“I asked if it was true that Anders had died three times…”
This is the opening statement in Welcome To Elk and it certainly intrigued me, as well as setting a tone for the journey that lay ahead. It’s worth noting that this statement gives nothing away about the gameplay experience to come or the emotional impact the game is able to have on the player. But we’ll get into that.
Graphically the game is designed in a mainly Black and White 2D cartoon style. Objects that are coloured in are able to be interacted with and a handy Map allows you to navigate the island itself. Other graphical styles ranging from hand painted images to real life footage are interspersed throughout the gameplay. There are even some fourth wall breaking moments such as when the protagonist can hear the game creators talking about the way she should walk within the game environment. Speaking of which the movement of the characters is a kind of ragdoll approach which I found to be particularly endearing.
The game begins with a young Pink haired woman called Frigg arriving by boat at a small community on a remote Scandinavian island called Elk. This (from information we receive during the gameplay has seemingly been modelled after a remote Danish working community in Greenland.) Although Frigg is supposedly on the island to work for the local Carpenter, she soon develops a role getting to know and assisting the rest of the townsfolk.
Frigg interacts with the members of the community hearing their stories and aiding them by carrying out various tasks over several Day and Night cycles. Various events take place during the daytime requiring Frigg to carry out tasks in the form of a short mini games. These can range from fishing for Beer bottles to stitching a head wound and a rather unique version of Crazy Golf involving countless bottles of beer.
Frigg spends her nights having what even the game itself describes as ‘Lynchian Dreams’ and wakes to be rewarded with messages in bottles on her Kitchen table containing the first-person stories that the previous days activities were based upon.
The main object of the game is to interact with the people of Elk, hear their stories and collect the Tall Tales that these are based on via the Messages in bottles.
The game accurately recreates the type of community that lives and works in a remote place with a harsh environment and the things that tie them together. The local Bar – ‘The Hermit’ – is the place where everyone socialises and virtually any event is a cause for everyone to meet there and drink Beer. The death of one of the workers, the death of a Pet or the anniversary of the local brewer’s death are all used as excuses for the townsfolk to get together and drink.
Interestingly, although beer plays a big part in the game and there is a great mini game involving pouring beers with the correct sized foamy heads, the game is in no way promoting drinking to extremes. In fact, it paints a very sober picture about the downfalls of characters who drink so much that it becomes their undoing in the dangerous climate that they reside in. For example, I did not know that if a Human Body freezes overnight in Greenland the eyes of the dead person can crack like glass. As I say, a sobering thought.
The stories of the people on the island range from funny to very sad and moving. One characters pet Rabbit gets ill in a very thought-provoking incident that is not normally expected in a game of this type. You are however expected to face up to the situation and deal with it, however unappealing this may seem.
One mini game involving a last song for one of the characters is particularly moving. That this can be accomplished by the player using four different sounds (via the buttons on the controller) to overlay the soundtrack music says something for the very impressive sound design by Andreas Busk. His music ranges from Bluegrass and Country influenced pieces to an almost Surf Guitar take on those genres yet it fits the atmosphere of the game perfectly.
The sound of the characters footsteps crunching into fresh snow is surprisingly accurate and allows the player to feel that they are experiencing a place where the temperature regularly hits Minus 40 degrees C at night. In a game with this art style the excellent sound design is a pleasant surprise.
The game covers a lot of subjects that effect a community of this type in a thoughtful manner but does not overplay them. The mistreatment of lone women working among groups of men for example is mentioned in two of the Bottle Tales and it really makes you think about how some people are treated terribly yet until the #METOO movement we never really heard about it.
A relationship between the female Bartender and her girlfriend is stated but no big deal is made about it and it has no bearing whatsoever on the game itself. They are a same sex couple but are treated no differently than any other couple on the island. I found this very refreshing as it comes across as the perfectly normal situation that it is and is not laboured over as it can be in other well-intentioned titles.
Death plays a considerable part in the stories that Frigg uncovers but at the same time so does Life and it is possible that the darker elements of the sad stories make the lighter stories that much brighter.
The game itself is a lot of fun, exploring the island and meeting the various characters brings the player various highs and lows emotionally and upon completion you cannot help but feel touched by it. Without giving anything away the rather unusual ending just feels…right. You will have to play the game to see what I mean.
In conclusion, Welcome To Elk is a very unique game to play. I have not played anything else quite like it and there is no easy way of describing it. Take the time to visit, spend some time with the people living there and the experience will stay with you long after you have left.