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Sony’s PS5 controller is the most magical part of the next-gen console

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The first time I picked up the DualSense controller, I thought: it’s like a little living thing in my hands. I was playing , a free PS5 game designed to highlight the new controller’s features. But, I also wondered: How many other PS5 games are going to take advantage of its wild, subtle features?

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Gaming hardware that reaches out and surprises is pretty rare. Usually, it’s Nintendo’s domain: the detaching, docking, transforming , Slot or the Wii’s free-wheeling controllers. The and are pretty astonishing. Add to that list the ‘s magical new version of its controller, now called DualSense instead of the older DualShock designation. 

The PlayStation 5 is a graphically overloaded console with lots of potential, but its standout feature is clearly the upgraded DualSense. Launching Astro’s Playroom, the game preinstalled on the PS5, you get a showcase of what it can do. Its triggers stop and start to make it seem like you’re gripping ledges or pulling back bowstrings. Walking across ice, the controller tinkles and taps just perfectly to make it seem like I can feel the crunchy surface. The DualSense’s vibrational haptics really do create moments where I can almost touch the game.

The PlayStation 5 should get its own in the next couple of years. But in the meantime, the DualSense offers a little promise of what Sony’s immersive gaming steps could head to next.

But how many games will showcase these new features and will developers take the time? New interfaces are risky. Sometimes, as was the case with the Nintendo Wii, Wii U and even the Joy-Cons on the Switch, it’s not easy to get other games to come aboard.

“Following discussions with game developers, we realized that ‘sense of touch’ within gameplay hasn’t been a focal point for many games in the PS4 generation,” says Takeshi Igarashi, VP of the Peripheral Design Department at Sony Japan, over email. 

Sony has leaned on its own creative team to showcase the possibilities. Japan Studios’ Team Asobi has made games showcasing the PlayStation 4’s camera and PlayStation VR headset, and Astro’s Playroom does the same for the PS5. It’s as much a tutorial for new owners as it is an inspirational attempt to spark what other game developers could do next.

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Astro’s Playroom was built to show off the DualSense controller. It’s also a guided tour.

Sony Computer Entertainment

A playground of demos

“A lot of games usually come from a narrative or a desire to tell a particular story. And in our case, the story is all about the mechanical device and its possibilities,” Nicolas Doucet, Creative Director at Sony’s Japan Studio, says about Team Asobi and how it made Astro’s Playroom.

Team Asobi was sent its first DualSense prototypes back around early 2018, says Doucet, when the group was still busy making the PlayStation VR game Astro Bot Rescue Mission (which is one of my favorite PSVR games of all time). A dedicated DualSense team split off and started brainstorming clever things the controller could do.

The team started with trigger-focused shooting gallery demos that used the haptics and combined sounds with haptics in Astro’s Playroom to create realistic-feeling effects like hitting ice or metal.

“It’s kind of a trinity between what you feel, what you hear, from the controller especially and what you see on the screen. And your brain is really fooled into believing these. And the way you weight all these three elements is very important,” says Doucet.

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Dan Ackerman/CNET

A lab to showcase magical possibilities

While Astro’s Playroom is clearly made to entertain PS5 owners, Doucet’s team has used its experiments to showcase ideas for developers, too, as part of their role exploring how to make the most of Sony’s new hardware. 

“We started going out to third-party publishers, developers who also work on PlayStation or plan to make PlayStation games, which is why [we made] some of the choices we made about the tech demos,” says Doucet. “We had one where you could bounce a ball and the ball could be a basketball, football, volleyball, ping pong ball. And they were all different expressions by the way they were bouncing back and the way the trigger would behave. And we did that because, we thought, well, we’re not making a sports game. But you know, there are people where the ball physics and ball behavior is quintessential to the experience. So let’s have this kind of demo and see how far we can push out and that goes up to them. And they can sort of get inspired.”

There aren’t that many PlayStation 5 games that make the most of the DualSense feedback and triggers at the moment: Sony’s uses the subtle haptics a lot as a type of Spidey-sense, but not necessarily to transform gameplay. But those moments could come. It might take developers like Team Asobi to show the way, especially when a possible PSVR 2 arrives.