Welcome to Elk is a big bag of things, but it’s primarily a story about storytelling. It’s about how we take the slop of stories we’ve accumulated in our lifetime and use them as a material, like clay, to shape into things that help us survive. There are people who make houses, using their stories to protect themselves and construct a cosy but psychotic shelter; there are people who use the stories about themselves as a weapon, to make them bigger and more threatening. Some tell stories to relieve the weight of having to carry them everywhere, while others make video games out of them.
A sure feature of stories is that they can be ruined, though, and Welcome to Elk is definitely best experienced fresh. I’ve already given you more information than I had when playing the game, so you might want to skip to the score (it’s a 5/5, to save your scroll-wheel) and play. For those of you who stay, I’ll try to skirt the edges of what makes Welcome to Elk so damn essential.
Elk is a Danish island community that – while fictional – has strong parallels with Greenland. It has only two connections to the wider world: a single boat that ferries visitors and provisions, and the ruined shell of a brewery, which once exported beers to the mainland. You play Frigg, a young woman who has arrived on the boat to take an apprenticeship with a local carpenter (it’s never quite explained how or why this came about), and it’s through this carpenter that you’re introduced to the tight-knit community, with all their Scandinavian quirks, fondness for beer, and simmering social tensions.
What plays out is somewhere between the Night in the Woods day-night structure and the navigation of Knights & Bikes, but it’s also something very much of its own. You will wake, trot down to the workshop or pub, and then the community ‘happenings’ will bubble up and wash you off in a direction you probably hadn’t planned. If you’re allergic to such things, there’s a lot of walking and talking – Night in the Woods has similar proportions of talking versus doing – punctuated with minigame vignettes, almost short enough to qualify as WarioWare games. You will dance, you will sing, you will get drunk, and you will make squirrel traps. Then the moon will come out, you’ll head back to bed, dive into a Lynchian dream and start the process again the next day.
All of this is etched in a wonderfully coherent, beautiful art style. Triple Topping Games have so much confidence in the colour that shines through their characters, events and art direction that they’ve stripped the game of actual colour. It not only makes the game feel unique, but it acts as the guiding hand: in something akin to Mirror’s Edge, all interactable objects are painted in primary reds, greens and blues. The approach to character is similarly inspired: the Elklings look like characters out of a Wild Thornberries colouring book, googly-eyed and faintly grotesque, and they move with a Thunderbirds-y, ragdoll gait. These visual decisions all collaborate to create a world that is obviously reminiscent of our world, but off its hinges just a little.
That goes for the audio too. This is a fantastic soundtrack, one that you’ll want to rehear outside of the game. It seems to take plaintive folk and country songs, play them through a cassette player and then drain the player of battery. The songs are beautiful, but you get the sense they’re winding down, or being distorted somehow, and that fits the off-kilter graphical design to a T.
But it’s the way that Welcome to Elk treats storytelling that really knocked me for six. It’s best described as a collage, if you’ll forgive the slightly pretentious framing. The comparison works in a couple of ways: for one, the developers do not stick to one, single way of telling their story, and the mixed-media approach leaves the game feeling like a scrapbook. I don’t want to reveal too much, but the art style will change regularly, and the perspective will change just as frequently. The black and white will shift and allow other colours and textures in. There were moments where it broke the fourth wall and incorporated the developers’ own stories, and they were absolutely breathtaking.
Games have dabbled with this – the ending to Ninja Theory’s Enslaved is one of my personal favourites – but I’ve rarely seen it achieved with such emotional success. A couple of sequences, one with the moving of a body, and another with a story about a killing, twisted me right in the gut.
The game is also a collage in the sense that it’s a sewing together of stories. There’s a reason why Triple Topping have opted for the fictional Elk to tell this story, rather than the direct corollary of Greenland: this island is an amalgamation of different people’s biographical memories of the place. By seeing the island through this kaleidoscope, it can’t be Greenland anymore.
The interviews and biographical stories do more than just ‘inspire’ Welcome to Elk: they are cut out and pasted in, often directly. In many cases, you will be at the centre of something terrible that happens on the island, and afterwards you’ll hear the real-world story that inspired it. Other times, the story inspiration will come first. The source of the stories is very real, and the game is fine with letting you know that.
The developers are stupendously playful with this. The game will twist or distort the story you just heard to mess with your expectations (one section has a will-they-or-won’t-they-open-their-eyes section, and the drama’s completely created by the preceding story). Equally, something visceral or dramatic might happen in-game, that couldn’t possibly be biographical, and then the game reveals that it was indeed true. The effect is to make you realise how much the game – and perhaps gaming as a whole – can normalise horrible events and package them up to make them less troubling; we’ve always got the safety net that the game won’t end, that you will always have agency in what you do. When you experience the unsanitized truth of the tale afterwards, it salts the wound.
Within the context of this collage, Welcome to Elk has some fascinating things to say about the power of storytelling. A few characters are living in a story, distorting their reality to make something that settles them. One other is haunted by an old story and finds it hard to push on. The game’s integrity even ruptures to allow the developers’ stories to creep in, through objects in the environment (and their resulting achievements) and some moments that are best kept secret.
At one point in the game, the developers choose to surface, through a character’s dialogue, what they believe to be Welcome to Elk’s theme: that we are the products of our ancestor’s stories. Strangely, that wasn’t my abiding takeaway. I found Welcome to Elk to be about how our own stories can be crippling. If we’re beholden to the stories we have about ourselves, or that people have about us, then we can be doomed.
Welcome to Elk has more to say than that. It explores what it means to be part of a community, and the responsibilities we have to others. Through the minigames, the game takes the opportunity to force you into horrifying interactions, which deliberately jar with the garish Xbox buttons that appear on the screen, as if to remind that the real world isn’t as sanitised as the game we’re playing. There’s even a question mark over whether the island is real – just a figment of someone’s imagination – but that’s probably the least interesting of what’s on offer.
You’re probably getting the sense that I enjoyed my time with Welcome to Elk. In reality, it is not one of those ‘perfect’ 5/5s. There’s a villain who is one-note, when the game didn’t really need a villain anyway – there was enough ennui to keep the story rolling. The ending doesn’t coalesce either, taking a slightly limp route in a too-short runtime. But the game manages to scale so many highs that you forgive it the lows.
There are experiences here that I’m not sure I’ve encountered before – at least not in a video game. If that’s not fodder for full marks, then I don’t know what is. Welcome to Elk on Xbox One is a game that’s going to stick long in the memory. For a story that deals in the power of memory, that feels like a suitable conclusion.