Video Games and the Gentle Art of Reproduction

Once the German mothers had submitted to the plea for overbreeding, it was inevitable that imperialistic Germany should make war. Once the battalions of unwanted babies came into existence — babies whom the mothers did not want but which they bore as a “patriotic duty” — it was too late to avoid international conflict. The great crime of imperialistic Germany was its high birth rate. It has always been so. Behind all war has been the pressure of population.

— Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race (1920)

The title of Massive Chalice is quite literal. There is, indeed, a massive chalice in the game.

Perhaps there is a sexual metaphor at play in the game’s title. After all, one of the central components of the game is sex and reproduction.

Reproduction in this case drives combat, drives war. Massive Chalice is predicated on the concept of a war of defense. The player takes on the role of an immortal ruler of a fictional world. Your job is to defend the nation for 300 years, since at the end of that 300 years, a cataclysmic final conflict will occur between the forces of corruption and your nation.

This, of course, means that you will need to prepare a group of warriors for this final conflict, but a group that has yet to be born at the beginning of the game. You might be immortal, but your citizens are not, For 300 years, you will need to fortify the nation, building keeps, towers, and crucibles for warriors to train in, but you will more importantly need to breed an army of the best and brightest, the strongest and the most fit.

Thus, what one does in Massive Chalice is participate in turn-based strategic battles between small groups of your warriors and the Cadence, the foul beasts of corruption, but following these battles, one will need to manage the building of the aforementioned structures and the management of your population. You will need to choose heroes to breed with other heroes to create stronger bloodlines for future conflict. In other words, this is a game concerned with a form of heroic husbandry.

You will concern yourself, as you do in many games, with leveling up your heroes and improving their stats, but unlike most games of this sort, one of the most important statistics to keep an eye on is your heroes’ fertility rates. It’s all well and good to create a more powerful warrior through experience on the battlefield, but if that warrior is infertile, what difference will it make to the next generation who needs to benefit from the heroic experiences of their forebears?

This isn’t the first game to couple both warfare and eugenics as central game systems. I have tried playing Record of the Agarest War, a JRPG that features turn-based combat along with a dating simulator. Apparently the goal of the game is to find a suitable mate to raise the perfect hero of the future. I wouldn’t know that for certain, though, as I soon tired of the game’s ponderous combat and slow pacing.

Likewise Crusader Kings II features (among many other things) the need to marry and breed within a simulation of medieval Europe. More a simulator of politics than mere warfare, marriages have to do with creating political connections between kingdoms and fiefdoms. Like many other games developed by Paradox Games, though, I found Crusader Kings to be off-putting in its inaccessibility. It is very hard to learn, and the game does not provide much in the way of tutorial. So I gave up on that game fairly quickly, too.

With Massive Chalice, though, I seem to have finally found a system accessible enough and fast paced enough to make the idea of breeding as a mechanism of play more compelling. The game’s fairly straightforward interface with just a few simple decision making tools, combined with some fairly short tactical skirmishes, makes watching your bloodlines change and grow in power more interesting and more manageable.

The game suggests in an early tutorial that you should consider your heroes and the family lines that they create as more than a set of numbers and stats, and the game does make an effort to attempt to create some color by offering brief and more personal, random events that can occur during your individual heroes’ life times. That being said, the truth is that the problem still remains that your heroes essentially become breeding vessels and as such soon handling them, assigning them marriage partners, or retiring them to become sages or trainers becomes increasingly mechanistic.

If the above quotation from Margaret Sanger, as she reflects on the possible causes of the First World War, indicate a concern that rulers tend to begin viewing their subjects as instruments, the experience of playing Massive Chalice does reflect that idea. Putting a form of eugenics into play as a game is interesting, but easily as dehumanizing as that philosophy has always seemed. By making the personal, sex and reproduction, into a vehicle for political and military power, it reduces people to figures on a spreadsheet and pawns on a chessboard.

Ironically, in Massive Chalice, the monstrosities that the Cadence use as their own armies are referred to generally by the narrators of the game as “pawns,” as if they should be distinguished from the more autonomous individuals that you collect for your armies over time. However, after sinking over 30 hours into the game, I can’t say that I find much distinction between my own heroes and their opponents in terms of how they are used on a battlefield.

Pawns are pawns.