A Stunning Southern Dystopia Is One of the Best Written Games of the Year
The unsettling tone of Geography Of Robot’s Southern Gothic point-and-click adventure norco fascinates me. Its fusion of a recognizably 21st-century Louisiana and dystopian sci-fi creates an oppressive darkness that hangs over my mind as I click through the game’s “mind map” menu, where memories and ideas can be connected via dialog choice. Closing this to remember that I was standing in a regular kitchen, the microwave in the corner possibly containing a cockroach shell somewhere in its works, was dizzying.
Clearly taking a heavy direction of Disco Elyseeincluding formatting its text in panels on the left or right of the screen, norco is an amazing piece of magical realism fiction. At first glance, this is the story of a woman in her twenties, Kay, who returns to her childhood home following the death of her mother from cancer. Her brother is wayward, missing, the house is still alive with her mother’s half-done chores, and, well, there’s a robot in the garden.
Your first advice that it’s not enough our world is the years. They are designated by letters and numbers, “YX2R” for example. The second is undoubtedly the incredibly sophisticated, self-aware robot called Million, whose translucent face swims with star-shaped lights. And yet, despite this, norco much more often resembles our recognizable reality than some sort of sci-fi dystopia. Instead, all of his dystopian ways are much more immediately relatable.
Located along the banks of the Mississippi, it’s a dark, run-down place where frequent flooding has left its stain on the land. Big business developments create an environmental catastrophe, while a more widespread sense of melancholy infects the citizens of the region. There’s a pervasive lack of hope here that you can lean into, or avoid, in how you respond to the game’s narrative choices. Choices that range from the nature of your relationships with family, arbitrarily decided by you at the start, up to the actions every moment.
The story grows as you play, from this family affair to one that reminded me (superbly) of one of the best bits of TV ever, Leftovers. Both share that same subtle lie, the creeping feeling that far too much is far too wrong, even though on the surface things may seem fine. There’s a particular cult, a disturbing society, and the lingering lack of your brother’s presence, all weaving their way through Kay’s story and that of her mother told in alternate flashbacks.
While there are inventory puzzles to solve, this is a game mostly about his writing, layering his wonderful pixel art. (It’s one of those games that, when I think about it, I see in a lavish watercolor, then am surprised again when I see the pixel art in the screenshots.) Luckily, it’s also the writing that shines the most, itself embracing this magic theme of realism, often poetic, but austere and pessimistic. As an example, I want to share a few bits, out of context. The former is just a reprehensible description when looking west near an overpass.
West is the suburb Catherine calls home.
West is the expanse of concrete that breaks clean and clear at the edge of Saint Charles Parish and gives way to the cypress swamp.
The crowns of Tupelo rise above the overpass, silhouetted by an artificial glow that leads to Norco.
Then it comes from a puppet show you can choose to watch, in which a crocodile tells the story of the loss of his child, which then turns into a peculiar diversion in which you can seek gruesome revenge for the crocodile.
Deep in this cypress hollow I hide. I cry tonight. My last child died.
They hang hooks on trees with chicken legs. They shoot us in the head behind the eyes.
It’s a curse that I’m the last to survive.
I was once caught by an anglerfish who called me his own. He walked me like a dog through the dark streets.
He fed me strange plants and cold cuts. He even covered me with blankets when I fell asleep.
I left the night of a monstrous flood. The madman hasn’t rested a single night since.
I love it. I like that it all leaves me with only three-quarters understanding, which is true throughout the game. forgotten by Stewart Lee, The Perfect Fool. I love how, despite the obviously underlying themes of environmental disaster, the game never feels preachy or “cautious”. It’s just East.
It is a fascinating, brilliantly unsettling and disturbing creation, which plays its cards with enormous subtlety. It’s so interesting to see Southern Gothic represented so effectively in a video game, and leaves just the right amount of mystery at the end.
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