App Reviewed on: iPhone XR
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Using Tinder's innovative swipe-based interface to create a game isn't exactly a new idea, but Tender: Creature Comforts goes the extra mile by creating a game built around the entire Tinder-style dating experience. In it, you play as a newcomer to a planet designed for people to meet and go on dates via the "Tender" app--your ultimate goal seemingly being to find someone to leave the planet with in your new relationship. Despite the goofy sci-fi premise, the way in which Tender pursues a realistic portrait of online dating is so earnest and well-considered that it's surprisingly easy to get invested in.
Tender operates how you'd imagine any current dating app. You make a profile, get a small tutorial about how the app works, and then get to swiping. Each profile you come across has really cursory information about who it is you're swiping on, and that (plus your intuition) is all you have to rely on in sussing out compatible partners.
The catch with Tender is that you can't just go on casual dates with everyone. The goal of Tender (and the planet that uses it) is to get you out of there for your second date. To reinforce this goal, you have a dating passport that you can only fill up with ten separate meet ups. Once you meet this threshold, you can't see anyone else and must choose if you think you found a match or not among the folks you spent time with.
In most situations where Tender can choose to be more like a game rather than an app simulation, it chooses to be the latter. Conversations happen in short bursts, dates actually require you to pick dates and times that you have to be "on time" for by opening the app, and some conversations just don't really go anywhere. Certain prospects may unmatch you or just never decide to talk to you even after matching. You also can't just try to match everyone all at once to keep giving yourself stuff to do, as you only get a few swipes every six hours.
This might sound tedious, but the veneer of realism established by forcing you to occasionally pick up your phone to a notification from a match or setting your own reminders to make it to fake dates on time heightens the experience and creates a pace that really feels like managing real relationships via your phone. It also helps that the writing in Tender is spot-on, offering up a diverse cast of potential dates and relatable dialog options that successfully prevented me from ever feeling like I was buttoning through a visual novel or otherwise being taken on a ride. I felt firmly in the driver's seat of my dating journey in Tender and felt the emotional pangs of trying to form connections with these fictional characters.
Are you the one?
Once you fill up your dating passport on Tender you then can choose someone to go on a second date with, or no one at all. The reward for reaching this point (which can take over a week of popping in and out of the app, by the way), is a short text-based epilogue that paints a picture of what happens as a result of your choices. To me, this wasn't a huge suprise, nor was it really disappointing. What I wasn't expecting, though, was for me to then spend a lot of time questioning my decision and wondering what things might have looked like if I had advanced other relationships rather than the one I chose.
This uncertainty is natural when dating, but--as a game--Tender allows you to safely seek these answers via an additional playthrough. Without hesitation, I jumped right back into Tender after completing it to see what else might be hidden in this game. My first playthrough's relationship was complicated and involved a lot of back and forth with the potential partner, and I'm excited to uncover similar twists and turns in my attempt to replay it. If any of the other relationships are as well written as the one I fell into initially, Tender is a pretty special game, indeed.
The bottom line
Tender might not be a "convenient" game to play, but its simulated aspects raise the stakes and emotional investment to a degree that makes it hard not to buy-in to its fictional setup. This, along with its writing, is what allows a game about talking with bat people on a dating planet make me titter with excitement and feel the sting of rejection simply through sending and receiving fake texts. It probably shouldn't work as well as it does, but there's something magical here with Tender: Creature Comforts.