Welcome To Elk review - laughter, tears, and lots of beer
The first thing protagonist Frigg does upon arriving on the small Danish island of Elk is attend a party in a pub, a celebration for a long dead member of the community who ironically no one in attendance liked. Death has a way of sneaking its way into the game like that, an ever-present force Elk's inhabitants navigate around, mostly by drinking lots of Tuborg and making the best of it all. Frigg actually came to Elk to help a friend of her father's with some woodwork, but with everything else going on, making chairs was soon the furthest thing from everyone's mind.
Instead, Frigg is the guest who helps take people's mind off things or perform small tasks. These moments are depicted through some great minigames, like building a fantasy pub out of Legos or designing a squirrel trap (sorry, squirrels) in what's otherwise a narrative-focused game. The breadth of genres in those short games is really astounding - each would have been a lot of fun as a standalone.
Welcome to Elk's plot takes place over a number of days, with a different event unfolding each day. Frigg's experiences on the island are all inspired by true stories, stories the game integrates in a unique way - you can either read the stories as messages in a bottle, told by the real human beings who passed them onto the team, or you get to watch an almost documentary-style recounting of an incident. Neither may be entirely true - Elk simply gives you no way to know, even when it's real people on screen seemingly recounting true experiences.
These fourth wall-breaking moments can be as disorienting to Frigg as they are to you as a player. Some of these stories, such as one of a violent death, are really difficult to stomach, their impact softened only by how they're told with some distance, almost like hearsay, mostly passed on from a person who themselves wasn't directly involved. Welcome to Elk is hard to pin down like that - these are complex, human stories, free from most of the storytelling conventions you often encounter in games. The way something dramatic happens every day made me think of soap operas and Mutazione by Die Gute Fabrik, itself a digital soap opera extraordinaire.
My only issue with Welcome to Elk isn't that the real stories break immersion of the game world, it's how the real stories and people that appear make what I just experienced in the game feel somewhat distant - when trying to recount something that happened in the game, my mind immediately goes to the real people I met, not their digital facsimiles. When you know the stories that inspired what's occurring in-game, the digital characters who enact them feel a lot less real, likely because they aren't. I felt that as soon as I got to know everyone and, more importantly, finally learned to tell character's names apart, it was already time to say goodbye.
But I think Welcome to Elk is an incredible well thought-through attempt at telling real stories, which are complex and seldom easily digestible. It's not all doom and gloom though - the people on Elk are an interesting, well-rounded bunch that have formed a tight-knit community, the frank way they talk about their feelings soothing. There are a few good laughs to be had, too, even if most of them are born out of awkwardness, and I enjoyed the cartoony art style that puts strategic splashes of colour on the screen for every item or person you can interact with. That, and the way characters move like puppets on strings, adds some levity to a story that comes bundled with more than one corpse.
Even though Welcome to Elk discusses death in quite a blunt way, it's never dark. If anything, it's an interesting look at different ways to handle death, and it made me think of "From Here To Eternity" by mortician Caitlin Doughty, a book about funeral customs which talks about how the "one and done" way we conduct funerals with in Western civilisations often isn't compatible with our grief. I had just come from an annual memorial service when I started playing Welcome to Elk, and it made me long for a similar party with friends and some pilsner, where everyone exchanges memories with each other. Welcome to Elk is a digital repository of memories, told by slightly unreliable narrators, an island-shaped diorama that ultimately has no problem letting you know it's a game. That's a jarring practice, and it feels a bit like Triple Topping didn't know how to end their own game once they let you peek behind the narrative curtain.
You can finish Welcome To Elk in one go, but you might want to give yourself a little more time to sit with it. I did, because it was odd to not know exactly what's pretend and what's real anymore. I longed for the safe haven of a clear divide between fact and fiction, but I think there's a lot of merit in Triple Topping's experiment, especially as it exists to both pay homage to the real storytellers and to facilitate debate about how we tell stories and create new ones. If you've an interest in storytelling, it's certainly worth taking a trip to Elk and experiencing it yourself.