2022 is nearly at an end, so let’s celebrate the games that have connected with us the most over the past year. Next up: NORCO.
The best story in a game in 2022 is about a crumbling town in futuristic Louisiana. The oil company is giving its citizens cancer, and climate change regularly ravages the entire landscape with apocalyptic hurricanes. You play as Kay, a drifter who’s been fighting in a vaguely-defined second American Civil War, but has returned home after your mother has passed away. Your brother is missing, and a mysterious man seems to be following you wherever you go. Welcome to NORCO.
From its intro dripping in beautiful poetic language, NORCO seizes all of your senses and refuses to let go. The humidity of the American south bleeds through the pixelated art; you can practically smell the marshy air through the screen. As you embark on your investigation, pointing and clicking your way across town (and even across time, playing as Kay’s deceased mother during a few sections), you’ll uncover a conspiracy involving space travel, a cult of misogynists who all go by Garrett, and potentially the descendants of Christ. The narrative ambition on display is unlike anything else that came out this year.
Don’t let all of this doom and gloom scare you away, though. NORCO has a mischievous sense of humor too, with some of the absolutely funniest moments in a game this year. A detective harbors a secret clown paint obsession, a stoic stranger only listens to Christmas music, and one man’s experience with an expired hot dog spirals into a minutes-long tirade of digestive dysfunction.
The world of NORCO is as alive, complex, and vast as the real Louisiana area of the same name. People carry on with their lives as best as they can in their circumstances, even as a malevolent system poisons their blood and grinds up their bones. There may not be a glorious revolution or triumphant final battle, but there is humanity in all its dignity, absurdity, and quiet repose.
While at its heart NORCO is a classic point-and-click adventure game, it gestures at RPG elements here and there: you’ll occasionally engage in turn-based battles, and collect a party that travels with you. These party members, like the rest of the cast of NORCO, are all incredibly deep and three-dimensional characters, like Million, your mom’s live-in robot assistant who harbors as much survivor’s guilt as a robot can manage, and the eerie sock monkey you kept as a child.
Every corner of NORCO is filled with these kinds of specific, well-realized people and perspectives, and the world itself has the same level of care. An angry man picks a fight outside the corner store where he used to work. Enter the store, and you’ll find that he’s been replaced by no one – the store is fully automated now. A highway underpass houses a secret puppet show. A walk through your childhood home transforms into a series of snapshots, recounting the three floods you’ve lived through, and even glimpsing the fourth and final flood to come.
These poetic touches elevate NORCO beyond its southern gothic and light sci-fi story beats. This is a living, functioning world, and you are just one person trying to find some truth within it. Everyone you click on has their own thoughts, feelings, and hopes, and no opportunity for added meaning is wasted.
These lofty literary ambitions wouldn’t get us very far if NORCO’s visuals were bland, but luckily the pixel art on display is absolutely breathtaking. Every new setting is overflowing with energy and detail, creating a sense of beauty and longing in everything from an ominous swamp to an empty hallway.
For all of its strengths as an adventure game, and all of its narrative brilliance in its nuanced characters and unpredictable story, NORCO’s greatest strength is in its ability to make everything happening feel equally true. The pain of losing a family member sits next to the inhumanity of the gig economy, the humor of haggling with a disheveled Santa Claus, and the alien presence of hyper-sophisticated artificial intelligence. Every emotion in NORCO is real, and true, and beautiful..
As a person from the American South, I’m used to my region being depicted as a punchline (and to be honest, a lot of the time, we deserve being ridiculed for the backwards decisions of our elected leaders and the heinous loser ideologies we won’t let die). Still, when I think of NORCO, I think of the people back home who actually want a better world, who know the degree to which things need to change, and still go on living every day. NORCO is beautiful and messy and scary and awe-inspiring. NORCO feels like home.
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