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The RPS Advent Calendar 2022, December 16th

Swamp people

Day 16 of the RPS Advent Calendar and you can hear the roar of the oil refineries at night as you sleep. You walk the streets of your home town and consider how much and how little has changed. Should you have even come back?

Well, you sort of had to come back to the surreal swamps of Norco

Cover image for YouTube videoNORCO Accolades | Coming Soon to Xbox and PlayStation
Norc presents a fabulous futuristic Southern Gothic dystopia

Alice Bee: It's quite hard to sum up Norco in a pithy, once sentence pitch. Okay, so it's a story-heavy point and click adventure set in an alternate near-future version of Louisiana. You play Kay, recently returned to the small home town you left years before, because you mother has recently died. Only pretty much as soon as you arrive, you find your brother Blake is missing and nobody knows where he's gone. Not any of the locals. Not your semi-illegal live-in robot with a face full of stars. No one.

Things escalate quickly. Almost immediately you discover that you mum was probably involved in some kind of industrial espionage. Your point of view switches between Kay and her mum Catherine, and you discover weird cult-like religions, a shady app, a company that copies people's memories (and you get to select which ones are importat). You take diversions into weird folk tales that sound semi-mythological. It's heightened and weird and increasingly surreal.

A faceless character sits on the back of a truck while telling me about my mother in NORCO

The writing is fantastic, managing to bring you both intimacy as well as vast strangeness. I've never been to Norco, much less Louisiana, but Kay's familiarity with the place in the game became my familiarity, and the ways Norco had changed since she left became jarring to me, too. At the same time, the family drama is woven into a tapestry of huge issues: religion, indentity, self, and a corporation ravaging a community.

All this is underscored by the art, the kind of expressive, dense pixel art that makes you go "woah". Much of Norco is incredibly beautiful, but it can flip on a dime and become ugly or disturbing (the close ups in The Excavation Of Hob's Barrow reminded me of it a bit). It's one of those things that is incredibly specific but makes you think of other cool art you like. Plus, in colliding Southern Gothic and cyberpunk, Norco is merging two of the hottest artistic trends of the year, in a way that is more effective and interesting than most games (or shows, or movies, or books etc.) of either genre I've seen this year.

Katharine: Cor, Norco sure does go places, huh? Its initial mysteries of your missing brother and what really happened to your mum were already pretty strong hooks as point and click games go, but man alive, I was not expecting to be transported into the avian hivemind of maybe a semi-conscious AI, nor pulled into a strange cult that's seemingly formed around it. Its stunning vistas still linger in my memory long after finishing the game, and its wistful dialogue easily stands out as some of this year's best games writing. A very special thing indeed.

Alice0: I've not yet finished Norco but I have enjoyed it so far. I should remedy that over the break. It isn't even that long. Shame on me.

Rachel: A much as I love Norco’s writing and slow-burn mystery, it’s the game’s setting that has really stuck with me long after I finished it. This semi-fictionised Norco is nestled in the swamps of southern Louisiana, a place where the air is thick with industrial smoke and the heat sticks to you like a bug on fly paper. It’s a dead-end town on the brink of bankruptcy, sucked dry from the giant oil refinery looming in the locals' back yards. Norco’s story set pieces are not your usual sci-fi set fodder, either. Its weirdos can be found in sweeping swamp lands, faded strip malls, empty parking lots, and dodgy dive bars. Its sinking suburbs are on the brink of being swallowed by both economic and natural disasters and its residents are powerless to stop either from happening. It’s a devastating and an unforgettable backdrop for one the of years best mystery games.

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