It’s the year 2000. Your name is Mara Whitefish. You live on the island of Perfect Tides. When the bay is unfrozen, you ride the ferry home from school with Lilly. She is your only real-life friend.
Meredith Gran is, to put it bluntly, one of the best comic creators working today. Her 2007-2017 webcomic Octopus Pie is a master class in the use of digital space and page layouts to set tone and flow. Her ability to situate the reader in the perspective of a viewpoint character, and to shift between multiple perspectives, is tremendously impressive—and often deeply moving.
Since concluding Octopus Pie, Gran has, amongst other projects, written a full commentary for the strip and illustrated part of the Gravity Falls graphic novel Lost Legends. Her big project though has seen her jump to a different field. Perfect Tides, kickstarted in 2018 and out today on Steam, is a point-and-click adventure game a la Grim Fandango or Kathy Rain. As with Octopus Pie, it’s a superb character study grounded in Gran’s recurrent interests in the passage of time and the limits of perspective. As a video game, it’s a ton of fun, albeit with a steep learning curve for those new to or out of practice with adventure games.
Perfect Tides follows teenager Mara Whitefish as she navigates life in the year 2000. Over that year, she’ll face a host of challenges—external, internal, some combination of the two, and otherwise. These range from getting on MTV to the fraying of a close friendship to the revocation of her internet access (and thus access to a treasured fanfiction community) to participating in a vegetable contest (as either grower or judge) to accepting complex feelings which do not have easy resolutions. As the world turns, Mara will change. That is inevitable. She will be shaped by the world and shape her world. The question, then, is how? The answer depends on how she is played.
Indeed, one of the most striking things about Perfect Tides is the intimacy and precision of its perspective. Mara is the protagonist and the playable character, but she and the game player are distinct entities. Perfect Tides‘ narrator is likewise introduced as a distinct entity. While the player controls Mara’s actions, those actions are bound to her character even as they shape it. The Mara who writes an intimate, yearning letter to internet friend turned beau Staggle is the same person as the Mara who writes that friend a friendly but guarded letter, but once the letter is sent, Mara’s response to Staggle’s reply letter is her response, not the player’s.
Gran deliberately keeps the player at a remove from her protagonist and her narrator. Because of this, the rare moments where Mara’s perspective and the player’s perspective become the same and where the narrator proves to be more involved in the game than they initially seemed to be stand out all the more. It’s a really interesting use of Perfect Tides‘ form (i.e. an interactive video game) as a narrative tool—a continuation of the work Gran was doing with form throughout Octopus Pie.
Outside of its use as a storytelling tool, Perfect Tides‘ form is impressive in and of itself. Perfect Tides (the island) is an excellent setting—a place that is known first and foremost as a vacation spot, but one that maintains a small year-round community, each of whom handles their relative isolation in different ways. In the spring, construction progresses on condominiums for wealthy seasonal residents, and boats are made ready for the coming summer. In the summer, it’s packed with tourists, be they there for MTV or because Perfect Tides is (in 2000) a comparatively safe space for gay men to be out openly. In the fall, some stragglers remain, but the majority of the island’s activity is local. And in the winter, stillness abounds amidst the snow. Between background artist Soren Hughes’ set design and Gran’s witty, conversational narration Perfect Tides is a memorable, vividly realized setting. The same holds for the spaces that Mara explores off the island, from her suburban high school to the hard-lived interior of a punk friend’s car.
Navigating Perfect Tides, and in turn Perfect Tides, is pretty intuitive. Mara can either walk directly to a selected location, object, or person of interest or amble wherever via arrow key. The player possesses a set of tools for interacting with the world, chief among them “Look” and “Touch.” These tools, in concert with attention and curiosity, are the keys to Perfect Tides. Gran and her collaborators have built a dense world, one filled with options for interaction that range from the story essential (i.e. Mara’s computer) to the obscure (i.e. a cookie sheet in the Whitefish family oven that can but does not have to perform an important part in an optional side quest).
Outside of an early tutorial on inventory management, Perfect Tides allows the player to explore on their own terms (and even that tutorial is skippable). There’s plenty to see in the main story alone, but taking the time to check out everything is a very, very good idea. There are side quests to discover, a world to explore, and Gran’s prose to read. Her writing is excellent throughout Perfect Tides. Each character’s voice is distinct, from Mara to her friends and family to recurring island residents. The narrator’s observations are witty and possessed of a wonderfully dark, dry sense of humor.
Simultaneously, Gran’s prose is also compassionate and insightful, particularly when she winds it together with her expressive, frequently gorgeous sprite work.
One caution: progression in Perfect Tides‘ main narrative is generally pretty smooth, but there is a moment late story where moving forward is decidedly non-intuitive. There is a hint given, but compared to others deployed throughout the game, it’s obscure enough in its phrasing to be befuddling.
With that said, Perfect Tides is a tremendous game. Meredith Gran and her collaborators have crafted a compelling coming-of-age story for a wonderfully complex heroine, and they’ve done so with a game that pokes at the nature of game-based storytelling and player perspective in neat ways while offering a ton to explore across multiple playthroughs. It’s going to stick with me.
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