I stopped going to church about two years after Katrina.
For one thing, my mom had problems with the Catholic Church’s stance on divorce — my parents had divorced when I was 6, civilly, respectfully, and to the benefit of all parties involved — and that slowly caused our habitual attendance at Mass to wane. Then, in the midst of everything that goes into rebuilding a house after destruction, from fighting with insurance companies, to finding proper contractors, to making rent for a temporary residence that could house two children, Catechism classes no longer became a priority. The storm itself was not the only reason, but the reality of the aftermath contributed. So I stopped going.
For a long time, I didn’t miss religion. In fact, I became actively grateful for its absence from my life. I saw the pitfalls of its institutions, the misdeeds at the hands of its zealots, and, in my most cynical moments, the cringeyness of its believers. How could anyone trust anything so blindly, despite the failures surrounding it? I didn’t understand that faith.
Norco, the point-and-click adventure game based on the New Orleans suburb of the same name, is a mystifying experience. Its writing is poetic and illuminating, the kind that sparks a generative flame inside you. You begin as Kay, returning home after the death of your mother, Catherine. You left home for unremarkable reasons, with all the predictable doubts and resentments lingering in the air. As you fill in your backstory, your inner monologue overlays the memories and landscapes of your childhood. You remember the years you were gone, including the war you stumbled into. While recounting a story about hiding in a freightliner, you are given three dialogue options: “I prayed.”; “I slept.”; “I forget.”
I was confronted with these options twice: once when playing the demo and once when playing the game in full. Despite not being a religious person, I chose “I prayed” each time. It was a reflex, with no doubt, and no desire to try another path.
Stepping into Kay’s childhood home, you quickly begin sifting through the lives that have been left frozen in time. In your old bedroom, you find books, posters, and mementos, including a stuffed monkey that you can choose whether to take with you going forward. Elsewhere in the house, you find your mother’s laundry and medications, and videotapes of her warbled memories. In the backyard, leaning against the shabby pickup truck, you find Million, the fugitive android your mother took in years ago. Million informs you that your brother Blake is missing, and so begins your journey to untangle the past and future of your family and the town itself.
Norco’s pixel art is vibrant and kaleidoscopic, like the stained glass in a cathedral. The first act focuses on the landscape of Norco, from its refineries to its swampy terrain to its battered, suburban architecture. The second act expands beyond Norco, switching between Kay’s and Catherine’s perspectives, as you travel throughout the Greater New Orleans area. You look for clues in City Hall, and at concerts, in order to get into the abandoned Promenade Mall, where a group of zealots are camping out with information pertinent to your job. Finally, the third act is altogether more fantastical. In your search to find your brother, you dive into the marshes and tumble through scenarios that are difficult to distinguish between reality and nightmare; along the way, you encounter a giant bird, cloaked in mud, whose eyes have been stolen. Norco also provides some really solid comic relief, from launching a cat through the ceiling to a lengthy story about a guy shitting himself.
The pixel style also captures the comfort and majesty of a Louisiana sunset, its blockiness mirroring the density of humid summer air. I’m notorious for my infatuation with sunsets and sunrises. I have hundreds of pictures, each depicting a unique staining of the sky. I remember the special ones, and who sat with me beneath them; I remember when the humidity was suffocating and holding me close. Today, my friends will text me, You seein’ this shit? and I’ll reply, Yeah man, can you believe it? With each new pixel scene that passes across my computer screen in Norco, I want to text my friends, You seein’ this shit? searching for someone able to reply, Yeah man, can you believe it?
Norco blends myriad genres to tell its story, including cyberpunk, mystery, and Southern Gothic. The latter permeates the entire game, in both a visual and textual sense, with its appreciation for the landscape. The area is being overrun and poisoned by technologies: ones of our world, like oil refineries and smartphones, and ones not quite of our world, like the corrupted, for-profit cloud into which characters upload their memories. Norco’s framing as a mystery allows you to piece together how these technologies came to destroy your hometown.
While the game is mostly a straightforward point-and-click narrative, several of its side stories deviate on a mechanical level. One such side story takes place at a puppet show beneath a highway overpass. In it, an alligator whose child was killed by a shrimper asks you to find this shrimper and kill him, in return for the alligator’s obedience. You navigate a swamp from an overhead perspective, on a map born of flickering light. Once you find the shrimper, he asks you to kill the alligator instead. You make a choice.
I love point-and-click games both for the agency they afford and the agency they withhold; I also love what I learn about myself in the process. In the best, worst, or any other superlative version of my life, what do I do? What do I say? Do I take the monkey with me? Does my compassion for my brother supersede my resentment of his actions, or the other way around? Will that choice be different tomorrow?
In Norco, I can be a different version of myself — more virtuous, or, at least, someone inching toward that. I can apologize for my absence. I can shrink some of the distance between myself and my family. I can team up with an eco-terrorist and break into the oil refinery destroying my town.
I chose to kill the shrimper. I shot him, and blood splattered across the screen. I made my way back to the alligator to tell it that I completed its mission, but the alligator laughed in my face, and ate me regardless. My choice, whatever my intent, was moot.
As you fall further into the underworld of Norco, what you’re asked to believe in becomes more extreme. When confronted with the possibility of an angel, you are given two reaction choices: “There’s no such thing” or “What if you’re wrong?” I chose “There’s no such thing.” The other character counters, “When the freightliner sped down the highway, did you not pray? You are no stranger to the clarifying light that removes all doubt. That is the very essence of faith.”
I froze, embarrassed how quickly I’d forgotten. I had prayed — twice.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself craving religion. The thought of something bigger than me, something to quell my constant questioning, seems nice. I have friends who take their religion seriously, and I’m envious of that ritual and solace. But as I journeyed through Norco, I realized that while I lack religion, I have ample faith. I have chosen to stay in Louisiana, despite all the evidence stacked against it. Despite the rising cost of living and a job market built to satisfy the maw of the tourism economy, I stay. Norco is part of a stretch of land with air so polluted it’s referred to as “Cancer Alley”; still, lawmakers push to make Louisiana a “sanctuary state” for fossil fuels. I stay. And with each passing hurricane season that grows in length and intensity, I stay. Following Hurricane Ida, as I sat on my porch while New Orleans was without power for days — in Norco’s case, weeks — I still sat in awe of the gift of each sunset, the Louisiana sky never missing a beat.
Norco ends on a visceral note that will speak to Louisiana’s staunch hangers-on, but also to anyone seeking a beautiful, oppressive, and ultimately hopeful story. The past and future compound, and my reaction was unbridled. As I heaved and sobbed over my computer screen, I thought once again about faith — the kind it takes to stay here. If you don’t understand that faith, Norco may very well convince you.
Norco was released on March 24 on Mac and Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Raw Fury. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.