NORCO is a game that has been on my radar for awhile. Released earlier in 2022 it is a title around which I saw a significant amount of buzz. Multiple games writers whose work I enjoy and whose critical lenses I trust were saying great things about the game, and it was brought up on more than one occasion on the gaming podcast I listen to most frequently, Waypoint Radio. I knew I wanted to check it out but at the time I had a lot going on in terms of games I was playing, so I decided to wait until such a time where I didn’t have many other games demanding my attention. October has proven to be that time.
Towards the end of September I rolled credits on two different games I had been chipping away at, but with my birthday just over a month away I didn’t want to start spending money on some big new project to undergo. But I didn’t just want to not play video games for a month – it’s my primary tool for relaxing after the stresses of work and parenting, after all. As it turns out, one month of time where I didn’t have a clear path forward in terms of games has been the perfect opportunity to do something I’ve been meaning to do ever since I built a gaming PC: try out Game Pass. Since my copy of Windows came with a promotion I’d just been waiting for an ideal time: a month with nothing coming out where I also didn’t have much going on in terms of travel, holidays, etc that would keep me from being able to really take advantage of the free trial. That time is now, and once I saw NORCO on the service that was a deciding factor in influencing my decision.
So what is NORCO? NORCO is an adventure game in the classic point and click fashion centered around the community of Norco, Louisiana. You play as Kay, a young woman who left Norco and never looked back who now has to return to settle affairs after the death of her mother. What begins as a simple search for Kay’s layabout brother Blake evolves into an investigation into the mystery of their mother’s death. But NORCO is more than just a “murder” mystery; there’s a rich narrative and worldbuilding that make the game deeply compelling, tackling a number of looming real-world issues with a fascinating mix of melancholy and absurdity. It is as moody and strange as its genre tag of “Southern gothic” implies.
Let’s talk a bit about structure and gameplay. NORCO takes place in three acts that are a couple of hours each based on how much exploration you undertake. You primarily play as Kay but have a few sequences where you play as her mother Catherine, experiencing the days leading up to her death in a more direct fashion. As an adventure game, the majority of NORCO is spent reading text and hovering your mouse over environments looking for interactables: people to talk to, places to go, stuff to look at or pick up. Some interactions feature little minigames to play like memorizing the order of a series of symbols and repeating it or performing timed clicks on little circles. Other mechanics are added as the game goes on or only feature at set story moments; the game is mechanically simple overall but has enough there to keep the experience feeling fresh throughout. I’ll also note that the puzzles don’t require the sort of ridiculous logical leaps typically associated with old Sierra-style adventure games, which I deeply appreciate as someone who does not normally enjoy this genre.
In terms of presentation, NORCO is notable and uses what I imagine would have been limited resources to great effect. The pixel art environments are rich and evocative, painting a beautiful but bleak picture of a dystopian rural Louisiana. NORCO’s placement in real time is intentionally vague; while some of the technologies presented are not currently possible for us, they feel grounded in a way that in combination with various aspects of the narrative make NORCO’s future feel imminent. The character designs, too, are strong, particularly for the characters with bolder designs like robots or cult leaders. NORCO excels at the strange, a talent that also comes through clearly in the game’s music. The music does a great job of setting NORCO’s tone, and sometimes I would just sit and listen to it for a few moments after an interaction and let the mood of the narrative wash over me. This was particularly true for me when looking at Kay’s mind map, where information about key characters or concepts in the game are stored for review.
For a narrative game like NORCO the story and characters are often the true stars. You want a presentation that sets the tone and gameplay mechanics that don’t get in the way. That can make it challenging to talk about these games as you don’t want to spoil the surprises that the game has in store. So while I will strive to leave much of NORCO to your imagination, I do want to spend a bit of time discussing what is ultimately the most important part of the game. I’ll try to focus primarily on broad strokes and themes without getting so specific as to reveal things that you as a player may most want to discover for yourself.
NORCO’s setting is a dystopian one, a world where a massive oil company dominates a local community and defines its history. NORCO’s A-plot is not really about labor or corporations but the impact of labor issues can be felt in everything from the world design to the character backstories. The company’s presence in the community has damaged the local bayous and aggravated flooding issues that plague the poorer residents of Norco. It has also created conditions that contribute to health problems for people living there. While advanced technology exists, that technology is turned to foul purposes and familiar ills from our own world – like a gig economy built on unreliable cryptocurrency – are amped up in NORCO. And just like in our world, rural poverty blends with religious fervor to create dangerous extremism. This is all backdrop but it’s a backdrop that deeply informs the story of the game, and its impact can be felt directly on the characters and how they conduct themselves in the world.
The main characters of NORCO are Kay and Catherine. Kay you get to define for yourself to some degree; she left home, sure, but why? And how does she feel about it? These are the kinds of details you get to decide for yourself through dialogue options, and they don’t have a strong impact on the overall thrust of the game. Catherine is much more fleshed-out: a disgraced academic plagued by cancer, her medical debt forces her into dubious research that drives much of the mystery that makes up the game’s plot. Switching between these two at key points served as a compelling way to keep the mystery alive for as long as possible. Personally I found the Catherine segments of the game to be the most compelling, not only because she was a fleshed out character but because she got to interact more directly with the aspects of the game world as well as the gameplay mechanics that I found the most interesting.
NORCO’s supporting cast is an eclectic mix of robots, animals, and people with different motivations and backgrounds. Some characters Kay and Catherine work with willingly – others only because circumstance demands it. The interactions between your main characters are party members reveal a lot of details about the world but can also serve as hints on how to progress through the game. The side characters are also where a lot of NORCO’s absurdity comes in. Some of that absurdity is fun and silly, bringing much needed levity to this otherwise melancholy experience. Some of it is more sad or even downright unsettling; an honest reflection of how broken people become in a broken world. While there were certainly standouts for me in the cast, I found the character writing overall in NORCO to be well-executed and even smaller members of the cast were memorable.
In terms of the quality of the A-plot, I found the first two acts of NORCO to be the most compelling while act three faltered a bit for me. The narrative engaged me the most when the mysteries remained unsolved and the story remained grounded. While there were still plenty of segments of the final act that I found enjoyable, it leaned hard into the parts of the game that I found the least compelling. Certain aspects of the final act didn’t quite feel like they fit the tone of the rest of the game and I’m not quite sure why they were included. I also get the vibe that maybe I didn’t fully “get” what they were trying to convey, or maybe the message just doesn’t resonate with me. But really it was only about the final thirty minutes of a game that took me roughly six hours that didn’t work for me – the rest of NORCO was excellent.
Overall, I found NORCO to be a solid adventure game where the worldbuilding and mood were the stars of the show. The cast showcased an interesting blend of absurd characters trying to escape a world devastated by corporate cruelty. The science fiction elements felt grounded in reality and relevant to our modern struggles, and the only aspect of the game that really didn’t work for me was the ending. If you’re someone who enjoys a compelling narrative game, I encourage you to give NORCO a try!