Meredith Gran's Perfect Tides is a visceral little slice-of-life adventure which has captured the hearts of many in the SUPERJUMP team over the past couple of weeks (and, in some cases, played with our hearts like a lion might play with its food). You may have already seen Cat Bussell's fantastic interview with Meredith last month on SUPERJUMP. Since then, the team have been discussing the game's themes back and forth, chewing over its many tense story beats - so much so, that the three of us decided to bring our various experiences together in one place. So, without further ado, here are our perspectives on the indie gem Perfect Tides.
Why Was I Like That As a Teenager?
It’s something that’s happening to me more and more lately. I’m in my mid-20s and sometimes, a memory of some truly baffling thing I said and/or did as a sixteen year-old will pop into my head, and I won’t even cringe, really. Instead, I just have to stop and wonder: why was I like that back then?
Perfect Tides, a point-and-click adventure game developed by Three Bees, helmed by Meredith Gran, follows a year in the life of Mara Whitefish, an introverted sixteen year old fanfiction writer, set in the year 2000. Mara lives in Perfect Tides, an idyllic island so small that it has no roads, only narrow wooden boardwalks, and necessitates that Mara take the ferry to school on the mainland every day. You play for a few days in each season, giving you a snapshot of where Mara and the other characters are in their lives at that point. The premise is extremely slice-of-life. There’s no calamity at the end of the game, there’s no series of mysterious murders rocking the quiet town, no one is suddenly manifesting any superpowers. The game doesn’t need to do any of that, because its quotidian nature is one of the best things about it; many of the situations in the game have happened to us or the people around us.
Perfect Tides is an immensely nostalgic game to play. Not just because of the era signifiers: the fanfiction forum that Mara frequents, the dial-up internet sounds, the references to *NSYNC and Britney Spears, a (for me anyway) conspicuous lack of mobile phones so Mara didn’t have to field calls from anxious parents when she stayed out too late; although they certainly help evoke a very specific period of time. The nostalgia in Perfect Tides is much more universal than that. It is a portrait of a person’s formative years, that hellish, turbulent time when you are well on your way to having an adult’s brain in a world that insists on treating you like a child, so rich in small universal details, that at least some of them will apply to you, and trigger some reflection.
I wonder how I’d have felt about this game had I played it at Mara’s age. Would I have found her as relatable? A part of me thinks that this game is meant for people who have some chronological distance from their teen years; to be able to look back at who you were back then with some measure of objectivity, to have grown enough to admit how foolish you acted, and with enough perspective to understand the impact those actions had, big or small.
Mara is a very compelling protagonist to hinge this game on. Perfect Tides very wisely avoids making Mara relatable to as wide an audience as possible. She is in turns deeply relatable, complicated, endearing, self-centered, moody, and above all deeply confused. Ironically, it’s this complexity and specificity that makes her relatable. Even though she is a far cry from the blank-slate video game protagonists that you are meant to project onto, many aspects of her personality ring true. I was a lot like that back then. I know people who were a lot like that back then.
The supporting characters are given the same empathy and respect that Mara gets. As the game progresses, and you spend more time with them, it becomes more and more apparent that, as in real life, they have their own problems, feel lost and confused and are trying their best despite it all. My favourite of the other characters is Simon, a 24 year old who lives in a gorgeous beach house near Mara. The music that plays in that house is my favourite from the game’s superb soundtrack, and fits the character perfectly. At first it sounds beachy, languid, and easygoing, just like Simon initially appears, but it becomes apparent that there’s a deep melancholy in both the music and Simon’s situation. The slowness, the idleness and boredom slowly stop becoming enviable, something that I felt like Mara and I were realizing simultaneously.
So, why was I like that as a teen? I didn’t go into Perfect Tides expecting an answer, but going through the game, following Mara two things became clear to me. The first is abject confusion. Mara is taking her first steps to truly discovering who she is as an adult. This game reminded me of just how scary that feeling can be; one of total unmooring. Mara does a number of things in the game that are to me simultaneously foolish but also understandable. She wants her friends to like her, to respect her, to include her. But at the same time, she’s not sure she even wants to be their friend, or if spending time with them even makes her happy. It’s a deeply confusing time, and sometimes things just don’t make sense
Secondly, Mara has extremely low self-esteem, something that was definitely true of me at that age, and explains a lot of her outbursts. She thinks other people value her so little that it comes almost as a surprise to her that people care enough about her that she can hurt their feelings with the things she says. What helped me climb out of the pit of low self-esteem was the realization that I wasn’t really that much different from other people around me, that there’s nothing seriously wrong with me, that I’m just some person. Mara comes to that same realization towards the end of the game, in a moment that will stay with me forever. The reminder that several people have had such similar experiences and that I was never alone in feeling what I felt back then is heartening.
Perfect Tides is a game that I think has been almost impossible for me to write about objectively. Given the subject matter and the protagonist, it’s extremely difficult to not project my own experiences and memories onto the game, and so I haven’t really even tried. Whenever I was mentally yelling advice and reassurance at Mara (something that I really hope I wasn’t alone in doing) it was as much for my younger self too. One day you’ll look back on these days and you won’t feel pain, shame, loneliness and sadness. Instead, you’ll be mildly amused and wonder why the hell you were like that back then.
Celebrating The Early Internet
Most reviews of Perfect Tides will discuss the turn-of-the-millennium setting. How avoid it; after all, the game is so eager to reference Y2K pop culture. And while it’s true the narrative is drenched in nostalgia for this fleeting moment in time, what I find most fascinating about Perfect Tides is the app itself, and its use of the Adventure Game Studio, a long-running adventure game engine similar to RPG Maker.
Adventure Game Studio (or AGS) has been around since 1997 and comes from a time when AAA studios had completely given up on the point and click genre. Today, the genre has been revived by high-profile indie studios and the grand return of old veterans with modest, moderately-sized studios. But back in the early 2000s, the genre was primarily championed by amateurs and bedroom coders, often using the AGS engine to build them.
As a game about self-expression through the early internet, the game code itself becomes a perfect encapsulation of this, as if it is something Mara made herself in order to express her anguish, rather than the fanfic writing which fills this hole in the story.
Those steeped in AGS - either through using it or playing the many games born from its expansive scene - will spot several telltale signs of the engine in the game design: the blocky list of verb icons which drops down from the top of the screen is a clear reskin of the default AGS verb UI. The font used for the speech of the minor characters is another AGS default. The game locks itself to a specific resolution, hearkening back to the early days of AGS when it only supported games in a 320x200 resolution. If you’re playing in windowed mode, you’ll even notice that the app’s icon is still the iconic AGS blue cup logo.
In a lesser game, this could easily be construed as laziness on the part of the author, but in this game the intent is clear. We are deep in the realm of the scrappy, thrown-together amateur projects made by teenagers in their bedrooms, programmers on their lunch breaks, or 20-something geeks in the early hours of the morning.
Besides, the stunning background art makes it very clear that art direction is anything but an issue for Meredith Gran. Just look at the detail and lighting in this scene - how the warm, purplish glow subtly dims across the wooden panels.
No, when this game is uneven or imperfect, it’s a reference. As odd as it sounds, it’s all a nod to the little guys - the developers on the fringe, making odd little games to test the limits of their creativity or simply to express themselves. The people like Mara, who need the stranger corners of the internet to discover themselves, make new friends, or just find people who they can relate to. Perfect Tides is here in the 2020s, waving at all the decades-old message board communities which are somehow still around, all the friends who have been raiding on WoW since 2004, all the tightly-knit discord groups working on fan projects for games they grew up with. And all it needed to do it was leave a few engine-default assets in.
Perfect Tides Reflects The Comfort of Fandom
Perfect Tides is a coming-of-age about loss both large and small. Ultimately one cannot find a happy ending while enduring a bad situation, only the courage to test your boundaries and fight for something better. You can be briefly satisfied instead, and find contentment in the oddest of places.
Mara Whitefish lives on the titular island, a tourist trap where most of the locals commute by ferry to work on the mainland. Her father died two years ago, which tore her already-delicate family apart. There's no one to tend the garden and an empty spot at the dinner table. Mara's mother doesn't even make her stay for dinner and lets her get meals from the local gay guy working on his book. Her former best friend Lily has become a cool girl in high school and has ghosted Mara. So she turns to the internet for solace.
Diving Into Another World
Mara has coped with her father's death and her friend ghosting her by writing and reading fan fiction. She's part of an online forum that talks about fan fiction, and the different furry ships. She has a crush on one of the cool writers, Staggle. Mara assumes that Staggle is a guy, and that they are a thing after Staggle confesses that they really like Mara, a lot. They write a poignant love letter after Mara loses her internet for the summer, for reasons written below. You think that the two will be able to comfort each other through tumultuous times.
Instead, the two drift apart. After a feud happens on the forums, Mara calls out Staggle for being a butt and starts drifting away. Staggle apologizes, saying that Mara is really important to them. A real potential boyfriend is more alluring, who seems to like Mara despite her short height and awkwardness. Jason does think Mara is cool but doesn't ask about her writing or her family life unless it interrupts their dates. Mara writes even less, especially when she has more reasons to go out and hit the ferry.
I did feel viscerally hurt that the forum ends up being purged, and Mara drifts away from her online friend-crush Staggle. Mara is matter-of-fact about how the forum was not going to last forever. She knows that more things exist to cut off communication than petty family members. Mara writes her farewell, that she is ready to leave.
Yet this was pretty true for those in fandom in the 2000s. Purges would happen, and that means the communities would die with them. Interests do change over time, as you realize that what comforted you a year ago may not have the same effect as it did now. I certainly am not into the edgy shounen manga that fascinated me as a teenager. Nor was I mature enough to say goodbye when I moved on from places like comic artists and author forums.
I feel, however, that fandoms allowed me to connect with people that I wouldn't have met otherwise. Saying goodbye purely in favor of real people feels like you have to choose one or the other. That hasn't been my experience in such forums. You need both, a dose of reality and of the fantastically possible. High school friends aren't necessarily going to reconcile with you, and you have to stay content with being alone. Sometimes online is your only refuge, with some common sense.
My other nitpick is that while playing, and watching "Let's Plays" to fill in the gaps for the depressing stuff, we never actually saw what Mara was writing. She imagines swimming with Staggle's avatar, and Staggle hugging her. If you say, "Work on your writing," you just see some typing. Give us the fanfic juice and remind us of the teenage girls that we used to be, please.
On a side note…
Timothy Is The Worst
Timothy is Mara's depressed older brother. He spends his days watching television and eating snacks. That would be fine if he admitted that he had a problem. They would all do with a round of grief counseling, to stop going through the motions. I know we went to grief counseling for a few weeks after my dad died. It helped a little, I think.
What's worse is that Timothy does not understand that he's a mess. Mara outright says that he hasn't been job hunting because it's the truth; he beats her up and cuts off her internet for the summer in response. Their mother allows him to act the way that he does because she's also dealing with the loss of her husband, and Mara isn't wrong to suspect that she favors Timothy because he's the boy in the family. It's rather pathetic that Mara ends up getting a job for some spending money long before he does, and she is actually pretty decent at it when not attending school or tending to the little garden that she nurtures. When she learns Tae Bo poses, she realizes how insignificant her big brother is.
Timothy cutting her internet off is the heinous part. He knows that she’s using it to cope with losing their dad. Also, he beats her up for telling a neighbor the truth. Very not cool! He’s beyond redemption for that little stunt.
By the time Timothy starts acting like an older brother, the way he should, it's too little, too late. He warns Mara that the boy she likes seems to be interested in one thing, and we find out that he's right. The issue is that his response is to cut Mara off from any external support systems, from her internet communities when she crosses him, to the few punk friends that she makes when not attending school. As Mara puts it at one point, the day that she leaves the island, she'll be very happy to not have to deal with him again. While the best ending shows that she and Timothy have called a truce, in part because she is single again and consents to give him a Hannukkah gift, you can tell that he’s going to break it in a matter of months.
This game did feel both cathartic and unsatisfying with its open end, and the hope that Mara can find contentment if not happiness. She also learns to let go of those who are leaving, in the hopes of welcoming new arrivals, and old friends. I hope she returns to fandom offscreen and finds her community.
If you would like to hear more from these writers, Karl and Maris can be found on Twitter (@teffers and @queenofF1 respectively). Priya also writes on Medium and often streams the games she discusses on Twitch.
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