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NORCO and capturing the spirit of Louisiana through sci-fi storytelling

NORCO takes players to a futuristic vision of Norco, Louisiana, digging deep into the look, sound, and feel of the place as it tells a story of a missing sibling.

Joel Couture, Contributor

February 17, 2023

6 Min Read
two children play with a turtle outside of a building
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This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. The IGF (Independent Games Festival) aims to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize independent game developers advancing the medium. Every year, Game Developer sits down with the finalists for the IGF ahead of GDC to explore the themes, design decisions, and tools behind each entry.

NORCO takes players to a futuristic vision of Norco, Louisiana, digging deep into the look, sound, and feel of the place as it tells a story of a missing sibling.

Game Developer spoke with Yuts, developer of the Excellence in Narrative-nominated title, to talk about how getting an outside perspective helped them shape their puzzles, what appealed to them about exploring Norco, Louisiana through a fictional sci-fi lens, and the details that went into the art and writing that helped this game really capture the feel of this real-world place.

Who are you, and what was your role in developing NORCO?

I’m Yuts, the original member of the group. I contributed pixel art, code, and writing.

What's your background in making games?

It started as an informal hobby. I learned pixel art through forums online. I knew some Javascript and started experimenting with the Phaser.js library in late 2015, releasing a couple of small game jam experiments before starting on NORCO.

android sitting on a pickup truck

How did you come up with the concept for NORCO?

I’m from Norco. I’ve been fascinated by the landscape of the region since I was a kid. I collaborated with friends in making art and small documentaries about the region. The game was an extension of that mixed-media work.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Originally I was using Phaser.js, which is a Javascript library for creating browser-based HTML5 games. The game was intended to be a small, quick experience spread over three episodes that could be run in a web browser. After signing with Raw Fury, they expressed interest in releasing the game on consoles. Sticking with Phaser.js would have required a bespoke solution for consoles, so I enlisted the help of Aaron Gray to port the game to Unity. We finished the port over the course of about three months and spent the remaining year of development using Unity. For pixel art, we used Aseprite. And we used YarnSpinner for the dialogue system.

The setting is an integral part of NORCO's story and play. What drew you to tell this story in South Louisiana? Why was this location key to the game?

I’ve spent most of my life researching and producing work related to Louisiana’s River Parish region. I love Norco and the surrounding region. I love the cypress swamps, the Mississippi River, and the suburbs of New Orleans. I find the industrial quality of the landscape fascinating. The game is dark and a lot of people call it dystopian, but my intention was to celebrate the region in all of its complexity, contradiction, and beauty, which is something I’ve always felt compelled to do.

What thoughts went into building the story of a futuristic vision of South Louisiana? How did you want to create this sci-fi vision of it?

I wanted the sci-fi elements to be a little banal and to reflect a kind of exhaustion with acceleration and the increasing ubiquity of social media, algorithms, and AI. I also wanted it to capture both the alienation of those technologies and their potential for forming new kinds of communities.

android statue of Mary

Building on that, what thoughts went into the look of this vision? Into creating the visuals for your setting?

A lot of the visuals were informed directly by the landscapes of suburban New Orleans, having spent years photographing and painting the region. The visuals also got a massive boost when Jesse Jacobi came on board. He’s a very talented traditional painter and applied his skills to pixel art without a hitch.

What thoughts went on creating the looks of the characters? Into exploring a sci-fi look that is fairly grounded in reality?

Some of the characters are inspired by archetypes from around South Louisiana. Like Brett LeBlanc, who is a “heybra,” which is like a suburban New Orleans townie; or Rosie the shopkeeper who’s an old-style New Orleans “yat.” Yats may be a familiar archetype to anyone who’s either spent some time in Kenner Louisiana or read Confederacy of Dunces.

As far as the grounded-ness of the sci-fi, this may be due to the depictions of technology being more parody than prognostication.

What ideas went into the creation of the crew that accompanies the player? How did you design their team?

Since there was no journal or quest log to orient the player, it seemed like a good idea to provide them with party members who were deeply familiar with the region and could offer flavor, context, insights, and objectives as the game progressed.

face over sunset sky

Your characters have deep backgrounds and stories within the game. What thoughts go into weaving these background stories into the game without having players feel like they're bogged down in backstory?

We wanted the player to piece the story and the nuances of the world together at their own pace both through the party system and the mindmap. This would allow more invested players to have a deeper understanding of the game’s lore while also allowing more casual players to move through the game with less interruption.

Your game features more than one puzzle difficulty. What drew you to add this feature?

NORCO is a classic adventure in the style of Snatcher, Deja Vu, or Full Throttle. We wanted to preserve as much of the game’s "gaminess" as we could. Adding a few anchor puzzles was one way we tried to do this. Aaron Gray had the brilliant idea of using individual dialogue nodes as puzzle pieces. That was the kernel of what became the "voice memo" sequence in the mall. The boat sections were intended to provide the player with a unique vantage for both visualizing and exploring the bayou systems of South Louisiana. And with the "City Hall" riddle, we wanted to emulate a very light dungeon-crawling text adventure experience.

What thoughts go into making those two different difficult levels with your puzzles? How do you create varying degrees of challenge in adventure game puzzles?

In general, we tried to keep the puzzles as accessible as possible, since we knew a lot of our player base would be non-traditional gamers. While we wanted some variation in difficulty to keep things interesting, we never wanted to stump the player for a significant period of time since this could kill the narrative momentum. Much of the design was done incrementally with this objective in mind through repeated testing. At points, we pulled in non-gamers to see if they could rationalize their way through a puzzle and tuned it based on their feedback.

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