How truth and fiction intertwine in Welcome to Elk’s storytelling

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.

Independent Games Festival nominee Welcome to Elk takes the player to an island filled with people and true stories, letting them explore personal, real narratives as they wander the island.

Astrid Refstrup, director and co-writer of the Nuovo Award-nominated Welcome to Elk, answered our questions about making the game, and what it is that draws us, as human beings, to the stories of others. 

I’m Astrid Refstrup. I live in Copenhagen with my partner, two kids, and our rabbit FlipFlop. Besides Triple Topping, I’m also an advisor to Kowloon Nights. On Welcome to Elk I directed the game and co-wrote it together with Murray Somerwolff.

I have an education in cisual communication, but my game development learning comes mostly from game jams. My favorite game jams are Splash Jam, Exile, and Nordic Game Jam. Simon Stålhandskeand and I actually got the idea to start an indie studio at a game jam, which led to us co-founding Triple Topping.

It was Christmas and my brother and I were at my parents’ place. I had come home from Paris and my brother was home from Greenland where he was working. We both had a lot of stories to share, but my brother is an amazing storyteller, especially after a few beers. I was very inspired by the stories from his travels, and soon after I started to work on the concept for a story game as my BA project that would later become Welcome to Elk.

Welcome to Elk is built Unity, and our main tool is called Yarn Spinner. It’s a fantastic open-source narrative engine which makes writing, implementation, and localization super smooth. And their community is great. For audio we use Wwise, for controls we use Rewired, and for simple animations we use DOTween.

I think storytelling is essential to humans and I have always been fascinated by tall tales, or telling an intriguing story with a hint of truth. As a kid, I loved when my dad would read diaries by the first people to reach the poles. It felt like truth and fiction at the same time. Working with true stories gave us another way of interpreting a way to tell a story, allowing us to tap into the power of something that had actually happened. How could we communicate the feelings from a true story so that the player would feel and understand these humans, and hopefully take the stories with them long after they stopped playing the game?

All the stories are told by my family members. In choosing the story, it was very important to us that we could come up with a design so the story would live in it’s rightful way in the game, even though we have rewritten them and changed names, places and so on to make the people anonymous. There is a true core to all stories on Elk, but only we know what is truth and fiction. Most importantly it was real life events that inspired us. 

We looked for stories from people you would not normally meet if you are from a privileged background in Copenhagen, Denmark. We wanted to show people that all humans have great stories, great humor, and great tragedies, and we all (or almost all – not Leeroy in the game ) are equally important to our world. 

The best thing about games as a medium is that you can take an active role in the story and therefore better understand the feelings and events that happened. The truth to all storytelling is that it teaches us empathy, and grants us a tool to debate morals and ethics. I think that’s why we keep telling stories, whether it’s a movie, book, letter, or on Twitter. 

I hope that people will take the stories of Welcome to Elk and make them their own, sharing them with people as if they were there at the time it happened. For example, Welcome to Elk deals with alcohol abuse, but I hope people can see that someone who might drink too much – it’s not making them all a bad person, nothing is completely black or white and there are many nuances to a story when we start to feel empathy for the people involved. 

Triple Topping is born out of game jamming, so it was very natural to us to work with minigames. Simon Stålhandske came up with the idea of the minigames, and they are a great tool for empathizing with the stories, like the minigame with Beth where you create the last song for her husband before he is killed in front of her and her child. We used opera as inspiration, and no matter how the player presses the controller, it will sound beautiful. The game stops time while you wait for the inevitable of loss of your beloved husband. 

As the game can’t have a branching narrative, it was important to create minigames with no fail states. We wanted players to be there in the moment and immersed in the momentum of the story.  Some of the more fun and uplifting mini games may have an element of skill, but it’s never something that will affect the story.

Our art director, Murray Somerwolff, wanted to create a visual style that could both balance the humor and tragic elements of our true stories. We were inspired by Bojack Horseman and its ability to create a world that had great jokes, but could also support the weight of heavy themes and drama. 

The contrast of the true stories is shown in the art style through colorful characters and objects popping against stark, white backgrounds. There are rough and physical edges in the outlines and textures used in the backgrounds which tie to the true feeling of the stories.  

The most important thing for us with the art style was making sure the characters easily generated empathy. These were real people from these stories, and it was vital for us that we made sure that they felt relatable and warm.