Nearly every inch of our lives has been forced to accommodate the hefty burden of the ongoing pandemic, our love lives included. While no situation is ideal for facing down the harrowing “new normal” thrust upon us by COVID-19, being single during this global catastrophe has had a uniquely bitter sting, one I’ve felt the smart of personally.
Prior to the pandemic, I’d forsaken all hope that app-based dating would work for me; I’d written it off as being incompatible with who I am as a person, a non-starter given how I relate and connect to others.
Enter Swipe Night — Tinder’s novel in-app CYOA — which got its (second) debut last weekend.
Integrating play into dating
As someone inclined to find narrative design in the minute interactions of everyday life, the idea of integrating play into dating experiences inherently enthralled me. However, Swipe Night is less about meaningful interactions and more about centering the viewer’s ego. It’s a toy, not a game, and while a few of the moral quandaries it posits are indeed sticky, they yield no weighty results. In fact, the more ethically dubious choice points feel click-baity and uncomfortable. The idea that anyone would choose to rescue a dog over a human being, or to steal a friend’s car in response to them offering you a ride, is disquieting.
Swipe Night bills itself as a first-person adventure event. It’s an interactive, episodic narrative, with each chapter lasting a quick five minutes. Episodes are released on Saturdays and removed at midnight on Sunday. The narrow window of engagement no doubt takes its lead from every casual mobile game in the history of ever, where data has proven that limited-time events spike player activity. The first episode, released last weekend — Saturday 9/12 through Sunday 9/13 — consists of three scenes, with a grand total of eight choices. Though eight choices seem like a lot to cram into a five-minute experience, only two of those choices have any bearing on the outcome (of which there are three). We’ve yet to see if where you ended in Episode 1 is where you’ll begin in Episode 2.
Dismissal of player choice
One of the biggest disappointments of Swipe Night is the lack of meaningful player impact on the story and the characters in it. While the episode does a great job of acknowledging the player, it doesn’t let them have a ton of agency within the world.
In what feels like a nod to Netflix’s Bandersnatch, the first interaction in Swipe Night presents the player with a choice of what music to play (CREATE A VIBE vs. TROLL THE PARTY), and provides immediate feedback to the player from that action. The dance floor either bumps along to your “vibe” or abruptly record-scratches, glaring at you.
However, several of Swipe Night’s choices result in the same outcome regardless of what the player decides. For example, when you’re confronted by your friend Lucy regarding your “weird behavior” and her partner Graham’s fumbling attempts to cover-up his having cheated on her — which, by the way, he’s either just confessed to you over drinks or you’ve caught him doing red-handed in the upstairs bathroom — Lucy discovers Graham’s indiscretions whether you out him in the moment or not. In one instance, you say nothing at all (STAY OUT OF IT) and still Lucy finds out; she simply follows Graham’s gaze over to where his side-chick is standing. It’s annoying to have Lucy make the unspoken inference, however transparent Graham’s cheating is, after you’ve explicitly chosen to mind your own business and without any dialogue about the situation being exchanged. In another example of this dismissal of player choice, the next scene has the party moving outside to witness the “once-in-a-lifetime cosmic event” of a fictional comet’s near-Earth passing. When things escalate into obvious disaster, Molly will say the same thing to you whether you express skeptical disbelief or take the news at face value (I DON’T BUY IT vs. WE’RE SCREWED).
The most frustrating instance of this direct subversion of player agency takes place in what is arguably Swipe Night’s most divisive choice, where you’re posed with either rescuing Molly’s dog or saving Graham’s side-chick (SAVE THE PUPPY vs. SAVE ALEXIS). If you decide that puppies matter more than people, you rush after the dog, but are unable to catch up with him. Molly finds you, breathless, her face falling in terror when she realizes you didn’t succeed. Meanwhile, if you prioritize Alexis, you just sort of stand aside while Graham helps her up and Lucy yells at him for being a decent dude during the apocalypse. Why give us the option if we’re not allowed to feel heroic in either instance?
Exquisite cognitive cohesion
Swipe Night succeeds in a few ways which rekindle my excitement for this odd dating-event slash CYOA hybrid. First, it has a squad of creative powerhouses behind it — Karena Evans (Drake’s “In My Feelings”), Nicole Delaney (Big Mouth), and Brandon Zuck (Insecure) — and the vibe is on point. The color palette hits with glossy pink-and-blue hues throughout the episode, lending an aesthetic cohesion to the experience. The camera work does an excellent job of straddling the line between “handy cam” and a more sweeping, aerial view, which work together to maintain sharp pacing throughout the story. Combined with the in-world characters’ repeated direct acknowledgement of the player (the script does a great job of making sure characters say “you” while looking directly at the player), there is an exquisite sense of cognitive cohesion between the player and their in-game self.
My favorite choice
My favorite choice in Swipe Night is its second, where, after getting to Molly’s comet-viewing party and interrupting a quarrel between Lucy and Graham, you can either follow Molly and Lucy onto the dance floor or join Graham for a drink (HIT THE DANCE FLOOR vs. DRINK WITH GRAHAM). If you slam a shot with Graham, he confesses his “one time” betrayal of Lucy with Alexis, who stands in the background, un-introduced but eye-catching in the way she pines for Graham from afar. You can tell she matters without having been told so. However, if you choose to bump and grind to the beat, a partygoer spills their drink on you, and Molly sends you upstairs to get a towel from the bathroom, where you open the door to find Graham and Alexis making out. Lucy confronts you in both versions of the scene, then uncovers Alexis regardless of whether you step in. The scene then transitions to outside, and while I’m bummed that the Lucy/Graham/Alexis quarrel plays out identically in every iteration, there’s something special about the way the choice to drink or dance diverts you to different areas in the house, and results in the characters interacting in different ways (in the world where you choose to drink with Graham, he never gets the chance to slip away with Alexis). Off of this choice, the player either experiences Molly’s rallying of her guests to get outside for the comet-viewing part of the comet-viewing party firsthand as she gives it from the staircase (if they’re upstairs at the time) or from off-screen (if they’re down in the kitchen). While this magic only hits if you replay the experience, the sense of spatial grounding and player impact this little variation imparts is magic.
A kernel of something wonderful
Upon completion, Tinder gives you the option to display the “crucial choice options” you selected during Swipe Night on your profile, and touts that how you play will impact who you can match with at the end. While I’m not sure who this experience is for, and I doubt it will revolutionize the way we approach dating, there is definitely a kernel of something wonderful here that I can’t wait to think about more as the event continues to unfold over the next two weekends.