It was a tributary, but I didn't know the name for it. If you slid down the wall of that concrete valley and walked, as I did, beside the pools of sickly green water, fast food cups and families of ducks, you would encounter these cavernous holes in the walls. Large enough to walk through, too dark to see the ends of. Standing in the stale smell of algae and the California sunlight, I was enchanted by those tunnels, by the thought of something waiting inside: a fugitive's hiding place, an underground labyrinth, the whispers of a ghost.
My favorite books told me about fantastical things happening in mundane places, hidden behind a smokescreen of normalcy, a portal stashed away in a distant corner that everyone was too busy to notice. I wanted so badly to find an entrance into another world. I liked to wander off on my own, seeking out empty spaces: the half-lit basement floor of the public library, the deserted high school classroom, the crawlspace between a stucco wall and the bushes growing against it. I sat and waited and wished for the curtain to be pulled away, the ordinary chain of events broken, even for a moment.
In my teens, I spent all my free time on the computer, killing time alone in forums, blog archives, anonymous chatrooms, streams with no viewers and empty maps of MMOs—tuned my attention to an abandoned frequency and prayed for a transmission, for a hidden message in the scrolling text, for something to reach out to me through the thicket of code and lights and tell me the meaning of my life.
Shield hid the stars behind halogen and flame projected onto the sky every night.
There was no such thing as silence. The noise never went away. The refinery exhaled an endless sigh.
From the moment we're born, technology mediates our experience of reality—captures it, distorts it, and supplants it with itself. Until our thoughts, desires and dreams are inseparable from the machines that hold them. You and I know how they took the stars from us, the land, the trees, and gave us strip malls and asphalt and the metaverse. No sky but their halogen sky, no stars but their winking satellites.
In NORCO, everything hides something else: “The swamps hid behind mirrors like spies”; “You wonder if such memories hide behind her constellation of eyes.” Break open a statue's face to reveal a hidden mechanism; rip off the face of an android to reveal its human puppeteer. Every day the world they made for us feels more wrong. Dissonance vibrates in the gap between rationality and absurdity, tranquility and atrocity, the thin veil of peace and the violence that secures it.
East above the industrial canal. The moldering strip malls, the narrowed expanse of the lake, the shrimp boats that prowl the black marble waves.
East through Mississippi and the winter weeknight darkness and onward to Florida where it terminates.
When describing Norco, the prose can't help but dissolve into lists, fluid and breathless, that struggle to preserve all the things in the world. Names and visions bubble up from the swamp of memory. The world strains the limits of description, too much data to be catalogued. Billboards, shopfronts, plastic souvenirs, all the meaningless hieroglyphics of capitalism. It's all memorialized in the archive of NORCO, safe in a cloud, while the waves wash the real thing away.
CATHERINE: You are my child. Is the session complete? My oldest. I remember that you held my leg? As a baby when you began to walk?
Computers hold the promise of magic; they are storage containers for the infinite, the ultimate form of loss prevention. The world of the past is still here, in photographs, mp3s, mp4s, the Wayback Machine, remakes and revivals, private servers. You can live forever in the ruins of yesteryear.
[Thinking of the word "medium”: technology as a medium for communication, representation, and simulation; a medium as a vessel for communion with spirits, the divine, another plane of being. Computer as a portal, as a summoning circle.]
In a desperate bid to leave something for the kids, Catherine gives her memories to a neural versioning company. For the right price, she can preserve an impression of her mind. But it doesn't come out right; it never could. All we could save were fragments, parts that will never be made whole.
An outstanding balance of $3,340.00 is waiting in your MyDirect portal.
A bill for $12,513.07 has been posted to your MyDirect portal.
An outstanding balance of $15,853.07 is waiting in your MyDirect portal.
An outstanding balance of $15,872.33 is waiting in your MyDirect portal.
Hyperreality sets in when the things on the screen are as real or realer than the things outside of it. Eventually, there is no sense of an “inside” and an “outside" the screen. Catherine watches the debt accumulate on her phone, a drama of numbers that almost doesn't feel real, is terrifyingly real.
The power to determine whether we live or die resides on pieces of hard drive disks, invisibly magnetized to read 0 and 1. A power so great because it is invisible, produced by the mechanisms of capital and the State. It is nowhere and everywhere at once.
BIRDHEAD: He is a man without a face. You will never see Thomas Saint Claire. But his eyes are everywhere that he wishes them to be. They are here tonight, behind several of these masks. Perhaps closer than you realize.
Over lunch, a union organizer was describing to me how, after COVID hit, she was helping pass out food to laid-off workers and their families, as part of a pandemic aid endeavor. She talked about the pain of looking people in their faces while handing them food, feeling just how inadequate this aid was in the face of systemic violence. She described her anger at the bosses of these laid-off workers, safely tucked away inside their offices and houses, who could never come down to where they were and face the people whose lives they were destroying. She shook her head. “They're too chickenshit to look these people in the eye.”
For Derrida, the visor effect is “perhaps the supreme insignia of power: the power to see without being seen” (x). Seeing is done from a distance: One looks on, but is at no risk of harm or contamination.
Power becomes mystified through the use of technological methods to exercise power instantaneously across distance—CCTV cameras, data harvesting, drone warfare. Technology ossifies relations of power, by increasing the ease and range of surveillance and capture and control. We know names and faces of the rich and powerful, but when one dies, there's always another waiting to step into their place. What matters is not the enemy you can see but the enemy you can't—the perpetual flow of capital through the arteries of the machine.
Far from creating an enlightened utopia, the techno-capitalist State creates a ripe breeding ground for paranoia and conspiracy. More than ever, we live at the mercy of invisible forces beyond our control.
From a scrapped essay on Kentucky Route Zero:
Bodies are dwarfed by the structures around them—buildings large enough to make a human feel like a trespasser. There's a weightiness to these industrial fixtures, icons of a system we were merely born to uphold, icons that will stand like ancient wonders long after we're dead.
The machines feel more real than us, the way they shape the world with such certainty: extracting, refining, creating, destroying. (Those brave and reckless enough to interfere, to sabotage their vans and block their pipelines, are swiftly reminded of what little a human life means to a capitalist.)
In interviews, Yuts talks about growing up conscious of the physical existence of machines in Norco, monolithic machines that took up so much real estate, their presence as poetic and beautiful and strange. Seeing industrial infrastructure and thinking: “That's Midgar.” Here is a recognition of the fictional in the real, such that, consequently, the real start to feel less real. Hence the refrain, "We're living in a simulation." Every headline is more cartoonishly evil than the last.
It becomes hard to reconcile the grotesque shit going on in the world with an equally overwhelming feeling of banality. Work starts at 9 tomorrow, the wheel keeps turning, the prices rise with the sea level and the jokes keep coming, and try not to think too hard about what you saw on your timeline last night. Carve out a livable space inside the confusion and loneliness. Retreat into ever-smaller spaces, where you can treat each other with kindness, where things make sense, and the values we hold can prevail.
The isolated units are all haunted by the feeling that the center of things, of life, of control, is elsewhere, beyond immediate lived experiences. The principal images of interrelationship in this new society are mechanical juxtapositions: the identical prefabricated houses in the housing project, swarming over the hills; the four-lane highway full of cars bumper to bumper and observed from above, abstractly, by a traffic helicopter.
The humans are not connected, though the structures are. What matters is the logistics and the organization of capital and investments and not the living humans. (Fredric Jameson, The Detections of Totality)
We move through the streets and subway tunnels like ghosts, like islands of private suffering. Reaching for a world that is always slipping away from us, was never ours to begin with.
You called home from a landline in a motel somewhere beyond Texas. You knew from Blake's hello that your mother was already dead.
You hung up, shouldered your bag, returned to the highway.
Five years had passed. The ghosts were calling you back home.
Every family in NORCO shows signs of dysfunction and breaking down (being broken down): the lack of warmth and closeness in Kay's family; disaffected Bruce and his unaffectionate father; the feuding St. Claires; the Garretts and their absent parents. Alienated by capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy, they cannot help but fail to take care of one another.
Despite her fraught familial relationships, Kay returns to Norco after her mother's death. She honors this originary obligation to her kin, her name, her blood—a calling so mysterious and ineluctable it requires no narrative justification. But when Kay returns home to find her family gone, her search for them begins to unravel into a greater conspiracy involving her family's bloodline. The Ditch Man believes that Kay is a descendant of Jesus Christ.
???: Because you are the last of his line. After you, there will be no more.
???: This is something your grandfather knew. He tried to tell others, but they only laughed. As many do when confronted with the truth.
—What did she find?
???: A messenger. A vessel of God's light. An angel. It will guide and protect us as we fly.
???: I have made the room nice for you. When you enter, I will be there. And your brother will be there. And your mother as well.
At the end of Kay's journey, she is accosted by the Ditch Man, who tries to strap Kay into an exploding rocket with Blake and her mother's corpse. He believes this rocket will return them all to the Kingdom of Heaven, where they'll be reunited with their family in the stars.
In one of the game's endings, Kay straps herself in and submits to her fate. How can we read this inexplicable act? Perhaps a kind of survivor's guilt—the guilt of having abandoned her mother in her last hours. Perhaps she thought it was right that she remain in this place, with the people who raised her, knowing it would lead her to death. Maybe, in some secret corner of her mind, she was compelled by the Ditch Man's promises. She wanted to believe in a better world beyond this veil of illusion, a world that had obliterated loneliness and suffering, that had truly triumphed against loss. A world of unity and wholeness.
In the other ending, Kay refuses to die. When the Ditch Man is distracted, she escapes with Catherine's body, and she jumps with her brother into the water below.
Having buried Catherine and saved her brother, she has become even less tethered to any person or place. There is no thought given to whether she might stay, to challenge Shield's grip over the region, to weather the disasters and disease. No—having experienced some fleeting moment of resolution with her family, she permits herself to wander the earth again.
By its end, NORCO feels less like a declaration of love to its namesake than a painful separation. There's little to celebrate in this ending, to imagine Kay walking through the desert, aimless and alone and hounded by death. A duty fulfilled, her mother laid to rest in water. All that remains is the stubborn will to live on, into an uncertain future.
The fourth flood will follow a slow hurricane and it will be a calamity.
It will leave the entire region submerged as critical levees breach. There will be a massive blackout that lasts weeks.
Much of the sewerage infrastructure will be damaged beyond repair. The embattled federal government will do nothing to assist. It will bankrupt the region.
As for the fate of Norco itself, we already know how things end. The Real will come crashing down on our heads, in the form of disaster, climate change, mass death. Every so often you notice it in the air, a silent dread that can't be shaken: “For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest; neither any thing hid, that shall not be known and come abroad” (x). It's difficult not to indulge in fatalism when NORCO tells us, we are already living in a memory.
“I wish you've have come a little sooner,” she says, and takes your hand.
“I thought maybe we'd have breakfast together or something. I actually dreamed about it.”
—“I wanted to...”
“That's what I'd hoped.” She smiles. “Just that you'd wanted to.”
NORCO is an archive not of Norco but dreams of Norco, Norco as it resides in the imagination. It is a map to a place that no longer exists, that only ever existed in the minds of those who lived there.
Look around. Take care of the people and things around you. Blink, and they'll be gone.
When you play NORCO, you return to the mindmap again and again. Every new piece of information lights up the map with a new node. Clicking on a node builds a rudimentary link, connecting a face to name, a person to a person, a person to the object of their desire. Taking these floating, untethered beings, you string them together into a narrative, a network of neural pathways. NORCO says, Look: if you only pay attention, you'll see how it's all connected.
In 1973, when Richard was a young teacher, she witnessed the death of 16-year-old Leroy Jones. Jones was mowing the lawn of an elderly neighbor, Helen Washington, when a spark from the lawnmower ignited gas from a leaking pipeline.
The incident galvanized Richard. She started taking note when her neighbors got sick or died of cancer; or when her children had breathing problems that landed them in the hospital. Her own sister Naomi died at the age of 43.
Her concerns grew stronger after an explosion at Shell's refinery in 1988. The explosion toppled a 16-story tower and cracked walls and ceilings in houses around Norco. The blast was so severe it set off alarms 25 miles away in New Orleans. (x)
Central to Richard's project was taking note: a way of connecting the dots between Shell's emissions and damage to people's health. She needed to make visible the invisible links between the actions of the oil executives and the consequences that her community was suffering. She organized with other residents and environmental groups to fight the corporate gaslighting, to make the case for their truths, to receive some form of redress.
The opposite of individualistic thinking is ecological thinking. The latter allows us to see the tragedies and losses not as isolated circumstances, but as problems produced by a system, an intricate web of causation. Who assembled this machine, and who mined the parts from the earth, and who lived on that stretch of earth before it was stolen, who profits from the transactions and who haunts the circuits? When these invisible connections have been made visible, the gates can be opened to the possibility of justice.
If there's hope to be found, it's in this stubborn insistence on the interconnectedness of beings, of the land and the people who live on the land, no longer content to be ghosts.