This one is gonna be a little different. I’ve never written about something like Welcome to Elk. I’ve never played anything like it either. I could write about the beautiful, almost Dr. Seuss-like art, and write about a standard game preview. But that’s not what Welcome to Elk can really be captured by. To tell you why I gave this my Game of the Show, I need to tell you how hard it was for me to make that decision. Because Welcome to Elk isn’t the best game I played, not even the most exciting game. Not by any real measure. Welcome to Elk wasn’t just a game I sat down and played. It was an experience that isolated me on a convention floor packed to the seams with thousands of people.
I’m someone prone to hyperbole about things that I find to be important. I’m one of those people who has an opinion on what art is and what makes it art, and I think that description of art is pretty damn important. Art, by my definition, is something that evokes emotion in you. Art is a process, it’s a verb. Something isn’t art, something does art. I’m telling you this because it’s important to know why I sat for a few moments after the demo, looking at the screen. How in the final moments of the demo, I sat in tears. My hands shook as I held the wired Xbox controller in my hand, and why when I spoke to one of the game’s designers Astrid Refstrup afterwards I struggled to keep my composure.
If it can deliver the emotional highs and lows it attempts to and successfully achieves in this demo, Welcome to Elk will be a game to bring experiences and methodology of storytelling unlike anything we’ve ever had before. Welcome to Elk does art.
There lies something truly wonderful and dreadful about the island of Elk. Frigg is a pink haired carpenter who acts as our guide through minigames and storytelling that is bright and colorful, even in the darkest moments. The tales the isle of Elk holds for us aren’t all doom and gloom, as Frigg’s own dreams are of a faceless friend, and a raft captain who is a singing giraffe. The isle is filled with friends like Anders, a cave dwelling man who believes the island to be the resting place for his spirit in death. The other people of Elk are at first glance more subdued in oddity, but that is a veneer that slowly rubs away. The isle of Elk is filled with people who seem to have forgotten the world outside of Elk, or who may just be wanting to be forgotten.
There’s nothing unique about telling stories in games, but rather it’s the kind of stories games choose to tell that make the difference in the lives of those who play them. But these aren’t our stories. They don’t belong to the player, because these stories aren’t made up, fabrications, and only lightly adapted to fit in the game’s location. These stories belong to the people who actually lived them, and Welcome to Elk makes no bones about it, you’re there to see the story through. You’re needed to see the story through. But the story is theirs and you can not change it. No matter how much you think you should be able to. There is the story told in the demo, introduced with some humor about having to eat squirrels. A humorous introduction to something far from it.
For the sake of context, but avoiding spoilers, this part of the demo has you play out a moment of happiness as a father, a mother, and their daughter carry out their daily chores. The brevity of the situation fits well into what I had experienced in the demo before then. And then two men enter the scene, with conflict in their hearts, and violence on their mind. The security that this is a game, that you can make a difference was on my mind. And for a wonderful moment I anticipated that the power of a wonderful song, guided by my hand, could resolve this conflict. Because that’s what games do, right? As the scene faded back to the bar it is empty except for a single person. The in-game representation of Lauge Christensen, one of Welcome To Elk’s Story Tellers, sat alone. And there, a video played, telling me the true story about what had happened. And in that moment I knew I had not been able to do a single thing to change anything.
Maybe it’s that instinctive thought of, “If I’d have been there, maybe things would be different. I could’ve done something.” There are more friends I’d care to admit in my own life that I’ve carried this thought for. Prayers unanswered about them. Games do so much to give you control, to make decisions, to make an impact. We love those games, call them some of the best games of all time. Because of the choices and control they give us. Welcome to Elk strips all of that away. Your job as the player in Welcome to Elk is to be the listener. To receive this story, as it is. To take away from this story what it is, not what it could’ve been. Welcome to Elk is a game about the ordinary stories that define people in an extraordinary way.
Like I said, this one was a little different.
Welcome to Elk from Triple Topping Games will be coming out on Steam later this year.