I had never heard of the eponymous town of Norco until playing the debut point-and-click adventure game from indie developer Geography of Robot. Now I feel like I know it intimately, owing much to the game's evocative and honest portrayal of a community intertwined with the petrochemical industry. Norco confronts societal issues other games only want to distract us from, weaving them into an utterly compelling tale that had me eager to reach the next scene, line of dialogue, or delightful piece of prose.
The real-life Norco is a small town in Louisiana that sits on the banks of the Mississippi River. Its unusual name is derived from the New Orleans Refining Company (NORCO,) which was established in the area after the land was purchased by Shell Oil in 1911. For over a century, the town has lived in the shadow of a major Shell petroleum refinery that dominates the skyline, coating the air in plumes of smoke that bellow from the plant's monolithic flare stacks.
It provides a fascinating backdrop for a story that centers around Kay, a young woman returning to her childhood home after the passing of her mother--a curious former professor--due to cancer. Kay has been gone for five years, preferring to drift around the United States rather than stay in Norco, despite the outside world being ravaged by localized wars. Kay arrives with some baggage, then, and it doesn't take long before she's saddled with her late mother's mysterious affairs, which revolve around her sought-after research and strange activity in the days leading up to her death. There's also the matter of Kay's missing brother, who is nowhere to be found, spurring her into action as she embarks on a thrilling adventure across this small industrial slice of Louisiana.
Norco's setting and themes mesh the grotesque and magical realism of the Southern Gothic genre with science-fiction nihilism. It's set during some undetermined point in the near future, denoted by the sentient security android in the backyard and a clinical service that lets people upload their consciousnesses to a smartphone app. Despite this, Norco's authentic mundanity makes it feel more like our current reality than any sci-fi dystopia. There's the rotting corpse of a cockroach buried somewhere in the inner workings of the microwave in Kay's mother's kitchen; the beat-up motorcycle out back in need of a fuse to get working again; motels still equipped with landline phones; a hot dog vendor desperate for someone to buy his decade-old sausages; and a puppet theatre tucked beneath a busy overpass.
The dystopian elements are, instead, grounded in reality. Norco is a town ravaged by frequent flooding and hurricanes. Many of its denizens have lost loved ones because of incidents caused by the oil refinery, either due to exploding pipelines or the environmental decay that a major industrial operation will inevitably induce. The game never comes across as preachy or condescending when exploring these issues. Climate change is a matter of fact and its effects are palpable. Nothing more needs to be said. And the same is true of the other underlying themes Norco deftly tackles, whether it's religion, class divide, gentrification, materialism, capitalism, and so on.
All of this works because the writing throughout is so wonderful. It's dark and whimsical, and frequently poetic. The oddball cast of characters that accompany Kay on her adventure are all nuanced and empathetically human, whether you're with them for a matter of seconds or for a couple of hours. Private investigator Brett LeBlanc is a particular highlight; his delusions of grandeur undercut by how much time he spends surveying the neighborhood while sitting on the toilet. The Garretts, meanwhile, are a cult-like gang of disillusioned youths who evolve from their early "Mall Nazis" moniker to become a band of miscreants simply seeking a sense of community in their own roundabout way. For all of Norco's melancholy and sense of hopelessness, it's a genuinely funny game. There's a warmth and compassion that emanates from its characters and prevents the story's inherent despair from becoming too overbearing. Even in its darkest moments there's enough levity to pull you out of the mire.
Mechanically, Norco is quite simple, as everything exists to serve the narrative. It might be a point-and-click adventure game, but it eschews many of the genre's historic conventions, while still remaining innately familiar. You'll spend much of the game navigating each panel of the game's gorgeous pixel art, clicking around each scene to interact with objects in the environment, speak to people, and piece together memories and new ideas using dialogue choices in Kay's mindmap. This functions as a journal of sorts, giving you an easy way to revisit information and add new revelations as you uncover them.
There are occasional puzzles where you might have to find an item and give it to someone or traverse the innards of a building in the pitch-black darkness by selecting different text prompts. None of these conundrums are going to make you rack your brain, and Norco likes to hold your hand when the solution isn't immediately obvious. It's safe to say you likely won't ever feel lost, which is a rarity for a point-and-click adventure game. There's very little backtracking, and you won't have to decipher how two seemingly disparate inventory items might combine. Solving these rudimentary puzzles isn't particularly engaging, but Norco is driven by its narrative and many of the puzzles serve to enhance it. Choosing to focus on progressing the story over halting the player's momentum with ambiguous puzzle design is a smart move.
Brief combat encounters rear their head a few times, tasking you with completing a timing or memory-based mini-game to deal damage to enemies. These sequences feel slightly out of place due to their overly game-y nature, but they're few and far between enough to avoid overstaying their welcome.
Norco's beautiful, evocative, and contemplative storytelling takes you on a fascinating journey that will occupy your thoughts for weeks and months after the credits roll. It earns its place alongside games like Kentucky Route Zero and Disco Elysium, effectively depicting the Southern Gothic genre with a mystifying adventure that's built on sublime writing and a poetic exploration of societal issues, environmental catastrophe, and what it means to be human. It's not always captivating from a gameplay perspective, but this is a negligible flaw in the grand scheme of things. Games like Norco don't appear very often. It's one to treasure.