No other game this year has surprised me this year as much as Welcome To Elk (opens in new tab) by Danish studio Triple Topping. The indie adventure is about the residents of Elk Island, a small community in the most rural of Scandinavia. It's an anthology of short anecdotes from the island's folk and can be anywhere from uplifting to downright dark.
Before I played Welcome to Elk's demo last month (opens in new tab), I had assumed that these stories were fictional, but it turns out that these tales are very much true, and they're told straight from the lips of those involved.
You play as Frigg, a young woman who has arrived on Elk to start an apprenticeship under the town's local carpenter. As she meets the island's residents—around ten or so people—she begins to learn about the stories of people who currently live on the island and others that happened decades ago that have become part of the island's communal memory. These tales create a sort-of island mythos, intertwining the lives of people who are still alive with the ghosts of the past.
Each day brings a new story involving different members of Elk's community, like Anders, a friendly—if somewhat strange—chap who has supposedly died twice. There's also Beth and her young daughter who unashamedly eat squirrels, and Sue, a woman who loves beer so much that her catchphrase is "No beer? I'm outta here." The community is warm and welcoming, and slowly Frigg begins to settle into the slower paces of island life.
Although it's a pocket-sized island, Elk is bursting with character. There are oddities sprinkled all over to interact with, like a vending machine that coughs out empty beer cans to giant whale skulls marking the town's centre.
The day's stories will take you all over the map, and intertwined with each of the day's activities you'll be participating in fun mini-games, like attempting to pour the perfect pint with just the right amount of foam, or using different mechanisms to build the perfect animal trap. Most of them are a cute kind of kooky whereas others serve to highlight the character's stories, which often reveal just how tough Elk life is for some of the characters.
One such instance is when Frigg encounters the frozen body of one of the island's residents, who had gotten so drunk that they passed out overnight and froze to death. It hits a very peculiar spot between being shocking, but almost funny, and one made all the more bizarre it's followed by a mini-game where you load the poor man's body onto a sledge to move him. It's a surreal and tragic moment that walks the very fine line between comedy and tragedy with such balance it's commendable.
Adding to the ghastly nature of just finding a corpse, the day ends with a black and white video clip of a man recounting the real-life story of the time he found a frozen body, that follows the story that you've just played out. He recounts his story in such a way that it's genuinely quite awful and adds a whole tone of weight onto what you've just played.
Welcome to Elk is filled with these accounts, some written down, and some recorded by real-people on video. It's captivating to watch people recount the events you've just played, but also creates a pretty grim portrait of the tough life these character's lead.
It's first funny when you hear that Beth only eats squirrels, only to realise that it's because the island is rife with poverty. The stashes of beer hidden all over the island are at first played off for a laugh, only for the realisation to set in that alcoholism is abundant in Elk. If you're from a rural community where these issues are prevalent, these stories will definitely hit a little close to home.
I've made it sound like a misery pit, but Welcome to Elk isn't only about these shocking moments, but how the characters move forward from them. Although many of them have it tough, they are all good people who have unfortunately ended up in shitty situations. Just like the game's real-life story tellers, it's about how we remember people and what we learn from them.
In Welcome to Elk, humor and tragedy go together hand-in-hand. It's a weird and wonderful adventure based on true stories from those on the fringes of society, which make it intriguing to play.