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NOTE: migrated from my old gemlog on: October 14th, 2020.

playing with the steam controller

originally posted on: may 26, 2020

WARNING: This post is written in my long, rambling epistolary style because I haven't really planned out what I wanted to say before writing it, so be prepared.

I recently, out of boredom, dug out my steam controller that I've had lying around since it launched (2015?). I remembered that it was pretty horrible to use, but I don't have any other controllers that have a joystick. In fact, the only other controller I have that works with modern computers is a clone SNES controller[a] (it wasn't that expensive when I got it) from the now-defunct NextThingCo.[b] (I plan on writing about the PocketCHIP someday, because it's amazing). However, once you get used to it, I've found that, excluding a few exceptions, that the Steam Controller is equal to, or better than a controller for many games, although I still prefer playing with a mouse or keyboard when possible. My current use case is playing on my couch using my "server" that's plugged into my T.V., and the steam controller was specifically designed for that purpose, so my use case is normal.

[a]: https://shop.pocketchip.co/collections/frontpage/products/pocket-c-h-i-p-usb-controller

[b]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CHIP_(computer)

using the controller

After pulling the controller out and dusting it off, with some help from the SteamController subreddit[c] I pulled up Squirm[d], a wonderful platforming game that I'd been meaning to replay anyways. After lots of fiddling with the config, I finally got to a point where I could play through the early sections semi-reliably. I was thinking "oh, it's okay" pretty much the whole time. After I got to the spookelium boss, I then decided to mess with the config more and, after 30 minutes of fiddling, got to a configuration where I felt much better and more precise with my movements, as well as some QoL things like autofire. "That was pretty neat" I thought, and proceeded to continue playing through the game, all the way to the end, where the levels get punishingly difficult, and that was where I really started getting to a point where I thought the controller might be more useful than just a novelty.

Finishing Squirm, I played through an old favorite, Portal, and after some rebinding and mouse sensitivity changes, I again got to a very usable, enjoyable point. Making extensive use of the gyro for more precise aiming makes for almost as quick and precise of an experience as using a mouse, which was really unexpected. Playing Portal 2 with a similar profile had a similar experience, leaving me very happy with a very strange controller I previously thought was fairly useless.

[c]: https://old.reddit.com/r/SteamController/

[d]: https://store.steampowered.com/app/778330/Squirm/

interesting features

And now we get to where where I want to talk about the controller itself. My favorite aspect of it is the gyro, which is nonexistent or completely unused in any other controller. The only common controller that has a gyro that I know of is the DualShock 4, but it goes mostly unused other than gimmicky things like "shake the flashlight." Actually using the gyro though, gives you nearly the speed and accuracy of an actual mouse, which is really amazing for a controller.

The next thing about it, which is the first thing anyone notices about it, is the two touchpads. I still think I prefer a joystick for movement, because it's easier to use a joystick and tell where your finger is on it, and it has a better tactile feel. I also think I still prefer actual buttons instead of using the trackpad for buttons, because it's easier to rapid-fire press buttons, or keep your finger on them instead of having to hover over the trackpad. However, using the trackpad for either mouse movement or to emulate a right-stick on a regular controller is where it really shines, as it is more precise, easier to use, and just wonderful all around, especially when combined with the gyro for super-precise aiming, that's almost faster than a mouse.

The final two special things about it that I'm going to group together, are the dual-stage analog triggers and the grip buttons/paddles. The triggers let you activate different actions depending on how far they are pressed or whether or not they are "soft-pressed" (pressed partially) or "hard-pressed" (pressed all the way down). This is potentially useful, but the only thing I've used it for so far is to fire a single shot when "soft-pressed" or fire repeatedly when "hard-pressed" in Squirm. The grips, on the other hand, are very useful, and finally make use of all those fingers that hang out uselessly on the back of the controller. Having those two extra actions is very useful, particularly when chorded with other actions. For instance, on the most popular SpaceChem config, pressing the right paddle pulls up a pop-up dialog that lets you select commands using the right trackpad, which is otherwise used for normal mouse movement. However, in the most simple usage of the grips, you can use them for things like zoom camera while jumping without having to try to hold your thumb on Y while pressing A repeatedly.


The Steam Controller is a very strange, unique controller that simultaneously is so weird only people like me should/would use it, while also being so fabulously better than a regular controller that everyone should use it. The main thing holding it back is how much configuration and fiddling it needs for *every game* in order to get it to a usable state. However, I would recommend it as long as you're like me, and willing to dedicate your time to getting something configured *exactly* how you want it to be.

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