Don't let the art fool you. This gets dark.
True stories almost always influence narrative in any medium, but I struggle to think of games that have direct ties to those stories, especially in the way Welcome To Elk does. What initially looks like a simple coloring book of quirky characters and little mini-games quickly turns into a fever dream. This deeply personal game from the Denmark studio Triple Topping Games has incredibly unique and special moments, but even in its slower portions, I was consistently moved by its story and world.
It’s hard to believe the places Welcome To Elk goes within the first day of gameplay. Broken up into acts and in-game days, you arrive on the island of Elk. Your name is Frigg, and after a quick walk to the bar, you’ll find yourself in the middle of a party for a dead guy. It’s here you’ll meet the residents of this snowy, alcohol-loving island. From that slightly unnerving point forward, everything seems to get a little weirder.
You realize you aren’t doing much of the work that you came to this island to do, and instead, you’re just talking to people and hearing their stories. Oddly enough, you’ll start to realize that many of these stories have ties to the great beyond.
Ultimately, Welcome to Elk is a game about death and how to cope with it. You’ll hear stories from locals about strange lands, and learn that countless islanders are encountering the same thing. Whether happening right in front of you or long ago, it’s clear there’s a darkness to this island.
Most of Welcome to Elk consists of walking from place to place and talking to people, but you’ll also tackle minigames where you’ll pour beer, play cards, and engage with much stranger things. Some of these minigames aren’t meant to be fun, and will instead give you a rather gut-wrenching experience. Most importantly, these minigames serve a narrative purpose, and according to the developers, they connect you to true stories.
Even if you went into the game without knowing its connection to real-life stories, some of the more bizarre sequences would still tip you off. Occasionally, Frigg will experience peculiar moments that come off as surprisingly liminal, with the dev team appearing in front of a camera as they recall actual events similar to those occurring in the game. There’s even mysterious letters that appear each morning on Friggs’ table, all of which blur the line between fictional storytelling and biographical recounts.
The citizens of Elk and their developer counterparts are easy to fall in love with. Even in a short amount of time, I felt at home with the varied, memorable inhabitants of this small island town. Inevitably, some characters will be more relatable and personal to others, just as we are to people in real life, but I’m sure everyone will find someone on this island they can connect with.
Welcome to Elk runs the gamut when it comes to emotions. While many moments can be depressing, there are plenty of others that had me cackling. Then there’s the minigames, which offer quite a bit of fun (some worthy of being standalone games if you ask me!). It’s a mature story through and through, but as you can see, the game isn’t devoid of light-hearted and joyful elements.
Overall, the game is very good at presenting very heavy and dark themes in an unoppressive and friendly way. This is due to the aforementioned humor, but also the lovely hand-drawn visuals that are akin to old picture books. There’s also a distinct lack of color, which adds to the dream-like feel and abnormal elements to make them feel quite special. Finally, classic country-style music helps distinguish this island as being far removed from the big city and its ways, making things much more unique and gorgeous.
Outside of my heaps of praise, the biggest issue I had with Welcome to Elk was the difference in story quality. Some in-game days might stand out a little too well, setting such a high bar that the rest of the game struggles to reach those heights. The highlights are the brilliant meshing of mini-games and meta developer sequences, and when that isn’t happening, there’s a lot of straightforward walking and talking. The writing is always entertaining and never a bore, but that alone isn’t enough to live up to the standout sequences.
In terms of Switch performance, although the character models are a little small in handheld mode, it never got in the way of the fun. Also important for handheld mode is the ability to adjust text size, which means you’ll never struggle to read dialog.
I finished Welcome to Elk in 3 hours, a length I feel is perfectly suited for this type of game. However, if you don’t feel like dedicating that amount of time in one sitting, the game is split into acts, and then further into in-game days, which is a setup that allows for a slower approach. This aligned perfectly with my affinity for handheld mode, allowing me to soak in the story each night before bed. While Welcome to Elk could feasibly go on for longer by expanding on its premise, it simply doesn’t need to, leaving me happy with the total playtime.
Welcome To Elk explores many aspects of death, with some truly brilliant moments that tie gameplay, narrative, and real-life together in a way only possible in video games. Even with some peaks and valleys in the journey, the distinct nature of it all makes Welcome To Elk a must-play for advocates of narrative-focused games.