‘Welcome To Elk’ review: a weird and wonderful island adventure based on a collection of true stories

A pleasant surprise, as this initially quaint tale evolves into something complex and inter-textual

Welcome To Elk is about a small island community and the stories which coalesce there. Islands are intensifiers for tales of the bizarre – everyone knows everyone, and thus everyone is a character, while significant events quickly crystallise into folk tales that are continually retold and live on in the island’s memory.

I used to live on an island myself. It wasn’t as small as the fictional ‘Elk’, but it was contained enough for things to work similarly. There were stories there, the type you soaked up just from being in the place long enough. One thing that became quickly apparent was how death in these small places was felt more keenly than elsewhere. It can set a whole community reeling, and then live on, resonating through the decades.

One of my island’s most famous stories involves an entire family who drowned. It was the night of a historic storm and they had decided on the spur of the moment that the things had become too dangerous, that their house near the sea might be washed away, and so they evacuated. Having family further inland, they poured into two separate cars and drove out into the dark. While out on the road they crossed a long causeway – a narrow bridge of land that leads from one bit of the island, over the sea, to the next. While crossing, a titanic wave curled over the embankment and suddenly swept both cars into the cold, turbulent waters.

Welcome To Elk Review
Welcome To Elk. Credit: Ewan Wilson / Triple Topping

Welcome To Elk’s stories are similarly tragic – albeit more absurd and dramatic. You play a city girl named Frigg from Copenhagen who arrives on the tiny island of Elk to carry out a spot of work experience. Each day a new story is told, involving different occupants of the island. The game is filled with characters going through tough times, but life there is also shown to be beautiful and potentially filled with joy. At the end of every day, Frigg visits the local pub for a few beers with friends before stumbling home in the dark with her lantern and rolling into bed for another dream-filled slumber.

After several days on the island, Frigg begins to find bottles with letters in them piling up on her kitchen table. The notes detail real-life stories from which the previous day’s events are often derived. Interspersed throughout is real documentary footage of those involved and affected by the stories. This gives Welcome To Elk a biographical edge, although things are no less outlandish. As the saying goes: truth is often stranger than fiction.

The events of the game are a creative retelling of these true stories, and as things progress reality begins to seep in and intrude into the overarching narrative. One of the island’s strangest characters, Anders, believes Elk to be a kind of afterlife, and while Frigg seems to initially pity Anders, the longer she stays on the island the more appealing his wild theories seem. Strange meta-fictional events begin to cloud everything Frigg thinks and does, while keeping us intrigued throughout the entire, surreal journey.

Welcome To Elk Review
Welcome To Elk. Credit: Ewan Wilson / Triple Topping

Although Welcome To Elk might be complex in its use of narrative technique, it’s also extremely simple to play. You move about the island and use a single button to interact with things. That means either talking to someone to progress the day’s story, or interacting with a colourful, animated object in one of the beautifully drawn backgrounds. There’s also a beautiful map which helps with navigation, but beyond getting momentarily lost in the dark, the game is extremely accessible.

Visually, Elk is a striking place. From a crashed plane to the giant whale skull held up on three big logs in the centre of the village, and even the old shunky outside the pub that’s peppered with bird crap, Elk is rich and characterful, despite mostly being black and white. The art style is ornately drawn in a black felt-tip style, while bursts of colour draw your eye towards people and notable objects.

There are also several colourful mini-games to break up all the talking and trudging through snow. Whether Frigg is trying to pour the perfect pint of beer, build a rabbit trap or stitch up a cut, these hyper-focused gaming snippets that all play differently from the next help mix things up. They last a minute or so and, save for a card game called “Gelk Stack” that you play in the pub one night, you only get to experience them once.

Welcome To Elk Review
Welcome To Elk. Credit: Ewan Wilson / Triple Topping

Welcome To Elk does something I don’t think I’ve seen in a game before. It weaves a number of fascinating true stories into one surreal whole. I was fascinated for the entire game’s duration, never knowing where it might go next or how things might wrap up. I also found it largely true to the nature of island life. Tragedy, joy and lots of beer – it’s nice to know that things work similarly in Denmark and Greenland as they do in Scotland. Some things are universal, and Elk gets darn close to capturing that idea.

‘Welcome To Elk’ is out now for Xbox One and PC.

Our Verdict

Welcome To Elk does something new, experimenting with narrative form while managing to tell an effective story that touches on tragedies inherent to remote island life, as well as the many joys and wonders. You’ll meet a bunch of strange characters and explore an utterly charming place, while never quite knowing where things will go next or how reality might intrude upon the fiction.

Pros

  • Great characters and stories from beginning to end
  • A surreal overarching narrative that twists and turns and is near impossible to predict
  • Excellent presentation, from starkly drawn wilderness to colourful mini-games

Cons

  • A few of the mini-games are over and done with too quickly

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