There exists within the indie gaming world a vocabulary that few can capture faithfully. It’s that bespoke patois that can be found in A Night In The Woods, in Oxenfree, in A Short Hike. None sounds the same as the other, and yet all have that same cadence, a truthfulness about their dialogue that is missing from the vast majority of games. Welcome To Elk is a game to put among their number, an absolutely wonderful story about the very art of telling a tale.
The overarching plot of Welcome To Elk is about Frigg, a young woman who has arrived on this tiny Scandinavian island to study for the summer with a local carpenter, Jan, a friend of her father. While she’s there, she chats to the scant few locals, listens to their stories, and becomes increasingly aware that she herself is a character within a story.
Characters are marvellously complex. Since most are based on amalgamations of real people, and true stories, that’s to be expected. The first to immediately stand out is Anders, a very nice, rather odd guy who truly believes that he, and everyone else on the island, is dead. There are others who are far more down-to-earth, but everyone, no matter how kind, has a shadow. There’s darkness here, but not in a sinister way — in a real-life way. Which is quite the achievement given just how far the game goes to emphasise that this isn’t real life. The fire in your fireplace has a big smile, there’s a knife-wielding octopus outside the bar, and a talking fish skeleton in a jar.
This is presented in a joyful mix of media. There are its main black-and-white hand-drawn backgrounds, with brightly coloured characters and interactive objects, but it every so often shifts, perhaps to more crude storybook-like cartoons, peculiar mixed-media puzzles, written stories, and here and there, live action video of people the characters are loosely based upon telling their tales to camera. The combination of this all gives greater emphasis to the game’s meta-narrative, the complete nature of which is the primary reason for playing, and not for me to spoil.
Within the game are minigame vignettes, each of which feels good enough to have been repeated over and over, and yet are used just once and moved on from. Near the start there is a very fun spin on DDR-like button matching for dancing, quickly followed by one of the most delightful moments in any game I’ve played: an improvised singing game in which you cannot do anything other than make lovely music.
Music is a key part of this experience, much of it in the style of the region, all superb. Distorted music plays a frequent role, whether because Frigg is drunk, sad, or listening to a dodgy old phonograph. There’s real singing too, incredibly moving in places, none of which you’d possibly guess from a glance at a screenshot of its cheerful cartoonish style.
This is such an extraordinary piece of art, its sincerity coupled with its honesty put through a dreamlike filter, then viewed through a dismantling fourth wall. There’s a sadness to Welcome To Elk that never feels mawkish nor manipulative, but rather truthful and optimistic. It covers some very difficult subjects, including suicide and sexual harassment, but it does so with no fanfare nor desire to Teach An Important Lesson, instead, again, broaching these topics with matter-of-factness and honesty.
And if you’re wondering if there’s hypocrisy to be found in taking real people’s stories, and reducing them to video game entertainment, so is Welcome To Elk. It asks such questions of itself, and of you, in a gentle and deeply intelligent way. This truly is a special game, and I’m so delighted to get to play it all over again now it’s on Switch.