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Norco’s mind-map mechanic is a great narrative tool in a stellar sci-fi adventure

Penny for your thoughts

Norco - a surreal image in pixel art of an eye reflecting a skyline, a cluster of trees, and a man smoking by a window Image: Geography of Robots/Raw Fury
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

Norco is a story about returning home to Louisiana to find that everything is both the same, and changing in terrifying ways. The point-and-click adventure starts with Kay learning about the death of her mother, Catherine, and so she returns to her childhood home to meet her brother Blake and wrap up their affairs. Things quickly go off the rails when Blake is missing, and you discover that Catherine was clearly tangled up in some shady corporate intrigue. It’s up to you to unravel the truth.

The story of Norco is fairly layered, meshing science fiction and mystery elements. The game jumps between past and present, and there’s a whole cast of eccentric locals. The player has to explore their hometown of Norco, solving environmental puzzles and wheedling info out of the residents via dialogue trees. Luckily, the game has a good tool to help me remember the finer details between locales: the mind map.

Kay’s mind map starts off very small, and centered on a few key facts. It looks like a web of interconnecting icons, and can be accessed at any time as I play Kay. When I click on one of the icons, it prompts a conversation between me and thoughts about the subject, with dialogue I can click through. When I reflect on family or friends in my mind map, I can sometimes make simple choices: How do I remember this person? What context do I see them in? Other characters float at the periphery of my mind map, out of reach but ever present.

Norco - a screenshot of the game’s mind map feature, showing many connected nodes of characters, events, and thoughts in protagonist Kay’s mind. Image: Geography of Robots/Raw Fury via Polygon

As I move about the town and talk to people, things expand, and more icons are added to the increasingly tangled web. I remember one of my mom’s friends from childhood; his face starts off as an indistinct blur but eventually comes into focus. I think about the town, about my mom’s projects, about old friends and new enemies. At any point, I can check my mind map to recollect things; it’s a natural way of getting a summary before I dive back into the action, and a tool to help me solve mysteries as I progress through the story.

The mind map also makes the game’s pacing feel much more natural. Norco is a linear game that moves at a fairly brisk pace, and I barely have time to internalize that my mom has passed before I have to reckon with her legacy’s loose ends. Within a few hours, I’ve escalated from rummaging through my childhood bedroom to sophisticated acts of corporate espionage. The mind map is a good way to set aside time to process what has happened, even as the story moves at a fast clip.

Kay encounters ideas and people in the world, sure, but I have to make the effort to internalize all of that by going through the mind map trees. It’s a nice touch on a great narrative; even when things move quickly, I never feel rushed or lost. Norco does a lot of things right, and one of them is continually encouraging Kay to stop and think.

The next level of puzzles.

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