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  • Andreas Inderwildi

The Gnostic Dystopia of NORCO

This is the 3rd article in the Video Game Cosmology series. Read the intro here, and the first piece on Gnostic influences in games here. If you like my work, consider supporting me on Patreon! Spoiler warning for NORCO.


“My child. I understand that you wish to remain here in this wretched world, though I don't understand why.” – Kay’s mother, NORCO


NORCO is a dystopian game about economical exploitation and the ruin it brings to entire communities and the land they inhabit. The game is set in Norco Louisiana in the near future, a small town nestled (both in-game and in reality) in between endangered wetlands, the Mississippi river and an accident-prone petroleum refinery churning out pollutants and carcinogens. Norco is also part of the sacrifice zone “Cancer Alley,” so called due to the high risk of cancer among its low-income population.


The game’s cast of characters consists of the uprooted and alienated, the impoverished and the unwanted. Environmental catastrophes and the loss of friends and family members due to sickness or industrial accidents are a part of their lives.



The high-tech of this near future – androids, artificial intelligences and mind scans – exists side-by-side with a dilapidated and ruined community and does little to alleviate its suffering. If anything, technology accelerates the endemic crisis of meaning and belonging by giving the powerful and wealthy the tools to further manipulate human beings and destroy the boundaries between body, mind and machine. The lines between body and container, mind and software, the individual and the network, the unique and the replaceable have all been put into question. As a result, the individual has been uprooted not just from the land and the community, but from its own body.


Even though this is a game about concrete problems caused by the indifferent capitalist exploitation, its ultimate focus isn’t on socio-economics, environmentalism, politics or technology. Instead, it’s an exploration of how our environment and our point-of-view within the world shapes our understanding of the cosmos and our place within it. The verdict seems to be both devastating and unanimous: there’s an inherent rot at the core of this world, both literal and spiritual. The inevitable suffering caused by it is without meaning or purpose, and living in it is a slow and pointless martyrdom of a soul encased in hostile and alien matter.


As the Apocryphon of the prophet and cult leader Kenner John proclaims: “Kenner is the only place on earth. Nowhere to go, no one to hang out with. Your flesh is alien, the house is a prison. Only escape is through fiber lines.” Through these fiber lines, the apathetic and hopeless gravitate towards Kenner’s promise of salvation. His understanding of the world is pessimistic, and his promise desperate, but it’s the only glimmer of hope still within reach for the disillusioned, and the only thing that keeps them from complete nihilism.



The fundaments of his message are an odd mixture of simplicity and obtuse esotericism, pragmatism and conspiracy theories of cosmic proportions. From the Apocryphon:


New Orleans is a pit and Garrett's stuck in it. New Orleans is the lowest world. A messenger visits John. Tells him about the early faithful now living in the cavities of the Martian moons. […] The Garretts must build a spacefaring ark, a vessel with which to leave this earth.
Having imbibed the chrism, John may ascend beyond the distortion of the low world and listen for the twilight language.

In other words: the miserable world right in front of us blinds us to the higher worlds that exist beyond it. To ascend, we must overcome the prison-like barriers of our world, both literally in the form of physical escape, but also metaphorically as a spiritual or intellectual escape: our mundane languages are another major obstacle to true understanding. Just like the ancient, tired world they belong to, languages have amassed impurities and become corrupted over the course of eons, and their inability to express pure truth imprisons our minds. The only hope is the “twilight language,” so called because it’s believed to be the original, pure language spoken at the beginning or twilight of the world. Because of its unmediated connection to the spiritual and higher world and its ability to transcend the material, it’s also called “angelic language”.


One text explains that:


To speak the angelic language, one must first drink from the mouth of an angel. This will cause a temporary madness in the aspiring speaker before removing all internal barriers that imprison one's mind. If the aspirant is blessed with a sufficient clarity of faith, she will at this moment be prepared to receive the language spoken in the garden before the fall of man.
But should she inhabit Earth, another barrier will stand between herself and the divine language.
The planet is shrouded in a sphere of distortion caused by cell towers and other sources of electromagnetic field radiation. This blight corrupts incoming signals and makes the angelic communication that man of our ancestors enjoyed impossible. In order to speak directly with God's children who reside in nearby corners of our galaxy, the aspirant must not simply kiss the mouth of an angel, but must travel far from the distortion of Earth.

If knowledge of this angelic language is the deeper reason behind escaping the gravity pit of our planet, the question remains: What is the ultimate purpose of this language? What is the point of liberating one’s mind?


In a sermon to his followers, Kenner John provides an answer:


“It [i.e. the chrism] will bless me with the knowledge of a twilight language capable of passing through the walls of this earthly prison. A language that reaches the furthest corners of the accuser's den.
Our Ark, as was the ladder of Jacob, is a bridge to those higher realms. Tonight, I will drink the ointment of the Holy Ghost. I will call upon the faithful who have walked this bridge before us.
They will shine a beacon and guide us to our home.”

His promise is one of making sense of the world, of both recognising and reaching one’s true place in the cosmos. In other words, he promises exactly what his flock of alienated, confused and aimless youths without future prospects wants most.



The fictional teachings of Kenner John are part of a very real religious tradition: that of Christian Gnosticism. For those new to the series, here’s a shortened explanation of Gnosticism taken from my essay on The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow:


Gnosticism is an umbrella term which refers to a wide range of extremely eclectic religious movements and trends which flourished in northern Africa, the Near East and the Mediterranean during the first few centuries CE.
Gnostics taught that secret knowledge (“gnosis” in Greek) is the only path to salvation. The most central secret was this: our world wasn’t created by a benevolent deity, but an inferior being often called the demiurge (meaning “craftsman” or “creator” in Greek). The demiurge was a jealous, proud, ignorant, even malevolent being. His very existence is a faux-pas in the spiritual order of things, and as a result, the material world he created is a corrupt place. What’s worse, it’s also a prison. Our bodies and everything else in this world were designed to blind us from this truth and keep our souls in bondage. Celestial beings called Archons (meaning “rulers”) act as jailers and ensure that no soul escapes after death.
The only hope is to learn this forbidden knowledge and with it, trick the Archons and leave the material cosmos. Beyond, there lies our true spiritual home, the domain of the estranged but true god.

Kenner John, too, preaches the hopeless and fallen nature of our (false) home, our status as prisoners within it, and the necessity of escaping to our true home. And most importantly, the key to salvation is found in secret knowledge; knowledge of the angelic language, but more fundamentally of the true nature of the world and its history which has been kept from us. This realisation is as necessary as it is unpleasant. As the Apocryphon of Kenner John puts it: “It is ours. The ancient knowledge of the cosmos. Already, we can feel it coursing through our roots. It burns.” Once it has been accepted not only that ours is the worst of all possible worlds, but also that there’s nothing we can do to improve it, the only options left are either despair or escape. Both involve a great deal of spiritual anguish.


The deep pessimism shared by Gnosticism and Kenner John acknowledges the existential suffering in a flawed world while also reassuring us that it is possible to both understand and escape this world. Despite being controlled by malignant cosmic forces, this world has not been entirely abandoned. The Apocryphon of Kenner John states that John taught his flock “about Christ's hidden nature and other secrets of faith.” The ‘hidden nature’ of Christ was a common (re)interpretation in Christian Gnosticism: Christ was seen as an emissary sent from outside the material world to wake up humanity from its spiritual sleep; in other words, to reveal the true nature of the world. Since all matter was seen as corrupt, Jesus was thought to be an entirely spiritual being with only the appearance of a being of flesh and blood. As a result, his death on the cross was equally illusory, and unnecessary to boot; after all, his goal was not to absolve humanity from its sins, but to plant a seed of knowledge which would tether the material world to the spiritual realm.



While Kenner John mentions Christ’s hidden nature, the allusion also highlights a fundamental difference between the cosmology taught by Christian Gnostics in antiquity and Kenner John’s world: Kenner John understands the world not in terms of the purely physical versus the purely spiritual.


The central dichotomy is less between the material and the spiritual, and more between Earth and other (presumably equally material) worlds somewhere in outer space. In “classical” Gnosticism, the entire observable cosmos was part of the corrupt material creation of the demiurge. In Kenner John’s cosmology, Earth doesn’t just happen to be the center of a corrupted cosmos. It itself is the ‘core corruption’ within a larger cosmos that, despite being very much material, doesn’t seem to be dragged down by Earth’s sorry state. The corruption is contained, and what keeps us from escaping isn’t primarily our very bodies and our existence within a material world, but simply Earth’s gravity and the “sphere of distortion caused by cell towers and other sources of electromagnetic field radiation.” While escape still hinges on gaining secret knowledge, it requires physical rather than spiritual travel: the soul escapes with the body, not from it.


Put simply: Kenner John describes a more ambiguous, literal and generally more material world that has integrated modern technology, science-fiction and conspiracy theories revolving around alien visitors into the fabric of Gnosticism.


We don’t have to look far to find modern historical parallels to this updated version of Gnosticism. The Heaven’s Gate cult, which was founded in 1974 and ended in mass suicide in 1997, taught that humans could escape the confines of Earth by evolving into immortal beings with the help of enlightened, transcendental alien visitors. This was known as reaching “The Next Level” and involved transforming one’s inferior mammalian and “reproductive” human body into a perfected but still physical form. Of course, there were dark forces at play in this cosmology, and malevolent reproductive aliens called “Luciferians” worked hard to, in the words of a 1994 recruitment flyer, “intentionally keep humans falsely ‘programmed’ or ‘in the dark’”. The same flyer goes on to explain:


In spite of these facts, there is a true Kingdom of God – a truly Evolutionary Kingdom Level above Human, above all mammalian, reptilian, or any other reproductive species. It is a many-membered Kingdom that exists in the literal Heavens, with its own unique biological 'containers’ or bodies, and modes of travel – spacecrafts or UFOs. It is, in fact, more physically real than the world of the space aliens or humans. This Kingdom Level created the physical universe, as we know it, as a holographic classroom[.]

As any proper Gnostic belief system, Heaven’s Gate describes our world as one created as an inferior place and controlled by a cosmic conspiracy dedicated to keep humans from learning the true nature of their existence. The difference is again that the old distinction between the material and the spiritual becomes blurred. Building on the modern ideas of simulations and holographs, our inferior world is suddenly less material, less “physically real” than the world it originated from.



This collapse of the clear distinction between the material and the spiritual has far-reaching consequences. Transporting Gnostic beliefs in a cosmos lacking in this basic distinction means allowing for the possibility that escape is possible in bodily form, that the conspirators which are to blame for our imprisonment walk among us as living and breathing beings, and that our ability to escape depends not only on knowledge, but also on the ability to, say, build a spacecraft. Body and soul, outside and inside, the obvious and the esoteric, the figurative and the literal, death and (after)life, history and myth, the socio-political and the mystical; they all become conflated and confused as a result.


At a time when the average person understands the cosmos less in esoteric and more in terms of astrophysics or science-fiction, when capitalism drives the world closer and closer towards ecological disaster, when billionaires promote simulation hypotheses or see the solution to our problems in escaping to other planets, and when conspiracy theorists and ideologues perceive everything as part of a global Satanic plot to enslave humanity, this “updated” and muddled version of Gnosticism seems less like a dusty relic of antiquity and more like a mirror of our times.


NORCO brings the dark reflection within this mirror into focus. By drawing on ancient Gnostic ideas, it encapsulates the fatigue and crises of the modern world, where spiritual certainty propped up by lofty and abstract ideas has been replaced by a confused sense that something is not as it should be in this world. The sources of our suffering have become difficult to make out in the muddle of our modern lives, and instead of dealing with the muck sucking at our feet, many seek refuge in increasingly confused constructs, and an illusion of hope in the thought of escaping the world rather than changing it.

1 Comment


Guest
Mar 23

Crítica sem base nem fundamentos a gnose, apenas um conglomerados de pseudo-achismos de correlações de ignorância do indivíduo que escreveu.

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