Anatomy of a control scheme: PlayStation Doom

DOOMPS1“You get what you’re given” was a pretty common parental phrase in my household growing up. Living with two siblings – both of whom had white-hot tempers – ensuring fights over that extra serve of custard or that extra lamb chop were prevented rather than contained. Because of this I’m a pretty easy-going chap who really just takes things as they come.

I tend to take that same philosophy to video games, and as long as they’re entertaining, job well done as far as I’m concerned. I don’t need to fiddle with things not called inverted look, and I almost always assume that the people that made the game know best. I’m the same with game control and rarely if ever visit the menu that deals in all things interface. I just took what I was damn-well given.

But there was one game where I’d manually go in and customise the controls. Doom on PlayStation is still to this day one of my favourite games and one that I spent an inordinate amount of time with as a lad. But looking back it’s a reminder of a couple of things that did my head in at the time. The first was that passwords are huge pains in the arse that had no place on a system that has memory cards (unless the password happens to be IGOTPINK8CIDBOOTSON). And the second was that I was picky-McGee about the controls.

My diligence in writing down codes is unmatched

And that’s mainly because the default controls were – aside from the perfectly fine shoulder buttons – absolutely shithouse. It’s like they got one of those idiots pretending to play games on the telly to actually come into the studio and design the control scheme.


Utterly stupid, really
Utterly stupid, really

Here’s why. Let’s just assume you’re a normal standard everyday human being with the angle of your right thumb being about 135° from the horizontal. Graphically that looks like this:


Given this, it becomes clear that there are only two combinations of buttons that make it comfortable to do two actions at the same time: X and Square, and Circle and Triangle. Using the default controls, those two action combinations are Strafe On and Run; and Open door and fire weapons. Problem is, there are only a three actions that you would frequently want to do at any time in Doom: running, strafing and shooting.

Since strafing is taken care of on the shoulder buttons, that leaves two actions: running and shooting. Problem is this would require your thumb to be at a 45° angle which – unless you’re double-jointed – is physically impossible. Basically, the default controls in PlayStation Doom make no sense at all.


Firstly I’d start with triangle, which if you consider X as the default thumb position, is the furthest distance away. Given “strafe on” is effectively duplicated on the shoulder buttons, it would never be in use and so accessing it quickly was never going to be an issue. The second-least used action – or at least used urgently or in tandem with another action- is open door/use item and so was on circle.

That left the two remaining and arguably two most frequent and most-often mutually inclusive actions in the game (excluding strafe): run and shoot. Given the angle and bend of the thumb, it is easier to hold X while pressing square than it is to do the reverse. Considering the relationship between running and shooting, you are more likely to shoot while running, than run while shooting. And so it becomes pretty obvious that run will be X and shoot on square. And so like some sort of pedantic little shit I’d go in and change the controls before every session.

It seems like a simple anatomy, But the more I think about why I preferred the Doom controls the way I customised them, the more I realised just how much thought goes into deciding control schemes and how we interact with the game.  Obviously I think PlayStation Doom’s were a bit rubbish, but the fact that have never felt the need to change any others is an outright bloody miracle, making control designers the unsung heroes of the games industry.

And so I tip my hat to all of you.

If you’re a pedant like me and have any weird control schemes, let me know in the comments below. 

Club Doom