Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve heard one resounding sentiment from fans, critics, and basically all other players of games: “It’s only March and Elden Ring is already the best game of the year!” Unfortunately, that sentiment is incorrect. For as much as I love Elden Ring, it’s not the best game of the year. In fact, it’s not even the best game of the month. That honor belongs to Norco.
Norco is a point-and-click adventure game developed by an independent group of creators called Geography of Robots. The game centers on a girl named Kay, who returns to her home in the real-life Norco, Louisiana, an industrialized town named for the New Orleans Refinery Company. The Louisiana of Norco is an evocative and beautiful setting, blending a sense of authenticity from its Southern developers with a haunting surreality.
In Norco, Kay sets out to solve the mystery of her brother’s disappearance with the assistance of a cast of colorful characters - a robotic refugee, a bad detective who’s a worse businessman, and a trouble-addicted oil pirate, to name a few. It would be easy for these wacky characteristics to entirely define the characters they describe, but Norco makes a point of fleshing each of them out into actual people (and robots). Over the course of my roughly 5-hour first play through, I felt as though I was meeting the inhabitants of a real town.
The town, as the title might suggest, is really the star of Norco. Blending some lightly fictionalized elements of Norco’s real history with a stunningly realized alternate history of the game’s invention gives way to a place that’s distinctly real, both in spite of and because of its fever-dream fantasy. Characters discuss a living computer virus that infects birds with the kind of reserved surprise that suggests that it’s not all that out of the ordinary, and teenage burnouts are just as likely to join a cult of same-named disenfranchised 4-Channers with plans to meet God in space as they are to take up smoking in empty parking lots.
The same sense of melancholy pervades the most realistic and the most absurd elements of Norco. The gorgeously rendered pixel art aesthetic is used to highlight the soft tragedy of its world, the kind of world where people can leave behind literal digital ghosts and nearly all labor could feasibly be automated, but healthy men still die in debt on the assembly line. Norco is full of science fiction dreams, but those dreams are grounded in the sometimes bleak realities of the world.
There aren’t a lot of games like Norco, a fairy tale that’s both achingly specific and stunningly relatable. It’s a game that uses absurd, fantastical, and sometimes extremely surreal elements to highlight the pieces of truth, both beautiful and tragic, that define it. Norco is a love letter to a town sinking beneath its own exploitation and alienation, a tribute to anyone who’s ever come home to a place they can’t tell if they recognize, and undoubtedly the most beautiful and important game released so far this year.
Sorrel Kerr-Jung is a freshman studying games and animation at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnist do not reflect those of The Post. Do you agree? Tell Sorrel by tweeting her at @gendertoad.