Welcome to Elk is a wild ride. In the few hours it runs, it manages to be both funny and dramatic, creepy and uplifting, shocking and heartfelt, downright weird. But such is the nature of stories, and that’s ultimately what this game is: an anthology of stories—all true, apparently!—but more than that, a reflection on the nature of storytelling, and the lives that stories take on through their retelling.
Elk is a strange little Scandinavian island that’s home to a bunch of even stranger people. Frigg, a young carpentry apprentice from the city, arrives in search of a quieter life, but instead she finds something much more surreal among the tight-knit but eccentric community, the strange dreams she starts having, and the mysterious appearances of bottled messages on her coffee table every morning. Despite her best efforts to actually get stuck into her work, the communal demands of such a tiny village inevitably get in the way—everyone has their own story to tell, and Frigg finds herself pulled into all of them.
It’s a unique framework for recounting a series of vignettes that are ultimately independent of one another. Each resident of Elk and the circumstances surrounding them is based on a true story (the originals of which you can read on the game’s website), but with a bit of creative license to tie them all together. The result is an eclectic patchwork quilt that runs the full gamut of emotion, from sobering stories of grief to an encounter with a biker game that ended with a young woman smashing a beer bottle over her own head to scare them away. There are common themes of love and death running through all of these tales, and some get quite shocking and confronting—a word of caution is advised, as Welcome to Elk periodically traverses sensitive topics like abuse and harassment.
But the thing that stands out and unites these stories most is the way they manage to be simultaneously unbelievable and mundane. These aren’t old folk tales or grand adventures, nor myths and legends or tales of the exploits of famed heroes. They’re just strange happenings witnessed by everyday people, sometimes a little eccentric, maybe slightly embellished in their retelling, but fundamentally communal—the kinds of stories you’d share with your friends at the pub or with your family over dinner (“You won’t believe what I saw on the way home!”), but that wouldn’t normal travel further than that and would only end up getting forgotten. Welcome to Elk makes a point of remembering.
In the process, it also reflects on the nature of storytelling, and the lives of their own that stories take on as they’re told and retold. Each tale has its origins in truth, but they’re also being told second-hand (or third-hand) with a known degree of adjustment for the sake of adaptation to the format and to protect peoples’ privacy. But even aside from those details, the sources of these stories are people’s memories, and memories aren’t always the most reliable—even without a deliberate effort to do so, the transfer of stories through word of mouth invariably brings incremental changes with each retelling. This isn’t to say that Welcome to Elk’s versions are completely embellished, but they’re part of the living, ever-changing nature of storytelling—a point that the game underscores in some surreal, inventive ways.
The most memorable of these are a series of little minigames that crop up. As you explore Elk and get to know its people, you’ll find yourself playing a dancing version of Simon Says one minute, and playing mini golf with molotov cocktails the next. Some minigames are less about overcome obstacles and more about using interactivity to build player connection while you’re, say, carrying a dead body through the snow, and others let you creatively express yourself—like through a karaoke game with no prompts, just you making up a melody on the fly, in one of the game’s most beautiful and haunting scenes.
I think Welcome to Elk is one of those games where the less you know about it going in, the better. That might seem an odd thing to write after a few hundred words trying to describe it, but it’s also so unique and unusual that whatever expectations you might have, they’re almost certainly not going to prepare you for what’s inside. And in a game so fundamentally about stories—not just telling stories that would otherwise risk being forgotten, but exploring the way stories are told and the lives they take on in the process—that willingness to reject expectations goes a long way.
Welcome to Elk
Developer: Triple Topping
Publisher: Tripple Topping
Platforms: PC (reviewed), Nintendo Switch
Release date: 10 February 2022 (Switch); 18 September 2020 (PC)
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.