I’ve been keeping my eye on Norco for a long time now. It started with curiosity, a click of some stunning pixel art on my Twitter timeline, before expanding into a fascination. Developer Geography of Robots posted image after image of the project’s striking graphics, and before I even knew the premise—I was hooked. The team have done an amazing job of intriguing many like myself with just a handful of screenshots. Impressive.
Act one of Norco is now available on Steam and it’s brilliant so far. Ever since I played Disco Elysium I’ve been looking for something to stoke the poetic, nihilistic fire my brain craves and I think Norco does that rather well. The Steam page describes the genre as Southern Gothic, a term I’m unfamiliar with. For others like me, I would describe it as cyberpunk for the little guy: trickle-down economics hasn’t done a damn thing, and the poverty of America clashes with its topline technology.
Norco explores the stifling air of a futuristic southern Louisiana, home to fierce industrial complexes and sticky swamps. Between the suburbs, the cities, and the steel you find a curious adventure of a family torn apart by tragedy, and isolated by society. It’s one hell of a world to build in one or two hours, but it’s all there. From deep dark family history to mysterious robot disappearances. From rich asshole movie directors to suspicious street meat. It’s a lot of world in a short amount of time.
Norco’s Act One manages to establish a world where nothing surprises me. An entirely modernised and automated gas station can stand glistening right up against the rusting remains of failing businesses and it makes sense. A disgruntled and greasy ex-employee stands outside in resentful protest of this machine, waiting for an apology from a corporation that will never come. The robot operating the shop even denies to acknowledge his existence with a flat(screen) stare. The halogen blue and white interior of this shop is at odds with the community’s browns and greys, just as it is at odds with the community itself.
Puppet shows that transform into minigames beneath a busy underpass make just as much sense as your defective security robot with a constellation of eyes. Everything is so weird yet wonderful yet terrifying in Norco. I feel invited in by fear of the unknown.
Norco’s lead is Kay, a young woman who left home before the area suffocated her like it does most of its residents. Her history is complicated and her purpose is… well, it’s drifting. Kay doesn’t seem to know what she’s doing, but she’s doing nothing with a passion. And that’s sort of the theme of the first act.
Norco doesn’t really tell you anything about why Kay is back apart from family tragedy, and even then I wonder why it took this long for her to come back at all. She just has some unfinished business, a floundering brother, and a robot to deal with before going back to travelling aimlessly in another state.
For Kay Norco seems like a place to escape, but for me it’s grungy and gritty and gorgeous. The polluted mud of a swamp is some of the most beautiful pixel art I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. This is The Hay Wain of pixelated mud. It’s The Starry Night of cubed sludge. The neon of shop lights against a burning sky and crumbling concrete depicts such a rich and vivid version of a future America.
If you’ve got a spare hour or two, I’d recommend you trudge down to Louisiana too but maybe you can wait until March 24, for a full release of this southern gothic adventure.