Norco’s Refreshingly, Depressingly Familiar Dystopia

A pixel art lover’s dream, Norco communicates a strange melancholia with its odd landscapes

Whatever future awaits us, it’s looking less likely that it will have the flying cars and street samurai of Cyberpunk 2077 or Blade Runner. Rosey the Robot may not do any dusting for us, but the sleek android dogs cooking up at MIT will probably one day chase down a protester and automated fast food terminals will be used as an excuse to cut jobs. A real cyberpunk dystopia probably won’t be filled with amazing augmentations, sensational transhumanist VR exploration or floating space colonies often seen in the genre. It will probably be a progression of all we see before us: decay, data collection and a “metaverse” as an excuse to sell cheap digital junk. NORCO, a new game on Steam, is a cyberpunk mystery that cuts closer to home.

Yutsi, a pixel artist and game developer, loves dystopian fiction, but he never had to look far to find it. Growing up in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” he was surrounded by gas lines, runoffs and industrial scars. In a conversation I had with Yutsi last year, he told me his father had rebuilt their house multiple times due to flooding. His mother thought one refinery explosion killed him as an infant, shattering a window near his crib, the shards caught only by the curtain above him.

Yet this didn’t stop Yutsi from finding something fantastical in this environment. He’d make maps and journals of his surroundings for imaginary campaigns. Similar to L.A.’s infamous emissions-created Sunset Strip, there is an odd beauty to the cocktail sky and birthday candles of smoke stacks surrounding the quiet, marshy landscape. It is an odd melancholia Yutsi hopes to communicate in his game.

In NORCO, you return home after your mother’s passing only to discover that your brother has gone off the grid. Investigating old haunts and reconnecting with old friends, family acquaintances and local characters — human and machine alike — reveals raw emotions and strange conspiracies. Your mother, an archivist, helped with requests from people with alignments across the spectrum. How this past sits with your future will be investigated in this haunting new game.