Welcome to Elk, an island where everybody has a story to tell. All those stories are real, according to developer Triple Topping, which makes them even more fantastical.
I got to play through one of these stories at Gamescom 2019, and experience the dissonance between the kids-friendly visual style and the dark subject matter.
The story I played told of George, a husband and a father recently released from jail. One sunny day, two armed men appear at George’s yard and execute him in front of his wife and daughter. By all means, this is a sad, terrible story, but Elk turns it into an almost magical moment.
The wife and daughter start singing George a touching lament as he kneels in front of them. You press a sequence of buttons to sing a haunting melody before a gunshot ends the sequence abruptly, and we’re back to the island of Elk.
The whole sequence is told through what ultimately amounts to a cartoon. The art is simple and colorful and feels like it belongs in a children’s comic strip rather than a game about someone getting shot in the face.
The disconnect between the art and the substance is a deliberate one. The developers talked about how shows like BoJack Horseman inspired them and help them figure out how to deal with subjects like death, grief and loss without getting too gloomy.
Elk’s visual style isn’t the only way it manages to lighten up the mood. The dialogue is almost always light-hearted, and the characters always seem cheery to a fault. It’s a very optimistic game, all things considered. So much so, in fact, that the developers felt compelled to include video interviews after some of the stories with the people involved, to drive home the fact that these are real people telling real stories.
They are telling these stories to Frigg, the game’s protagonist. Frigg is a newcomer to the island and is getting to know its residents by chatting them up. Apart from talking, Frigg will complete short mini-games that are directly connected to what’s going on in the story. I had to glue newspaper clippings onto balloon so the town’s hermit can see his parents once again, or pour everyone in the pub a round of beer. I got “perfect foam” every time.
Frigg’s adventure seems to be more than just a platform for the developers to tell us a series of weird, heartbreaking tales. However, I’m not so sure what it is. Guess we’ll have to find out.
The best way I can describe the experience of playing Elk is “colorful melancholy.” It’s sad, whimsical, cheery, silly and deadly serious all at the same time. It’s here to tell you a story or two, and let you have a little bit of harmless fun in between. If you want to know more about these stories, you can read a few of them on Elk’s official site.
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