I wasn't sure what to expect other than unique art and a good story when I decided to try Welcome to Elk developed by Triple Topping. It's one of the few times where I decided to do no research and only skim screenshots before trying out a game or demo. All I needed was a few glimpses of the art and the description noting that every character had a tale to tell, each based on true stories. If you couldn't tell already, I'm all about unique story rich indie games, so how could I resist?
After loving the demo during the Steam Game Festival, I realized there's no better time to write about my experience with it than now—not just because the fun I had is fresh in my mind, but its intro game Welcome to Elk: The First Stories was just released a few days ago on July 10. Additionally, its closed beta sign up is happening now until July 28. Needless to say, I will be playing its intro and have already signed up for a chance to participate in its closed beta (and you should too), so look out for at least one other article on Welcome to Elk very soon.
For now, let's dive into the demo.
A Warm Welcome to Elk
The first screen is anything but a warm welcome. You see a black screen. Some white text is on it. A man's voice talks about someone named Anders who walked to a town called Elk everyday. And he apparently died twice? With how cryptic this monologue is we can't begin to comprehend the meaning behind it, yet can't help but infer its relation to the game that follows and the town we're meant to explore. However, the tone of the story to come is set and our hairs are raised.
The rest of the demo and the cliffhanger of an ending was equally mysterious and left me wondering just how deep the story goes. Don't mind me—I'll just be here on the edge of my seat until the day Welcome to Elk releases.
The Colors of Elk (or Lack Thereof)
Upon entering the actual game, it was obvious to me that art and animations had a quirkiness reminiscent of Adventure Time yet was completely its own pleasantly cartoony style. Additionally, through the hesitant dialogue of those around me, I also quickly realized there was a lot more to the story than a simple move to an unfamiliar town. We learn our character is Frigg, a young carpenter who has just arrived in Elk on a ferry piloted by Jeppe.
She is then picked up by Jan, a friendly older man who appears to be her guide and an old friend of her dad's. Frigg is due to head over to a bar called the Hermit with Jan, where a party is currently taking place to celebrate Mister Nolan, "The Old Brewer," who "um, left quite an impression on the island," as Jan puts it. On the way to the bar, Jan shows her a couple of the larger landmarks, and we get to see just a bit of what the town is like.
With how curious I am about even the smallest interactive elements of games, I also stopped along the way to touch and poke everything I could. There was just enough during the walk to the bar to be interesting, but not enough to stop or distract me too much from where I was supposed to be in order to advance the story.
During this walk, I learned that most of the game was black and white, but if items and doors (or even people) were colored in, we could interact with them. I personally really enjoyed the color design choice—the brightly colored spots amongst all the black and white was a stark contrast, making the interactive elements stand out vibrantly and obviously. It was very intuitive so anyone could immediately understand what could and couldn't be interacted with and which parts of the scene were important.
Hidden Meanings Behind Cryptic Dialogue?
Once we get to the bar, we're given a good chance to meet many of the people of Elk since we can take our time to go around introducing ourselves and chat with all the people inside.
Pretty quickly, we're able to deduce the personality of each person based on these initial interactions. One thing that is clear is they each have their own story and background, though most of which are hidden since it is only our first interaction with them. On top of that, we are able to eavesdrop on some pieces of dialogue, but they're quite cryptic, suggesting there's a lot more to Elk than we can currently fathom. This undoubtedly made me more curious to learn about the strange town and its colorful people—if only the full game was already available.
However, what the demo did let me in on gave me just enough to work with and understand where the game was going with the narrative. I had no doubt that we'd figure out each person's unique tale, as well as the truth behind the town, during the rest of the game. In fact, I've already formed a small idea about what this town truly is, and it's unexpected from this cartoony-looking game, but I'll keep that to myself for now. You can decide for yourself what's going on when you play.
Much More Than Just Dialogue
Right after basic introductions and conversations are finished with each of the people in the bar, we're shown that this game isn't all just walking around and exchanging dialogue. We're soon invited to play our first mini-game. In this case, we get to play a drunken game of "The Old Brewer" named after the person they're celebrating, apparently a tradition in the town. This mini-game involved copying the directions of my partner in the game, but it gets a bit complicated when she pulls tricks and flips the orientation of her instructions.
The nice thing about the mini-games is that they stay in the context of the environment and situation. I have played such games where you have the plot and environment set, but then you randomly have to get past some unrelated gem matching game that you didn't sign up for in order to progress... Trust me when I say this is not at all like that.
The mini-games don't detract from the experience and even add to the story and personality of the town and people because they don't break away into their own unrelated events. The games are well-integrated, extra-interactive parts of the story that help you get to know Elk even more personally.
For these reasons, mini-games are a core part of what differentiates Welcome to Elk from other story-heavy games, especially indie ones. I believe that with these simple yet engaging mini-games, the developers more fully utilize the potential of video games as a medium for storytelling and absorbing the player into the world of Elk. Through the mini-games, the player not only just reads dialogue and walks around talking to people the whole time, but truly interacts with the characters and engages in the town's traditions.
There is only one mini-game in the demo, but telling by the trailers and videos of other mini-games in Welcome to Elk, it's clear that all of them are also distinct from one another in more than just context, so there's also the bonus of virtually no repetition of the same mechanics in different contexts, which can get old quickly.
Having the players be more active is always an important factor when experiencing a story through a video game, and Welcome to Elk nailed the execution in a simple, yet very neat way. Total side note made while editing: I didn't realize that well-integrated, story-driven mini-games were, in fact, advertised by the developers as a crucial part of the game until I read more about it on their website while I was linking to it in this article. This only further proves how well they accomplished their goal with the mini-games.
What's Going On?
After the mini-game is where the story gets really truly intense. A sleezy-looking guy named Leeroy, who appears to be associated with the ruder group in the bar, bursts in and unfortunately takes an interest in Frigg, with her being the new girl in town. At this point, Frigg is drunk from the drinking game, so she can only stand there defenselessly with a goofy face, practically unaware of what's going on. The guy continues to make unwanted advances, only to be stopped by the brave, though equally drunk, friend we made during our drinking game.
On our first day here, we're already shown one of the more rotten parts of Elk, so there is no doubt more to come. This is unfortunately assured by Jan when escorting Frigg out of the bar and telling her how to get home.
Finally after the long night, Frigg is left to walk home alone drunkenly, stumbling and vomiting along the way. Doing this also felt like a bit of a mini-game, with her mind in a state of confusion and not quite going in the way we expect when we press our arrows to guide her home.
In the end we aren't even sure if we're back in the right home, but we fall asleep quickly and dream some very surreal dreams. With that, the game ends in the most mysterious way possible, leaving me wondering if it really was a dream or if it goes deeper than that.
Welcome to Elk was a spontaneous addition to my wishlist. I only added it because I felt the art and synopsis were generally up my alley, but after this demo, my interest has been truly captivated. The suspense and pure fun of everything that happened in just 25 minutes of gameplay is enough to keep me on the edge of my seat waiting for more news from the developers at Triple Topping.
Though it appears the particular demo I played is no longer available, I highly recommend following along and checking out their new official demo Welcome to Elk: First Stories, signing up for closed beta and, of course, wishlisting the game. You don't want to miss what else Welcome to Elk has in store. I sure won't.