Norco—a suburb on the outskirts of New Orleans, located in St. Charles Parish—is a town surrounded by the type of swampy terrain stereotypically assumed of its more metropolitan neighbor. Named after the New Orleans Refining Company, its framing to the country at-large, even down to its designation, has been defined by what can be taken from it. But Yuts (sometimes Yutsi), the creator of the game Norco, wants to give more nuance to the story of his hometown. Norco is a first-person point-and-click adventure game divided into three parts “that immerses the player in the sinking suburbs and verdant industrial swamps of Louisiana’s petrochemical hinterlands.” The game blends aspects of sci-fi, Southern Gothic, cyberpunk, and a myriad of themes in an attempt to complicate the town’s story while also universalizing it to a degree. The game won top prize at the Tribeca Festival in their first-ever games competition. I spoke to Yuts twice—once before Hurricane Ida, which left St. Charles Parish flooded and without power for weeks, and once after—and we discussed the double-edged sword of making art about Louisiana, religion and secularization, the genre-bending freedom of indie games, and the coalescing nature of capitalism.
August 20, 2021
I get really excited talking to people who are just as excited about this part of the country. I am from here, and there’s a lot of love that I have for this place, and I have a hard time talking to people who aren’t from here about that.
Oh yeah, totally. So, I live in central Virginia now—my girlfriend and I moved here about two-and-a-half years ago—she’s from Baton Rouge, I’m from New Orleans… Coming up here has been kind of nice, especially for the purposes of focusing on the game because I felt like there was so much noise and hostility back home when I had left. I don’t know if you’ve felt like that.
Yeah, I mean, I almost left. Like right before COVID I almost moved to Chicago just ‘cause I had kinda reached that point. And something pulled me back. I think it was a lot of “I have to stay and defend the fort” kind of thing.
Well that’s how I feel, too. My parents are in Norco, and all my close friends are there—like I don’t really give a shit about comfort, I wanna be with them. But it’s way more comfortable up here. The weather’s better, the infrastructure works, you don’t have to worry about getting mugged which is a thing that’s happened to me a couple times in New Orleans. You’re just always running a background procedure in your head. Like, “How do I stay safe?” “How do I keep myself and the people I love secure?” “How do I keep my vehicle secure?” When you go somewhere and you don’t have to run that program anymore, it’s insane what it does to your mental health… But you know, people talk about the survivor’s guilt. Have you lived anywhere else?
I’ve never lived anywhere else. After Katrina, I evacuated to Lake Charles and then I lived in Destrehan for like six months.
Oh, you lived in Destrehan, no shit… I have a pretty small family but they’re all concentrated in St. Charles Parish, a few in St. John, but they’re all dead now—it’s like everyone that dies, dies of cancer out there. The game deals a lot with that specifically. I’m tied to that place. I based all of my skillsets around that region of the country, so being outside of it, I’ve been working kind of obsessively on the game, and I think part of it is this response to being away from home for the first time and feeling both the survivor’s guilt thing and the powerlessness of not being able to help out friends when they need it. Being away and not being able to share that communal experience that is dealing with bullshit in Louisiana.
The other thing that I have been experiencing, and I think this is maybe from spending too much time on Twitter, but there is a type of exceptionalism with regard to Louisiana. People sort of otherize it and make it exotic and talk about it like it’s something so strange and unique in ways that it isn’t necessarily. And also people, including myself, who are from there, we have a kind of myopic, navel-gazing fixation on Louisiana in a way that can sometimes be a little bit off-putting.
The game I’m making is kind of just an expression of that. I think having a strong identification with place is healthy, but I think sometimes it can veer into cringe pretty easily. I don’t want it to be like, a Louisiana game. There’re a lot more universal things that I’m interested in… There’s some aspects of regional media I just find to be sort of tacky—and I see it in my own work, which is something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit.
What have you been trying to do to offset that?
I’ve been trying to read more expansively. In the lead up to making the game I was revisiting a lot of materials that deal specifically with the River Parishes, industrialization, river geomorphology—all of these things that I knew were important to address in the game. But I feel like that was sort of building a foundational layer for the narrative that I’ve since been building on top of with other research. The game is designed to where there’s thematic elements in the three acts that constitute the game. The first one is specifically dealing with the River Parishes as a place and the things that define that place. The second act sort of deals with faith. In that act there was a lot of research I wanted to get done that is tied to Louisiana, but there’s a lot of lines of light you can go down. My relationship to faith has resembled what I think is similar for a lot of other millennials. We lived through a period of secularization in the ‘90s that is maybe reversing in some ways. You see this return to faith but after this secularization happens. I think most kids who grew up in a Catholic household are probably very faithful at first because you don’t know anything better. But then for people in my age cohort, you were introduced to punk and Crass and Marilyn Manson and whatever—there were different subcultural routes that could take you through this secularization process. And once you go through that, you lose your faith; and if you try and re-establish it, it’s like you’ve already questioned it and thought about it from a critical perspective in a way that you can’t really reverse… And then there’s all these other people on the other side of that who have grown up purely secular, asking those same critical, interrogative questions about faith, but now they want to be faithful and are almost trying to LARP themselves into believing in God. So anyway, that’s what the second act is about. And it revolves around Esplanade Mall.
And you asked how I got away from the Louisiana myopic cringe? For me it’s been reading more broadly about unorthodox Christianity and Christian mysticism, and also gnosticism and paganism and older polytheistic spiritual practices. It makes the experience of Louisiana more global, and it also just makes you interested in other places. I’ve been really interested in Hellenistic Greece, which is something I hadn’t really thought about before venturing down this research path. It’s got no ties to Louisiana—there’s no Who Dat Nation in Hellenistic Greece—and it’s stuff that gets inadvertently folded into the game that isn’t colored by my post-Katrina experience of New Orleans, which has such a magnetism on the city… Just getting away from that, that psychology of territorial, bitter resentment of what the city has become… that has been good for myself and I think good for the game.
I think about this a lot because I stayed here for college and I find that a lot of my friends who left and came back hold onto that a lot harder.
Yeah, that’s interesting… I think once you have interests and sort of a general disposition that isn’t always oriented toward New Orleans you can find common ground with people more easily. You have other interests, or just other emotional states, than just the post-Katrina, low-intensity trauma that’s playing out within your gut.
I was interested in the timeline of this project: when you started thinking about it, when you started working on it, is there a planned end date?
Yeah, so I’m contractually obligated to finish it. Which is probably good for me. No official release date yet, but tentatively Q1 of next year. It started in a few different ways with a few different projects, working on a few different research and collaborative psychogeography projects with friends, and also working on mapping projects. I was professionally, up until this game consumed my life, a GIS [geographic information system] developer making mapping software. And I’d worked on some interactive geospatial projects about the German Coast and the River Parish area. Some of that got folded into the project, and that was maybe six years ago or something. And then the game, I think that was four or five years ago, was a little side-scrolling platformer game. And Gewgawly I, the composer for the game, we were even collaborating back then. You played as Million, who’s still a character in Norco, and she was this vaguely humanoid thing that could collapse into a little ball, and when she collapsed into a ball she could shoot this laser projectile. She was trying to break into the “Shield Oil Refinery” and she was fighting drones and this other stuff, and a lot of that still is in the game, actually. But shortly after that—maybe four years ago—I transitioned into making a more interactive text adventure because those were always the games I enjoyed most when I was younger. Specifically, Déjà Vu for NES. Snatcher for Sega CD. Hideo Kojima, he made this game that was sort of a cyberpunk, Blade Runner rip-off, and it was just really interesting to me when I was younger. He was kind of my first exposure to this like, interactive text. I was already into reading—I actually went really hard when I was younger from reading Goosebumps straight into Kafka and Dostoyevsky when I was like 11 or something. I had older friends and they would talk about the existential writers and I was like, “That sounds cool! I want to read that.” And I was pretty into it and it sort of reoriented my attitude toward games as well. It was the first time where I really had the experience of trying to improve, or trying to level-up, where I was like, “I want to level-up my reading comprehension.” I was playing RPGs, a lot of side-scrollers, and once I got really into literature, RPGs were really interesting to me in kind of a new way as sort of these semiotic experiences of language and symbols and how you can kinda play with those things. [Hideo Kojima’s] Snatcher was one of those games that was interesting to me in that way. I can’t even remember what I was responding to.
Oh, I was just asking about the timeline of the game, but that led into another question I had about other games that led you to this specific construction that you have.
Yeah, so that’s that. But just to finish up the timeline real quick, a year ago… I just asked if anyone wanted to publish the game on Twitter. Completely implausible because it just seemed so desperate. But, sure enough, there were a few bites, one of which was Raw Fury. Decided to sign with them; they gave me enough of an advance to pay another developer, Aaron Gray, who I’m now working really closely with. That was like a year ago. And then just like a month ago, Gewgawly I brought on his friend fmAura, who is a sound engineer, to sort of collaborate, so they’re collaborating on music stuff. And then a month ago our friend Jesse Jacobi, who’s a fine arts painter, started helping with pixel art. For four or five years the game was me doing everything other than sound (with Gewgawly I doing sound), and in the last year we scaled up really quickly. So for the second and third act of the game we’re able to be slightly more ambitious because of that.
I wanted to know what experiences you wanted to explicitly bring to the game that people don’t usually see about southern Louisiana.
Maybe I’m explicitly doing it but not consciously. I mean I’m—as I’m sure you are too—perpetually dissatisfied with coverage of Louisiana. Like the kind of Matthew McConaughey-ification of the Gulf Coast, which to me is sort of tedious. I grew up on the outskirts of New Orleans in a rural area that is dominated by swamplands. My dad worked at refineries and was a shrimper. On paper, if you tried to talk to some studio producer about it, “Oh yeah you wanna make a game about your life? Well you definitely need Matthew McConaughey in there.” But that wasn’t my experience at all. As I’m sure it was for a lot of people in my age group, I got into punk pretty early, would go into the city a lot… there’s kind of this historical moment where a lot of kids in the outer-ring suburbs of New Orleans were being exposed to media and getting interested in things that were not traditionally associated with Louisiana. And that’s something I’m really interested in because I like presenting people with aspects of Louisiana that to me are very interesting and very singular but are hard to romanticize. Like, there was a Burger King on Airline Highway down the street from Norco in Destrehan—maybe you went to that one—and we’d go to Burger King a lot. I played all the same video games anyone anywhere else did. There was kind of this encroachment of capitalism and this dissolution—or what a lot of people would think of as a dissolution—of a specifically Southern identity. As I think is true in a lot of places; but I don’t think they all just become the same thing. I don’t think the life force of a place dissolves just because that happens. I think it just responds to it and it changes and it adapts in strange ways that don’t necessarily conform to a traditional understanding of place. Is that making sense?
Yeah, it definitely is. This is sort of related… but people tell me I sound like I’m from the North.
That’s what people tell me, too. That’s hilarious… You grow up watching Nickelodeon and shit. So you take on what people think of as standard American English. My parents are both Yats, my grandma was super Yatty—my whole family is, really—but yeah, I didn’t really catch any of that. Treating it as this place that’s plugged into neoliberalism—it’s not exempt from it—it changes in dynamic ways just like anywhere else does and it has always been an extremely cosmopolitan place… If you’re trying to create media that’s distinctly of a place, and you ignore all these things that are major contributing factors to what creates that place, you’re participating in—I don’t know what the right word is, some type of fetishization.
Yeah, and I think it’s a similar version of the Matthew McConaughey-ification, even if it’s slightly better, it’s still packaging it and selling it.
Exactly. Yeah, the Matthew McConaughey-ification—it’s like the most irritating tendency in media. A lot of people asked me about True Detective. I never finished it, not because I hated it or anything, I just haven’t in the last few years had time. You know, I’ve been working on media about Norco my entire life, so seeing something that some people interpret as resembling what I’m maybe trying to do with Norco… I think I just subconsciously respond to it as I’m creating. I go out of my way in certain ways—like there are characteristics of my own upbringing in Norco and Norco itself that would conform to someone’s preconception of what rural, southern Louisiana would look like—but almost going out of my way to avoid it in certain respects, or at least show it with the proper nuance.
Yeah, and I think that’s just good storytelling. Any time you write any story, you shouldn’t say anything that head-on. So, I did want to ask about the Southern Gothic aspects of it. It feels like an inevitable choice, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on how the story was aided by that genre.
Definitely. When I was younger I was reading a lot of Southern Gothic stuff, like William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy specifically. I think [what’s] true about those two authors is that the landscape takes a kind of primacy. I was for a long time very interested in geography and the geology of Louisiana, and I’m more interested in that in a lot of ways than the minutiae and the interpersonal dynamics of the characters in the game… There’s a lot of literature that actually has a Southern Gothic flavor that’s more academic or sociological—like there’s that book This Land, This South [by Albert E. Cowdrey], that was another one that was really influential to me, and Rising Tide [by John M. Barry] and other books that are nonfiction that are about Louisiana and the Gulf South. Having this literary precedent about how to write about these landscapes. And letting the art inform the prose and the prose inform the art, having this discursive kind of relationship where I’m researching an area and I’m trying to describe it textually, and then I’m trying to do it through pixels, and then studying the satellite imagery and noticing something else and then going back and researching that characteristic of the landscape.
There’s kind of an As I Lay Dying quality to Norco to some degree. You’re dealing with the death of your mother and—I don’t want to spoil it too much—but in the demo she backs up her consciousness onto what’s called a “head drive,” an external hard drive, and you end up like, carrying your mom around with you, this kind of corrupted backup of your mom’s memory that’s sort of this waking corpse. In my head there’s some parallels with As I Lay Dying.
Southern Gothic is helpful because it helps people orient themselves towards what it is, so I’m very happy to use that label, as is the term cyberpunk; but I don’t think that either of them are really applicable. I feel like Southern Gothic is probably more applicable than cyberpunk because while I do like cyberpunk literature, I’m not trying to prognosticate or tell the future or anticipate what’s coming or introduce any kind of wacky technology. Any of the literary conventions that worked their way in there are a product of the fact that indie games and small games are one of these creative places—sort of like indie literature or zines—where people don’t take it that seriously and you can get away with a lot… I’ve tried to take full advantage of that.
September 15, 2021
So, I just felt like we needed to talk again and acknowledge. I don’t know if you want to talk at all about the feelings you’ve had since the storm in regards to the game. It doesn’t even have to be in regards to the game, it can be just about Norco the town.
Man, there’s so much to say. Now we’re planning on moving back there. We’re probably going to end up moving to Baton Rouge. Being away has been very anxiety-provoking. Although, at the same time I’m appreciating it, appreciating the elevation here, appreciating the fact that it’s kind of stable, climate-wise. I don’t take that for granted. The way I’m thinking about it a bit in my head is like, “I’m young enough still where I don’t feel like I want to prioritize comfort. I’d rather be around people I love and helping them.”
There’s all kinds of parts of the game that were in a way difficult to work on because there are so many areas of the game that deal specifically with repeated flooding. And the kind of psychological effect that that has on you… Like for example there’s a part of the game—it’s at the end—this pixel piece of greater New Orleans as there’s sort of this narrative that’s describing the different regions of New Orleans; and as the description’s happening, the lights of the different areas of town will illuminate. And I was literally working on this scene right before Ida, working on the animation and stuff right as all of the Entergy shit was happening, and all of the different parts of the city that didn’t have power were illuminating in the game. There were just all of these parallels of stuff I was working on where I did have to be like, “OK, I don’t want to work on that right now. I would rather just write some code or something.”
Another thing is, we talked about all the transplant stuff last time we talked, and I hate it, because it’s such a petty part of my personality. But at the same time it’s something that does influence my perspective on the region, being frustrated with people who seem to be opportunistically framing what’s happening via all of these different media. It’s a class of people who have a lot of media literacy, and they are kind of jockeying to frame these events… and in some ways relish the opportunity to do it. And that gets addressed a little bit in the game, but there were times where my pettiness and frustration and these kind of lower vibrational emotions were taking over my ability to be productive and have a more generative attitude towards the game.
Yeah, honestly, the most frustrating part of everything was still getting on Twitter.
[laughs] Dude, yeah… It’s like a crazy-making thing. You can’t acknowledge it because it’s petty and there are more urgent things to be addressed. But you can’t not acknowledge it because it is a huge part of the psychological make-up of all of these experiences… It’s weird because like, Norco is destroyed. My parents still don’t have electricity, my whole family out there doesn’t have electricity, and none of their neighbors do… And meanwhile I’m just working on a video game about this place and like, trying to promote it on Twitter, and trying to get people to wishlist it. And just being part of that—it’s inescapable because I need to follow through with this project—I signed a contract with a publisher and stuff—but it just feels fucking gross.
It sucks because I’ve tried to leave Twitter for long stretches of time multiple times, but because of what I do I kind of have to be plugged into it.
I’m realizing that so many of the things that upset me are like, an affront to my ego, or make me feel personally slighted or defensive or territorial… So I have been thinking more about some sort of meditative or spiritual practice, or even just some sort of philosophy reading track that I can move through to just dissolve some of this ego that causes so much friction.
Do you have any ideas about what that would be?
Dude, I’m trying to figure that out, honestly. I mean, to get sort of a foundational understanding of ego in the psychological sense you can read Freud and maybe read Jung. For spiritual stuff, there’s a really rich tradition of mystical Christianity, sort of meditative, mystical practices there… There’s a few different paths you can go down, and I feel like they all have a pretty similar intention of trying to understand the ego. So I’m just kinda scanning the territory to try and find what would be the most interesting or applicable to me. But, and we talked about this last time, trying to build a relationship with the faith traditions that I grew up around, I think, is probably the route I might try to pursue.
Well, if you figure it out, please let me know.
I’ll let you know if I come across anything that really works.
I did want to end this interview with some sort of pointing to resources, you know, acknowledge that there’s a town that’s still really suffering. If there’s anything that you personally feel people should be directed to.
For more info, check out norcogame.com (images courtesy Yuts)