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 override 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 every major operating system the right mouse button generally opens a "context menu" that has options relating specifically to whatever you right-clicked on. It’s also very common for more complex console games since there are only so many buttons available in the first place.
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.
Not to be confused with the Analysis Channel Action Button, which is named after one of the common terms for this trope.
- The Doug handheld game from Tiger Electronics fits five distinct scenarios into its LCD screen, and the actions relevant to each scene (picking apples, paving a driveway, throwing newspapers, etc.) are all performed with the oddly labelled "Doug" button.
- The Matrix: Path of Neo has this depending on which way you tilt the analogue and attack, for the console versions, at least.
- In Overcooked!, you have one "action" button that changes depending on what you're interacting with. It chops when you have food on a cutting board, throws when you're holding something, stirs certain ingredients... and pets Kevin in the Onion Houses.
- The Legend of Zelda:
- The A button is this in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. It can talk to other characters, grab movable objects, lift liftable objects, or use the Pegasus Boots.
- In the 3D games, the A button does almost 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.
- The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap utilizes the Right Shoulder/R Button for most non-combat actions. Most times context-sensitive buttons are meant to free up other buttons for other actions that are used more frequently (like attack or defend). This is especially true on portable games like the Game Boy Advance, which only has four buttons besides the D-Pad that can be used.
- One specific action button in Beyond Good & 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.
- In the demo for the doujin metroidvania The Witch and the 66 Mushrooms, this was the combat system; there was only one attack button, but it did different attacks depending on what else you pressed. Nothing + ground = dagger throw, nothing + air = scythe spin, down + air = hammer slam, and so forth. The final game uses a similar system but with two different buttons.
- ET The Extraterrestrial assigns various actions to the Atari 2600's one button based on where E.T. is, represented by an icon at the top of the screen.
- 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.
- 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 siphoning fuel. The developers had the foresight to include responses from Ben if the player chose unusual combinations of object and action, for example, right-clicking on a counter top and selecting the mouth icon.
"I'm not putting my mouth on that."
- Portal, Left 4 Dead, 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 when you do, all she does is jump.
- In Planetside 2, when the player is moving the Sprint key (default Shift) will cause them to move faster. When the player is standing still it becomes the "Hold breath" key which eliminates crosshair sway for about ten seconds.
- Far Cry 3 on consoles: depending on the situation and how long you hold it, the X/Square button will let you use an object in the world, talk to someone, get in or out of a vehicle, push a boat off the beach, reload a gun and loot a corpse. And many more. Clicking the left thumb stick will normally make you sprint, but will make you hold your breath if you're sniping.
- Killing Floor 2 has a few. Interact (E) opens and closes doors, opens the shop or takes ammo from a support player's backpack if they have that perk. Additionally, holding the button near a door works as a quick way to equip the welding tool. Alt-Fire (middle mouse button) works differently depending on what weapon you have equipped, ranging from switching fire modes, firing healing darts, flashlight, blocking (with most melee weapons) or firing both barrels of the double-barrelled shotgun. Iron Sights (right mouse button) also work differently for melee weapons, executing a heavy swing. Melee attacks in general are also context-sensitive towards the player movement, which determines if the swing is horizontally or vertically.
- Both Doom³ and Quake IV have one known instance. The button that normally fires your weapon becomes an "activate" command when you are near an active panel and your aiming reticule is inside it.
- In Game Builder Garage, any button on the Nintendo Switch controllers can be given any command via the Button Nodon and whatever setup the game creator can think up.
- The action button, a traditional feature of Stern games starting in The New '10s, serves as this in Star Wars (Stern). Normally it serves to control whether your Score Multiplier is active or not, but it can also function as a means of destroying TIE fighters (in a Button Mashing mode), a Nitro Boost (in the Video Mode), and an add-a-ball button (during multiballs, under certain circumstances).
- Jersey Jack Pinball's Pirates of the Caribbean has a very similar button and downplays this trope. It's generally used to change the award given for spelling P-I-R-A-T-E, but it also fires the cannon during certain modes and collects gold whenever the player earns it.
- In Guns N' Roses (Jersey Jack), the action button on the lockdown bar serves several purposes at different times: switching between patches, selecting a song right before starting a song mode, collecting a Song Jackpot to end a song mode, activating a Power Hit during "Thirst for Carnage", and awarding a jackpot during Ignite the Flames Multiball.
- The Mandalorian: The action button activates one of the Mandalorian's weapons, but which one changes depending on what would be must useful in the player's current situation. For instance, one weapon which adds a ball is only available during multiball modes.
- The trope namer, 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. Also an example of Platform-Activated Ability, since all the objects and gadgets Conker would theoretically use anywhere for having them already in his Hammerspace are off-limits without said platforms (though there are rare exceptions, which are indicated when the idea light bulb still appears above Conker's head even if he's not standing onto any pad, or isn't even touching the floor).
- Used for all its worth in the Sly Cooper games, where practically any ability that lets you do a cool sneaking move is tutorialized as "Jump and press the Circle button", including sneaking on ledges, hanging from ropes and hooks, landing on a pin-point and starting a rail slide. It was so pervasive that when the main cast got together on a podcast and improvised a break-in to steal KFC's 11 herbs and spices, the actor for Bentley got the actor for Sly to howl with laughter when Sly's instructions for breaking in were, in full, "Sly, you jump and press the Circle button".
- Extremely common in the Sonic The Hedgehog series' 3D games.
- 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. Other times 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.
- In Sonic Adventure 2, Somersault, Spindash, Light Speed Dash, Bounce Attack, Mystic Melody, Magic Hands, pick object up, put object down, and throw object are all activated by the same button. This can sometimes lead to unintended behaviour, for example bouncing right into a Bottomless Pit when you actually wanted to Light Speed Dash over it, but were a bit too far away from a golden ring to use that move.
- In Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) (as in Adventure 2), the Light Speed Dash and the Bounce Attack are mapped to the same button. Because the game is so poorly programmed, it is extremely common, once one has both powerups, to jump toward a trail of rings expecting to dash, only to find oneself body-slamming straight down into a Bottomless Pit – far more often than one would in SA2, let the record show. Because the game loves to spam ring trails over bottomless pits, you will die… a lot.
- Sonic Unleashed fixed a lot of the control problems Sonic '06 had, including the button-mapping – Light Speed Dash is its own button. Elsewhere, the game has a traditional Context-sensitive button, helpfully indicated by a flashing prompt whereby you can pull a switch, turn a crank, grab an enemy, or punch (as the Werehog); bodyslam or crouch-slide (as regular Sonic).
- Wario Land 3 has a context-sensitive help feature. On the pause screen, you can access an Action Help section which includes short demonstrations of Wario's currently available abilities. In most situations, this gives you demonstrations of Wario's basic moves and the abilities given to him by whatever powerups you've currently obtained, but under specific circumstances (like holding onto a zipline, or when transformed into a vampire), you get unique videos showing the controls for that specific situation.
- The so-called "special command" in DROD, which does nothing itself, but the in-game scripting language can detect and respond to it. Most levels don't use it, but (particularly in The Second Sky) there are some Unexpected Gameplay Change levels using it in various ways.
- Final Fantasy series: In contrast to the early Dragon Quest games which required bringing up a menu to talk with people or interact with objects, the original Final Fantasy replaced this with a context-sensitive button that can be used to talk or interact.
- 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 Unintentionally Unwinnable 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.
- Both Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts IInote 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.
- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: The control to place an item in a container is the same as to pick up EVERYTHING in the container, depending on whether you are taking or adding things.
- EarthBound (1994) has a primitive version, with the L button being a shortcut for talking if you happen to be facing a person, and checking the environment otherwise. This was added as a more-convenient counterpart to the game's Dragon Quest style action menu, which was Retraux even then.
- BoxxyQuest: The Gathering Storm uses the Shift key in two different ways. If you have the Speedy Shoes equipped, then it becomes the sprint button, while in the side-scrolling platformer stages it’s used to jump. This means that wearing the shoes into a platformer area allows you to jump further – in fact, this trick is necessary to beat some of the harder bonus levels.
- The main button used during gameplay in Golf With Your Friends is the left mouse button. Clicking while the ball is still hits the ball in the direction it was aimed. If jumping is turned on, clicking when the ball is in motion and touching the ground (or water in some cases) will cause the ball to 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.
- The Oddworld series uses these starting in Munch's Oddyssey. The 'jump' button is also used to drink from a vending machine, sit down in your wheelchair, pick things up, etc.
- 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. This system has been widely copied by other third person shooters. 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.
- The Splatoon series uses the A button for actions that are specific to certain gameplay modes. For example, the Clam Blitz mode uses it to throw clams, and Salmon Run uses it to put the Golden Egg you're carrying into the egg basket.
- 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.
- Red Dead Redemption II has very context sensitive buttons which has caused much frustration on some players, as some of those buttons are for harmless things such as reloading your gun, but also for punching people, causing players to accidentally whack somebody unconscious with their gun in the middle of a town when they were only trying to reload their revolver. Most annoyingly however, is that the grapple button is the same as the mount horse button. You can already see where the problem is regarding that when it comes to mounting your horse while there's a person standing by it...
- All of the Tamagotchi virtual pet toys are controlled by three context-sensitive buttons labeled A, B, and C. In the menus, A usually scrolls through options, B is used to select an option, and C is used to back out of the menu. In the games, C is still used to cancel but A and B function differently based on the game, such as moving left or right, picking one of two options, or being pushed as fast as possible to run faster.
- Touchscreens on smartphones are big context sensitive buttons, functioning depending on the programming - how you use the screen changes according to which app and what is on screen.
- Nokia hyped this up and made heavy use of this trope with the "Navi-Key" as first used on the Nokia 3110 released in 1997. The Navi-Key was designed with simplicity and ease of use in mind, with said key having different functions depending on the situation. A variation of this with two context-sensitive buttons would be used on later devices (and copied by most if not all phone manufacturers since) due to inherent limitations with the Navi-Key.
- Industrial control equipment has been moving in this direction for a couple decades, transitioning from hard-wired buttons each with only a single function to "softkeys" on a programmable controller, the exact functions of which can be changed depending on the program, operating mode, and display screen selected.