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Octopus Pie creator Meredith Gran shares lessons from making Perfect Tides, her first game

Octopus Pie creator Meredith Gran takes us through the thoughts and design processes behind the development of her debut game Perfect Tides.

The transition from one artistic medium to another is always a challenge. But after ten years writing and drawing the prolific webcomic Octopus Pie, it was a challenge that artist Meredith Gran welcomed. 

This past February on Steam, she released Perfect Tides, a point-and-click adventure game that charmingly combines with Gran's signature visual style and sense of humor to deliver a nostalgic but bittersweet look at teenage life in the year 2000.  

Gran's transition from webcomic creator to adventure game developer taught her many unusual lessons about game design and game-making tools in her quest to make Perfect Tides. Making the game also helped her reflect on her teenage years, a time she hadn't explored in her very personal webcomic.

Here's how her journey from one medium to another played out—it's a particularly insightful look at an alternate pathway for beginning game developers, with practical steps all creators can learn from.

Game Developer: I’ve read that while comics are your preferred artistic medium, you’d been wanting to make a video game for a long time. What made you feel “ready” to begin work on Perfect Tides?

I’d just wrapped up my webcomic Octopus Pie, which I’d used for years to document 20-something life in New York, almost as fast as I was experiencing it. I could write a story or draw a comic page with details as fresh as the day it was posted. What my work lacked, in exchange for that timeliness, was any sort of deep reflection into the past.

I was in a transitional state – pregnant and settling into a new city – when the comic ended. I knew I needed to live a little more of my 30s before stories worth writing would reveal themselves. In the meantime, my teen years were almost completely untouched. 

The more I thought about the past, the more I remembered (for better or worse). And when I looked back at the sort of media that moved me in those years, it was a no-brainer. Games all the way.

Were there any challenges translating your art style? As a digital artist, I imagine you already had a lot to “go on”, skillset and tools-wise. What was the process like in determining which aspects of your art would become interactive? Do video games offer any advantages over comics in terms of their narrative delivery options? For example, the vast range of asides that [game protagonist] Mara has with herself as she interacts with her environment.

I found the transition between media very easy. It absolutely helped that I’d not only drawn and written for myself for years, but also hired other artists and learned to communicate my vision.

As far as choosing the mechanics of the game, I fell back eagerly on my favorite point-and-click adventures, the games that had always fascinated me. My puzzle design was mostly done in the order it’s played, and the first few puzzles in the game are, I think, pretty recognizable as the type you’d find in a Sierra game from the '90s. 

As production went on, the choices gravitated more toward ones of self-consciousness and compassion (or lack thereof). Did you say the wrong thing back there? Can you be kind to your family, even as they drive you insane? This transition seemed very natural, as I got more comfortable making games and writing from the point of view of a teenager.

Video games absolutely offer advantages I never could’ve dreamed of in comics. Frankly, I’m still finding more. When I released Perfect Tides, I expected people to wonder if Mara’s experiences are meant to be autobiographical. To my surprise, far more players wondered if Mara was, through some strange trickery, supposed to be them

I feel this sums up the limits of what I’ve been able to convey in the past. Through games it’s possible to connect so deeply with the player – to access their memories and experiences through your own – that the story machinery all but disappears. It’s magic.

The tools for creating games are more accessible than ever. That said, how did you go about determining which tools would be best for your project? Did you find the learning process difficult? What was the original scope of the project, and did you at any point have to scale back or adjust those expectations?

Adventure Game Studio seemed like the obvious choice for me: free, easy to pick up, actively updating, huge support community, and packaged with the exact mechanics I was looking to use. I had no real coding experience outside of HTML and CSS, but even that knowledge made the learning curve manageable. 

When in doubt, I was able to consult with the AGS forum, where people were glad to help.

The original scope of the project was much smaller than the final! I knew the game would take place over 4 acts, but the story really ballooned once I got going. In the final months I had to shave off a few scenes I would’ve liked to do – I was looking at over 4 years of work at that point. But I really crammed almost everything I wanted into it, for all that extra time.

A screenshot from Perfect Tides

I read that you loved the adventure games from the '90s; personally, I like how Perfect Tides reminds me of the little clip art programs I used to play with on the Mac back in 1995, with flourishes of ICQ. 

Perfect Tides seem to have a thematic edge in that it’s set at a time when video games existed and had very distinctive conventions. What visual elements did you feel conveyed this specific era of Mara’s life, and how did you select them? Was it guided by nostalgia alone? Do you have any thoughts on using the game conventions and visual styles of a particular era to reinforce a game’s setting and themes?

I agree there’s a resemblance to clip art, though it wasn’t fully intentional. When I started work on the game I would use a sprite editor to design assets. Gradually I began to do all of my drawing in the sprite editor, from concept art to sketchbook pages to finished illustrations. 

Even after the game, I’m still drawing this way. Something about the low resolution made the lines feel loose and spontaneous in a way that digital art had rarely felt for me.

This choice wasn’t strictly without convention – I certainly had in mind the cutscenes you’d see in King’s Quest VII or The Dig, and (more spiritually) in PlayStation 1-era Final Fantasy games. These scenes have always kept me engaged. 

They’re a lovely little prize for overcoming obstacles and exploring. But maybe just as important, they add a cinematic quality to something that might otherwise seem small. I can’t make a feature film, but I can add a few seconds of animation when the moment calls for it. Then it’s just a matter of choosing the right moments.

The point and click/navigation methods of Perfect Tides are a little unusual; what was behind the creative and technical decision to have the player right-click through a set of actions on the cursor, as opposed to having them choose an action as they click on an object in the environment?

This is a feature of the Sierra adventure games I sought to imitate, and it was extremely easy to implement in AGS, seeing as it’s an engine designed to emulate those games. I realize in hindsight that a lot of the mechanics used by Sierra 30 years ago do not feel intuitive to the average player, who might be accustomed to the “verb coin” interface you’re describing (if they’ve ever played adventure games at all!).

That said, given the opportunity, I’m not sure if I would’ve changed this. One of the feature requests I smilingly ignored from testers was for interactable objects to be highlighted on mouseover. It was more work for me to make almost everything in the game interactable in some way, and certainly more work for the player to be clicking around aimlessly. 

But “aimless” is the name of the game for Mara, and my hope was that after the player exhausted their initial frustration, they’d learn to look for hints in other ways: through the dialogue, inventory, and visual cues from their environment.

Video games require such a broad range of technical and creative skills to pull off. Did you have to bring on any other team members for parts of the project? What additional skills did you take on throughout the process? How did your project benefit from bringing in other collaborators?

I had to wear many hats with this game – from fundraising to coding to QA and release – but thankfully not all of them. Soren Hughes’ environmental designs were essential to the look of the game, as well as informing my own writing. I was able to pull from Soren’s thoughtful details to form a richer description of Mara’s world. Daniel Kobylarz not only wrote and performed the music – which I could not have done – but also brought in his prior experience working on games. 

This really helped when it came down to crunch time, bug fixes and polishing the final assets. I had some help with 3D assets, another insurmountable (for me) task that I think adds novelty and sparkle to the game. For NPC and effects animation, the main hurdle was time. Having a small team for this allowed me the space for a personal life, which to me is a non-negotiable part of the creative process.

Are you considering making another game? What lessons would you take into the next project?

Now that I have some distance from the project, I feel as if I’m even more in love with the medium than ever. I’ve had time to study game design more closely and really think about the shape another game could take. I intend to make another!

In the future I will be thinking more holistically about how the mechanics, story and tech work together. This simply wasn’t a consideration from the start of Perfect Tides – I figured out so much as I went. I owe a lot of Perfect Tides' success as an actual game to its playtesters, and the endless trial and error from their feedback. I expect to have a much smoother time of it with a more complete vision next time.

A screenshot from Perfect Tides

Marrying mechanics, story and tech is such a defining challenge of game design. The gameplay of Perfect Tides, aside from its inventory-based elements, seems to be centered on Mara’s dialogue with other players and her thoughts about the world around her. 

Were there aspects of Perfect Tides that you felt could be more “gamey”? Are there any particular mechanisms you feel have narrative potential that you’ve yet had an opportunity to explore? Looking back, how would you gamify some of those aspects now? 

There are a few features I wish I’d had the time for. I wanted Mara to be able to swim in the ocean – it seems obvious that she would -- but the dialogue and observations simply took priority. This is the most action-y feature I considered using.

One mechanic I didn’t have time to explore was a “playlist” of songs Mara could collect through conversations, room exploration, and using the internet. My hope was that these would end up in her inventory, and could be “used” on the people she talked to. This in turn would lead to different conversations, and impact the scoring system and character affinities. 

This idea was influenced by the notebook mechanic in the Laura Bow games, where topics were collected and used to interrogate suspects. In the end, I used dialogue to express some of Mara’s music preferences and how they shape her – it does the trick, but was indeed a concession.

You mention that playtesters were a vital part of the process. How did their feedback help shape the game? Was there anything in particular that you implemented that made the game better but would not have been included if not for their feedback?

The biggest relief I felt during the whole production was when the playtesters started playing, and were able to isolate specific problems. Up until then I was sure my game was an absolute mess, looking nothing like an actual game.

The playtesters actually had an impact on the story, in the sense that they were seeing it all laid out in a way I couldn’t, and would notice pacing issues and inconsistent details. More than once a playtester commented with something like “I expected (x) to pay off” and it would be the first time I’d thought about that plot thread in months or even years. I’ve never written something in slow motion like this, with so many non-story details to track. It’s amazing what slips away from you.

Similarly, the players would notice when a character was speaking in a way that diverged from events in the game. “It’s odd that they’re saying (x), considering (y) has happened.” 

In this way I was able to make the characters a bit smarter, a bit more alive, and I think this contributed to the player’s sense that this world was worth exploring.

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