The carpet-treadmill zombie games and intimidating space submarines of GDC's Alt.Ctrl

The power of custom game controls steal the spotlight at GDC's Alt.Ctrl exhibit.

Alt.Ctrl vr controls
Adam Patrick Murray

Custom controls. It’s the aspect of arcade cabinets I miss most. Sure, I know why home gaming gravitated towards mouse/keyboard and gamepads—jack of all trades, master of none. We can do pretty much anything with a keyboard, without the need for a closet full of one-time-use peripherals and landfills packed with plastic trash.

There’s something fascinating about fully custom control interfaces though: The dual "root beer" taps of Tapper, the oversized yoke of Atari's Star Wars, Battlezone’s joystick tank controls, the iconic Rock Band guitar. Think of them as gaming’s waffle maker, lacking in versatility but excellent at fulfilling a single purpose.

And that’s what makes GDC’s Alt.Ctrl exhibit so much fun each year. Drawing on the arcade tradition, Alt.Ctrl shows off games with fully-custom controls, be it a carpet-treadmill you drag to pull a zombie forward, an extensive spaceship cockpit complete with powered fan, an emotion-sensing AI looking to capture rogue humans, or a game played by scratching a record.

There’s also some sort of crazy...cat-thing?

We took a quick tour through the fourth annual Alt.Ctrl last week during GDC, trying to showcase some of the best ideas on display. They may be totally impractical for your living room, and even (in many cases) impractical for an arcade, but it sure is more interesting than the ol’ mouse and keyboard combo.

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