Created By: Escher on July 11, 2012 Last Edited By: Escher on July 23, 2012

Context Sensitive Button

A video game control that does different things depending on the current situation.

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This YKTTW is based on the TRS on Context-Sensitive Button, which has been renamed to Plot-Sensitive Button (a control that does whatever the plot demands at the moment rather than having a specified function, like Speed Racer's steering wheel buttons); Context-Sensitive Button is to be redefined as a video game trope.

See Context-Sensitive Button TRS discussion

A context sensitive button is a button (usually, but it could be a stick position) that has a different function based on where you are and what's going on around you at the time (that is, the context). Some games have a dedicated "action button" that does nothing unless you're in a situation where a special action is available to you; others subborn one of your standard controls when you get into a recognized context. There is usually some sort of on-screen indication that a special action has become available.

This trope is only in play if there are a wide variety of context-sensitive actions connected to a given button, which come up many times during play. If a button changes its use only happens once or very rarely, it's probably not this trope.

This is an Omnipresent Trope in the RTS genre, as well as most computer games that use a mouse and aren't shooters. Actually, it's a common feature mouse use in general; in Windows the right mouse button generally opens a "context menu" that has options relating specifically to whatever you right-clicked on.

Often Action Commands or Press X to Not Die use a Context-Sensitive Button, but they don't have to. For example, if a particular button is always Block, but blocking only works if you do it at the right moment, it's an action command but not context sensitive. Similarly, if you have to hit Block during a Cutscene to block an attack, that's not context sensitive. The button's function didn't change; you just have to time the block properly or use it at an unusual moment.

When there is an In-Universe button that seems to do whatever the plot demands at the moment, that's a Plot-Sensitive Button.


  • The Assassin's Creed games use this trope quite a bit; the four buttons on the controller generally correspond to "do something with your head", "do something with your feet", "do something with your left hand", and "do something with your right hand". What exactly each one does depends on whether you're standing still, running, riding a horse, climbing, standing close to somebody, and so on.
  • Fahrenheit and its Spiritual Successor Heavy Rain both have a Context-Sensitive Button for virtually every control in the entire game, sometimes including the joysticks.
  • The A button was this in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. It could talk to other characters, grab movable objects, lift liftable objects, or use the Pegasus Boots.
  • In the Legend of Zelda 3d games, the A button does just about everything that interacts with the environment and isn't "attack", including jump, climb, roll, push, and pull. The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time was actually the first video game to use an on-screen display of what the context-sensitive button would do at that moment.
  • In Chronicles of Inotia: Children of Carnia, everything aside from movement, pausing, switching characters and skills gets bound to a single button. This includes both attacking and talking, so the game can become Unwinnable by Mistake if you're cornered by monsters while standing close enough to converse with somebody; your attack button turns into Talk and there's no way to fight your way out.
  • Conker's Bad Fur Day actually has platforms that the game refers to as "Context Sensitive Buttons", which have the letter B on them. When B is pressed while standing on one, it does whatever the game requires at that point, from providing Conker with dynamite to getting him drunk.
  • In Full Throttle, the right-click menu always had the same four buttons (hand, foot, mouth, and eyes), but depending on what you were using them on they could have very different effects. For example, using "mouth" normally means "talk to this character", but when used on a hose stuck in a gas tank, it meant "suck" to start syphoning fuel.
  • The "A" button in Gears of War is a catch-all button for the gameplay's duck and cover system. You slide into cover, switch pillars with a swat turn, jump over barriers, roadie run, anything you can think of. In fact, it's so frequently used that players and critics have complained about the button causing the wrong thing to happen because the context changed slightly just before they pushed it.
  • One specific action button in Beyond Good and Evil allows the player to fight, take pictures, pick up objects, use special keys, jump, talk, climb, kick things and turn pillars. A different action button makes your partner perform some of these actions.
  • The all-purpose "action" button in Tomb Raider is used to shoot, grab hold of ledges, climb out of pools, or push boulders.
  • Portal and Half-Life have the "Use" key (default: E) which will do various things based on context. In Portal, it normally picks things up, but will also push the small red buttons on pedestals and open unlocked doors.
  • Portal 2 uses the same all-purpose use/grab key, but the tutorial has a subversion: when Wheatley asks Chell to speak, the game prompts the player with "Press [jump button] to speak". But if you do, all she does is jump.
  • Under the Hitman control scheme, pressing the "Use" key may cause the player character to perform any one of literally hundreds of actions, depending on context. Walk up to certain NPCs with your hands empty and "Use" will start a conversation with them. Sneaking up on them from behind with a pistol drawn or looking down on them through the roof hatch of an elevator with your garrotte equipped will yield far less benevolent options.
  • Batman: Arkham Asylum makes heavy use of this trope. At appropriate times, almost any of your controls can change to a context-sensitive command. Each button generally sticks to a theme -- 'jump' makes you do something related to movement, 'punch' does a takedown of some sort, and so on -- but not always.
  • A Tamagotchi is a very sophisticated virtual pet that's controlled by only three context-sensitive buttons.
  • Both Kingdom Hearts Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts II do this with the triangle button, which is specifically for "Reaction Commands". The attack button also performs various 'interact with this thing' functions when you are in the right position to do so.
    • Dream Drop Distance also has Free Flow Action, where pressing the Y button will cause Sora/Riku to do a variety of acrobatic maneuvers, depending on the environment, from grinding rails to latching on to enemies.
  • Played for Laughs in Super Press Space to Win Action RPG. Every action in the 5-minute game is performed by repeatedly pressing -- well, you know.
  • In Sonic Adventure, there's one specific button that can make you attack, pick stuff up, put stuff down, or use the floating help TVs in the Chao Gardens. This can be a problem.
    • Sometimes, you can try to pick up your Chao and end up attacking it.
    • Sometimes, you try and put down an animal in the aforementioned Gardens and end up in a help menu because you were next to one of the TVs.
      • Then a Chao comes along and takes the animal out of your hands, changing in ways you didn't intend it to.
Community Feedback Replies: 15
  • July 11, 2012
    Do we really need examples for this? Pretty much every game nowadays includes it. Particularly in the RTS genre, the right mouse button is commonly used to direct the unit to go to a location clicked or attack an enemy that was clicked.
  • July 11, 2012
    Bring it up in the YKTTW thread.
  • July 11, 2012
    But this is the YKTTW thread.
  • July 11, 2012
    <headdesk> I meant to say the TRS thread. Sorry.

    But on second thought, I'll add that as a note in the body for RTS; it's still useful to have examples becase it's hardly ubiquitous in other genres, though becoming more-so. For example, in the Zelda games, A almost always means "do an attack with your current weapon" (not a context button), but B can swap between "draw sword", "sheathe sword", "climb on box", "push box", "pull lever", and a dozen more commands based on what's near you.
  • July 11, 2012
    It's common, but not universal, so examples are still legit to list.
  • July 12, 2012
    Non-Videogame example
  • July 12, 2012
    Can't forget the Trope Namer, Conkers Bad Fur Day. In that game Context Sensitive Buttons with large B's on them did whatever the game called for when Conker stood on them, from providing him with dynamite to getting him drunk.
  • July 12, 2012
    Would Full Throttle count? It didn't have physical CSBs but virtual ones: the right-click menu always had four buttons (hand, foot, mouth, and eyes), which caused different actions (e.g. mouth on another character meant "talk" but "suck" on a fuel hose).
  • July 12, 2012
    @Damr1990: Not video games, so not an example. Anyway we have a trope for that, as I said in the note at the end of the article. It's called Plot Sensitive Button. Coop's example is the page image for that trope.

    @Surenity: Good example but definitely NOT the trope namer. The term "context sensitive" has been around in computing since at least Windows 3.1, and I'm pretty sure the Mac used the term before even that. I'm fairly certain the whole term "Context Sensitive Button" was around before Conker, too.

    @Koveras: Sure, that's a good example. The menu is always the same, but what the buttons do varies depending on what you're doing with them.
  • July 12, 2012
    In Chronicles Of Inotia Children Of Carnia, everything aside from movement, pausing, switching characters and skills gets bound to a single button. Annoyingly enough, this includes both attacking and talking, so it can put you in situations where you're in a corner, standing close to someone you can talk to, and can't move far enough away while enemies are attacking you, stopping you from fighting back and making the game Unwinnable By Mistake unless you restart.
  • July 16, 2012
    Escher: Actually in the Zelda games, the 3D ones at least, it's the B button that is your sword and A your generic "action" button.
  • July 17, 2012
    Yeah, I noticed that and fixed it yesterday while I was adding a bunch of examples.
  • July 17, 2012
  • July 23, 2012
    Need one more hat!
  • July 23, 2012
    • The Oddworld series uses these starting in Munch's Oddyssey. The same button is used to jump, drink from a vending machine, sit down in your wheelchair, pick things up, etc.