We've been playing the latest build of Welcome to Elk this week, and this strange game about an island filled with stories is so hard to describe we've decided to have two goes at it.
Bertie and I both played around with the game for twenty minutes. Here's what we made of it.
(Welcome to Elk will be hitting Steam in 2020, BTW.)
Okay this is an extra line I'm putting in purely so that the ad doesn't ruin the page layout on desktops.
One minute I'm on a raft, talking to a llama, the next I'm standing by a microphone, singing a song in order to send a ghost - a man with no facial features - to the other side. It's a nice song. It's a bizarre game.
I'm still not sure exactly what I played. On the one hand, it's a really smiley game. Characters skip around, beaming, without a trace of negativity. It's all cartoony and upbeat. I even stuck cut-out magazine facial features on balloons to represent some guy's lost parents (and clicked on a whooping, literal Seal of Approval when I was done). And that was how Elk seemed to go. Bizarre, irreverent - a lot like WarioWare, come to think of it, little mini-games popping up here and there.
But on the other hand, it's brutally sad. I just watched a video of a real guy, filmed as if on a phone in the back of a bar, recounting an account of a terrible, tragic event - one which involved characters in the game. One of the true stories in the game, I guess. Double whammy. And it comes out of nowhere. One moment, you're singing another song, a sadder one this time - but you're still smiling because the game is irresistible - and then smack!, a genuine account of something profoundly awful.
What did I just play? I don't know. I want to know more though. I want to know how it all glues together. I want to know what the point is - I hope there is one. But I'm sure there is because everything else seems so assured - bizarre but assured. I'm intrigued.
I've played the Welcome to Elk demo through twice now. I think it takes about fifteen minutes. I'm fascinated by this line that pops up at the very start: "Based on true stories."
My wife thinks I get unreasonably annoyed whenever mattress ads come on the TV and talk about Memory Foam. I think I'm pretty unbothered about language and the way it evolves and neologisms and ad-speak and all that stuff, but there's something about using memory to describe the way a block of foam bedding works that really irritates me. Memory is this weird, beautiful, problematic thing at the centre of being alive. I don't think we should use it to sell mattresses.
Anyway, Welcome to Elk is all about stories, and that means it's all about memories. You're on this strange island having all these surreal conversations with drunkards and eccentrics. There are lots of mini-games that remind me a bit of WarioWare, and the whole thing is delivered with this felt-pen punk comic aesthetic: beneath the cheeriness, it's a grubby place. But beyond all that it's about these stories these people tell. You go into the demo and there's a very strange, surprisingly violent and distressing story, delivered in this rather off-hand way. At the end of it you see a video clip of a man telling the story as it was related to him, and it's even more violent and distressing and strange.
I think these layers are what makes it so interesting. It's a demo built around a second-hand story that was itself second-hand. So many layers of memory and interpretation in there, so much fuzziness and imprecision. The stark parts of the story get starker and everything else gets vaguer. It's funny and horrible and genuinely dark - and it's memorable too.