Welcome to Elk is not the game I expected it to be. Of all the titles I have reviewed this year, this is by far the most challenging piece to write because this became a gaming experience, I was not prepared for in the slightest nor the impact it would have on me after finishing its nearly four-hour gameplay. I was left troubled by its ending and with more questions as the credits rolled after laughing out loud for most of the first act of the game. I have to say again, this was not the game I expected.
I first became aware of Welcome to Elk thanks to the Summer Game Fest demo week on Xbox, it was one of a handful of games that grabbed my attention right away as it appealed to my love of point and click style games but with a more modern twist. The art style was striking and the setting was intriguing as were the many varied characters the demo introduced me too so wanting to play and review the full game was pretty much a no brainer for me, especially when one particular character, bursts into the island’s ‘Hermit’ pub after 20 minutes of nothing but pleasant character dialogue with “Evening Fuckheads!”.
The game puts you the player in the role of a young woman named Frigg, who has been sent to the island in order to learn carpentry from a friend of her fathers who now works on Elk. As soon as Frigg has stepped off the boat, she begins to be introduced to all the varied characters who live on Elk and each one of them has their own life experiences and story to tell. This is very much at the heart of Welcome to Elk, story telling which across the four-hour length of the game, which is split into four Acts, the player will experience stories being told via Frigg in a variety of ways.
Frigg as a main character is very interesting and her impact on the residents of Elk is also immediate as she gets to know them more with her role as the ‘New Person’ giving the residents the freedom almost to tell their story to someone who has never heard them before just as we, the player, is also new to hearing these tales for the first time. By experiencing them through Frigg it becomes a more immersive and personal time as you play the opening two acts as you the player are introduced to these characters at the same time Frigg is. Frigg ends up feeling very isolated on this island which has no internet, stopping her from reaching out to her friends and family back home and it is not long before she is very much tied into island life of waking up, going to work, going for a drink and going to bed and repeating.
What took me by surprise is that between the random mini games which feel exactly that, random, to the daily slog of Frigg attempting to do what she is supposed to be there for, learning carpentry, that the events and lives of the people on the island soon start to be nothing but distractions for Frigg. Acts One and Two are almost deceptively tame but also things start to get a little…trippy. Frigg starts to have strange dreams that she cannot explain before finding a message in a bottle with a fully told story in written form. Which is where the story telling begins to take over the narrative as a story is really told to the player in three ways, one via the character on the island, the next via the messages in the bottles left every morning for Frigg to find and then some are from actual real world people who appear on the island for Frigg to talk to which triggers a real video to play of a person either recounting the story that they heard or telling the story as if they experienced themselves.
This is where the game hit me out of nowhere, the stories soon become very intense and very dark and at times left me very uncomfortable to see them or interact with a game scene as Frigg. I originally streamed this game and for the first two hours we all giggled and laughed at the weirdness of the game and the character of Leeroy the most, he is the character that uttered the amazing “Evening fuckheads” line that quite honestly floored me. But Leeroy is actually a complete bastard, one who is brutal and sexist and mistreats his brother and the whole population of the island is afraid of. Leeroy is sexually aggressive to Frigg on each encounter which starts of as awful flirting to forced moments to a scene that I found far too dark and uncomfortable to actually show on stream and hid the sequence behind my intermission scene. I then discovered that the game description on the Xbox store, which is what I had checked before seeking the game to review, and the STEAM store description of Welcome to Elk are VERY different. For instance, on STEAM, the mature content of the game is fully explained where on Xbox it is completely absent. For context, the stories told in the game range from parental abuse, to sexual assault and even murder. The intensity of how these stories are brought into the narrative can be draining and though the STEAM page gives adequate warning to would be buyers of the game, the Xbox store does not do the same, which is a big complaint and one I raised with the developers on social media that received a reply that they would make the change. At time of writing, this has not been done.
This is perhaps my biggest issue with this game, the tone shifts so sharply and becomes rather harrowing due to the way in which the story is told in three different ways. First Frigg will deal with an islander who is telling her the story as if it was a life experience for them before the same story is then told as if you are reading it from an autobiography. Finally, it is when the video of a real person retelling the story that really hits you as you are brought out of the game completely only to be put back into it as Frigg who is just as confused as you are. I played the entire game on stream but I would recommend taking a break each time you complete an act, with Acts 3 and 4 being the strongest in terms of how dark the narrative can go. The final sequence to the game left me and my audience very much distressed as it suggests a certain outcome, I found troubling to the point that it left me with that feeling even after the credits rolled with the game believing it had been resolved which to me felt that it very much had not.
Welcome to Elk is intriguing as an experiment in narrative story telling via video games as well as showing the power that sharing stories with each other can keep those in the story alive as memories as the story is passed on to different people who may in turn retell the same story to others. I feel if I had the same warning that the STEAM page description of the mature content in the game was, I could have both prepared myself and the audience watching my stream about what was to come but instead, Welcome to Elk really was not the game I had expected.
Even writing this review several days after completing the game, the stories are still fresh in my mind which shows that the game did its job, but I am still very much at odds with those same stories and how the game told them to me. Some make me smile when I think of the characters that Frigg interacted with but then I am also left reeling almost from the telling of such dark events in the manner in which they were in a variety of ways. I can commend the way in which Welcome to Elk is structured and it is very much a unique game experience I have never had before.
But I would now tell people what to expect instead of going in with only the Xbox store description about this game. It has very mature content, some will make you feel uncomfortable and that alone is how I am left after playing it. It by far has been the most challenging game to review of 2020, I cannot say I enjoyed or hated my time with the game which is not how I feel the developer team wanted a player to be left with.