Welcome to Elk is a narrative game developed and published by Triple Topping. The game was released on Steam and Xbox on September 17, 2020 and is set on a fictional island with numerous characters and stories to interact with. I was initially attracted to the game’s hand-drawn visuals being primarily black and white with main characters in colour and their funny bobbing movement animations. I thought to myself, this will be a fun and quirky game I can play in front of my 3-year old and 6-month old daughters. I was warned, when provided the review key, that the game deals with some pretty heavy themes.
I was thankful for this warning and forearmed ready to pause if required, and there were times I did indeed have to pause and play it after my girls had gone to bed. The stories in Welcome to Elk reflect real life stories – some are filled with humour while others are dark, but they go hand in hand. Even with the forewarning, I found some of the stories quite confronting. I am glad to have played the game but definitely heed these warnings. The developers ensure the issues are handled cleverly and warms you to those circumstances.
You play as Frigg, a young pink-haired carpenter trading their busy life in the city for an apprenticeship in a small town. When she arrives in Elk, Frigg worries that the slower pace of life will be boring (they don’t even have the internet), but quickly discovers nothing could be further from the truth! Although there to learn to become a better carpenter and to improve the town, she is put to work helping the townsfolk in other ways. Initially this is frustrating as she really wants to do carpentry, but then starts to form relationships and looking out for her new friends. It’s a small town, news travels fast and everyone looks out for each other – well, most do.
Moving around the hand-drawn scenes in Welcome to Elk is easy with the Xbox controller and the path around town is relatively linear. You can free roam a little around the snow-filled streets during the day with the sounds of crunching snow as you walk helping to immerse you into Frigg’s life. As mentioned before, everything on screen is black and white, except for the characters and any items that you can interact with. Some items add life to scenes, like a vending machine that spits out some weird objects, and piles of fish. Other items either make something happen immediately or are for you to note so you can come back to it later. You are rewarded with some achievements if you interact with most items. Being the only coloured items, they stick out like sore thumbs, but there were a couple I missed interacting with given I missed some achievements once I completed the game.
During the day, you will talk with everyone you come across which adds backstory to the various types of weird and wonderful, and sometimes rude characters you will meet. Some will give you a task or tasks to complete. Once finished, Frigg tells you she feels tired. Often, this will mean everyone heads to the local bar called “The Hermit” for a drink and a night cap. At first I found this a good way for Frigg to get to know the locals. A lot of theoretical problems are dealt with by just settling it or talking about it over a drink. There are some characters that are suffering alcohol abuse, but you don’t find out that until later, or rather you realise it when certain events happen.
At night time when walking back to your lodgings, the game viewpoint is reduced to just a circle around Frigg as she moves, with everything else shrouded in black, almost depicting the visibility field she can see when it’s snowing. It’s quite a good effect. Back at your house, there are items to interact with before you head to bed. When asleep, Frigg has “Lynchian Dreams”, and someone keeps leaving a message in a bottle. The message tells the full story of the actions and interactions you had through that day, and often adds a bit more detail to the thoughts or conversations of those particular characters which I really enjoyed. It was a good way to finish the day, so to speak. This is where some of the emotion of the story telling starts to become apparent.
Then comes the first heavy story in Welcome to Elk, and even though I remembered the warning, it still came as a shock. The situation itself wasn’t unexpected, but the level of detail it went into and the prompting of moral choices of action were what got me. I won’t go into detail other than to say the premise was handled well, both with the graphics of the game but also the music setting the emotional tone. Frigg is asked if she is ok, and could she help handle the situation. You are given an option not to, and for this first incident I don’t know if you are forced to help or not, but I chose to help. As the scene unfolded, I wondered how I would react if I was in that situation.
Once the sequence is complete, we are shown an interview with a real life person who tells this same set of circumstances from their own recollections. Another story is from a fellow named Lauge who lived in Greenland and rural California and is also the brother of Elk’s director Astrid. I found this also quite confronting, realising that these events really happened to real people. Their memories are so vivid and detailed, despite the incidents happening quite some time ago. Some incidents are things that happened and they came across, others are live actions and they were left with thoughts of consequence, or worse even, dealing with confrontation right then and there.
Later we are faced with having to deal with a rather grim decision. There were really difficult options, and the characters dialogue made you feel like the third option was a cop-out. It honestly took me at least 5-minutes to contemplate the decision. I know this was a game but I felt like I was making the decision for a real life application. I thought about this for a while after each incident and the impact it would have had on those involved. The developers explain how they handled these circumstances in the game.
“The stories in Welcome to Elk, are told by the people who we know and/or were there when the events took place. All are told from memory. The way they are used both on our webpage and in the game is true to the core story but everything like names, locations and other details are changed, renamed and often re-framed to protect the real people behind them, therefore, we call them tall tales. The stories are not one-to-one like you would experience in true crime for example. They are rewritten and combined to one linear narrative. Characters may play a role in one story where they were not a part of originally and only us who designed it will ever know – or come close to the real truth of the stories.”
I’ve purposely not mentioned any details about each of the stories. I don’t want to spoil the details and the impact they have as you play, plus some of the content I don’t feel is appropriate to go into detail. It’s for each person to approach and tackle at their own pace, but I do recommend playing this game. I recommend you read about the stories at www.welcometoelk.com if you want to have a sample of some of them before diving into the game. I was captivated over the few hours it took me to complete the game over several evenings. I wasn’t aware of where the story was ultimately heading, but I took each day as Frigg did and it was an overall fun experience.
The emotional heavy stories are balanced by Frigg and other characters playing some really fun, quirky and usually light-hearted mini-games. You’ll play games such as pinning pieces of facials features to create ‘mum and dad balloons’, pouring beers with different froth requirements, and a clever game where you have to build a hamster trap, amongst others. There is also a really beautiful moment shared when singing karoake which highlights some of the outstanding music composed by Andreas Busk. Towards the end of the song however, you are given a glimpse of a horrific possible outcome which unsettles Frigg, and me too. All the mini-games you encounter are tailored to underline the story and the mood of the game at those points in time.
Overall, I did enjoy playing Welcome to Elk and I’m glad I made it through the whole game. By the end I really felt for the main characters and their stories depicted, even more so for the real life people who tell the stories. The ending was a nice warm way to round out the whole experience. I thought about the game for a long time after playing it and is one of the reasons I’ve taken a while since playing to write this review. Remembering some of the details of the stories is harrowing, and I can only imagine how hard it must be for those people re-telling those stories, living with them every day. The game does have a lot of humour to it though thankfully, and I loved the art style and music to match.
Written by: @ChrisJInglis