Given two morphisms between chain complexes $f_\bullet,g_\bullet\colon\,C_\bullet\longrightarrow D_\bullet$, a chain homotopy between them is a sequence of maps $\psi_n\colon\,C_n\longrightarrow D_{n+1}$ such that $f_n-g_n= \partial_D \psi_n+\psi_{n-1}\partial_C$. I can motivate this definition only when the chain complexes are associated to some topological space. For example if $C_\bullet$ and $D_\bullet$ are simplicial chain complexes, then for a simplex $\sigma$, a homotopy between $f(\sigma)$ and $g(\sigma)$ is something like $\psi(\sigma)\approx\sigma\times [0,1]$, whose boundary is $f(\sigma)-g(\sigma)-\psi(\partial\sigma)$.

But chain homotopy also features in contexts where there is no topological space lurking in the background. Examples are chain homotopy of complexes of graphs (*e.g.* Conant-Schneiderman-Teichner) or chain homotopy of complexes in Khovanov homology. In such contexts, the motivation outlined in the previous paragraph makes no sense, with "the boundary of a cylinder being the top, bottom, and sides", because there's no such thing as a "cylinder". Thus, surely, the "cylinder motivation" isn't the most fundamental reason that chain homotopy is "the right" relation to study on chain complexes. It's an embarassing question, but:

What is the fundamental (algebraic) reason that chain homotopy is relevant when studying chain complexes?