Point-and-click games cemented the enormous potential of interactive fiction at the turn of the century, employing innovative environmental/dialogue puzzles with evocative pixel art and chiptune music. Nowadays, we lose ourselves in an impossibly large sandbox with equally wide choice-driven plotlines. It’s fitting, then, that Narco feels like a precious relic from the Sierra-led golden age of digital adventure. The first title Geography of Robots considers the unruly capitalism and classism at the heart of America’s often neglected Deep South. In addition, Norco’s retrofuturistic and Nat.Art aesthetics are infused with some of the best surrealist storytelling we’ve seen since Kentucky Route Zero.
Norco redefines the bayou as a series of interconnected nodes on a map. I bounced around multiple places, parsing historical manuscripts in junk shops, bought dog food at convenience stores, fetched hallucinations from dirty bathroom stalls, and talked with citizens. Each vignette pops with psychedelic colors—rivers sparkle beneath the tree line, half-lights cast long shadows over grassy dunes, watercolor clouds form over empty freeways. Narco’s writing may indicate that the city is disfigured and diseased, but it is nonetheless beautiful to look at.
Protagonist Kay returns just as his Louisian community is on the verge of extinction. Kay’s younger brother Blake is nowhere to be found, and her estranged mother, Katherine, recently succumbed to cancer. In the months before her death, Catherine was researching a floating anomaly in a nearby lake, which earned the suspicion of the rogue oil conglomerate Shield. As Kay, I wander through a strange, modern narco, hoping to find Blake and fulfill Catherine’s life. Narco is filled with delightful twists and frightening realizations that brought me face to face with washed-up detectives and strange machines, among many other eccentrics. There is a lot of dialogue and world-building, but the dreamy and philosophical quality of the prose makes each section of the text a pleasure to read.
On the rare occasion when I had trouble keeping up with the lines, I accessed Kay’s “Mindmap,” a smart subversion of the traditional quest log where critical items, NPCs, and locations are linked. Here, I can reminisce about important events and relationships for additional details, progress the plot, or recall secondary motives. Norco mainly touts puzzle-based gameplay, but don’t be fooled; The Loop is replete with its fair share of nuances. At one point, a multi-part task required me to hover over the background with a cellphone camera to reveal invisible solutions, giving the retouched fields an extra level of depth and surprise. There are even peripheral puzzles that I could have missed if I hadn’t carefully explored the environment with my cursor, paralleling the puzzling and confusing nature of the story.
One complaint I have with the Norco is its tackle-on combat system. From time to time, Kay and her growing band of party members – eg, a stuffed monkey, a runaway security droid, etc. – cross paths with attackers. Attacks are minigames that range from copying on-screen patterns to clicking on enemy weak spots over an interval of time. I quickly got tired of these meaningless meetings. Fighting compares, in a game packed with unique design choices, and I’m relieved that there are only a few sequels to this.
I’ve never played a game like Narco, which lavishly celebrates and advises its cultural roots while simultaneously painting a strange doom scenario. Kay and Katherine’s shattered America isn’t so different from our own – growing industrial complexes threaten to displace low-income families, automated systems leave human workers behind, and upward mobility to stifle Dirty Prosper works round the clock. The game isn’t always gloomy. One cold night, I sat atop City Hall and watched the constellations with a stranger. A few hours ago, I flipped through treasured memories on a faulty flatscreen TV. Narco is an unforgettable reminder that behind madness lies an inherent beauty.