Welcome to Elk review
Triple Topping Games’ Welcome to Elk is an isometric 2D adventure game that doesn’t waste any time engrossing you in its story – or rather its multitude of stories based on actual biographical experiences. Playing as a young woman who’s looking for a change of pace, I explored the island of Elk, shared all kinds of activities with the townsfolk in the form of minigames, laughed at some characters’ goofiness, and cried a river at the tales of others. Not every heavy topic in this game is sensitively addressed, and its keyboard control scheme isn’t particularly comfortable, but overall this is a very satisfying emotional experience with a narrative that is as powerful as it is creative in the way it implements real people’s life stories.
The game begins with the arrival of Frigg, a perky young carpenter who looks forward to being taken under the wing of one of her father’s friends. Events are divided into three acts, each of which covers a handful of days, and mainly follow Frigg’s new life on the island. You can freely explore, look for cool stuff to interact with (paintings, posters, other characters, etc.), and occasionally engage in diverse activities, usually in the form of minigames. Progress is recorded automatically at the end of each day, and with the game’s short length (about three hours), the lack of manual saving shouldn’t be a problem … except more often than not, the things Frigg experiences in Elk can leave one feeling pretty unsettled and in need of a break before the day ends.
Despite looking like a half-colored children’s book, Welcome to Elk has plenty of mature elements based on real-life events. To honor the personal anecdotes that serve as the foundation for the main plot, these are told as faithfully as possible while protecting the privacy of those involved by changing names and locations. You can read them in Frigg’s house, where they are stored in bottles that someone leaves on her table each day, but they are not the only extra stories that can be unlocked through the course of the game.
On certain days, Frigg gets to meet some of the people who provided their stories to the developers when they mysteriously pop up in the game after certain events. Interacting with them will trigger a live-action cutscene in which they narrate (in Danish, with English subtitles) the experiences they either lived or heard about from the people directly involved. The events in these anecdotes, however, do not always match the events in the main story and the stories in the bottles. Why? That is something the players should discover for themselves.
Of course, a story only matters if it you can connect with its characters, which are in abundance on Elk. For example, there’s a single mother struggling to raise her daughter after the murder of his husband; a man doing his best to enjoy life and make friends after being freed from the claws of his abusive father; and even a grown man who takes a childish approach to death in order to deal with his own traumas and losses. Unfortunately, unlike the filmed testimonials, none of the in-game characters are voiced, with dialogue conveyed solely through text speech bubbles instead.
Their personal accounts are only half the reason why I end up bonding with them, however. The main villain on this island, a chauvinistic brute who only cares about himself, is a constant threat that has been bothering everyone in Elk for years. Commiserating with the townsfolk made me feel better after he tried to sexually harass Frigg several different times, or after watching him disrespect everyone he encountered and even threaten to kill some of the characters. The most terrifying thing is that you can’t do much about it other than endure it, because of how terrifying it is for everyone to gather up the courage needed to try to take a stance against him. In a very short time, I found myself rooting not only for the protagonist, but for almost the entire cast.
There are many more things to do in Elk than listening to stories and worrying about a dangerous criminal, and this is where the minigames and interactive scenes come in. The minigames involve fun activities like playing a golf course that gets weirder and weirder with each new hole, or a silly dance game that involves a tricky version of Simon Says. Other minigames are about helping Frigg’s neighbors through tasks like building a squirrel trap or fishing beer bottles out of a lake. The interactive scenes, on the other hand, aren’t so cheerful, like when Frigg goes through something akin to a dissociative episode while carrying a dead body, or when she agonizes over the task of putting a small animal out of its misery. There are a few activities that fall in between and usually involve some form of artistic expression, like using toy blocks to build your idea of a tavern in heaven, or making faces in balloons to give someone an idea of what his parents would look like.
Elk is a small place, with only a handful of places available to explore, like the tavern, the woodshop and some of the characters’ houses. Frigg and the rest of the townsfolk move from one point to another in a way similar to how string puppets move, waving their arms and raising their knees way too much with every step. The PC version supports both keyboard and gamepad, with the latter being the most comfortable option. The WASD keys or directional arrows are used to move Frigg across the screen, which is not a particularly uncomfortable setup but using a controller’s analogue stick feels way more intuitive, both when moving across an isometric map and playing most of the minigames like fishing or golf.
In a place where the only weather consists of ‘snowing’ and ‘about to snow,’ a white landscape with the occasional snowfall is to be expected, but Welcome to Elk goes one step further by making most of its backgrounds black and white. Color is used mainly in the occasional 2D cutscene and to highlight the elements you can interact with, like a poster on the street, a portrait in the tavern, your fridge, or some random barrel full of fish. These objects do little outside of giving flavor text and Steam achievements for finding them, but they do make the place feel a little vivid during the day. After the sun sets, visibility is reduced while exploring the island, with each character carrying a lantern that gives them a small field of view in a partially obscured screen.
Life is hard on this island, so country, folk and gospel are excellent soundtrack choices. The songs are great at creating a friendly, heartwarming atmosphere during a welcome party for Frigg thrown by the islanders. But the next morning, when she makes a disturbing discovery, a sense of sadness and dread crawls under your skin with the long, melancholic tunes. The game’s main theme, a lovely cover of Johnny Cash’s ‘Wayfaring Stranger,’ encompasses an array of feelings. The action is further enhanced by a solid library of ambient effects that do a great job setting the atmosphere, like footsteps that sound different depending on the terrain, and the creak of an old wooden building and the rattle of branches in the wind that accompany whatever song is playing in the background.
All roads lead to Rome – or if you are living in Elk, to the local tavern, a place where most of the social gathering happens. Alcohol plays an important part in lifting people’s spirits when living and working in such a rough environment, but the lax way alcohol abuse is portrayed feels out of place with the otherwise sensitive approach given most of the other delicate subjects. A character with a severe case of alcoholism is presented as quirky and fun, and no one is concerned about how she hides beer supplies all across the island and is unable to stay in a place with nothing to drink for more than five seconds – not even after one of their own dies in an accident that occurred because he went home drunk. Of all possible subjects that could have been used as comic relief, this seems the wrong choice that is out of touch with the rest of the game.
Less a traditional adventure and more of an interactive story sprinkled with minigames, Welcome to Elk aims primarily to deliver an intense narrative experience, and nails it. The way it presents stories about real-life trauma shows how difficult living with it can be, but also that it is not the end of the world, especially when surrounding yourself with people you can rely on. Even with an excessive reliance on alcoholism for humor, I found myself laughing at Frigg’s goofy behaviour, born out of her positive attitude in the face of adversity. If sharing a story is an act of rebellion against time and the way it causes so much to be forgotten, this game is a triumph over oblivion that turns a handful of memories into something hard to ever forget.