Having a Think

Chasm and Individualism

Chasm is asking you to delve again and again. The first time you go spelunking is great, but why would you return and what does it mean to go back in?

Chasm is a metroidvania game, released in 2018. In most ways it’s what you would expect from a game of its kind, but there is one big difference, it’s map is procedurally generated. This is a re-emerging trend that has been brought back by the renaissance of roguelikes, where the point of the game being its replayability makes procedural generation an attractive feature. Procedurally generated maps are also incredibly popular in survival games such as Minecraft, Terraria, and Don’t Starve, where the challenge of the game comes from exploring and adapting to the unexpected circumstances. For a metroidvania game, however, this feature is arguably counterintuitive, so where has it come from?

Before unpicking this, it is worth noting that I think Chasm is extremely well put together. The difficulty curve at the beginning is harsh but, as with many metroidvania games, the feeling of progression and accomplishment of going back to those early areas, armed with the abilities you gain throughout the game makes that challenge well worth it. The world of Chasm and the story is extremely trope-y, so don’t expect world building on par with Hollow Knight, but it does the job and is far from the focus of the game. Similarly, the equipment system and RPG elements don’t shine too brightly but they work well and the game is well balanced, even if save points can be sparse at times (at least in the map that generated for me).

What Chasm offers you, different to other metroidvania games, is a unique experience. If you select your own map seed then you will be playing a version of the game that no other person has played. Of course you will still collect the same equipment, fight the same foes, and level up the same character, but your challenge and your experience will be unique. Does this make the game more replayable? I would argue a little bit, but not nearly enough. I would sooner replay Hollow Knight or Guacamelee! despite the map being the same, simply because they create a world rich enough that exploring it once doesn’t deplete it. A replay of Chasm will create a unique challenge, but the world will, paradoxically, offer you little new. The only perk then, from this procedurally generated world, is individualism.

Every game created in the Euro-USA world has been created in an individualist society. Art and literature, even some film pre-dates the obsession with the individual, but games have existed solely in this personal-political system. It makes sense then, that for the longest time games would be single player or competitive, and when a game is co-op the point is often that your characters have their own unique abilities that add to the team (think Borderlands or Trine). Of course, some games challenge this in ways. In Planetside and Running with Rifles you are encouraged to be a soldier in service of the greater team and while you do have your own individual traits and equipment, these elements are less about the strength of the individual, and more about the needs of the collective. However, these examples sit in the embers of an intermittently re-igniting nationalism where we all come together for warfare.

Individualism is often present within the game as well as in the way it is played. Many games feature a solitary protagonist or a group of playable characters with a main character in the center. Here, an interesting example can be made of the progression of the Final Fantasy series of games, notably made in Japan, a country with much less of an individualist history. In the early Final Fantasy games, you play a collective, in the original these characters don’t even have an identity, only a job. As the series develops, these characters get identities, but their roles remain malleable. While characters in Final Fantasy VI through VIII have specialisms, they can often be equipped in a way that allows them to fulfil any practical role, anyone can (and will) be your healer. In XI, X (including X-2), and XII these roles become more solidified, but still with customisation. Finally in XIII, the characters are near unique and you primarily control one character at a time. 

The above example is worth comparing to a Western RPG, Mass Effect. Mass Effect is similar to FFXIII, in that you control a collective, but roles are clearly pre-defined for each member. Even more individualist is the focus on Commander Shephard, this leading hero that must accompany every mission. Not only this but you can mould Commander Shephard in your own image if you wish, your Shephard is unique, much like Chasm’s map. But what does this all mean? Why does individualism matter in video games?

Games enforce ideology. That isn’t to say video games cause violence, research suggests they do not. Video Games do, however, promote ways of thinking through a form of rehearsal, especially when choices are presented to you within the game. One of the most effective games to present this idea is Spec Ops: The Line, a game that challenges and exposes the agency you have in shooters that feels almost like a direct response to the infamous Call of Duty level, ‘No Russian’. In Spec Ops, you play a US soldier deployed in a disaster stricken Dubai to provide humanitarian relief and recover a lost US unit with the same task. When, instead, your character is met with resistance from an insurgent population, in a traditional shooter way, like a hammer seeing nails, you shoot and kill in response. As you go through the game you begin to descend further and further into villainy, clearly taking innocent lives. All the time this is happening, the game condemns your actions, it shows you to be the villain, but the only way to escape this is to go deeper or quit. Spec Ops shows you that in a video game, a closed and controlled system, you have no agency in the ideology you rehearse.

Chasm is not a champion of individualism, but it is a token of it. I argue there is no gameplay value in the procedurally generated map but instead, an ideological one. When playing a game it is always worth keeping an eye on how your actions make you feel, keep an eye on what you rehearse in yourself, because the makers of the game may, knowingly or unknowingly, have you enacting their own politics.

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