I have annoying opinions about menial tasks

by AJ "Tyron" Martinez @ worldsbe.st • July 15 2023

FFXIV has a lot of combo abilities—low-level skills, the backbone of your combat toolset, that are are always used in a specific order. Rage of Halone always comes after Riot Blade, Riot Blade always comes after Fast Blade, and none of those skills really do much of note besides Damage. Use them in the wrong order, and you do Less Damage.

The game often gives this some flavor while you level—some combos will branch, some combo pieces will have knock-on effects—but by and large, they’re generic abilities you use when you’re not doing anything else, just background metronome clicks to the actual “meat” of your combat abilities.

There’s a community addon, XIVComboPlugin, that condenses combo abilities onto a single hotkey and automatically selects the right one. A good amount of players use this—at least, enough to fill a pretty lively thread if people get caught in the Whirlpool of Addon Discourse—and they cite a lot of reasons, from “I don’t want to pay attention while I grind Alliance Roulette” to “I have tendonitis and don’t want to choose between injury and DPS on our 5-hour raid nights.”

My take on it is largely “you do you, I’ll do me”, but my personal bugbear is the most commonly cited reason: “Combos are just busywork, removing them from the game literally doesn’t change anything.” This is bad and stupid for a variety of reasons—even players with Ultimate clears regularly make combo errors, the foundation of all PvE difficulty is combining many simple tasks to overload your mental stack, if you actually believed your own sentence you wouldn’t have installed the plugin—but it didn’t really account for why I felt so baffled, like I was reading posts from inhabitants of another dimension.

I ended up figuring it out. See, FFXIV already has combat jobs with one-button filler and no combos—all of its healers. And as a former career healer, healers are fucking boring. Despite an additional 7 health bars to manage, healing anything but the most demanding fights is like chewing on a Novocaine candy necklace, drumming away at your single damage button whenever the game hasn’t sufficiently jumpscared you with a tankbuster. I eventually had to make my choice between quitting the game or quitting healing. (If you see me in Eorzea these days, it’s usually with a rifle.)

Point is, combo skills are busywork, and I kinda like some kinds of busywork, in the same way people find moments of Zen while washing their dishes. There’s an innate kinesthetic appeal to a quick one-two tap, or drilling a sequence that lives deeper than even your muscle memory—see rhythm games as a genre. Hypercharge will always be 5 Heat Blasts and 5 Gauss/Ricochet charges, but I will still mentally go “AYY AYY AYY AYY AYY” every time. Samurai players lost Kaiten, a complete busywork button that you always used before your hardest-hitting skill, and absolutely lost their minds1 over it, because suddenly the climax of their burst window felt just a little emptier.

Fighting game players joke about FFXIV being the “FGC retirement home”, so clearly I get to port all of these observations over 1:1, right?

Well, no.

Like, this obviously isn’t some debate-ending gotcha that immediately justifies every execution test in all video games ever made—hell, I don’t even know if it justifies combo skills. Context matters: how often does an input come with an associated tactical choice? Is the game consistently focused on execution under pressure, or does a random timing check feel out of place? Does the action make players feel more connected to their characters and the scenario, or does the action make players' foreheads feel connected to the nearest solid surface?

But the reverse—“it’s just busywork, there’s no decision-making”—isn’t an insurmountable gotcha either. Discussions of this type pop up all the time, regarding everything from motion inputs to just-frames to Halo 2, and the discussion is always framed in high-level terms; people talk about balance, strategy, and design elegance, but never “bro I literally just like pressing the buttons.” Maybe it’s out of a fear of seeming misplaced; these communities value the prestige of skill expression, and no one wants to be accused of Enjoying The Game In A Lesser Fashion, especially by players who are likely to be fucking bad at the game to begin with. But I think it might actually be slipping peoples’ minds, since it apparently took me a decade to realize it for myself.

I am (sadly) a Smash player, and I have (sadly) been up and down the countless useless discussions about the early titles' most contentious system,2 L/Z-canceling. A timed input, right before you hit the ground, reduces the landing recovery of aerial attacks—and you use a lot of aerial attacks, tacking on that extra input each time or suffering the consequences of going slow. My undesired opinion is that it comes with pros and cons, adding a little nuance but massively raising hand-strain and barrier to entry; though I probably wouldn’t remove it from Melee or 64, I wouldn’t be upset if someone else did, and plenty of people have argued for it.

However, I haven’t actually checked in on that opinion since the last time I was actively playing Smash 64. In high school. The Internet collectively argued about “does auto L-cancel buff Fox” for a decade, and I had already decided how I felt about that, so I didn’t really see much reason to think about it again.

So after finally gritting my teeth through Kaillera setup to reunite with my high school flame, I’ve been practicing and playing Smash 64, feeling my old muscle memory slowly sink back in—like stretching your arm after lying on it for ten fucking years. You don’t often get to temporarily suck at something you were once good at, and the experience brought me to a conclusion that I didn’t expect, not ten years ago and not today:

I actually like Z-canceling.

Not strongly, mind you—it’s still a chore, it’s still busywork, it’s still a barrier to entry. But if not strongly, at least actively; that single added input is a metronome that matches my pace, implicitly challenging me to push it faster. Instead of accepting Z-canceling as background radiation, a game rule so familiar it became invisible, relearning has brought it to the forefront of my brain again, and there’s something about the rhythm of the execution that makes my brain decide to gimme a little of the good neurotransmitters. “You successfully paid attention to when you would land, even though you were distracted by four other things and Bair on shield leaves you with the longest hitstop in the entire world. For landing an inescapable pivot grab, I award you one (1) molecule of serotonin. As a treat.”

So where does that leave me? Does this shocking revelation uproot everything I thought I believed about fighting games? Do I think FFXIV should add just-frames and Fantasy Strike should add an extra row of attack buttons? Probably not;3 like I said before, it’s checks and balances and context. A decision that’s right for one game can be wrong for another, and even players of the same game are going to find value in different places. If you zoom in to scrutinize individual mechanics, it’s possible that my revelation is just for me.

But I think this generalizes to at least something; the difference between a mindless chore, a knife’s-edge balancing act, and a flow-induced trance is context, feedback, and preexisting brain-wiring bias. Z-canceling is pleasant Zen in training mode, but sometimes momentarily frustrating versus a person. The Heated Shot combo is boring versus a striking dummy, but put me in the last phase of a hard fight and suddenly I’m directly connected to an aspect of God, with my giant, pulsating brain pushing on the inside of my skull. Somehow, people play Naoto BlazBlue and describe their experience as fun—and what are you supposed to do with that, accuse them of lying?

So just…be wary of absolutes, I guess. Raise your eyebrow skeptically at glib, elegant assertions like “a good control scheme is invisible” or “nobody would ever design X today” or “lowering the skill ceiling is how we get Street Fighter V”. Acknowledge that your experience is composed of a gorillion different things, sometimes in concert and sometimes in direct opposition, and that even your understanding of your own tastes isn’t always ironclad. Do your best to grapple with the idea that things can be satisfying without a noble reason or purpose. Know yourself, and try to come to know other people, because you might find something surprising.

(And play Smash 64, dammit.)

  1. This isn’t the first time this has happened, but if I start talking about the streamlining of FFXIV’s combat system and its unintended consequences, I’ll never get to make my annoying parallel to Other Game.

    “when yoshi-p said kaiten was being removed due to button bloat what he really meant was ‘we don’t know what we’re fucking doing anymore’" - Naizaka, July 2023 ↩︎

  2. I know there are a lot of competing candidates for this title, but I think L/Z-canceling are most contentious among people who are actually playing Smash in one form or another—I’m excluding the facile drive-by comments about intentional game mechanics being glitches, or about 64 being a zero-to-death sim and Melee being Fox Only Final Destination. ↩︎

  3. Monk should have just-frames ↩︎