Mario against the Anthropocene | Sierra Club

Yuts grew up in Norco, Louisiana. He was two years old when a catalytic cracker (a piece equipment that breaks down muddy oil into lighter chemicals) at the local Shell refinery failed, creating a fireball that killed seven workers in 1988. The explosion was heard in New Orleans, 17 miles away away, and left cars and houses covered with a layer of oily scum.

Yuts was in a cradle under a window facing the refinery, five blocks from the fence. When his parents heard the explosion, they rushed into the room, thinking he was dead. Instead, he slept in shards of glass. “It was part of the mythology of my upbringing,” he says. As a kid, Yuts (a pseudonym he took on in 2019) thought of Norco as a video game. He called it “MegaMan-land”, after a series of games about robots gone crazy.

At 28, Yuts started turning his hometown into a real video game. The result, a point-and-click adventure game called norco, won the first-ever Tribeca Festival Video Game Award in 2021. In March, it was released on the Steam platform by independent studio Raw Fury.

Norco, a population of 3,000, is located on a thin strip of land between the Mississippi River and the marshy edge of Lake Pontchartrain in an area called Cancer Alley. Founded as Sellers, the town was renamed in the 1920s for the New Orleans Refining Company, which had moved into a former plantation nearby. Today, refineries owned by Shell, Valero and others make up half of Norco’s footprint. Its streets are green and open spaces are plentiful, but on the outskirts of town, flares tower overhead. “We were both so fascinated by Norco,” says her sister, Megan. “It wasn’t like a normal suburb, but it worked like one.”

Creating norco, Yuts has joined a generation of game designers experiencing what it means to play – or win – a game set in the Anthropocene. In Sable, a game with the charming strangeness of the beginnings star wars movies, the protagonist is a teenage girl on her journey to adulthood. She moves through the game with no enemies to fight or tools to guide her – the reward for navigating difficult terrain is often nothing more than a view of the desert. In The sky, an archaeologist and her robot companion discover an existential threat to their world, forcing the player to face the consequences now or pass the threat on to a future generation. In a recent interview with Wired, Video game developer Parker Crandell described a year-long struggle over how to shape the game of Re-wild, set for release in 2023, about a lonely botanist trying to restore a forest in the year 2200. The games designers, all in their twenties, saw the global threat of climate change as a reality that they were already living – describing it as a problem that could be solved by any individual who felt dishonest.

norco is structured as a mystery, set in an indeterminate future. The protagonist, Kay, has returned to the city after her mother’s death from cancer, only to find her brother missing. As she searches for him, she is drawn into a project her mother had done – a project about Norco’s past, floating lights in the swamp, and things buried under the lake.

Pixelated illustration of a modest kitchen with yellow walls and gas torches visible through a distant window.

Yuts was a prolific contributor to the post-Katrina art scene in New Orleans, and Norco is in many ways an offshoot of those relationships. “We were writing these songs about this overwhelming experience that we were going through that just wasn’t transferable to the rest of the world,” says Breonne DeDecker, who played in a punk band with Yuts.

DeDecker and Yuts later developed The airline is a very long way, a collection of essays, videos, oral histories and photos about the highway that connects New Orleans to Norco and beyond. Sections of The airline company bristling with pipes and refinery towers, while other parts are inhabited only by tallow trees and willows. Even seemingly empty spaces have a past. Overgrown land may have been a site of labor unrest or a neighborhood that has been razed to create an industrial buffer zone. “You move through all these spaces that have a huge history, but unless you understand it, the space feels empty,” says DeDecker.

These past projects resurface in the books, posters and message boards that litter norco, which were co-written by Yuts’ friends. The game designers are now a five-person team called Geography of Robots. Yuts’ experience as a geographer plays an important role in the design. While it’s hard to take pictures in Norco today without attracting the attention of Homeland Security, growing up there has left Yuts with a visual archive of the in-between places that make up the game world, like the flats ( the space between the dyke and the river) where Kay comes across a horse, a wanderer, and a hastily constructed memorial.

Pixelated illustration of an orange yellow swamp with silhouetted trees and infrastructure in the foreground.norco is a game about climate change and the oil, gas, and chemical industries, but it’s also about much older forces—doomsday religion, centuries of exploitation and displacement—that shape Louisiana. The petrochemical corridor, built on former plantations, is only the latest incarnation of these ancient systems.

The game forces players to question their perceptions of the South, and places like Norco in particular. Sitting on a shelf in Kay’s childhood home is a memoir from a former Dimes resident – a nod to Diamond, a genuinely black Norco neighborhood that was bought out by Shell in 2002 after years of residents protest that a nearby chemical plant had made the neighborhood uninhabitable. “I was done being a child of the poster”, writes the author of the book, “I was done being considered a victim”. In another scene, Kay is pointed out by a director shooting an episode of a real detective counterfeit. The director wants Kay to share a few Cajun phrases with an actor to add local color to the storyline, but if the player thinks fast, they can pull a quick one on the director.

A dilapidated house with blue siding and a roof covered in vegetation, with an orange sky in the background.

A common trend of successful video games is to give players divine control in-game. But despite the seemingly endless choices presented to a player, the option to make a moral decision isn’t necessarily on the table, explains Megan Condis, professor of video game studies at Texas Tech University. Environmental games in particular tend to involve hoarding or managing resources, or defeating enemies. “These games teach you rules,” says Condis. “But they don’t teach you to engage in ethical reflection. The moral decision has been made.”

You can always overturn the rules of a mario Game. Maybe you want to stop running and soak up the psychedelia of the Mushroom Kingdom. Maybe you want to talk with Bowser instead of throwing him in the lava. Do this, however, and you will die.

The strength of video games, says Condis, is their power to create a unique kind of empathy. By forcing a player to take on someone else’s perspective, it can ask a player to not only see through someone else’s eyes, but also make decisions like them.

In a more traditional video game, a player can expect to play the hero and change the course of events for the other characters. In norco, the force of the story is overwhelming and the path of the game depends on how Kay chooses to react emotionally to the world around her. “There’s an inevitability to what’s unfolding,” Yuts says. “Kay’s fate is somehow determined by her birth in Norco.”

This connection to place is treated with rare tenderness in the media on Louisiana’s petrochemical corridor. When I first played norco, the game opened with a landscape of flares and the words “Silence did not exist. The noise never went away. The refinery heaved an endless sigh. I had to react to move on to the next scene, but I had only two choices. I clicked on the words “I still can’t sleep without this sound.”