You may not initially pick Elk as a holiday destination, but you'll come home with plenty of souvenirs regardless - namely the story of its people. The island at the heart of Welcome to Elk is a place full of real stories. Stories of loss and love, protection and silence, friendship and addiction, and somewhere in the middle is you.
You play as Frigg, a young woman who's moved to Elk to study carpentry under a friend of her father's. Neither you nor she will be quite ready for the cast of characters that you'll meet on Elk though, all centered around the various events and festivities that occur in the local pub - the Hermit. From the outside, it's more of a dilapidated old shack, but inside is basically the heart of the island. A 'Spitkiss' pinball machine stands in one corner, a jukebox in another, various flyers and local posters adorn the walls, including a recipe for Astrid's famous hotdogs, and along the back wall regularly stands a long trestle table that transforms from lobster banquet to a faux-funeral display according to the situation.
It's here that you first meet every Elk inhabitant. This collection of two dozen or so faces will become your focus as you grow accustomed - or as much as you can do - to living on Elk, and each has its own quirks and idiosyncrasies. There's Mister Bo, who wears his hair in a scrunchie, lives in the only mansion on the island, and perhaps loves his car a little too literally. Then there's Beth, who lives further inland with her daughter, loves to sing, and has lived through plenty of hardships. There's also Anders, who's my personal favorite, lives in a cave, and is easily the quirkiest of the lot. Of course, among the others, there's also Leeroy, but the less said on him the better.
This collection of misfits constantly propels the short 3-hour or so story forward. On the surface, gameplay-wise, it's a simple affair, with movement controlled by WASD and interactions all located on the space bar. But, the way the narrative lurches about is key to Welcome to Elk's charm. One minute you're learning how to pour a beer behind the bar at The Hermit, the next you're yakking up shrimp in the snow, before talking to Anders on a boat inside a dream. Creative, and wonderfully silly mini-games break up the narrative sections, which range in tone from surprising and silly, to deeply dark and occasionally unsettling. It's hard to know exactly what to expect from Welcome to Elk in the moment to moment but feels like one of the truest representation of what real life can throw at us encapsulated in its short run time.
Stranger than fiction
The fact that some of Welcome to Elk's most bizarre and most uncomfortable moments are actually based on true stories from real people. Real people that Welcome to Elk in fact takes the time to cut to mid-game. You'll be about to retreat to the comfort of Frigg's tiny home when someone new will appear, and suddenly you're watching a real human tell you the tale of what happened to them. It's filmed in the kind of way that reminds me of someone starting to tell a story at the pub, quietly enough, but so interesting that suddenly the rest of the crowd grows silent and turns to listen. It's intimate, personal, and blurs the lines between game and reality in a way that will have you questioning everything that happens in Welcome to Elk. Stories stuffed in bottles that are retellings of the game's key beats start appearing in your home, with different names and slightly different versions of the facts. Which one is the real deal? Will we ever know?
Whatever you feel about the game's stories at the end, I know I'm going to be thinking about the people of Elk for a long time. These are powerful stories that you and Frigg are drawn into, and although Welcome to Elk can be completed in a single sitting, I'd maybe suggest splitting it up over a couple of evenings. I came away from my journey to Elk with many emotions stirring around in my head, particularly after one particular singing mini-game (you'll know what I mean when you get there), and in hindsight, my noggin may have appreciated a break from all those feelings. Regardless, Welcome to Elk is a seriously special game, one that doesn't yet really have a parallel out there. Beautiful, bleak, tragic, and wonderful - it's one to be remembered and cherished.
Welcome to Elk is available now on Steam and Xbox One