Welcome to Elk review: an astonishingly inventive journey

It’s going to be hard to write about Welcome to Elk, because I don’t want to spoil anything that happens. The great thrill of this game is that it constantly throws up surprises, recklessly and joyously breaking the fourth wall, and leaving you never quite sure where the narrative will take you next.

The start sees a young woman called Frigg arrive at the island of Elk by boat, ready to take on a job as an apprentice carpenter. It’s never explicitly said where Elk is meant to be, but we know that it’s somewhere cold and remote, and hence it attracts a somewhat strange and rugged sort of resident, the kind who thrive best on the fringes of society.

It reminds me a lot of that fantastic series Northern Exposure from the 1990s. I used to love that show so much, but it’s hard to track down these days – issues with the music rights mean that it has never been available on streaming platforms, and you can only watch it by dropping $100 or so on the DVD or Blu-ray collection. I highly recommend you do just that though, because it’s a fantastic, comforting watch, and I can’t think of another show quite like it. The plot centres around a New York doctor called Joel Fleischman who is posted, against his will, to the tiny, remote town of Cicely in Alaska. He’s not happy about being stuck in the sticks, but the residents make him feel welcome, and the oddball characters really stick in your mind. There’s Maurice the rich and cantankerous retired astronaut, Maggie the tomboy-ish bush pilot, Chris the philosophical DJ, and many more. They’re all a bit weird, but they’re happy in their lives on the edge of the world, cut off from outside influences. It’s a warm blanket of a show, a comforting, gentle slice of rural life and a catalogue of esoteric, gentle crises that could only occur in the Alaskan wilderness.

In Welcome to Elk, Frigg is the Joel character, an outsider through whom you discover the strange tales of Elk’s residents – with the difference that unlike Joel, Frigg is ecstatic to arrive on the island and begin her new life in carpentry. But the neat twist is that all of the residents’ stories are true, or at least based on real-life tales. You even get to meet some of the actual people behind the stories, and the game is a unique mix of the real and the imagined. It’s quite unlike anything I’ve ever played before.

Some of the tales are so outlandish that it’s hard to believe they’re true, and at other times they veer into shocking revelations. At a couple of points the game absolutely floored me with some devastating turns, twists made all the more effective by their juxtaposition with the cute, almost naive graphical style. Frigg walks with a brilliantly jaunty hop-cum-jig, and the cartoonish bright colours and stark black lines are cleverly used to highlight objects you can interact with: if something is coloured in, you can use it.

There are all sorts of things dotted around Elk that Frigg can investigate, sometimes giving a cheeky wink to another indie game, other times providing a tiny reference to one of the island’s stories. But really this is a highly linear experience, as you’re directed from one objective to the next, clicking through line after line of dialogue. That’s not a criticism, however: the stories and characters are so compelling and memorable that I couldn’t wait to get to the next point of interest and find out what happens next. Occasionally you’ll also be given a charming and unique minigame to complete an objective, whether it’s singing karaoke or fishing for beer. These are brilliant little interludes that only get used once before being discarded, yet they’re each beautifully executed.

I want to tell you more about Welcome to Elk and the experiences I had while playing, but I think it’s best if you discover them for yourself, fresh and without forewarning. Suffice to say it made me question what a video game can be, much like Matt felt after playing Inmost. The only real criticism I have is that I wanted it to go on for longer – as the game drew to a close after around three hours, I was pining for more, saddened that my time on Elk was drawing to an end. But what a fantastic, unforgettable place to visit.

Welcome to Elk was developed by Triple Topping, and it’s available on PC, and Xbox One. We played the PC version.

Disclosure statement: review code for Welcome to Elk was provided by Triple Topping. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.

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