Last year before the world shut down one of the last things I did was attend PAX East in Boston. Besides copious usage of hand sanitizer and beers at my favorite Boston brewery, the most memorable part of the 2020 show was as always, the Indie Megabooth. That’s where I’ve discovered a lot of my favorite games from the past decade, like Astrologaster, Emily is Away and now, Welcome to Elk.
So, I have to admit, the reason I even approached the booth was because if you signed up for the mailing list, you’d get a handwritten postcard in the mail. And as I’ve talked about before, I love mail. The card eventually came and contained a funny little story from one of the devs from his childhood. Which ties into something else I like a lot: Stories!
Welcome to Elk is about a tiny, Nordic-inspired village on a small, cold island, and a newcomer to the community named Frigg. Frigg is ostensibly there to learn carpentry, but what she really gets a look at are the lives of the residents of Elk, for better and for worse. The game is bright and colorful and so are the people, but the stories (all based on true events) are pretty dark, full of loss and grief. They’re not epic tales passed down through the ages, either — these are the kind of stories you’d share with friends over a meal, or even with strangers in a bar. I’ve always enjoyed the unpolished, mundane nature of personal anecdotes, even listening to a few podcasts like The Moth or RISK! when I have an itch to scratch. Welcome to Elk very much comes out of that intimate camaraderie.
As for the game play itself, Welcome to Elk is mostly a point-and-click adventure punctuated with a variety of mini-games. I don’t think there’s really a way to actually fail any of the activities; a bit of persistence is all that’s required, and the story continues on no matter how much you mucked it up. The card game that you play in the second half, Elk Stack, is actually a lot of fun, on par with the mini games that populate expansive RPG series like Final Fantasy or Suikoden. Unfortunately, you can only play it once, as the narrative marches on after your first play. (The dev does sell a physical edition on its website.)
I don’t really want to talk about the plot too much, as it hits harder emotionally when you don’t know what’s coming exactly. It starts off cute but gets uncomfortable very, very quickly. And it’s not about big splashy plot points but these quiet, understated emotional moments that really hit you in the face. I actually teared up at the end, even though it’s not even sad. It’s just… sometimes something is so beautiful and so moving you just can’t contain yourself.