Norco: Mourning Under Refinery Lights.

CW: Parental Loss.

Splash art for Norco

On December 30th, 2019 I watched my mother die after a short, brutal battle with cancer. My sister and I were the only ones, apart from the doctors and nurses, left in the small hospital room, special exceptions to the stringent visiting hours at the Andrew’s Memorial Hospital. The doctor in charge had already briefed us on what to expect — she advised us to carry her home, and make her last days comfortable. She might have a week. She could have six months. She had less than 24 hours. The cancer metastasized. It was in her liver, then her lungs. Then it was in her brain.

Grief is seasonal and the winter months, or what passes for them in Jamaica, are particularly brutal. My sister and my mother’s sister live in Chicago, thousands of miles away. To everyone else, December 30th is just a day. The day before the day before New Year’s. It’s nothing.

I decided to finish Norco.

I first tried to play Geography of Robots’ Point ‘n click adventure game at launch, in March. The prose was immediately evocative. Pixel art was used to depict decay, grime, artifice, and beauty in ways I’ve never seen before. But 30 minutes in I hit this.

I uninstalled Norco.

I remember the pixel art morphing into blurry mosaics before I wiped my eyes and then I laughed hysterically. Here was Something so cosmically cruel; if I was younger it would have reignited my faith. But those 30 minutes of Norco haunted every word I read in 2022. My mind made solvent and my grief mixed with the game.

Norco is a real town in the real United States built on trauma and twice named after its traumatisers. Its first name, Sellers, was inherited from Thomas Sellers who purchased what would become the Diamond plantation land. Its second, and current name, Norco came in 1916 when 366 acres of rice, indigo, and sugar cane land was purchased by the New Orleans Refining Company (NORCO). In 1929, the NORCO refinery was acquired by the Shell Petroleum Corporation.

In 1954 the Shell Corporation opened an oil refinery and chemical production plant next to Norco displacing the majority black residents. The families that remained hoped for jobs in these facilities but were overlooked for their white counterparts, thus forced into working for lower wages in custodial positions. “It is estimated that only about 3% of Diamond’s (Norco’s) residents were hired at the plant” (Tanesha A. Thomas).

The virtual Norco is a digital document of its real-life counterpart. Shell is traded for Shield and while the dates are muddled and the names are changed, key events within the town’s history show up in the game subtly remixed. In 1973 a pipeline explosion killed Leroy Jones and Helen Washington. Duck, a secondary character, mentioned losing his son Reece in a similar incident, a gas leak from the pipes running near his yard was ignited by his son’s lawnmower. The devastating 1988 explosion which killed seven Shell employees is also depicted as the event which killed Kay’s father, Blue, among other workers. This is Cancer Alley Norco. This is a Norco that will be devastated by hurricanes.

These real-world allusions enrichen an already compelling world. Its citizens do their best amidst the oppressive factions that have woven their tendrils throughout the town. Men hold fast to routines of work and drink, guardrails to lean on to trudge through the weight of capitalism. A cult of young men centres around an influencer, first dressed like employees of an electronic store, then as knights of the English crusade, and then finally as the “Ditch Man.” They throw away their name to become Garrett. Nazis without ideology. Dangerous men desperate to be led as the confines of gender erode and capitalism emasculates what’s left, shattering the concept of “breadwinner.”

Magical realism makes Norco’s citizens’ paranoia corporeal and undeniable. Every day they are poisoned by a legitimate operation. Some of them are made to work on the machine that poisons them. This capitalist mechanism sickens your lungs and pays your medical bills. It empties your stomach and puts food on the table. If the system works as intended, if death, cancer, and petroleum are expected byproducts, then what else is true? Why trust the cell towers? The birds? If human beings are infected by technology and surveillance, then why not nature itself?

When we finally meet the people who benefit from this oppressive scaffolding, they’re at a costume party in an old plantation house. These faceless, disconnected ‘neo-planters’ inherit the role of the slavers swapping sugar and cotton for fossil fuel but stuffing their pockets all the same while grinding brown, black, and poor bodies into loam and oil.Kay, our protagonist, slots back into this Norco trying to piece together what happened to her brother and what her mother was involved in before her death. This brings her into contact with the town’s residents — both new and familiar.

Going home is difficult. Kay left home for the reasons many do, the walls of your town, of your home, that you’re so familiar with become suffocating. It’s only the gravity of maternal death that pulls her back. Her reunion with Norco’s citizens is an awkward dance as they compare the woman in front of them with the snapshot of her in their mind — playing spot the difference. I think you lose the light in your eyes before the baby fat from your cheeks.

In late November 2019, my mother texted me that she was in the emergency room. I visited her straight away. I hadn’t seen her in over a year and she was at my alma mater’s hospital. It was a double reunion as I recognised a few of the students-cum-doctors partway through their residency. My mother was in a gown in a hospital bed, she sat upright lecturing her attending nurse. She was jaundiced but otherwise fine, she had a mild pain in her abdomen that we all thought was gas. I asked if she wanted me to stay over but I had a 14-hour shift on set the next day, so she insisted I go home.

Over the next two weeks, I’d receive text updates from her number. Some were completely indecipherable but when pressed I’d always receive “I’m fine” in response. Her friends and our relatives would reach out to me and me to visit her. I was just breaking into the local film industry at the time, and I wanted to show that I was consistent and reliable. My mother knew how much this meant to me, she’d again insist she was fine.

If I’m honest, I knew. But you know when you’re 8 and you can’t imagine that the world keeps turning when you’re asleep? I didn’t want to see her and make it real.

Some days I wish I listened to that 8-year-old. My mother sat propped up in the hospital bed, a variety of tubes flowing into her body. She turned to face me as I walked in — her eyes were glassy like a taxidermy animal. Her once fair skin was stained turmeric and pulled tight like leather. I could see the detailing of her skeleton. She was thinner than anyone should humanely be except for her abdomen, pregnant with disease.I already knew the kind of person I was in the face of death. I pension my misery, damming my eyes and swallowing my sobs. I’m a “rock,” I’m a “tree.” I turn on the washing machine and I scream during the cycles.

During the three or so weeks I spent with my dying mother a revolving door of her friends and family passed through. Many appraised me with the kind of wonder I had no patience for — marvelling at what 2 decades do to a 5-year-old boy. My mother was dying and no one wanted to admit it. There were prayer circles for weeks — 8 people joining hands in a cramped hospital room. At the end of the circle, there was always a hand beckoning me in. It felt wrong to refuse but I hated everyone in that room, I hated myself the most.

“Do you think she’ll live?” my sister ambushed me with the question in the corridor while they treated my mom on one of the days when we were her only visitors. We didn’t grow up together, and despite loving each other dearly, direct conversation was never our strength. This time she looked me straight in the eyes. I told her the truth.

“I think she will,” she replied. There was no tone, no defiance. It was just a matter of fact. Sometimes I think if I believed half as much as she did then maybe she’d still be here. 

At points in Norco, you play as Catherine, Kay’s mother. These moments are set before Kay returns to Norco, but Catherine is already in the throes of her battle with cancer. She moves with purpose, running errands for the mutated manifestation of her friend’s digitised consciousness — a grotesque radioactive giant bird with multiple heads that shrieks demands — to settle her debts before she passes on. Norco is a strange game.

Catherine is nothing like my mother but playing as a woman dying of the same disease as she was an unexpected surprise that nearly sent me running from the game, again. It’s the Catherine sessions where the game feels most like a traditional point-and-click adventure. You feed a man an aged hot dog in exchange for a secret from the vendor, you follow the “ditch man” up a canal into an abandoned mall taken over by a cult of best buy employees with the same name, you watch the ditch man harvest mushrooms from a toilet in an old bathroom stall. The logic never gets as loose as the classic LucasArts games, but the goofiness persists.

Catherine’s cell phone is key to solving many of the puzzles she faces. There’s an AR app which she uses to decode hidden messages around Norco and a voice recorder that she wields against the Garretts, pitting them against each other by revealing the widespread dissent throughout their ranks. A superfluous feature on her phone is the text message app. Catherine has open threads with her son Blake, her friend Duck, and a medical agency keeping track of her mounting debt. The final thread is with you, Kay. Catherine dotes on her runaway daughter, checking in only to receive terse, economic responses and then nothing at all. She died not knowing her daughter’s phone settled in the bottom of the canyon.

I never said goodbye to my mother. By the end, she couldn’t speak. Her words came out as exhausted groans. I’d later find out she couldn’t see either, the cancer was not satisfied to live in her lungs and her liver, it wanted her brain as well. She was desperate to touch me but she had no control over her arms. Flailing limbs reached for my face, and her fingers dug into me, barely missing an eye. Our last interaction was my recoil.

Norco is about trauma and mourning on every scale. The town will die, consumed by the waters that border it in a destined 4th flood. Amidst the suffering and impending doom of a localised apocalypse, the people live on. It’s what they know. They picked up the pieces when their streets turned to rivers and sifted hope from the debris of explosions. Norco is about communication with what we’ve lost. My mother didn’t leave behind a grand mystery for me to solve. She left behind books and people. I thumb through her journals — loose observations and indecipherable hieroglyphs — and demand stories from all the people who knew her, and whose condolences trip on their tongues out of their mouths.

Norco is kind and necessary.

Near the end of her journey, Kay walks through her home. She talks to the ghosts of the people who have lived there. Her estranged father Blue, her robotic best friend Million, and her mother. Kay and Catherine sit together on the couch.

“I wish you’d have come just a little sooner,” she says, and takes your hand. “I thought we’d have breakfast together or something. I dreamed about it.”

“I wanted to…” you respond.

“That’s what I’d hoped.” She smiles. “Just that you wanted to.”She hugs you awkwardly and kisses you on the forehead before wiping tears on her sleeve.

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