Welcome to a dystopian take on New Orleans
When I played a preview of NORCO last year, I was tentatively excited to play the rest of the game. It had the makings of a really cool experience, but I’ve also been let down by such promising beginnings before. I’m still reeling after finishing the game, but one thing I can say for certain is that this is easily my favorite game I’ve played so far this year.
Just as I said after playing that preview, NORCO is a really bizarre game. However, it doesn’t fall into the trap of being weird just for the sake of it – it uses its strangeness to unsettle you in ways that tie into the game’s main themes really well. Every plot point and character is nuanced, and the game sympathizes with each idea it introduces, regardless of how ugly or off-putting or pathetic it may seem at the outset.
Developer: Geography of Robots
Publisher: Raw Fury
Released: March 24, 2022
The visuals in NORCO are some of the most stunning and evocative I’ve seen in a game in a long time, and it has some of the most beautiful pixel art I’ve ever seen. It’s moody and atmospheric, feeling like a real space that these characters inhabit, while at other times, the visuals are trippy, otherworldly, and grotesque. It walks a fine line between reality and fantasy, and I felt that it balanced the two perfectly, whether it was in the writing, visuals, or gameplay.
Genre fiction at its finest
As a piece of genre fiction, NORCO does an excellent job of using its genre to say something meaningful about our present time outside of just being an enjoyable point-and-click mystery game set in the Deep South. The game creates this incredible sense of futility, dread, and inevitability. It’s a portrait of people who are just trying to get by to the best of their abilities, and the acceptance of a life that they didn’t envision for themselves.
It’s about life feeling different than you wanted it to, something that really hits home in the midst of a global pandemic, and the developers were able to perfectly capture that struggle of wanting the world and the future to be better, but also feeling the world push back when one tries to bring about any sort of change.
NORCO also has one of the best implementations of phones I’ve seen in a game, not just in gameplay, but in the story as well. It never feels like a mechanic that was implemented for superficial reasons, but instead feels like a natural extension of the characters and how they interact with the world. It somehow manages to critique our over-connectedness, as well as the predatory corporations that run the apps that we use all too often, while also still understanding why we use them, and sometimes really enjoy them, in the first place.
Southern Gothic meets magical realism
And the writing – ugh, it’s so good! It’s poetic and whimsical and dark, and feels evocative of other Southern writers like William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor, but with a nihilistic sci-fi twist. The characters all feel so alive and dynamic, even if we only see them for a second, and when the prose gets more abstract, it really does feel like you’re reading poetry.
As someone who is from the South and absolutely adores Southern Gothic, NORCO truly feels like a love letter to both its genre and its setting. Like I said, you can see clear inspirations from Southern writers of the twentieth century, and the story dives deep into the ecological and geographical characteristics of New Orleans, and the reciprocal relationships between the big corporations, the land, and the people who inhabit it.
I can also feel clear parallels to another Southern Gothic game that leans into magical realism: Kentucky Route Zero. Even with all of its influences, though, NORCO manages to carve out its own space and identity, not just in the games industry, but in the Southern Gothic canon as a whole. I can’t think of anything else that feels quite like it, and it’s a game that I know I’m going to be thinking about for weeks to come.
A few small things
I do have a few gripes, although they’re relatively small compared to the rest of the game. There were places where I felt the gameplay dragged a bit, mostly because of set pieces that felt slightly out of place for being too “game-y.” It broke immersion a bit when characters would stop what they were doing to explain and re-explain gameplay mechanics to me, but it only happened a few times over the course of the game’s run time.
I will say that NORCO is designed in a way that it doesn’t let you feel lost very easily, which can often be the case for point-and-click games. I didn’t have to spend a lot of time backtracking or trying to figure something out, and while a few moments felt a little hand-holdy, I’d rather have that than a game that throws me into the deep end all by myself. First and foremost, NORCO is a story game, so prioritizing progressing the narrative over stumping players was a smart move on the developers’ part.
NORCO takes you on a wild, bizarre journey that makes you feel like you’ve really gone through something when you come out the other side. In a sea of point-and-click narrative adventures, it oozes style, polish, and earnestness in a way that makes me think it will become a staple of the genre in years to come.
Geography of Robots may be a studio that’s still in its early days, but after playing this game, you’d think they’re seasoned pros. When I get excited about video games’ potential in what they can do as a brand new storytelling medium, NORCO is exactly the kind of experience I envision.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the author.]