Norco starts out with a simple premise, returning home and trying to track down your brother after your mother has passed away. Set in a dystopian, near-future version of Norco, Louisiana – a small town dominated by the local petrochemical plant – you sift through your old home, talk to some of the locals and visit the gas station for a new fuse.
And that’s the very short list of “normal” things you’ll see and do in Norco. The pixelated point and click hides a remarkable story that drags you along through its twists and turns, the cocktail of recognizable small-town life and wild, science fiction elements balancing each other out to stop things ever tipping over into the ridiculous. Sure, you’ll start out surprised by but accepting of your family’s security cyborg, by the time you encounter a shady, drug dealing Santa Claus impersonator (the real St Nick would never) you’re completely unphased. Even by the unsettling monkey toy you take everywhere.
The game’s story quickly splits into two threads, the hero Kay’s journey looking for her brother and catching up on what she’s missed in local events, and a flashback to her mother’s activities as she was dying of cancer. Mom Catherine was busy, investigating strange lights, the huge company – Shield – that dominates the area, and taking weird jobs through a gig economy app called QuackJob. – I don’t want to spoil anything because so much of the joy is not knowing which simple action will lead to something complex and strange, but I can share some of my favorite moments out of context. There’s the strange cult of young men who live in an old mall, the grizzled private eye who drains your wallet with his bar bill while you grill him for information, the very unusual pitbull who plays a key part in the story.
Catherine and Kay react to all the strange things happening around them with a weariness that feels very realistic (and familiar, after living through recent history), and the fact that neither of them are anything beyond flawed people trying to figure something out is refreshing. No superpowers, no skills, no dazzling insights. Just people in shitty circumstances doing their best. By the end expect to be fully invested, and staying up late just to find some catharsis.
The point and click mechanics are straightforward – there’s none of that “combine beard clippings with underwear” type puzzling, just basic exploration, long conversations, and sparking new memories by examining new information in your mental map. There is some combat too, but it’s just tests of pattern recognition and reaction speed that adds a tiny dusting of tension to a few encounters. Now and again there’s an unexpected curveball, a simple logic puzzle involving drones, navigating a boat through a ghost bayou, clever number puzzles, but the gameplay is never – thankfully – as complex as the rabbit hole of a narrative.
I’m not usually one for pixel art – have you seen what a PS5 can do these days lads? – but the shadowy palette and old school aesthetic of Norco fit the tone of the game to perfection. There’s still the detail where you need it, the carcass of an old robot hanging from a crane, the craggy faces at the local dive bar, and the words compliment the rough edges, and you realize that making this game with slick, photo realistic graphics would have been utterly wrong.
There are so many layers in Norco that you could write a college essay on it. Whether you’re looking for a take on capitalism, or organized religion, or want to pontificate on how the game fits into the Southern Gothic literary and cinematic traditions. There’s no missing that the game has plenty to say on all of the above and more, but like the best stories, it leaves you to interpret what it’s saying about them for yourself. For me it was a game about trying to go back to your hometown, the complicated relationship between mothers and daughters, and staring contests with a stuffed toy monkey, and one I won’t forget for a while.
Norco is out now on PC.