I was driving on the Louisiana highway the other day and saw one of these stacks on fire, burning really tall with lots of smoke going into the air. Is one usually flaming or was there some kind of problem?
Norco: Faraway Lights [DEMO]
Pixels helped me make sense of Louisiana
For this first post, I want to share a little bit about my personal experiences growing up in Norco, Louisiana, and what inspired me to make this game.
To begin: Norco is a heavily industrialized community at the far western edge of metropolitan New Orleans. One time my friend flew me around Norco in his airplane during an enormous flare off so that I could capture some images, and that's when I snapped the picture above. It gives you some idea of the scale of industry in the area. A majority (around 80%) of the town's footprint is dominated by petrochemical infrastructure. The name of the town itself is an acronym for "New Orleans Refining Company," which was the outfit that operated there before Royal Dutch Shell bought it in the early part of the 20th century.
The petrochemical industry moved into the River Parish region (the linear corridor that runs along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Baton Rouge) for a few specific reasons. There was high ground along the river; there was direct access to Gulf of Mexico oil reserves; and most critically, there was lots of cheap plantation land that could accommodate the sprawling machinery necessary to refine oil and process feedstock. The plantation land wasn't empty, however. Many former slaves and their descendants lived on that land, working as sharecroppers. When the refineries moved in, they relocated these sharecropper communities to just beyond the fence lines of the facilities. This has created a legacy of predominantly Black residents living in close, and often dangerous, proximity to heavy industry all along the Mississippi River.
I can attest to the very real danger that this settlement pattern presents. I grew up a few blocks from the Shell Oil fence line, and in 1988, the catalytic cracking unit on the premises of the facility exploded. It happened early in the morning, before most residents were awake. The nearby dollar store crumbled to its foundation. Nearly every window in town was blown out. Rooftops collapsed. The shockwave caused damage as far as 25 miles away in Uptown New Orleans. My mom immediately ran into my bedroom to find me covered in shattered glass, and assumed that I was dead (I slept through the whole thing lol). 7 workers died in the explosion, and had more people been awake at the time, it's almost certain that the body count would have been much higher. I interviewed some family members several years ago about this explosion and edited the interviews into a short film. You can watch it here for more details on the event:
So, all this is to say, I grew up intimately familiar with and fascinated by the petrochemical apparatus of Southern Louisiana. The region's geography is artificially held together by intricate levee and lock systems and dominated by pipelines and refinery sprawl. It was, to my childhood imagination, a literal geography of robots.
Video games helped me to make sense of all this. In early childhood, I imagined that the skyline of the Shell Oil refinery was a backdrop to a Mega Man stage. Once Final Fantasy VII hit store shelves, I was awe struck by the parallels between Midgar and Norco. Shinra was Shell; and Cloud, Barrett, and Tifa were the fence line residents fighting Shell for relocation. Around the same time, I was consuming a lot of William Gibson novels as well as other postmodern interpretations and critiques of late capitalism. My nascent Gibsonian imagination and teenage Crimethinc politics colored the landscape of Norco and allowed me to see it in new and interesting ways.
I began publishing small zines and flyers to tell Norco's story and would give them away at shows. I did lots of research, took lots of pictures, interviewed friends and family, wrote, drew; just did whatever I could to contextualize Norco's history in a way that I was able to fully understand. That was, in large part, the start of this game. All of those observations, artwork, influences, and experiences are the fuel that keep this project going.
I'll continue to update this devlog with both code and artwork, but I'll also be providing context to the universe of the game, because every detail contained within it has some relationship to the region. If there's anything specifically you'd like to know more about, I would be thrilled to hear suggestions. So, thank you for reading. More soon!
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Interesting read. I live near the Belgian city of Antwerp, not too far away from an industrial zone, but luckily still at a comfortable distance (unlike those unfortunate sharecroppers). There's a man-made lake nearby, with industry lights in the background at night. Sometimes you'll see the glow of a flare off. Train tracks pass right behind it. You can walk up to them and watch cargo trains pass by from up close. It's tempting not to jump onto one, since they move rather slow. Like in those American movies where you have outsider characters/ hobos ride trains across the lands. The place kind of feels like no-man's land. A strange intersection, where nature and industry meet.
Anyway, I played the demo. Game has a special atmosphere to it and I look forward to seeing the finished product. Good luck!
Interesting read, and something about your games (and Norco in particular) really touch me! Partly because I aspire to make art/if/games this beautiful! Thanks for the great work! And I second the other poster, would love to hear some of the nitty gritty of a project like this :)
This was an interesting read! The demo itself was a unique experience so reading about the game's origin makes me all the more excited about this project.
If you don't mind I would love to hear about your art workflow in one of the upcoming devlogs - what kind of material do you start with and how do you go about producing that unique aesthetic in Norco.