How Norco’s creators used sci-fi to paint an honest depiction of Louisiana
Norco, from developer Geography of Robots, is born out of an experimental, multimedia project that started around 2015 — a series of oral history interviews, archival deep-dives, and video projects, all related to Louisiana’s geography following Hurricane Katrina. Among the videos and recordings was a little side-scrolling game about a robot breaking into an oil refinery in Norco, Louisiana.
“It slowly grew into a point-and-click text adventure,” Geography of Robots developer Yuts told Polygon. “And that’s what we have today.” Yuts uses the pseudonym — “a derivation of [his] grandpa’s nickname” — to keep space between his life and the game’s world, which has some “slightly autobiographical details.” The rest of Geography of Robots, the collective of developers that made the game, includes developer Aaron Gray, artist Jesse Jacobi, and music and sound designers fmAura and Gewgawly I, who came on in 2020 after publisher Raw Fury signed the game.
Built from the side-scrolling robot game, Norco is described by Geography of Robots as a “Southern Gothic point-and-click narrative adventure” set in South Louisiana, its “sinking suburbs” and “industrial swamps.” Norco shares its name with its setting: Norco, Louisiana, a community within St. Charles Parish, a place backlit by a Shell oil refinery. It’s where Yuts grew up, several blocks from an oil refinery, one that exploded and “somewhat wrecked” his childhood home.
“It’s this giant, fire-breathing dragon that exists in your backyard,” Yuts said. “It’s hard to ignore.”
Ahead of Norco’s full release in March, the game won the Tribeca Film Festival’s first-ever games award in 2021. And following its release, Norco is living up to that honor: The game has largely been a critical success, lauded largely for its unique story and honest depiction of the South. Polygon spoke to Yuts after Norco’s release to talk about the game, its themes, and life in Southern Louisiana.
Image: Geography of Robots/Raw Fury
[Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
Polygon: Can you start by introducing yourself and your role in Geography of Robots and on Norco?
Norco’s mind-map mechanic is a great narrative tool in a stellar sci-fi adventure
It probably took the form it has now in 2016 at some point. I had released an early, early demo that was largely the same. It contained what would be the first half of Act One of the game. I’d been working on it since then. In 2020, after signing the contract with Raw Fury, I’d gotten Aaron Gray on board, who’s the other developer. I was working with Gewgewly I, the composer of Norco, since 2015. We did a couple other little experiments too, and he was making music for it. We’ve been collaborating for a while. And then in 2020, Aaron Gray came on, and in summer 2021, Jessi Jacobi came on to help with pixel art, as well as fmAura. And that was also 2021. He did a lot of the sound design in the game. A lot of the environmental sounds and things you hear are his work.
What made the video game genre a good medium for telling this particular story?
I was inspired a lot by older Japanese text adventures because they had an element of visual novels but were a little more interactive, a little more immersive. It felt like this multimedia or hypertextual way of investigating and exploring something. So much of the observations that I was making about Louisiana’s landscape at the time were intimately tied in with a lot of pop culture and postmodern representations of disaster — you know, Norco being similar to Midgar. Having those kinds of analogies exist in pop culture media made it so that video games felt like this natural evolution of that research.
Image: Geography of Robots/Raw Fury
What was it like to design Norco, the place in the game, as this transient space knowing that it will eventually submerge, but right now is still standing?
I’ve said before that I don’t consider Norco to be a dystopian work. But I know that it’s not up to the creator to assign genre labels. Ultimately, other people are going to decide what the game is. I can only add my own personal feeling about it, which is that I tried to write it from a place of honesty. I didn’t want to write something prescriptive. I wanted to write something that spoke to the reality of Louisiana as I had experienced it. As I do experience it, which, in many ways, there’s not much room for optimism. But there are glimmers of hope, glimmers of humanity.
In Norco’s sci-fi world, smartphones are literal brain poison
Norco is attempting to capture a complex picture. As far as knowing that it will submerge, inevitably that the Mississippi River will change its course, I did want to address those feelings and the dire circumstances. But it’s still home and still a place that I love.
It’s, in a way, being present. This is something that’s also true in my own life right now, which is that me and my partner have been living in central Virginia because she got a job up here. We’re moving back to New Orleans this summer after being away for a few years and knowing that it’s not necessarily a place we can settle, or it’s not a wise investment to stay there long term, is a difficult thing to factor into decision-making. But nonetheless, we want to be there for a while. We want to experience it. There’s something inherent in Louisiana where you have to be present, you just have to enjoy what you have because it’s not going to be there forever. And that’s true for most things, but especially true for the coastline of Louisiana.
Can you speak to the role the oil industry plays in both Norco the place and Norco the game? Why was it important to you to include that as the backdrop for this story?
I grew up several blocks from an oil refinery. I’ve been fascinated by it on a material, physical, aesthetic level since I was a kid. Also it exploded when I was a baby, our house was somewhat wrecked by that explosion and we had to evacuate. I think I’ve said it in the past, but it’s this giant, fire-breathing dragon that exists in your background. It’s hard to ignore. It kind of forced my attention from a young age, and I’ve been fascinated by it. I’ve been intrigued by it on both an aesthetic and intellectual level for quite a while now. I went to graduate school for urban and regional planning, specifically to study the impact that petrochemical infrastructure has on the built environment in the river parish region of Louisiana. When I was a teenager and I was going to shows and stuff the first zine that I ever made was actually just a Xerox of someone’s thesis about Norco. Like handing it out at shows just because I thought it was so bizarre … I grew up there but I never took it for granted.
Image: Geography of Robots/Raw Fury
I think part of that might have been because of the media I was consuming. I was reading all this sci-fi stuff and I was projecting that onto the refinery. I found it to be novel from a young age in a way that other people maybe didn’t. It just always forced my attention. It’s always been the center of my focus intellectually. So that’s one reason. The other reason is that it does physically impact the environment of Louisiana in so many ways that it’s impossible to ignore if you’re going to tell a panoramic story about Louisiana. It has to be addressed.
One thing that struck me is how naturally the weirdo science fiction elements fit together with the smaller moments of reality. Can you talk about how those two work together and what it was like to blend these things to create Norco?
The game, for better or worse, some people are gonna enjoy it for this, and some people might really … it may test their nerves. But the game, in many ways, is very stream of consciousness and freely associative. It pulls in elements of reality as much as it pulls in various genre tropes as the logic of the game sees fit. It has its own internal logic structure. I think that type of free association was at the heart of the design elements of the game from very early on. I don’t know if you’ve read Mike Davis, he writes about critical geographies of California and other things. He’s among a group of academics that were influential to me when I was younger who used — and Žižek does this to a degree as well — science fiction and pop culture tropes to construct an intellectual understanding of something and analyzed things through the science fiction analogies, whether it’s Star Wars or Phillip K. Dick.
Norco the game is rooted, at least in part, in some academic research, but academic research that has gone to an extreme of using analogy to depict what’s happening, and also communicate emotional truths that can be difficult to communicate through simple, mundane observations.
Where do you start in creating characters to put into these spaces?
A lot of it is written straight from experience and having conversations with people. My dad and his fishing buddies are encoded in the game. And so there’s a lot of very intimate relationships that are reflected, at least to some degree, or have inspired characters in the game. And there are so many fascinating people. There’s also moving through different worlds in Louisiana. The punk stuff was always such a stark contrast to the more familial relationships that I had in the river parishes outside of New Orleans, or friendships I had developed with people who didn’t have any of the subcultural baggage. I wanted to explore that range of personalities.
There are also elements that are more communal, or I should say, archetypes of characters that were more communally created in our Discord, that are more reflective of the culture of Geography of Robots community and Discord just by collectively riffing on ideas. I wrote the script, ultimately, but a lot of it was flavored by conversations that I’ve had with other members of the collaborative.
Is there anything else you think is important to mention about Norco or the development experience or the team?
I don’t think anyone’s getting anything wrong about the game. All of the takes I’ve seen have been true to the person writing it. I love hearing people’s interpretations. I think there seems to be a split among people who really enjoyed the ending, the third act, and people who are somewhat either bewildered by it or irritated by it. It seems to elicit strong reactions. And to those people, I say, I completely understand it. I think it’s a reasonable feeling to have. The game does try to embed, to some degree, a resolution to everything that it presents in the game. In the third act, some of it may be a little bit obscure or hidden. And that is by design. And that kind of design isn’t for everyone.
Nonetheless, we value hearing all the feedback. Most of the feedback has been really gracious, and we appreciate that deeply, even when it’s critical. And I think appreciation really is what we’ve felt the most. I’ve been running around Twitter just thanking everyone who’s playing the game, because I didn’t expect engagement to be as high as it has been. And this is the first large public facing project that I’ve personally been a part of, and the fact that people are engaging with it, and also sharing their emotional experience of it and willing to discuss it and take the time to do so is rewarding. You know, there’s also trolls, we love the trolls, too. Thanks for hanging out.
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