video games

The ‘Petroleum Blues’ of Norco

Photo: Raw Fury

Norco, the winner of the inaugural video-game award at the Tribeca Film Festival, establishes its setting — a blighted, near-future Louisiana town situated in the shadow of an oil refinery — with exacting efficiency. Playing as the 23-year-old Kay, the game opens as you slip in and out of consciousness, unable to sleep because of the noise thrumming from the petrochemical facility. Kay needs to find her brother, who has been missing for the past few days, so you begin directing her through a variety of nearby locations — a dive bar, a gas station, an abandoned mall — exploring a place whose mood is described by its developers as “petroleum blues.”

Video games have a long history of conjuring places so convincing they feel real: Midgar from Final Fantasy VII, Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto III, the down-and-out district of Revachol in indie RPG Disco Elysium. We can add the queasy township in Norco — situated on the Mississippi River, bludgeoned by extreme weather — to this list, a space summoned not through photorealistic graphics but disarmingly beautiful pixel art, as if a Luminist painter of the 19th century had been given a computer instead of a canvas. The game is built around the conventions of point-and-click adventure games and visual novels, presenting you with 2-D scenes filled with objects to look at and people to talk to. As such, you’re pulled along by the foul-mouthed, often melancholic exchanges among its cast of oddball characters and each newly inventive item description (a book on “crisis LARPing” still lingers in my mind).

In this way, the game feels decidedly old school. If you’re used to the free-form exploration of open-world titles, you might think these 2-D scenes would be limiting rather than immersive. On the contrary, Norco uses its retro presentation to play with scale, detail, truth, and perspective. There is an overworld that shows the entire settlement glinting at night. Click on a particular location and you’ll zoom down into it, from which you navigate a series of scenes, each containing characters and objects of interest. You’ll spend a decent chunk of time simply zooming in and out, à la Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up, a process that gradually reveals a picture of both panoramic and molecular detail (in Norco, cancer tears families apart with tragically abnormal frequency). Kay isn’t an investigator, per se, but this is the role she has to play in order to find her brother, one acid-dipped conspiracy at a time.

You’ll come across an ominous cult made up of disaffected teens whose bizarre beliefs and cryptic initiation — an alternate-reality game — has more than a whiff of QAnon’s cosmic far right about it. You’ll meet the fucked-up C-suite executives of Shield Oil Refinery, who throw such extravagant parties it would make Jay Gatsby wince. But for all its surreal imagery, Norco feels rooted. It’s the first game by a small team called Geography of Robots, whose lead developer grew up in the real-life Norco on the edge of New Orleans. In an interview with The New Yorker, he recalled an explosion at the actual refinery that killed seven workers and blew the windows off every house in the neighborhood. Like the most effective fiction, Norco isn’t entirely a work of imagination but an uncanny reflection of the real world — oil-smeared, distorted just a little.

Norco reminds me of a handful of other works. In mood, it recalls the twinkling quietness of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and the pulp violence of Hideo Kojima’s classic 1988 adventure game Snatcher (as in those works, androids feature heavily in Norco). In outlook, it seems to share an affinity with the critically acclaimed 2013 indie adventure Kentucky Route Zero, another game interested in, for lack of a better word, a “forgotten” corner of America’s South. At one point, a character called Roland says ruefully, “We’re trapped in this limbo. A long twilight that bleeds out to the edges of time where even the most fantastic things become banal.”

Like Kentucky Route Zero and a slew of narrative-first titles released in the 2010s, the word game feels like a misnomer here. There’s little challenge to speak of beyond paying attention to the story and following its narrative threads. Occasionally, the point-and-click adventure format is interrupted by small flourishes of more involved interactivity — combat mini-games that rely on clicking at the right time, for instance. However, the most explicit moments of “gaming” arrive during its occasional puzzles. At one point, having infiltrated the cult, you need to make a guard leave their post. You do so by gathering voice recordings of cult members divulging the many ways they’ve strayed from the doctrine — drink, drugs, you name it — and presenting the guard with this information in order to trigger a crisis of faith. It’s delightfully mean-spirited; playing the snitch has never been so much fun.

Norco’s biggest shortcoming is its characterization of Kay. On the side of the screen, the game shows you the roster of characters that make up your party at any one time. Kay is the only constant member, but where other characters’ faces resemble pixel-art Rembrandt portraits, generous in their detail, her face is only depicted as a kind of comic-book scrawl, perhaps in an effort to allow us, the player, to project our own identity onto her. This could have been effective if it didn’t reflect a character who, at times, lacks depth. As a grieving daughter searching for her missing brother, you’d be forgiven for thinking the emotional stakes would be a little higher than the game actually conveys.

Norco is named after its setting for a reason. The place it depicts is, in many ways, the main character — rich, multifaceted, filled with all the contradictions, hang-ups, vices, and virtues of a living, breathing location. It can variously be described as a love letter, a portrait, and a study of the place it’s based on. In fact, Norco is all these things including, more definitively, a video game haunted by the halogen blue of the oil industry. This assured, compelling debut asks you to look and listen closely, rewarding curiosity while avoiding easy answers. As one character puts it, you’re just “following the mayhem.”

The ‘Petroleum Blues’ of Norco