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In Norco’s sci-fi world, smartphones are literal brain poison

The game’s mechanics and world illustrate the tension we have with our personal devices 

an image of the main character video chatting wither their brother in norco. there is text to the left that gives descriptive text of the main character driving. at the bottom the highlighted text reads “You spoke to Blake, learning of your mother’s declining health. her insomnia. her erratic behavior.” Image: Geography of Robots
Ana Diaz (she/her) is a culture writer at Polygon, covering internet culture, fandom, and video games. Her work has previously appeared at NPR, Wired, and The Verge.

At the beginning of the point-and-click adventure Norco, protagonist Kay throws her phone into the Rio Grande. Moments before, we witness conversations with her brother Blake, who calls Kay with desperate updates regarding their mother’s cancer symptoms. As we learn about these calls, the lines of two crudely-drawn frowny faces glow over the silhouettes of Kay and her brother on a video chat. By throwing her phone away, Kay distances herself from a childhood spent between “devastating rituals” in a town exploited by the local oil industry. Norco’s characters have a complicated relationship with the past, and it’s encapsulated perfectly through their parasitic relationships with their phones.

Norco switches between Kay’s perspective and that of her mom Catherine. Catherine’s timeline covers the weeks leading up to her death, and her misadventures using a gig worker app called “QuackJob” that she downloads in order to pay an increasingly large pile of medical bills. The app allows Catherine to work for a company called Superduck and pick up various tasks (basically fetch quests) to earn a fake digital currency called “$QCK.” When Catherine arrives at a warehouse for one of her Superduck tasks, she meets the figure behind the company. It’s not a Chad in Patagonia but a giant monstrous bird with a network of writhing flesh beneath its wings. It’s here where we learn that Superduck is a sort of virus that traverses technology and plants alike.

an image of a texting conversation that’s just a string of notifications for a higher and higher medical bill. Image: Geography of Robots

Although Catherine’s involvement with this gig work is ultimately what brings her down a dark path, her phone is also the main tool that empowers her to move through the world. She travels via rideshare on a tiny account of $40 or so. She uses her phone to discover secret statues hidden in augmented reality and unlock new areas. In another section, the savvy use of her phone allows her to record and expose hypocrisy in a cult. But in the end, it’s all in service of Superduck.

Exploring the town of Norco reveals a world sprinkled with people struggling to make ends meet. At one point, if you speak to a lanky silhouette hunched over a car, the character tells you they started driving for a rideshare company, but it’s not going so well because they’re worried about their grandpa’s car breaking down. Catherine’s friend Dallas describes how he moved from Craigslist to Superduck to make cash, but in reality, he just wants to spend more time with his family rather than working on gigs throughout the night.

Phones are often touted as the perfect tool to keep in contact with the real people we love, but Norco paints a more realistic picture of our contemporary relationships with these devices. When Catherine texts Kay, she doesn’t hear back from her daughter. Instead, what we see is a steady stream of notifications from a collections agency about her medical bills. Although phones can be used to maintain and strengthen relationships, they are also understood as a means to extract further value from their users. Norco’s depiction of that dichotomy is a harsh one, but an honest one; it illustrates how phones can be an useful tool for exploiting marginalized and impoverished people. And after all that, I think I would throw my phone into the Rio Grande too.