When We Made… Norco – Geography of Robots talks crunch, religion and preserving a culture in their debut title

We might be a magazine focused on the UK games industry, but we’re going a little bit further afield for this month’s When We Made.

Norco, the debut title from Geography of Robots, depicts a fictionalised version of the developer’s home town located in Saint Charles Parish, Louisiana. At first glance the game tells the story of Kay, a woman coming back to her hometown after her mother died of cancer, only to discover that her brother is missing, and that there’s much more to their mother’s death than it first seems.

It’s certainly an engaging enough story to carry any point and click title – especially when paired with the game’s exceptional writing and characterisation. But the real appeal of the fictionalised Norco is what it has to say about the real Norco, the lives of the people who live there, and the often grim reality of living in the 21st century.

And so it’s no surprise that this debut title has been so well received – being awarded the first-ever Tribeca Games Award last year, and attracting a global audience to a hyperlocal game – far beyond what the developers themselves expected, and proving that there continues to be a market for more personal, idiosyncratic narratives in games.

While the game isn’t entirely autobiographical (the presence of Million, the family android might give that one away), it is nonetheless a snapshot of the real-life Norco as it exists today. It’s a game that attempts to preserve Norco and its culture as it slowly erodes away – through flooding, through natural disasters, through people simply moving away.

Those real-life elements of Norco are seen directly in the game. Just as in the real Norco, much of the game’s world and narrative is dominated by the oil refinery from which the area’s name is derived – from the New Orleans Refining Company.

In fact, the oil refinery explosion that killed Kay’s father when she was a child is based on a real event, the 1988 Shell Refinery Explosion. The incident took place just blocks away from the developer’s childhood home, forcing them to evacuate. And just as in the real Norco, the region is prone to frequent flooding – Kay’s family home has flooded. It will flood again. One day her home will be gone.

While Norco aims to depict the region itself more than any singular perspective, it’s a personal enough story that the developer goes by the pseudonym Yuts, due to some of the more autobiographical details in the game. It is, after all, Yuts’ close ties with Norco that drove him to develop the game in the first place.

PRESERVING A CULTURE

“Growing up in the community between Norco and New Orleans, I had such a tight community there,” says Yuts. “Everything that I could ever need socially and communally was concentrated in that corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

“And over time, various things happened. Katrina happened and displaced people, a lot of my friends and family members moved away and never came back. And  then consecutive other flood events occurred, and that displaced more people, and slowly there was an erosion of my community. My parents are still in Norco and my close family are still in Norco, but it is a tedious place to live. The flooding and the failure of flood control infrastructure never stops. Our house has flooded several times, it’s guaranteed to flood again. And every time it’s going to impact your insurance, it’s going to impact your will to continue to live there.

“I just see an inevitable erosion of what remains of my community there. The house is also a bit symbolic of culture in that region, which is eroding as well. So much of culture is incubated inside of a domestic space. It’s all held in the home, and then it’s kind of brought out into communal public spaces. And so as you lose these homes and these people, the culture begins to fade away as well.

“The town is likely to outlive me, but I did feel like I needed some kind of anchor point, as I watch more and more of my own personal connections to this place that I love deeply disappear. I felt I needed to plant an anchor somewhere along the trajectory. And I planted it somewhat late, if I had attempted this project earlier, it would not have been such a dire picture. But this is just a time slice that depicts a point in my personal history, and my relationship to that region.”

It’s that dire picture that has led many to describe Norco as dystopian – a label Yuts himself rejects. The game certainly doesn’t shy away from exploring the problems plaguing Norco, the characters of this world are unquestionably struggling under economic and environmental hardships. However, the game also takes great lengths to celebrate the region’s culture and community.

“A big part of the game is not just meant to explore the dire circumstances in that region, but also the beauty of it. I think it’s just aesthetically very gorgeous. And there’s a strong sense of community, you meet a lot of very interesting, inspiring people and funny people and, you know, I wanted to communicate all of that humanity.”

“I love Norco, I loved growing up there. I’ll always count my blessings that I had access to the outdoors and the swamps – even the refinery was such a compelling piece of infrastructure that’s fascinated me all my life. The game wasn’t meant to disparage the region. It was actually meant to showcase it as just this very complex, interesting place.”

Norco might be grounded in real-world concerns, but you still get to have a fun android pal, which is nice

FAITH

A large part of this representation and celebration of Norco’s community is the importance of faith in the game. Norco is filled with Christian iconography, with later elements of the plot being rife with religious significance. It’s not an approach you see all that often in games, but it was an important one for the team to include while trying to generate a snapshot of Louisiana culture.

“Religion has been in the game from the beginning. I grew up Catholic went to Catholic school. Catholicism is deeply embedded in the social fabric of South Louisiana, and colours so many of the social rituals of that region. It’s also almost a Biblical region by virtue of the various disasters that unfold there. Religion was a very helpful lens to view the region through for me, throughout my life.”

The religious imagery in the game really dials up a notch following the introduction of Pawpaw – a sometimes ominous, sometimes hilarious character the player meets later in the game. While touching too much on that brings us into uncomfortable spoiler territory, Pawpaw proved a useful character to explore the nuances of how people experience faith in their lives.

“There was a duality that was playing out between materiality and faith. There was a constant tension where, say, you walked into Pawpaw’s closet and everything that you touched was plastic and synthetic, but it looked historic, it looked Biblical.

“There was this constant tension throughout the game of the push and pull of people trying to pull materiality into the realm of faith – and in the world of the material, trying to pull it back. That’s the kind of tension that I think exists in people’s lives who grew up in any kind of religious tradition, especially because we live in such a material culture. But I think the further we move  into the 21st century, the more convoluted things become and the more difficult it becomes to interpret reality, the more faith becomes a useful tool, or at the very least, adds some ballast to your life. That kind of tension was always meant to run throughout the game.”

HYPERLOCAL GONE GLOBAL

Thanks to this love and understanding the team holds for the region, Norco has been an enormous critical success – with the game taking home the first-ever Tribeca Games Award last year. And with that success has come a global audience that Yuts himself never expected for his hyperlocal game.

“My expectations were extremely low, and I think this is true for the other team members. You know, it’s an extremely idiosyncratic and intimate project, and I wasn’t sure that it was going to translate for others. You know, I’m somewhat superstitious, I still feel like it’s gonna boomerang back around and hit us in the head somehow. For the time being, it’s been really rewarding. It has connected across geographies in ways that I wasn’t anticipating. I think I underestimated how much various cultures, including Southern culture, have been somewhat globalised and exported. So I think people do have a connection to it and a relationship to it through its mediation. People had some cultural literacy that I wasn’t really anticipating.

“You know, I saw someone on Twitter saying that ‘I thought this game was just going to be a secret handshake among New Orleans game devs. I can’t believe I’m seeing it percolate all the way up to Polygon, and all of these publications.’ I felt the same way! Honestly, I thought it was going to be a tool for facilitating conversation among people with some relationship to the region.

“And in Norco becoming adopted more broadly, I think people have inferred their own message in the game. Because the game really was meant to speak very specifically to a specific region. It wasn’t meant to broadcast some kind of doomer-pilled dystopian message, it was just meant to analyse a kind of dire but sober assessment of what’s happening in Louisiana.”

Some level of miscommunication is bound to happen when these local stories are thrust into a global spotlight. Putting any artistic work out into the world is difficult, and that can surely only feel worse when you put so much of yourself and your hometown into your work – especially in your first game. To his credit, Yuts seems to be adapting well to this sudden attention.

“I realised that I was approaching it with too much ego early on with some of the comments I was making about the game. I was very reluctant to accept any genre labels, and I think that is just fundamentally kind of arrogant. Obviously, it leans on genre quite a bit. There are a lot of genre tropes and terms like ‘dystopian’ and ‘cyberpunk’ can be applied – but in my approach to the project, I personally wasn’t thinking of it in that way. I was just using various framing devices and tropes to assemble an almost documentarian picture, using those tools to tell a deeper emotional truth about the region.

“But you know, art is malleable. People are perfectly entitled to interpret it however they want. It’s out there in the public, and that does as creator, it makes me feel exposed. But I’m slowly learning that it’s not about me. I just need to remove myself from the picture – it belongs to other people just as much as it does to me now.”

This isn’t to say that Yuts is disappointed that Norco has found a global audience, of course. While he remains too superstitious to celebrate his success (at least out loud, anyway), he’s clearly appreciative that his game has been so beloved – and has had such an opportunity to educate the wider world about what life is like in Norco.

Yuts’ journey to align his own intentions with Norco against how some have perceived it is, in part, born from the lower expectations he had going into the project – having not anticipated that there’d be such global interest in a localised and specific story.

“I was so naive about the market of indie games that I’d never even considered Norco’s marketability. Belatedly, I’m discovering that  the deeper you dive into the idiosyncratic, the more likely someone’s going to be able to recognise themselves in it.

Norco’s narrative is full of religious significance, drawing upon the culture of the region

CRUNCH

Norco has been quite the success story for Geography of Robots’ debut title, and an excellent addition to the growing list of incredible hyperlocal indie games. But its development was often a painful one, riddled with the all-too familiar story of crunch.

“It took a lot of personal sacrifice,” says Yuts. “It put a lot of stress on personal relationships. Near the end, we were all working unbelievable hours trying to finish this game. There were no free evenings, no free weekends – it was non-stop for months on end. And that has continued to some degree just in trying to maintain the project trying to get localization done, gamepad support, all these things.

“It can be frustrating, because the amount of work that we put into this was so overwhelming, and continues to be in some ways. And I think there is a kind of consumer culture of video games, even by small studios who are under-resourced, there’s an expectation of a sort of customer service model for these kinds of games. Obviously, if someone buys and supports the game, I don’t want them to be disappointed. I want to make sure that their needs are met and their bugs are addressed and things like that. And so maintaining that has also been its own struggle in a way.

“But we’ve also been fortunate in more ways than I can count. We have the support of our publisher Raw Fury, who has been extremely generous and patient throughout the development process. We got a Game Pass deal which has helped us financially so we’ll be able to break even sooner. And we have the support and the endorsement of so many influential people in the games space. All of those things are absolutely wonderful, and I think make the personal sacrifice worthwhile. But nonetheless, a part of the development was a great deal of personal sacrifice, sleepless nights, insomnia, anxiety, all of those things.

“It’s in many ways entirely my own fault. I underestimated how much time the game would take.  I was a little too timid about asking for a budget that I really thought was realistic. A lot of it was self-imposed, and I have learned some lessons. Should we make another game, there’s a threshold of crunch beyond which I refuse to go or allow others to go as well.”

It’s a painful lesson to learn, but one that we hope the team can maintain going forward. As successful and wonderful as Norco is, I’m sure I speak for us all when I say I hope they can use their new experience and success to create a better, healthier development process. Though to hear Yuts tell it, the process could have been much worse without Raw Fury’s support.

“We have a very good relationship with Raw Fury,” says Yuts. “They’re just an exceptional publisher, they’ve been so supportive. A lesson I’ve learned is that when you’re in the thick of game development you might be saying to yourself, ‘Why did I sign with a publisher? I can handle this myself!’ But the closer you come to release, the more that gets knocked out of your head completely. We couldn’t have done a game like Norco without a publisher. Tribeca would have certainly never happened without Raw Fury’s support.

“We couldn’t have handled this by ourselves,  and this game would have been exactly what I had anticipated from beginning – a niche, regional game that hung out on the lower tiers of the Steam algorithm.”

Despite finding such success with the studio’s first game, Yuts is far too cautious to celebrate his successes all too loudly – Instead focusing on the lessons the team has to learn as they move forward.

“I just have a fundamental superstition, almost a fear of expressing any kind of confidence,” says Yuts. “I feel like the minute I rear in my head and say ‘we did a good job’ and pat ourselves on the back, I’m gonna get crushed. So I try to remain humble, I try to remain vigilant.

“The praise is rewarding. We’re not without critics, and people who approach the game in good faith and walk away from it not enjoying it. I respect those opinions too. And I try to hold them in mind, and not get too swept up by the praise – because this is our first game. We are in many ways amateurs, we have a lot to learn. And I just don’t think we should rest on our laurels.”

About Chris Wallace

Chris is MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer, joining the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can regrettably be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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