I’ve had the pleasure of playing some remarkable games from Nordic countries that cherish their respective cultures this year, such as Norway’s Embracelet and Finland’s I hope she’s ok. Now Denmark’s Welcome to Elk, a narrative-driven, slightly traumatic experience joins that list — a captivating game that is on par with gems such as Night in the Woods and Oxenfree. Developed and self-published by Copenhagen-based indie team Triple Topping, the mostly-biographical tale makes the mundane mysterious and riveting, giving a voice to those that time had long since forgotten in places that have been largely deemed unimportant.
Players take on the role of Frigg, a young woman from Copenhagen who arrives on the small island of Elk in the hopes of apprenticing under her father’s carpenter friend. Elk is a quaint place, cold in temperature but warm in heart, with (literally) colorful characters juxtaposed against the harsh white surrounds. Frigg quickly meets everyone in the island’s central hub, a bar called The Hermit, her helpful nature and friendly disposition drawing in the residents like a magnet. It isn’t long before the entire island seeks out Frigg for help in things outside of carpentry, such as a lighthearted listening ear or the super gruesome task of putting a dying rabbit out of its misery. Welcome to Elk, alright.
During the day, Frigg can’t help but poke her nose into other people’s problems in an effort to help them; by night, those same residents are cryptically visiting her dreams in a manner that Frigg describes as “Lynchian”. That’s not all that’s odd about Elk, however — notes in bottles appear each morning on her table, people who don’t live on the island show up from time to time, and she hears strange voices in places that can’t physically hold the sheer amount of people speaking. Is Frigg going crazy, or is something else afoot on Elk?
Welcome to Elk is very clear upfront that the game will be dealing with some very traumatic experiences (the rabbit should be an indicator), but the disclaimer really doesn’t do the material justice. Some video games make it very easy to kill — a bullet to a pixelated head and it’s off to the next victim — but Welcome to Elk had more gravitas than it was willing to let on about literally everything. Using the rabbit as an example, I learned early on how important Klumben the rabbit was to one of the more off-kilter residents, realizing this person was utterly alone in this world aside from his bunny companion.
When it was Klumben’s time to go, I had to first somewhat explain to the resident what death was in a way he could understand, immediately followed by being asked to do the deed. To make matters worse, I was provided with several options, like twisting the neck or beating with a stick; the heaviest part was that, instead of just tapping a button to complete the action, I had to hold it down and slooooooowly watch as my hands squeezed tightly around the rabbit’s neck, choking the life out of poor Klumben so that the rabbit may know peace. As if that wasn’t enough, a note in a bottle appeared the next morning, regaling me with the real-life version of the rabbit-killing so that I may know the truth behind what just played out.
Let me clear the air — I’m not complaining about the story. Welcome to Elk is something of a deluge of bad experiences rolled up into one very eventful week on an otherwise uneventful island, but the visceral reaction I had to the rabbit and other moments in the game serve to retell very specific real-life moments recounted by people the developers hold dear. We all have traumatic stories in our family history that we can recall with snapshot-like precision, and we all have otherwise trivial experiences that have left an imprint on us. In a way, Welcome to Elk is doing some important work by helping those of us who get bogged down by the every day to remind us of the memories that have made us who we are.
I won’t spoil any more specifics than I already have, but I will say that Welcome to Elk builds up so much in not only its narrative but the way in which everything it unfolds that I was hoping for a little bit more by the end of it. Frigg’s apprenticeship reminded me of the futile effort Yuna’s pilgrimage was in Final Fantasy X, where the party deviated from the path they were desperately trying to stay on to the point where it became clear it was time to scrap the plan and go their own way. Frigg was supposed to learn carpentry, but she ended up delving into one of the most important collection of experiences of not only her lifetime but of the residents of the island, only for the ending to… well, end that way.
While I understand the developers’ point, I’m left holding the baggage of real people, and I’m not quite sure what to do with it. On the one hand, it feels important to hold onto these stories; on the other hand, my connection to them feels more like an onslaught I didn’t ask for. Is this how the narrators felt too? Maybe I don’t understand the point after all — what I do understand is that this one will stay with me for a really, really long time.
Welcome to Elk is an important game in that it makes the unimportant worthy of remembering, giving them the same gravitas any celebrity automatically receives. We tell the bad stories because we’re left holding baggage of an unknown weight, but we need to tell the good stories as well — to shine a light against the otherwise dark moments that seemingly act as traumatic bookmarks in life. I’m still left pondering the meaning behind Welcome to Elk, afraid of coming back to what it’s already told me: these are just stories, and now it’s my turn. If you have three or so hours and are prepared for the disturbing imagery and tales within, I highly, highly recommend GOTY material Welcome to Elk.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Xbox One, PC (reviewed); Publisher: Triple Topping; Developer: Triple Topping; Players: 1; Released: September 17, 2020; MSRP: $14.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a retail copy of Welcome to Elk purchased by the reviewer.