You navigate your mouse cursor, clicking on every pixel in desperation, before resigning yourself to a hastily-searched walkthrough, then smacking your forehead in disbelief at the solution.
Such are classic adventure games, that divisive videogame genre of yore that has managed to climb back into the mainstream after the ascendance of the first person shooter pushed it out of the spotlight in the 1990s and 2000s. Meredith Gran’s contemplative Perfect Tides is one of these games—but unlike popular titles like The Walking Dead or Life Is Strange, there is no grand villain to destroy or planet to save, and the mysteries to solve seem largely internal.
The Untamed Internet
Our protagonist Mara is a 16-year-old Jewish girl fretting through a cloistered adolescence on her sleepy suburban New York island, better known for its plasticine tourist culture than anything else. Her confusion is camouflaged by a hedge of face-masking hair, a protective magic which melts in the glow of secretive online chats in her bedroom. Her mother and brother patrol their cluttered home as distant but inescapable presences, less outwardly hostile than they are distinctly untouchable. Playing through the brief demo, I wandered the shaded boardwalks and beaches, bumming around just like a teen.
As the focus of cultural nostalgia shifts from the 1990s to the early 2000s, Perfect Tides recalls a period many now look on fondly—a time when the internet was still new, unexplored, and a place of private refuge for the clumsy, lost, and distracted young people of America. For Gran, this represents territory markedly different from her hilarious and affecting opus Octopus Pie, a webcomic about twenty-somethings working, romancing, and weed-dealing, which ran for ten years and came to a close in 2017.
“I was at a part of my life when I was starting to remember about being a kid,” Gran recalls. “Which was strange. I didn’t think it worked that way, that the more distant I got from it the more I remembered, but a lot of it was coming back to me. It felt like, you know, if I’m going to make a video game, this is the period in time I should do, the teen years.”
Like Mara, Gran found a new world online. Entering this strange place via the screeches of a dial-up modem, she roamed the terrain of an internet that was still mysterious and distrusted by the general public. But those who were willing to brave the digital wilds were rewarded by magical discoveries: “You’d type something into a search engine, and you would see it exist. You’d be like, ‘oh my god, it’s real!’ It was as if you were willing things into existence by thinking of them.”
I think about how young people now might consider that insight, at a time when search-indexed reality has become almost indistinguishable from firsthand knowledge. Growing up through the new millennium—and yes, the game includes a cheeky front-loaded joke about the year 2000 being an inexact milestone for this term—there remained a hazy uncertainty about this structure of belief, and the power of finding your creaky weirdness validated by online strangers was still rare and exciting. It was a shell-cracking moment which sometimes led to digital romance, something Gran briefly touches on from her own past experience: “I never met this person [in real life] while it was in this context, I remember the experience completely online. I think I was such a shy person, I was so lost in my own immediately personal world, that I needed to experience that.”
“I feel like the internet is super different now, and I think we’re probably just about getting to the time where more people are going to write about that difference, and that experience of those earlier days of the internet. It’s an experience that you can’t really go back to, you can’t get online and have quite the same thing anymore. So I’m very interested in capturing that the way I remember it, specifically the sort of desperation that you felt to get on it, because your interests and your personality were not being reflected in the real world at that time.”
Adventure Games of Yesteryear
Perfect Tides is a game about the past, and it deploys a period-specific form to tell its story—that of point-and-click adventure games. But rather than latching onto well-known LucasArts titles like Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle for inspiration, Gran is championing the world of Sierra, a catalogue of games which helped define the genre in ways that have since been abandoned. Thankfully, Perfect Tides doesn’t feature the hallmarks of games like King’s Quest—sudden deaths and unwinnable game states.
“Looking back at Sierra and LucasArts, it probably didn’t seem this way at the time but I think Sierra’s kind of the underdog in games in hindsight, because of a lot of these features. The direction people went with games is they didn’t want shit like losing by accident and being in a complete stalemate forever.”
Perfect Tides won’t include death sequences, but most other tropes of the time have arrived pretty much intact—the text boxes, user interface, verbs, and inventory puzzles all draw deeply from Sierra’s well. “There are no other games where I felt so much that I was the character. There’s a lot of games that have silent characters these days—I hate that. I want the character to have a personality, and I want you to basically be placed inside that character. That’s more fun for me, pretending to be someone else.”
One way Gran has created this feeling is through Mara’s secretive creative pursuits, with the character writing fanfic online and experimenting with the idealized boldness of her virtual self, though the narrative voice which describes her sees right through the disguise. “I really liked the idea of writing from a second-person narrative, where the narrator is saying ‘you’ instead of ‘she’ or ‘I.’ They use that to explore the character’s deepest feelings, their humiliations, their desires, and I just think that’s such a fun way to explore a character, where the narrator is not necessarily a benevolent point of view. They are the inside of her head, they don’t give her any information that she doesn’t know, but the narrator talks to her.”
“Is it a little invasive or uncomfortable to be inside of a teenage girl’s head?” When Gran rhetorically poses this question, I find myself looking down at a virtually identical query in my notes. Much of the fascinating wariness I felt playing Perfect Tides came from Mara’s frequently-mentioned sexual thoughts and frustrations, insecurities which feel like intrepid content for a video game story about a 16-year-old. “I can absolutely see that. My intention is not to make it voyeuristic. Like, I don’t want at any point for anyone to think they should be attracted to a 16 year old girl… but I guess there is a little bit of discomfort to it. I haven’t seen a lot of things operating from this point of view, but I also feel frustrated with what I see in terms of how teenagers are presented, where like, a lot of the time, the 16-year-old loser is not enough of a loser for me, especially a girl.”
“Like, a loser-girl is usually a character who still has a chance, there’s still some opportunity for her. In [the 2016 film] The Edge of Seventeen there’s a very interesting teenage character who’s very well-realized and observed by the writer and the person playing her, but she’s got too much figured out. I want to show what it’s like to have nothing figured out, for everything to not make sense. Everything in [Mara’s] life without the internet makes absolutely no sense. It’s not that it’s frustrating, it’s not that it causes her anxiety, but it’s completely nonsensical to her, because that’s how it felt for me. I just don’t see that represented very often.”
It’s hard not to interpret this as ironic given that the game’s imagery portrays an idyllic, brightly-colored retreat—an island where upper class families tussle over beachfront bungalows and docked yachts. All of that festive luxury is completely wasted on Mara, and while she seems to express a certain agency in her wanderings—under her single mom’s slackened leash—she feels both trapped and disconnected from the landscape. As a result, players shouldn’t expect a conventionally windswept oceanside romance as the game’s screenshots might imply, but rather a powerful contrast between the imagery and themes.
Sexual frustration, online adventures, loneliness, and the ugly truths of a far-gone adolescence are a unique brew for this style of game, and its early 2000s backdrop offers a setting that is still somewhat hard to describe and grasp for those who grew up through it. As a recent mother at 33 years old, Gran feels compelled and prepared to tell this story now, with ruminative distance from her teenage years. Had she tried to tell it in her twenties, she might have observed the events under a different light: “I think I probably would’ve been critical, I would’ve had a heavier hand with it. And I definitely want to have moments in Perfect Tides where she’s wrong, and the narration makes fun of that fact. A good YA story doesn’t criticize, doesn’t judge. I don’t know if this is a YA story, to be honest, but a good story about a teenager doesn’t judge them, it allows them to be the way that they want to be.”
Looking back at your formative years can be a hard thing to do—even more so when you’re drawing on those difficult times to tell a story to a broader audience. But for Gran, the time is finally right. “It’s been so long since I looked at it,” she says, “but there’s no more embarrassment. When I was in my twenties, I was still embarrassed at being a teenager. Now it’s like, I was just a kid! I was an innocent, for the most part blameless in all the stupid things I did and thought. And I feel like now, I can write about that.”
Editor’s Note: The screenshots in this article represent a work in progress and may not reflect the final version of the game.