At the start of the point-and-click adventure norco, protagonist Kay throws her phone into the Rio Grande. Moments before, we witness conversations with her brother Blake, who calls Kay with desperate updates regarding their mother’s cancer symptoms. As we learn of these calls, the lines of two crudely drawn frowning faces shine on the silhouettes of Kay and her brother during a video chat. Throwing away her phone, Kay distances herself from a childhood spent between “devastating rituals” in a town exploited by the local oil industry. norcoThe characters of have a complicated relationship with the past, and that’s perfectly summed up by their parasitic relationships with their phones.
norco switches between Kay’s perspective and that of her mother Catherine. Catherine’s timeline covers the weeks leading up to her death and misadventures using a job app called “QuackJob” which she downloads in order to pay a growing pile of medical bills. The app allows Catherine to work for a company called Superduck and complete various tasks (basically fetching quests) to earn fake digital currency called “$QCK”. When Catherine arrives at a warehouse for one of her Superduck jobs, she meets the figure behind the company. This is not a Chad in Patagonia but a giant monstrous bird with a writhing web of flesh under its wings. It’s here that we learn that Superduck is some kind of virus that runs through technology and plants.
While Catherine’s involvement in this gig work is ultimately what takes her down a dark path, her phone is also the main tool that keeps her moving through the world. She carpools on a small account of about $40. She uses her phone to discover secret statues hidden in augmented reality and unlock new areas. In another section, the shrewd use of his phone allows him to record and expose the hypocrisy in a cult. But in the end, it’s all in the service of Superduck.
Exploring the town of Norco reveals a world dotted with people struggling to make ends meet. At one point, if you talk to a lanky figure hunched over a car, the character tells you that he started driving for a rideshare company, but it’s not going so well because he’s worried about the breakdown of his grandfather’s car. Catherine’s friend Dallas describes how he moved from Craigslist to Superduck to make money, but really just wants to spend more time with his family rather than working gigs all night.
Phones are often touted as the perfect tool for staying in touch with the real people we love, but norco paints a more realistic picture of our contemporary relationship with these devices. When Catherine texts Kay, she hasn’t heard from her daughter. Instead, what we’re seeing is a steady stream of notifications from a collection agency about his medical bills. Although phones can be used to maintain and strengthen relationships, they are also seen as a way to extract more value from their users. norcoThe description of this dichotomy is harsh, but honest; it illustrates how phones can be a useful tool to exploit marginalized and impoverished people. And after all that, I think I’d throw my phone in the Rio Grande too.