Norco, an indie adventure game about an oil town menaced by global warming, is a striking contribution to American landscape art.
https://www.newyorker.com-By Julian Lucas
Image by Yuts / Courtesy Raw Fury
Last year, the Tribeca Film Festival awarded its inaugural prize in game design to Norco, a point-and-click adventure set in a refinery town on the Mississippi River. Designed by a small collaborative, Geography of Robots, the project had already earned a devoted online following for its art, which conjures a near-future Louisiana in twilit pixel-art tableaux: an android seated on a pickup’s tailgate; elevated highways crossing ancient cypress swamps; refinery stacks flaring against an emerald sky. The moody style—which the developers describe as “petroleum blues”—recalls a Southern-gothic “Blade Runner.” Underlying its attraction is a question peculiar to the climate grief of our era: What does it mean to love a landscape that is engineering its own disappearance?
The game begins with a melancholy homecoming. The player-character, a young woman named Kay, has returned to the eponymous town after years on the road, fighting with militias and camping out in deserted nuclear tunnels across an increasingly anarchic United States. She’s arrived to settle the affairs of her deceased mother—a private researcher, who’d been investigating illegal construction at a nearby lake—and to track down her unstable brother, who’s vanished. The search extends from shuttered curiosity shops to abandoned malls and overgrown battures, gradually disclosing a madcap conspiracy that involves cryptocurrency, an app-based cult, and a sinister convergence of the oil industry with antebellum legacies. One of the climactic scenes unfolds at a masked ball in a plantation house, concealed on the grounds of the android-patrolled “Shield Oil Refinery.”
The story is only half as surreal as it sounds. Norco, whose first act is out today as a free demo—a full version goes on sale this spring—is a remarkable portrait of an equally remarkable place. Its namesake is a community about twenty miles upriver from New Orleans, where suburban ranch houses huddle beneath an Oz-like petrochemical complex. On the town’s western border lies the Bonnet Carré Spillway, a Pharaonic flood-control structure with more than three hundred bays, which, in emergencies, diverts water from the Mississippi to Lake Pontchartrain. The riverfront was once divided among sugar and cotton plantations, some of which later served as offices or executive residences for oil companies. Today, Shell is master of the area, with slick ads testifying to its seigneurial benevolence (“Creative Energy: The Rhythm of Louisiana”) all over town.
When I first visited Norco, in 2019, to participate in Dread Scott’s “Slave Rebellion Reenactment,” I met the game’s creator—a thirty-six-year-old geographer who goes by the pseudonym Yuts—on a bike path that runs along the levee. I’d arrived early, and while waiting I made the mistake of photographing an oil tanker emblazoned with the huge green words “Protect the Environment.” Within seconds, a red-faced security guard materialized from a van and demanded my phone. Startled, I collected myself enough to realize that the man wasn’t a police officer, and that it was perfectly legal to take pictures on public land. I walked away feeling shaken but relieved—until, half an hour later, a sheriff’s deputy interrupted my interview with the same demand. He said that I wasn’t breaking any laws but borrowed my driver’s license anyway. Not for any official reason, he apologetically explained, but to make a copy for Shell’s national-security database.
Yuts, who grew up in Norco, is used to such encounters. As we watched the sun set from a riverside bench, he regaled me with stories of his adolescent trespassing on the grounds of Shell’s nearly thousand-acre manufacturing complex. His step-grandfather worked there, and his father was employed at other refineries in “Cancer Alley,” the industrial corridor that extends from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. (The corridor was recently the subject of an investigation into environmental racism by RISE St. James—a local nonprofit—and the London-based research firm Forensic Architecture.) In 1988, when Yuts was two years old, an explosion killed seven workers at Shell Norco and blew out windows all over the neighborhood. His mother found him still asleep in bed, covered in broken glass.
The landscape of his childhood frightened yet transfixed him, inspiring a “fantastic anticipation of ecological collapse” that paralleled an early interest in the unreal scenery of console games. Yuts found echoes of Norco in Midgar, an underground city ruled by a tyrannical power plant in Final Fantasy VII, and in Hideo Kojima’s cyberpunk classic Snatcher. With his sister, a collaborator on Norco, he dreamed of a game that could convey their home town’s singular blend of the sublime and the absurd. “It gave me some comfort to know that I wasn’t the only one witnessing the dead alligator, or the giant smokestack, or the decrepit Scooby Doo strip mall,” he told the New Orleans magazine Antigravity, in 2014. “The itch to share that kind of thing has been with me forever.”
Yuts arrived at game design circuitously. Books were an early passion—existential novelists such as Camus and Dostoevsky, speculative writers such as Octavia E. Butler and William Gibson—then music, with a stint as a guitarist in a punk group. He worked as a volunteer for housing justice after Hurricane Katrina, then earned a master’s in urban and regional planning, writing a thesis on the oil industry’s “second system of cities” crisscrossing southern Louisiana. (Mike Davis, a Marxist environmental historian, is an abiding influence.) The degree led to a job as a Geographic Information System (G.I.S.) tech for the City of New Orleans, and to a series of projects that he developed with friends. He started with short documentaries and interactive online maps, working under the name Geography of Robots, an allusion to the region’s fragile meshwork of levees, pipelines, and spillways. But the forms felt didactic, blind to the area’s elusive “psychogeography.” Yuts began taking a disposable camera around the River Parishes, using his shots as a basis for pixel-art landscapes that he shared on Tumblr. Before he knew it, he was making a game.
Norco’s first scene creates an atmosphere of intimate suburban gloom. The player awakens to the detritus of Kay’s childhood bedroom—stuffed monkey, concert poster—and of her mother’s interrupted life. Clicking through from room to room, object to object, one pieces together a biography from fragments of exposition: the missing brother’s comments on a forum for local outdoorsmen; her mother’s pain pills, left over from cancer treatment; and shelves of local history. The excerpts, on everything from hurricanes to the oil industry’s efforts to drive out neighbors, exemplify the unusually high quality of the game’s writing. A zine in Kay’s bedroom criticizes “ruin porn” in the area (“The proto-disaster tourism began as soon as the floodwaters left”) and suggests the adolescence of a book-smart punk.
Storytelling through hands-on investigation is how adventure games, from Zork to Myst, work. Yet Norco uses the genre’s conventions to re-create the experience of mourning, skillfully adapting the mechanics of exploration to sifting through a loved one’s loose ends. I played the first demo not long after my father died, and was moved by how exactly it mirrored what I felt amid the clutter of his audio equipment and unfinished songs. In “The Poetics of Space,” Gaston Bachelard writes that “the house we were born in is physically inscribed in us,” a depth of feeling that Norco conveys with understated force. “Your mother spent her entire life researching this town,” Million, the family android, tells the player in her back yard. “She knew histories that others have forgotten.”
Kay and Million ride their motorcycle through Norco, searching for anyone who might know about the mother’s research or the brother’s whereabouts. (The soundtrack, a lo-fi arrangement of nocturnal synths by the composer Gewgawly I, is what highway hypnosis might sound like as music.) Domestic scenes give way to seedy shops, aimless kids on street corners, and a horse drinking contaminated water from the Mississippi. The refinery sprawls over the horizon in every other image, usually against a gauzy sunset. It was landscapes like these, widely shared on Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter, which earned Norco its following, and, in 2020, its contract with the Swedish indie publisher Raw Fury. The art resonated not only with viewers from Louisiana but across the world—everywhere that “home” is a quiet spot in the shadow of zombie infrastructure on a dying planet.
The ambient unease alternates with a streak of gonzo humor. A desperate vender in the French Quarter peddles hot dogs that predate Hurricane Katrina. An alligator seeks revenge on a shrimp fisherman, whom the player must find in the maze of a darkened bayou. Another mini-game involves fighting the ex-cashier of a local convenience store, who is picketing his automated replacement. The game’s black comedy is sharpest when it targets the voyeurism that often fetishizes Louisiana’s ailments. In one subplot, the player stumbles onto the set of a gritty Southern police procedural—an allusion to the first season of “True Detective”—whose out-of-town director asks, “What’s a more . . . regional way of saying ‘to murder’?” He’s quick to believe that the answer is: “slather ’em with the oyster-flavored peanut butter.”
Norco’s hyper-local concept would have been hard to imagine before the last decade’s indie-game renaissance. Development platforms like Unity have opened a once-forbidding field to a broader range of talents, and crowdfunding services have created financing channels for idiosyncratic projects. (Norco follows in the footsteps of Kentucky Route Zero, a breakout indie hit about an antique-store deliveryman wandering a subterranean highway.) Another leveller has been the resurgence of formal simplicity over laborious technical achievement. Geography of Robots is a team of five; before 2020 it was only Yuts. His arts education has come almost entirely from online forums like Reddit and Pixel Joint, and he draws the art for Norco in Aseprite, a popular digital editor, sometimes scanning rough sketches of a scene before blocking in each pixel with a mouse.
The pixel-art aesthetic is often dismissed as a gimmicky throwback, an exercise in what Kyle Chayka recently described as “the first wave of digital nostalgia.” But Yuts insists that it’s a living medium, and it’s been a particular boon for landscape art, encouraging countless online enthusiasts to animate their corners of the world. Yuts’s own style, full of shadows and subtle dithering—a pixel-art term for patterning a limited array of colors to create the illusion of gradation—favors muted earth tones, with flashes of neon blue and burnt orange. Perhaps the game’s most arresting image is a night view of the refinery, the torch-like blaze of a catalytic cracker shining over a river molten with multicolored lights. Despite such Promethean beauty, we are incessantly returned to the poisoning of the land, sky, and waterways—and especially of human lives. A stray click reveals the fate of Kay’s childhood home in a future flood. “The Mississippi River will again change its course,” the text reads. “Your house will be squatted then razed.”
Norco joins a growing school of eco-critical art. Playing the demo, I was reminded of Edward Burtynsky’s perversely entrancing aerial shots of the Deepwater Horizon spill; Patrick Nagatani’s surreal collages of nuclear infrastructure in the New Mexican desert; and Olalekan Jeyifous’s recent installation “The Frozen Neighborhoods,” which envisions Crown Heights in a “green” future stratified by differential access to transportation. It also echoes an older tradition of reading auguries into the landscape, from the Romantics who chronicled the Industrial Revolution to the Hudson River School.
Games, though, might have a singular kinship with our contemporary ruins, beginning as they so often do in dungeons, abandoned space stations, sinking ships, and deserted cities. They are maps where individual choice meets inhuman systems, not merely as representations but as reënactments that we learn to navigate. If they have often taught us to identify with such systems—Maxis, the developer of SimCity, published SimRefinery in 1993—they might also help us find our way to the exits.