davis (who sadly died in October) was also an influence. Davis’ works, about power and social classes, such as City of Quartz and LA in the Sixties helped with Norco’s narrative.
As Norco is another fine example of how video games can tell a compelling story in an exhilarating way books and films can’t.
You’re part of the experience, in there making decisions and guiding Kay along.
We don’t want to drop spoilers, so all we’ll note is we think Norco is a classic of its genre and one of the best games of 2022. And with a trilogy planned, that’s some very great news indeed.
Norco’s Epic Synth Soundtrack
The soundtrack in Norco is as excellent as the game. It’s by Baton Rouge (a city on the Mississippi River) sludge band Thou.
Apparently, sludge is a type of metal music. Hurray!
The sludge band was joined by the composer Gewgawly I, who’s from New Orleans, Louisiana. The result? A fine piece of work that doesn’t sound anything like sludge music, instead indulging in synth heavy themes.
The soundtrack helps to generate a lot of quietly sinister atmosphere, ramping up Norco’s themes of magical realism and pessimism. Even nihilism.
You wouldn’t class any of the compositions as upbeat, more melancholic with a twinge of regret, remorse, or something else.
Mournful is the word, we suppose, as the various pieces inhabit Norco and bring to life the deadbeat, beatnik oddballs you meet on your adventure.
Norco is a mournful experience. Quite bleak.
But the character’s acceptance of the situation in the game makes it feel alive and real. There’s sorry acceptance of the social lot and a sense of grace to go with the feeling of being down and out.
Interesting looking game, very retro & kind of nostalgic in that sense. Yeah, the synth tracks have very little hint of sludge metal, of which my favourite example is a band called Alabama Thunderpussy (now defunct unfortunately, and originally from Richmond, Virginia).
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I’d never heard of sludge metal before, but there we go. It’s a sludge-free zone this game. But still worth a go! Recommended.