Games

Norco is a dark science fiction game that holds closely to the history of the Lousiana town it’s named after. By Jini Maxwell.

Norco

A scene from the game Norco.
A scene from the game Norco.
Credit: Geography of Robots / Raw Fury

At the beginning of Norco, the protagonist, Kay, finds a statue of the Virgin Mary by her dead mother’s doorstep. If you choose to look more closely, a text prompt offers the opportunity to recite a Hail Mary. The prayer scrolls gently across the screen, set against the dark, luminous pixel art vistas that make the game immediately identifiable, even from stills.

This is a rare moment of vulnerability for our protagonist. Kay is taciturn and action-oriented, her dialogue mostly limited to brief questions that drive the narrative. Upon reaching out a hand to the statue, though, the illusion is shattered – the Holy Virgin’s face crumbles away, revealing a makeshift card reader, presumably assembled by Kay’s mother, Catherine. Rather than a symbol of faith, Catherine’s Mary is a method of concealing her tracks as she researches Shield Oil refinery’s illegal construction practices. After all, who would question a dying woman’s petition to the mother of God?

Norco is a city in Louisiana where the pseudonymous lead developer, Yuts, grew up. Like the Norco of the game, it is rapidly depopulating, and borders a bayou. Its landscape is dominated by Shell’s Norco Manufacturing Complex, and the city’s propensity to flooding is becoming increasingly untenable for its remaining residents. The refinery contributes so much petrochemical pollution that the region is considered a sacrifice zone – an environment that has been damaged too profoundly to be rehabilitated. It is situated in an 137-kilometre stretch of land nicknamed “Cancer Alley”. Renamed after the New Orleans Refining Company, which has owned most of the land since 1916, Norco was previously known as Sellers after a prominent family of slave-owners.

These are the historical textures against which Norco, a science fiction point-and-click game, plays out. The story begins with Kay’s return after five itinerant years following her mother’s death, one of several cancer deaths in the short narrative. Kay hadn’t been in touch. Her brother Blake, still living at home, struggles with substance abuse. Kay’s opening monologue, her only extended piece of unbroken speech, suggests that she feels the weight of his need for her like a millstone around her neck. He never wanted her to leave and now he is missing. The game follows Kay’s efforts to find Blake, a process that requires her to retrace her mother’s final days.

As Kay investigates, she reconnects with the community and city she grew up in, which overflows with the contradictions and injustices inherent to late capitalism. Norco depicts a disenfranchised, alienated population who are losing their homes and lives to the unrelenting forces of climate change and industry. Its citizens find respite through drugs, violence and desperate dedication to religion or labour. The bayou is glutted with felled trees that disrupt waterways that were once navigable and known.

Through Kay’s eyes, the player witnesses a magnitude of human suffering occurring alongside seamless techno-capitalist intervention. A former gas store clerk picks a fight, offhandedly mentioning his opioid dependency; his job has been made redundant by a self-serve kiosk. Catherine’s effort to record a version of her consciousness for her children after her death is shaped by the demands of proprietary technology – she culls memories and accepts ads, her consciousness winnowed down to fit the financial tier she can afford. The game’s elements of science fiction serve not to project a future, but to articulate the strain of the present.

The efforts of another dying Norco resident, Duck, to make a similar record has a shocking result: a memory offshoot grows into an organic, self-aware network that spreads through the town like a cancer. This network, known as Superduck, develops a speculative currency, QuackCoin, which is paid to contractors of QuackJob, an app through which contractors drive or run errands for a fee. Even Catherine’s research is syphoned through QuackJob – by contracting her services to Superduck, she can afford to travel around the city despite her illness.

Despite its grim, hyperlocal subject matter, Norco avoids the clichés of the small-town-with-a-secret brand of commercial fiction. By lingering on the razor’s edge between social commentary and the absurd, Norco depicts the profound trauma of living through societal collapse, without becoming maudlin or trite. In fact, the game’s humour is inextricable from its bleakness. Superduck also functions as a social network that seeds a toxic cult of violent radicalism – the Garretts, a dedicated cult of young white men who adopt the same name. The Garretts cycle between false prophets and religious garb with increasing fervour. One Garrett even mentions dethroning a former leader on the basis that he didn’t approve of their adoption of Knights Templar robes.

There are few jobs in Norco outside the gig economy of QuackJob – even labour on the carcinogenic refinery is being replaced by androids. Every person in the town is grieving for a loved one lost to cancer, suicide or industrial disaster. Within this crucible of rage, grief and helplessness, the Garretts have attached themselves to a fanatical structure whose appeal is not in its aims but its offer of structure. The silliness is the point: their radicalism isn’t powered by ideology but by alienation.

At one point, the player has the opportunity to play a voice memo of one Garrett’s father expressing his love for his son. Immediately the young man leaves the compound and returns home, desperate for the love of a parent still incapable of directly expressing his care. Norco’s criticisms of social media are excoriating – but what feels more potent is the game’s exploration of the voids these networks have rushed to fill.

The remaining Garretts are building an ill-fated rocket in an abandoned mall. They call it The Ark, and they plan to use it to migrate to Mars, led by their cult leader du jour. Kay, who wants to leave, keeps looking for her brother. The people who help her do so for no more significant reason than that is how they have chosen to spend their time that day.

Norco is a multifaceted narrative steeped in the shadows of loss – of loved ones, of familiarity and, inevitably, of the town itself. But as Catherine’s last days attest, it’s not over until it’s over. Just as the game’s humour is inextricable from its darkness, its narrative offers a kind of pessimistic optimism. Norco’s residents are alive; they are making do. Even – perhaps especially – in the game’s depictions of desperation and failure, there is a palpable drive towards life.

Rather than offering catharsis, a moral, or a sign of hope, Norco presents one of the more honest conclusions I have encountered in works engaged with the end times: we are alive now and sometimes we can be together. That’s what we have. 

Norco is available on PC, Mac and Xbox.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 4, 2022 as "Capitalist end times".

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Jini Maxwell is The Saturday Paper’s games reviewer.

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