David Remnick: Julian, here's what I got to admit to you. I played Pac-Man like four times in a bar and that's it. I don't know anything about games.
Julian Lucas: You mean you don't have a PS5 in your office?
David Remnick: Is that a nuclear reactor of some kind? Just the other day, I caught up with my colleague, Julian Lucas. Julian writes for us about culture in many forms, about books, visual art, technology, but I didn't realize until now that he's also pretty passionate about gaming. Over the holidays, like all too many of us, Julian was isolated with COVID, thankfully, not too serious a case, but he had a lot of extra time on his hands.
Julian Lucas: One thing that I've always loved about games since I was very young, some people hear the word gamer and they think like first-person shooters or something like World of Warcraft. I was always a lover of adventure games and strategy games, basically anything with a map. I rediscovered that delight in isolation on Christmas and other days during the holidays, playing a game called No Man's Sky. It's a game that originally came out in 2016, fairly high-profile space exploration game. Its distinctive feature is that its universe is theoretically infinite.
One of the things that I love about the game is that you can just point yourself in a particular direction, land on a planet, and immediately begin discovering things. It's almost like you're Adam in the Book of Genesis, because not only can you discover plants and animals, but you can give them names, upload them, and then other players can find them, which to me is exciting.
David Remnick: You obviously didn't play just that one game the entire length of the break in your unfortunate encounter with COVID. What else did you play?
Julian Lucas: More and more games are also allowing developers to do something that's closer to landscape art, something that's about where they come from, or a particular landscape, and trying to convey its atmosphere. That's certainly the case with this indie game, NORCO. It's a point-and-click adventure, a old genre of game, and it's set in the town of Norco, Louisiana.
Before I talk about the game, I have to talk a little bit about the place. It's a town, a few miles upriver from New Orleans, and it's essentially a small suburb with a massive Shell oil refinery surrounding it. I went there in 2019 when I was reporting on Dred Scott's Slave Rebellion Reenactment, and I had the chance to meet the developer of this game. He goes by the pseudonym Yuts. He grew up in Norco. His family works in the petrochemical industry, and he wanted to create a game essentially that captured the sense of loving a landscape that, in a real sense, was destroying itself.
NORCO is about a young woman who is living in a dystopian near-future United States, and she's coming home to Norco because her mother has died. When she returns to the town, she discovers that her mother was researching something mysterious having to do with a local oil company, which is called Shield in the game and is quite clearly based on Shell.
David Remnick: What are we seeing here?
Julian Lucas: This is the landscape of Norco. We saw the skyline of the refinery, we saw the highway that goes over the swamps in Lake Pontchartrain. Now, we're seeing scenes from this childhood home of the main character who's a characteristic home for the area. It's really done in this pixel art style, which has become very popular, both because there's a lot of nostalgia for the video games of the '80s and '90s, and also because it's a form, which makes it very easy for indie developers to create something on their own without the help of a large studio. This NORCO is an example of a game that you might not see at a major studio, because it is so particular, and it is so much the results of one designer's vision.
David Remnick: As in the movie business, we've gone from the dominant, so the complete hegemony of the big studios, to the rise of the indie film as it was, I don't know, a generation ago.
Julian Lucas: Absolutely. That's the moment that's happening in games. Actually, it's funny that you mentioned film because the film industry has taken notice of this, and actually, NORCO won the Tribeca Film Festival's inaugural price for a game last year. The film festival world is taking notice of games like this.
David Remnick: Julian, those of us who have not been paying sufficient attention to games are stuck in the past and think of them as competitive games, shooting games, blowing stuff up, you versus me, et cetera, et cetera. It seems to me that the games that you are exploring are most enraptured would have nothing to do with these instincts.
Julian Lucas: No. I think people make various arguments for what makes games special as a medium, what they can do that other forms cannot. One of them, for me, is just the ability to explore a landscape in a way that is actually self-directed. A line that often comes to mind when I'm playing No Man's Sky in particular for and one of my favorite poets, Derek Walcott, in one of his poems, he wrote, "For no one had yet written of this landscape that it was possible." He's writing, of course, about Saint Lucian, his home island, but it captures for me if I can take it out of context, the feeling of newness and the feeling of really forming a relationship with a world that is in a very real sense your own that games can provide.
David Remnick: Fascinating. Julian Lucas, thanks so much.
Julian Lucas: Thanks so much for having me.
David Remnick: You can find everything that Julian Lucas has written for us at newyorker.com. He talked about No Man's Sky from 2016 and NORCO. A demo version is coming out this month from the group called Geography of Robots.
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