Meredith Gran rules. Octopus Pie, her 2007-2017 webcomic, is for my money one of the medium’s all-time great works. Her major post-Octopus Pie creative project—the crowd-funded point and click adventure game Perfect Tides, launched on Tuesday. It’s terrific — a witty and thoughtful coming of age story that navigates the goofy and the heavy with care and skill amidst gorgeous artwork, compulsively readable prose, and clever puzzles. AIPT was able to speak with Gran in the run-up to Perfect Tides‘ release. Our conversation covered her longtime love of adventure games, the link between comics and games as interactive mediums, and the ways that shifting perspective affects the reader/player.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
AIPT: What drew you to a video game, specifically an adventure video game as a medium?
Meredith Gran: Adventure has always been my favorite genre of game, ever since the golden age of Sierra, and I’ve been wanting to make my own game for nearly as long. I used to code text-based adventure games during math class on a scientific calculator. A graphical adventure was always a distant dream, but my resources and skills — including the ability to finish big, ambitious projects — were limited for a long time. It was only after wrapping up my 10-year webcomic that I felt I could handle the learning curve and the long commitment. (Of course, I thought it would take about half the time it did.)
AIPT: How did working with an interactive medium affect your toolkit as a storyteller? What changed? What remained constant?
MG: I write largely from experience and like to follow my instincts, so I don’t seek out much collaboration as a writer. Sometimes plot and pacing take a back seat to the feeling I’m trying to convey. But I think that’s what draws people to my work, and (hopefully) what sets the game apart. I don’t aim to let the player construct their own story – I want to gently lead them through mine.
That said, even comics are an interactive medium. I rely on the reader to connect the action of the panels, to “animate” it with their eyes. The reader chooses, with my guidance, what order to read things in, where to pay attention. So making a game was more similar to the thing I’m used to than a more passive media, like film. I’m still collaborating with the audience in some ways.
AIPT: To get a bit more specific, what was it like to write for player choice? How did you balance the immutable parts of Perfect Tides‘ core narrative with the parts that were flexible enough to account for different players making different choices (i.e. Mara bringing peas or potato chips to dinner at a friend’s early in the game)?
MG: I’ve never been a fan of games where the protagonist is an empty vessel. Mara is very much her own character, and the user has no choice but to embody her and see what she sees. But within that, there are options.
I try to ground the choices in what I think a teenager can realistically do to shape her life. One of Mara’s recurring fantasies is that she moves away and changes schools, and has a fresh chance to make an impression. But we know how that would go! She’d still be Mara — she doesn’t know how to be anything else — and the other kids would sniff that right out. So, many of the biggest challenges and frustrations in her life are immovable. On the other hand, she can choose how she acts in those situations, and those choices do make a difference as the story progresses.
AIPT: What was your research process for Perfect Tides? What were the joys and challenges of delving into and depicting the internet and how its users interacted with it over 20 years ago? What had survived? What did you have to dig for/resurrect? Was there anything that you found particularly striking?
MG: Really, being alive in the year 2000 was my primary source. The actual stomping grounds that inspired Mara’s writing community are gone without a trace. I’ve searched for them to no avail. I couldn’t really find any of the people, either; almost none used their real names back then. In a different way, the longing I felt for those people and places fueled my writing.
I looked through some of my old written works and LiveJournal entries that have survived, but those are highly flammable objects. I couldn’t always look at them directly. When I did, what struck me is how much “that person” was already me, for better and worse. All that time I spent distancing myself from her, only to be her! What the hell.
AIPT: On a related note, what was the design process like? How did you build individual locations (i.e. Mara’s room) and then tie them together into a coherent place?
MG: In the early months I had a general idea of the rooms I’d need for the gameplay (Mara’s house, a downtown area, her school, etc.) as well as the few cutscenes I’d written. But a lot of the characters, scenes, puzzles, and objects came together with the landscape itself, while background artist Soren Hughes and I were assembling it. It helped me to see it all laid out visually. Then I’d write the flavor text for each object, many of which were Soren’s decision, and stories of Mara’s life and the island would materialize on the spot. I’d remember things from my own life just by sitting with each object. I didn’t plan to do things this way, but I don’t know how else it could’ve gone. There’s only so much I could’ve written in advance. The world became richer with every asset we created.
AIPT: To expand on that a bit, how did Perfect Tides‘ world take its current shape? Did you write the island’s history alongside those of its inhabitants? Did Mara and company’s lives come before their community’s? Are there any locations on the island whose design you’re particularly fond of?
MG: Perfect Tides is a fictionalized version of Fire Island, an American town off the southern coast of Long Island, which in turn is off the coast of New York. It’s beautiful, wild, and remote, yet still in the shadow of the biggest city in America. I condensed things but otherwise didn’t change much about my impression of the geography, architecture, or party culture of the island. Fire Island is a summer destination, but a small population lives there full-time, even in its quietest, harshest months, and that’s what interests me the most. I’ve always wanted to write a story about a kid on an island, a less-fantastical version of [the animated series] Serendipity the Pink Dragon, where the landscape was theirs to explore. To a lonesome kid, life on an island sounds like magic. But Mara is a teenager who wants more control over her life, so the place kind of sucks.
Of all the locations, I’m pretty enamored by the ruins of the Tides Hotel, probably my biggest deviation from the island that inspired it. Here I was trying to put a piece the lost “Borscht Belt” of the Catskills, a place and era in which my grandparents met — a world that was so foundational to them — that has been lost to time like my online spaces of old.
AIPT: There’s one specific moment early in Perfect Tides that I found incredibly striking. Mara’s got a rare moment to use her brother’s game console and boots up an RPG she’d left at a pivotal moment in the game. You shift from the pixel art of the main game to a cutscene featuring 3D characters and pre-rendered backgrounds. The player is no longer watching Mara from a distance, they’re seeing exactly what she’s seeing. It’s a drastic jump in perspective and one that’s very affecting. Would you please talk a bit about how you use playing with your medium as a narrative tool? What makes those shifts in form powerful for you? What do you enjoy about them, and what are their challenges?
MG: The 3D scene in question was animated by Sam Richardson, so first and foremost I owe a lot to him for the ability to make that style jump! I’m very proud of the way it turned out.
Some ideas come at me fully formed, and these tend to be the successes, so I commit to them in my planning process. I don’t set out to play with the medium, but there does seem to be a sweet spot of “emotionally felt” and “logistically inconvenient” that I enjoy seeing through. Maybe the shift in perspective allows the reader to let their guard down — let the moment wash over them — rather than try to anticipate what will happen. My goal is to find the best way to articulate the idea, to communicate most directly with the audience. My lowest times creatively are the periods where I’m not seeing that happen. The hard work for me is done once I’m married to the vision. The rest is assembling parts.
AIPT: Part of what makes Mara such a compelling protagonist is her completeness outside of the player. How was building Mara’s lifelong friend Lilly or her internet pal Staggle, for example, different from building her? How about minor characters, like Mara’s eventual pal at the school store? Did anyone’s narrative arc change significantly from their first conception? And conversely, was anyone more or less together from the word go?
MG: Generally these characters are amalgamations of people I’ve known. In the sense that they made a mark on me, I know them very well. But on the other hand, they’re very much unknowable. I remember them through the lens of that age, and no matter how much I revisit my memories of them — even if I grow into something closer to them — they’ll always be obscured. I think that fact came to light the more I wrote these characters. Mara doesn’t always hear what people are telling her, and people hold her at a distance for one reason or another. They end up representing something that Mara can’t quite resolve in herself. The more these characters took shape in my mind, the more unknown they seemed to Mara. She doesn’t connect with them precisely because they have lives of their own.
AIPT: There are several key moments in Perfect Tides where the narrative gets very, very heavy — particularly during the back half of the game. How did you approach implementing them with care as a designer, and how did you build the space they needed to stand on their own and the ties they needed to flow into each other as a writer?
MG: For the most part I wrote the game’s scenes in order, coded directly into the engine. I’d do a skeletal version of each scene, maybe just the dialog timed out with the characters in the room. If I really needed to see it better, I’d add some staging and basic poses. I was pretty comfortable with this method by the time I got to the last act of the game, and at that point, I probably felt the least inhibited to speak through it.
AIPT: On a more general note, two storytelling tools that you deploy to striking effect in both Octopus Pie and Perfect Tides (and which are explicitly noted by both works’ casts) are the inexorable passage of time and the meaning we as humans attach to spaces, be they intimate or liminal. What interests you about those as tools? What interests you about them as subjects?
MG: We’re all humbled in the face of time, and I guess as a tool it helps me to find and show vulnerability in my characters.
The most scarring events in my life tend to attach themselves to details: rooms, objects, temperatures, etc. The real weight of the event comes later when I can look back at myself, in that room, retreating into that object. That, to me, is where the story is found.
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