Today I Learned: The PlayStation Controller’s ‘Shapes’ Aren’t Meaningless (But They Don’t Make Sense Now)

Today I Learned is a series where we dive into an interesting or head-scratching fact from PlayStation’s history that, as the title suggests, we didn’t know about until today.

The PlayStation DualShock’s iconic button ‘shapes’ have been a staple of every PS controller since 1994, becoming synonymous with Sony’s video game brand. The triangle, circle, square, and cross (or ‘X’) buttons have featured on every PlayStation console from the original through to the PS5, but while these shapes may just seem like a way for Sony to distance itself from its competitors and their lettered buttons, there was actually an interesting thought process behind this design choice.

According to Sony engineer Teiyu Goto, each of the PlayStation’s shapes has its own meaning. In a 2020 interview with the now-defunct 1up (via Gizmodo), he explained:

Other game companies at the time assigned alphabet letters or colors to the buttons. We wanted something simple to remember, which is why we went with icons or symbols, and I came up with the triangle-circle-X-square combination immediately afterward. I gave each symbol a meaning and a color. The triangle refers to viewpoint; I had it represent one’s head or direction and made it green. Square refers to a piece of paper; I had it represent menus or documents and made it pink. The circle and X represent ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision-making and I made them red and blue respectively. People thought those colors were mixed up, and I had to reinforce to management that that’s what I wanted.

For many original PlayStation games, these distinctions made sense; games such as Metal Gear Solid used circle or O to confirm and cross or X to cancel. While the West steadily switched these inputs around, Japan kept them the same — until the PS5.

How the PlayStation’s ‘shapes’ changed their meaning

Metal Gear Solid confused many Western gamers with its “switched” X and O buttons.

In a controversial move, Sony decided to undo years of muscle memory with its Japanese audience by making the X button mean confirm and O mean cancel in PS5 games released in the region. In Japan, “batsu” means the cross mark (X) that people use to signify something is incorrect, while “maru” means the circle (O) that means something is correct. As such, the meaning behind the X and O buttons made more sense in Japan than in the West, where an X is typically used synonymously with a checkmark.

Similarly, the square and triangle buttons have moved far beyond their initial meanings. Square was initially used to represent a document or menu, but now it’s largely used as an ‘interact’ button; pressing it typically reloads a gun, uses an item, or interacts with something in the world. Back in the formative years of 3D gaming, Sony wouldn’t have known that first-person shooters and action-adventure games would become so prominent in the industry, and that this would make an all-encompassing interact button more valuable than a menu button .

Meanwhile, the triangle button’s initial purpose has been rendered all but completely obsolete. Initially, it was often used to recenter the camera on the player, which was vital when analog stick controllers weren’t prevalent in console gaming. However, over time, that function steadily became useless — nowadays it’s more likely to help the player switch weapons or items, and has little to do with their viewpoint at all.

Did you know about this PlayStation fact, or like us, is this a ‘Today I Learned’ moment for you? Let us know in the comments below.

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