If you asked me to describe Perfect Tides in one word, I’d call it honest. Give me two words and I’d tack on an adverb with appropriate weight: devastatingly honest.
The pixelated point-and-click adventure game created by Meredith Gran, the author of online comic Octopus Pie, and her studio, Three Bees, sometimes shocked me with where it was willing to go and what it was willing to do. While Gran used Octopus Pie to explore her 20s, Perfect Tides explores the life of a teenager in the early 2000s. Though I’ve never lived on an isolated island that’s empty for three seasons of the year, where I had to take a ferry to school, it’s a time period I recognize: dial-up modems, AOL instant messaging, and intimate online communities. There’s comfort to Perfect Tides, but there are horrors, too.
I recognize the sheer terror and stupidity of being a teenage girl — kind of a weird one, at that — and the emotions that come with it. The arguing with siblings for screen time, both wanting and not wanting to be kissed, and being petty to your parents. Perfect Tides projects an honest representation of all sorts of pain, the kind of pain I don’t like to admit even to myself. There’s one particular scene that stands out: Mara, the main character, is standing with some new friends on a dock. She’s with all these people and yet still feels alone, like she speaks a different language. She admits something to herself that scared me with how intensely it resonated: “You fantasized about a tragedy in your life that would endear you to others. You dreamt of having some excuse, some justification for the way you are in people’s minds.”
Perfect Tides switches back and forth between these sorts of dark, complex feelings and the silly, sometimes funny teenage dramas over the six to seven hours it took me to play through the game.
“I really wanted to talk about loneliness, sort of a hopeless feeling that there’s too big of a gulf between where you are and where you’d like to be,” Gran told Polygon. “There’s plenty of movies and TV shows about kids who are just a few degrees off from popularity — just some event needs to happen, there’s something special about them that just needs to be unlocked. I didn’t want to approach this that way.”
Gran wanted players to live in this lonely place. There are temporary escapes, of course: For Mara and I, it was into our online worlds and communities, the spaces where everything felt just as real as the outside world, even when others said it shouldn’t. But there is no escape from being a teenager and the confusion and joy and terror that comes with that. It will change, but it’s hard to say when. “You’re going to live in the intense anticipation for those changes.”
Perfect Tides’ gameplay feels like an interpretation of that idea. There’s no real end goal communicated to the player. In one instance, I started with one simple task to complete: bringing the groceries home. Once I had figured that out — after struggling to understand the mechanics for just a bit — I was left with few clues on where to go or what to do next. Perfect Tides feels aimless in a way that enforces a narrative of wandering, but not in a way that pulls me out of the game. And so I move from place to place, clicking around. When using a scroll wheel, the cursor changes: There’s an eye to look at things, a hand for touching things, and a little human icon for walking around. Items can be pulled from a backpack and used to interact with the world, too. The story comes from exploration, meandering through the island and through Mara’s online life.
Gran said she’d thought about this in the past while making comics. That art form helped her consider the user’s experience, playing with form to control the perspective as much as possible. That idea translated into a game; Perfect Tides is her first. The big difference is that she’s able to watch people experience Perfect Tides in a way that’s not really possible with comics. “The comics version would have to be, like, I stand over you while you read the book out loud and react to things,” Gran said. “It would be impossible to ever get that.” Because of Twitch streamers, this experience has been different: They’re there to put on a performance in experiencing the game. “I feel like a freak looking at some of that stuff,” Gran laughed.
“Occasionally the streamers are so disarmed by something that they react in a way that almost seems like there’s no audience there,” Gran said. “A lot of the time, streamers start to remember things about themselves and start to relate to those things openly — very intimate, shameful, or horrifying things that they come up with. [...] It feels like a group therapy session a lot of times. I never could have expected something like that.”
Gran is going to continue to make comics, but she said games is likely to be her medium “for the foreseeable future.”
“This has made me realize that people can get deep with games,” Gran said. “You can interface with another human being in a way that, like — I’ve just never had this sort of connection with people before.”