Norco Shows Governments and Corporations Are Scarier than Any Slasher or Monster

It is said that horror thrives in times of real-life despair, and looking at some of the amazing things we’ve got in the genre in recent years, it’s easy to see the world is pretty shit. At least the compensation horror fans get is some of the strongest examples of terror we’ve seen in years. It doesn’t even have to come from something more traditionally labeled as horror because the dread and despair bleed into all kinds. With that in mind, the game that haunted me more than any other last year was Norco.

Geography of Robots offbeat point n’ click adventure garnered rave reviews when it was released on PC, but I only got around to playing it when the console release happened in November of 2022. The low-key hype for it before then was well deserved though because I knew I was onto something special within 15 minutes of starting that game.

Norco is set in a retrofuturistic version of Louisiana where the landscape has been irreversibly damaged by corporate meddling. The town of Norco is in dire straits because the government has stripped it clean of assets and left nothing for those that reside there to sustain themselves on.

Well, that’s not entirely true. The remaining low-income populace can find all manner of the seediest, most fucked up work available, and it’s that kind of work that sparks Norco’s story into life as we delve into the life of a mother and her children who are greatly impacted by the colossal corruption and decay of their home.

What is readily apparent from the off is just how surreal this Southern dystopia is. The visual style is akin to a classic LucasArts point-and-click game that’s been soaked in LSD. It’s quietly, frighteningly psychedelic, egged on by a cosmic nightmare of a score from Gewgawly I, It’s a good trip in terms of being a bloody fantastic-looking video game, but the town of Norco is very much represented as a bad trip. The fusion of retrofuturistic tech and surreal mindfuck manifestations in a clearly broken shell of a once-thriving community is reminiscent of something out of the cold, creepy, and Canadian minds of Cronenberg’s, David, and Brandon. There’s beauty in the derelict and deprived.

It infects everything, including the people, who are so far removed from glamour and glitz that they might as well be caked in shit and bile. Not so much in how they look, but in how every interaction with them shows the wretched fall from any kind of grace Norco has had. Even the people considered ‘kind’ in this place have an ugliness stained upon them by the negative spiral life in this town has become.

We enter Norco alongside one of its protagonists, a young woman named Kay, who is returning to her hometown as it wobbles on the edge of oblivion. She’s not here for any good reason, naturally, as there are no good things in the town of Norco anymore. She has reluctantly returned because her brother is missing and her mother Catherine has lost her battle with cancer. Kay has an unhappy reunion with her former home, getting secondhand catchup of what’s been going on in her brother and mother’s lives from the sad ghouls that still hang around Norco, and the damaged service robot that lived in Kay’s home. Kay discovers her mother’s death was anything but straightforward, and a whole mystery about a mysterious anomaly on the lake and the sinister intervention of the corporation currently running roughshod over Norco. What follows is a bleak, bizarre voyage of grim discovery as we unearth the ghosts of this town and find out firsthand what happened to Catherine in her final days.

For all the strange, surreal, and generally despair-inducing oddities in Norco, the root cause of it isn’t some act of God or apocalypse. Everything is the result of corporate greed. This is no smash-and-grab destruction of Norco, it is a vampiric draining of a community, a slow creeping death that gets harder and harder to escape the more apparent it becomes.

Among the suffocating death is what’s left for the remainder of the population. We learn Catherine, cancer-stricken and with little time left in this world, basically enduring a biting satire of the gig economy to make her last days worthwhile. Even if she does have her research into an anomaly to be motivated by, the only way to further it is to accept discreet and downright shady jobs from an app. It leads her to a discovery that is disturbingly surreal, but even that is coated in the filth and grime of the world it inhabits.

A few articles ago I lamented the decline of a shopping district I used to frequent all the time when I was younger, and Norco was a real eye-opener in seeing how the pursuit of personal wealth from those in power slowly drains a community of identity in the name of ‘progress’. In that instance, the place I knew was far from perfect to begin with, but the superficial glossing over of its less-than-ideal identity to be replaced with a hollow facade of respectability that crumbles and damages were far worse than if an actual effort was made to make things better through care and proper investment. That palace isn’t quite at Norco’s stage just yet, but I see the path toward it clearer than ever. Not just there, but in every place. Norco is a fantastic game, one of the greatest things I’ve played in many a year, but it still makes me uncomfortable and frightened in a way I haven’t felt since a Xenomorph chased me around Sevastapol in Alien Isolation.

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