Don’t just tell the sad stuff.
While wandering around PAX East 2020, I found myself circling the Indie Megabooth, where smaller developers could show off their games and talk to con goers and journalists alike. One of the games that really caught my eye during this time was Welcome to Elk! I even still have a piece of con swag from it on my desk: a bottle with one of the game's many stories inside it. The demo I played was incredibly charming, showing a game full of stories that were largely based on true events set on the snowy rural island of Elk. Now that game has come to Switch, so it is finally time to see if the end product could deliver on that promise, and I'm happy to say that it definitely seems to.
In Welcome to Elk!, the player is put in control of Frigg, a young aspiring carpenter who has moved to the titular island of Elk in order to apprentice under her father's old friend Jan. As a result, she becomes familiar with the eccentric residents of the island, such as the rich and generous Mister Bo, or Anders, a man who is convinced that everybody is dead and that Elk is the afterlife. As Frigg meets the townspeople, she hears each of their stories and helps them through their problems, usually involving a simple minigame such as building an overly complicated squirrel trap or piecing together a monstrosity on a balloon meant to represent Anders' "parents" (though I really hope for his sake that is not what they look like). This is essentially how all of the gameplay goes in Elk, each day is spent talking to the townspeople followed by at least one minigame and it really never goes further than that.
As a whole Elk is more about the stories than it is about the game, something reflected in the stories in a bottle that mysteriously wind up in Frigg’s home each morning; from these, the player can read the true story that the previous day’s events were largely based on. This is also the case with the three major happenings, as not only do you get the bottle story to read but also a live action video of one of the storytellers relaying them to a camera, videos that truly bring across the emotional weight of these stories and why they’ve stuck with them for so long. It’s an interesting approach that I’ve never really seen another game take, one that solidifies each story as human and meaningful. This also comes with what might be a bit of a deal breaker for some, as behind Elk’s quirky happy art and animation lies some rather heavy events that could possibly cause some form of tonal whiplash, including a minigame where you personally have to kill a sick and suffering animal. If this seems like something that might bother you, it’s probably best to skip this release.
Overall, Welcome to Elk! has a lot to say about the stories that make up our lives, told through charming character designs, clever writing, and a delightful soundtrack full of acoustic guitars, banjos, and other rural sounds that make spending time in Elk feel nice even when it gets sad or uncomfortable. Characters like Beth and her daughter Freddie are memorable, and moments such as the fate of Beth’s husband will likely stick with me for a long time. Frigg’s experience feels genuine and grounded even during moments of whimsy. At the end of the day, the game’s message is that sometimes a good story is just that: a good story. It really doesn’t need to be anything more.