NORCO is a hauntingly intelligent, artistic marvel that is set in the future yet also somehow nostalgic. Pixely point-and-click adventure games that house text boxes, character portraits, inventory bags, and a simple world to explore are flooding the PC gaming world in 2022. While NORCO mostly follows this formula, it departs in creative, irreverent ways that modernize this subgenre of adventure titles while telling a tale that leaves one contemplative and bewildered.
Kay is our protagonist, a young adult who’s been away from home – Norco, a small town just outside New Orleans – for about five years. Her mother suffers from cancer and lives with Kay’s younger brother, who’s in a less capable psychological state than Kay. After Kay’s mother reaches out to her, Kay returns home to find that her mother has already passed and her brother is missing. In search of her brother, she meets old, familiar faces in a town that has changed very little in her absence, except for the growing Shield corporation and its refineries.
Like some small towns in the U.S., Shield is the predominant employer for Norco’s residents. So while many might take issue with Shield’s aggressive, dehumanizing practices that the game touches on, people are also dependent on Shield’s existence. This paradoxical relationship is just one theme the game explores.
Most of NORCO doesn’t feel biographical, though: players explore the minds of Kay and other protagonists by reading art house-esque descriptions, engage in hilarious and sometimes offputting conversations with residents, and click around to make observations through Kay’s lens. No matter how involved they are in the overarching narrative, every character is a joy to talk to, even when they’re shamelessly cruel toward Kay and others. This is for one reason and one reason alone: sheer quality of writing.
Every string of dialogue feels labored over and intentional. NORCO’s characters make the experience borderline addictive, whether through descriptions of their backstories, a character’s comment about how someone looks, or a well-timed burp. In many adventure titles, lulls can fill spaces between more engaging segments, but NORCO is enticing almost the whole way through. In my 10-hour playthrough, I encountered only a couple story beats that didn’t grip me, but the rest were outstanding.
Players may get lost during the more abstract sequences in which a character floats into a dream-like state or engages in another form of introspection. Here, the writing can feel detached from anything concrete, and with as tight as the writing is, this makes finding an anchor to coherence a challenge. However, these instances aren’t common, and if players can slow down, focus, and think about what’s going on, the rewards are like mind candy. Unfortunately, the abstract sequences slow down the pace, disrupt the flow, and put something of a burden on the player — though these aren’t necessarily bad things if the story’s messaging is thought provoking and the audience is into contemplative gameplay.
Visually, NORCO is a treasure to behold. While its graphics aren’t “modern” in a AAA sense, the pixel work and detail breathe life into this world. As decrepit and run down as southern Louisiana is in this game, it’s strangely hypnotic and familiar. Anyone who’s been to an old mall from their childhood or a closed down store they once frequented knows what time does to places we once held dear. In this way, while NORCO is technically set in the near future — with a rare robot or two — it also feels present and relevant to the world today.
The tunes drive home the vibes, too. From woodwinds blowing melancholic over an empty home to simple beats dropping outside of a club, NORCO’s soundtrack is five stars. In this day and age, voice acting is almost an expectation, but I didn’t mind its omission here — the text-based approach allowed me to better focus on the quality of the writing and music in the background. I’d describe most of the music as atmospheric, somber, and longing, like an ode to the lower middle class decline in suburban America that society ignores.
Gameplay takes a heavy backseat in NORCO; most player interaction with the world boils down to clicking on where to go next. Players have little agency in how the story unfolds in this largely linear experience. They have to meet certain conditions to progress the story, but the game typically makes it clear how to check those boxes and includes few other gates to progression. Tons of easter eggs lie in wait if players think to hover an item over a particular character or remember to visit an old face at the right time in the story, but these don’t alter how the narrative progresses. Though the occasional puzzle or odd reference to old-timey game design exists, almost like jokes, these departures feel like brief coffee breaks from the main event.
NORCO somehow strikes an incredibly challenging balance in storytelling: it tells enough of a narrative to create a coherent, believable story, but it also sows a lasting tale by respecting the player’s intelligence and leaving much to their imagination. Its story can absolutely be a conversation piece among enthusiasts. I already want to reflect on what I’ve done in NORCO and realize themes or subtleties I missed while playing; this story will stick with you. If you’re a thoughtful gamer who doesn’t mind mysticism and a tale that leans toward depressing, NORCO is an absolute, unequivocal must-play. We need more capable storytellers like this in games.