I am currently texting six potential dates on a fake dating app called Tender. Not all of the conversations are going well, but some of them are. I have a date scheduled with Jessie, a 37-year-old lionlike creature that hates yellow starbursts. (I happen to like them.) I’m also chatting with Willa, a humanoid ox (?) with lots of piercings and a broken horn, as well as Jackie, a punk mouse who just revealed to me — after days of chatting — that she has a partner who doesn’t know she’s on Tender.
Tender: Creature Comforts, a narrative mobile game by Gideon Lazarus, Jie En Lee, and Kenny Sun, is basically like Tinder, the real-life dating app. (For the record, I felt the need to tell my own partner that I’m playing a game that involves a fake Tinder-style app, so it doesn’t look like I’m the one straying.)
After I’ve set up a profile (which asks about texting style, which is important — I tend to use all lowercase letters and prefer “hahahah” over “rofl,” among other options), I can start swiping left and right on multiple galaxies’ worth of characters with all different kinds of motivations. These potential dates are not actually other players; they’re characters created by the development team.
If I match with someone, which feels random, we’ll be able to message each other back and forth, using Tender’s creative dialogue system. There are multiple ways to answer texts, which I choose and then “type” in using a keyboard, as if I were texting this myself. Whatever response I choose — typically from three options — will show up in my chosen texting style.
The mechanic is simple, but feels clever and impactful in a similar way to Annapurna Interactive’s Florence. In Florence, finger movements and mechanics (like physically moving puzzle pieces to mimic easy or hard conversations) evoke the nature of the relationship, while in Tender, the mechanics are literal: I’m doing actions that mimic texting.
Conversations flow in and out over days; Tender is not a game I can play in a single sitting. I’ve given Tender the ability to send push notifications to my phone, and so it does, sending a ping when I’ve matched with a potential date, or when they’ve messaged me. Just while writing this, Ben, a frog wearing pants and walking a doberman, matched with me — I messaged him for more photos of the dog. (He said he’ll send me more, but hasn’t yet. Rude.)
Tender’s gameplay is these conversations happening over text. Sometimes they’ll lead to a date, held in real time in the app, and sometimes it won’t go so well, and I’ll get unmatched. For instance, one potential date unmatched me after I revealed I was a Scorpio. (I get it.) If a conversation does progress to the date stage, you’ll have to schedule it for later. Each date pops up as a black-and-white text adventure, and you have to show up on time. The date plays out in text, and I can choose actions and text from a few options. If it goes well, there may be a second date.
In fact, I have a date with Remy, a bird creature that likes memes, in 15 minutes. We’re going to cook a meal together — I’m bringing the garlic and onions.
I’ve yet to find love on Tender, but I’ve enjoyed the experience a lot more than I’ve enjoyed actual online dating. The narrative feels unique but also effortless, and I’m getting to know these characters in a way that’s similar to how I would in real life. I also like that it feels personal to me — that no one else will have the experience on Tender that I have. Of course, that may not be true; there could be some narrative beats that happen regardless of who’s swiping left or right. The small bites and timing make a ton of sense, but it’s also not overwhelming in a way that a game with push notifications can sometimes be. I’m not annoyed when I see my phone light up with a notification from Tender. Rather, I’m excited to see who’s on the other end of the line.