What happens to the anecdotes we tell? How do they grow beyond us? Who remembers us, even if they never know our name?
These are some of the questions that Welcome to Elk, an indie game from Danish studio Triple Topping releasing on Nintendo Switch and Linux tomorrow on February 10, asks and aims to answer.
Over the last two decades, the line between truth and fiction has blurred. The legitimization and power of fake news, “reality” tv, Photoshop, auto-tune, are just a few of the ways. In literature, auto-fiction is on the rise—a relatively new term to identify the unusual blending of truth and imagination. Welcome to Elk, a “biographical adventure set on an island like no other,” enters the space with aplomb.
Fun Minigames in a Thoughtful Story
We enter the small Nordic ice village of Elk at the same time as protagonist Frigg. She’s welcomed to town with a night at the island bar, The Hermit, and a raucous drinking game. There is a new mini-game (for lack of a better word) on each day that Frigg is in town.
The mini-games are a delight, impressive in their range and also in their alignment to the story Welcome to Elk is trying to tell. My favorite was on Frigg’s second night at The Hermit when she does karaoke—keys appear on the screen that allow the player free range of her vocals. Excellent sound mixing made me feel like I was a singer, for the first time in my life, crooning and evolving with the instruments.
The music throughout the game is wonderful, aligning to emotions (all the ups and downs) and story beats. The soundscape matches the simple but effective visual landscape: Characters and interactive options are in color; everything else is awash in white. It’s an effective and enticing design for the snow-covered town.
From the setting to the design to the bravery in uncomfortable conversations, Welcome to Elk is tangibly Nordic, and it should be a welcome breath of fresh air for North American players.
An Experiment in Fact and Fiction
I was hooked on Welcome to Elk within the first 20 minutes, and about an hour in, the game changed the formula. Frigg enters her home and there’s a strange man there (my heart beat fast!). When she goes to talk to him, it fades to black FOR A REAL PERSON TO TALK. Yes, human, live-action, video footage. It’s uncut and earnest.
It reminded me of a great documentary, Rebirth (2011), which interviews, year-after-year for a decade, family and friends of people who died in the 9/11 attacks. The film is a chronicle of grief, mourning, and healing. Welcome to Elk creates an interactive and playful space to explore what it means to experience trauma, and how to keep on living.
Welcome to Elk isn’t the first game to utilize what’s known as FMV (full-motion video). Kickstarter success Her Story, a game from Silent Hill creator Sam Barlow where players search through police archives, launched the modern age of FMV games in 2015. But this is the first game I’ve seen where it’s clear we’re watching an interview, a remembering, from a regular person—not an actor with a script. The man shares his memory of a tragic event, one that shares many similarities with the day Frigg has just had.
Along with footage, there are also text stories that come up in the game. It’s an impressive and commendable experiment. The developers share on their website:
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 web page, and in the game, is true to the core story. However 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…
They are rewritten and combined into one linear narrative. Characters may play a role in one story where they were not a part of originally, and it’s only us who designed the game that will ever know – or come close to the real truth of the stories.
The game succeeds the most when it pushes the boundaries of what we expect from games and in storytelling. I played a few extremely strange but enticing mini-games. Characters said things that felt natural yet poignant. Frigg’s understanding of both herself and her surroundings evolve as the days continue, a process that asks the player to rethink what they remember, the anecdotes they tell, and the relationships they form.
Short but Sweet
Welcome to Elk is a short game, which I appreciate. A character mentions how nice it is when stories don’t overstay their welcome. Another reflects that, “Sometimes that’s all something is—a good story.”
These comments feel slightly pointed, a justification of the experience’s length and breadth. These come toward the end of the game, and perhaps those worries are fair—the ending comes a little sooner than I would like. But, it’s an ending that fits the game’s mission and vision, and I cannot argue with it.
Welcome to Elk is a much stronger contender to the “Quiet Artsy Emo” mood than the too-abrupt Old Man’s Journey; heartwarming, especially compared to the truly alarming Inside; more manageable than the burdens of Life is Strange. Welcome to Elk is doing something fundamentally different than other short story games. I commend Triple Topping’s commitment to pushing the envelope of the adventure genre in gaming.
Welcome to Elk originally launched in 2020 on PC and Xbox, but it makes its Nintendo Switch debut here in 2022. It’s a natural fit on the more mobile platform. It plays well on both the big and small screen, and is a thoughtful (and completable) experience for a wintry afternoon.
“I’m more than a sad story, Frigg.”
As I played, I mused about the power of anecdotes. The game recognizes through a variety of creative communications and mini-games how the stories we tell and retell each other become a part of us. “Hey, did I tell you about the time ____” is a way that we make sense of things we have experienced or heard. I still reference something that my husband heard a seven-year-old kid say at the dentist over a decade ago. Images and quotes become shorthand for us to communicate bigger ideas with friends and family. Frigg’s arrival on the island of Elk allows us an experience to dive into a community’s shared story psyche.
When I got through the game’s credits, I expected the menu to have been updated with an option to rewatch interviews or reread the typed anecdotes or even replay mini-games on their own (you know I wanted to karaoke again). But nothing of the sort appeared, just an option to restart the game.
As I sat there looking at the colorful rendering of Elk and my 100% completion save file, I wondered if my assumption was inherently American. I had these thoughts of, Give me my prize. Give me the thing again without having to work for it. Give me the chance to look at this again.
I knew, looking at that menu screen, that that was not the point of Welcome to Elk. The point of Welcome to Elk is to experience a small world of stories and lives. And there’s no way to dip your toes in. Like the lovable alcoholic schoolteacher Sue, sometimes you have to just dive into those frigid waters and swim to shore.
Score: 8.9 / 10
*Review code provided by the publisher