Welcome to Elk was one of my most anticipated games of the year; its mixture of a novel art style with some unique ragdoll effects for the characters, alongside a personal and more artistic story with some fun and weird mini-games, as well as FMV segments to tell a quirkier narrative, was something that appealed to me. After the great experience of the demo, I went in with very high expectations and, unfortunately, the end product did not live up to those expectations; that’s not to say that the game ended up being bad, because it is still quite brilliant and I can’t find anything meaningfully negative to say about it. It is more to say that it did not blow me away as I had initially hoped, nor is it an experience I am passionate about; it is a poignant, funny, and interesting experience, but I had hoped for one that elicited more emotions out of me by the end.
Welcome to Elk starts out pretty straight-forward; you play as Frigg, a young carpenter who has taken an apprenticeship in Elk, a small, isolated town far away from modern technology and society. There are two things you should know before getting into this game: First, the game is based on real stories where the names, locations, and details are changed or re-framed to protect the identities of people who experienced and told them, as well as serve the linear narrative the game is going for. That leads to the second point which is that this game dives into some uncomfortable subjects; it is very respectful and its humorous moments (at least for me) were in good taste, however the game is very open about this and encourages people to check out the steam page or their site for letters that resemble the tales told and will serve as a taste of what to expect. Unfortunately, talking about what works and not is a bit spoillery, so instead I’ll be vague for now and get into the details later. The writing in general is excellent; the tales are well told, the characters are well written and genuine, the narrative is interesting, while the gameplay and the themes/story are expertly blended and it is genuinely worthwhile to experience even if you’ve seen the story play out in a passive manner; it’s at times funny, sad, tragic, poignant, melodramatic, and many more adjectives, and does all of those extremely well. My only main critique of it is of Frigg; she is the worst of the two extremes of game protagonists. She has her own thoughts and feelings, so she is not a blank canvas for the player to paint their own personality on, but she is not much of a character to be all that interesting; I’ll expand on this later on in the spoiler section, however I don’t think it is a straightforward “Frigg is a bad protagonist” situation.
It’s a real shame as well, because Welcome to Elk is one of the few games that successfully blends gameplay and narrative into a coherent whole that supports all of its parts; had it had a great protagonist as well, then the story would have been more impactful and garnered a stronger response. Regardless, the shortcomings there do not diminish completely the great ability shown in other places. The gameplay, for example, mostly consists of walking around the same small village, back and forth from work to home to the bar and back home, which fits quite nicely with one of the points of exploration being the isolation from the rest of the world and the repetitiveness that is forced upon people in those situations. When players aren’t walking around, they are engaging with the many different mini-games, which are fantastic. Some are the right mix of weird, funny, and engaging like this weird off-shoot of UNO, while others are simply quirky like making a face; there are also some that are just tragic and poignant. Point being that whenever the player interacts with the gameplay mechanics, it is to further the narrative through meaningful gameplay opportunities that actually enhance the story and allow the narrative to exist in the way it does, besides it being an excuse to mess around with fun gimmicks.
Another area where the game shows excellence is the visuals; the art style is this brilliant hand-drawn style, with the models having ragdoll physics that make them seem like weird puppets. It’s certainly unique looking in action and I fell in love with it from the first time I saw it, but I was very surprised at how well it is used within the story as well; there’s a DIY fairy-tale feel to the game which suits the art style brilliantly, but the use of darker colors to elicit certain feelings works extremely well here. Similarly, the soundtrack works quite well with the game; it’s mostly comprised of country and folk music with a lot of banjo, as well as some tropical island music that work well with the themes of the game or as a comedic/tragic juxtaposition.
Despite being very positive in theory, I can’t help but be a bit disappointed with the game in general; this is the type of game that I feel like I should have the energy and passion to talk about it for hours, yet after I rolled credits, I found no such desire. Thinking back on it does make me happy that I gave it the chance it deserved and I have no real regrets spending my time and money on it, however this did not elicit the response I expected of it. The reason for it is a bit spoillery, so for people that don’t want spoilers now is the time to stop reading! One of the main ethical questions faced by games inspired by real events (such as early Call of Duty games) was the question of how do you convey difficult experiences through the medium of video games; Welcome to Elk asks the same question for itself and its answer is to acknowledge its own artificiality. Early on in the game, Frigg listens to the developers discussing their intentions with the experience and how they are going to implement it, and throughout the game, she finds letters with the stories she experienced earlier on her doorstep, characters make 4th wall breaking remarks, etc. This is where Welcome to Elk will divide: Some will find that distracting and a cop out, but I actually think it is a neat way to avoid unnecessary bogging down of sequences and ideas with trying to keep a suspension of disbelief (like how Frigg is supposed to be there on an apprenticeship, yet she does anything but work). However, that concept also makes Frigg an inconsequential protagonist; she is not on the same wavelength as the player, and as noted before, she cannot be her own character in this context, yet she reacts to it of her own volition which makes her a bad vessel for the player to project on. For me, this lack of connection made the events less traumatic and less meaningful, which is in turn what I think makes Welcome to Elk less effective; in something like Spiritfarer, Stella does not utter a word, but still has so much more personality and volition that it makes role-playing as her, the means with which the emotional core and themes are delivered (with exceptional effect too).
Welcome to Elk was one of my most anticipated games of the year, but in a brilliant year for video games like 2020, it ends up being slightly disappointing in comparison. I still highly recommend it and believe it is, undoubtedly, a worthwhile and meaningful experience, but I wish it would have been more effective on me. In a year with Kentucky Route Zero, Spiritfarer, and Ori, there are plenty of bittersweet experiences that can scratch that itch for me, but Welcome to Elk is still a worthwhile experience due to its uniquely entertaining concept, implementation and mixing of gameplay and story, and just being a compellingly weird game; I just wish I had more passion to defend its very few shortcomings or make more of a fuss about its many positives.