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File:ContextSensitiveButton5 1317.jpg

It slices! It dices! It lampshades itself!

"Wow! Just what I needed! In fact, it would seem to me that these give me just what I need at that moment in time! Oh, I see! Context sensitive! Clever!"

"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
Albert Einstein.

It's a decades-old geek joke that the perfect computer would only have one instruction: Do What I Want. In The Future, this will be achieved, so that a character can push the same button over and over and have it do something different each time. (Often a Big Red Button, but not always)

This is most commonly the result of a set constructed with lots of control panels, but no one keeping track of which button serves which purpose in the context of the story.

These are often used to control the Do-Anything Robot. Compare Action Commands, Green Lantern Ring, Magic Tool, Damn You, Muscle Memory!.

Examples of Plot Sensitive Button include:


  • The Staples chain of office supply stores ran a series of TV commercials in which someone is out of a certain office supply, then presses a big red button labeled "EASY" which caused a large quantity of the missing office supply to appear. A later commercial parodied earlier ones by having an EASY button accidentally held down, causing massive quantities of various office supplies to materialize around an office building.

    In another ad, office supplies randomly fall from the air — until a family discovers their one-year-old happily playing with a new toy. Current commercials have people trying (and failing) to use said EASY button for things other than office supplies. Staples has actually manufactured these buttons, which simply state "that was easy" when pressed.


  • In Code Geass Lelouch has a switch shaped vaguely like a chess piece that serves multiple functions, ranging from remote controlling guns of a freshly hijacked mecha, detonating planted explosives, causing his Humongous Mecha to eject a container full of mini-mirrors which let him reflect his Evil Eye at improbable angles, and causing Mount Fuji to erupt. As one might expect from this example, Memetic Mutation has turned the switch into the anime equivalent of Batman's utility belt.
  • In Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, the Ganmen's controls don't have a clear connection to the operation. When asked how to operate one, Simon says you just move the levers back and forth and it does what you want.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh! - Any time Kaiba uses his hax skills. Summed up quite nicely in the abridged series:

 Computer: It looks like you're just pressing the same buttons over and over again.

Kaiba: That's because I learned how to hack by watching old episodes of Star Trek.

  • In Heroman, the remote control that Joey uses to control Heroman only has one button.


  • Star Wars
    • In Attack of the Clones, Padmé Amidala pressed a red button on her ship control panel to transmit Obi-Wan's message to the Jedi Council, and later pressed the same button to show Anakin the holographic map of Geonosis.
    • In Revenge of the Sith, this was referenced when Padmé pressed the same button to start the ship. It was further parodied in Rifftrax:

 Padmé: I'm going to help Obi-wan.

Mike: (as Padmé) By pressing the only button on the ship that works!

  • Star Trek
    • In Star Trek: Insurrection, Captain Picard pushes a button on his control console labeled "Calibrate", which is enough to call up the lyrics of "A British Tar" and engage it in karaoke mode (complete with bobbing ball).
    • More generally, 24th century Starfleet control panels are reconfigurable, thus allowing actors to push the same spot and achieve different effects. So says series graphic designer Mike Okuda in the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual. In other words, everything works like big iPhones.
    • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country - A modified torpedo is launched by someone pressing a button — an actual solid button — labelled "Mode Select".
      • To be fair to the movie, they had just finished jerry-rigging the torpedo, so maybe they just wired it into a handy nearby button.
  • Galaxy Quest plays with this. The pilot knew just what buttons on the control panel did what, because when he was working on the fake ship, he personally assigned 'X Task To Y Button', being a child star (enjoying his work!) when he was initially on the TV show. In Real Life Wil Wheaton did this when working on Star Trek: The Next Generation, inventing imaginary things he had to push to send the commands he'd logically need to send, like 'propulsion', 'impulse', 'to 50%'. This is probably the basis of the scene in Galaxy Quest.
  • The Incredibles - Try to figure out which button on Syndrome's remote does what.
  • In The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the Medusa device is operated by a single large switch which, when flipped, without any direction, turns to stone only the intended target.


  • Subverted in Witches Abroad, where Magrat tries to use a magic wand by just waving it and wishing really hard for what she wants. It turns things to pumpkins every single time. By the end of the novel, Granny Weatherwax has worked out that the apparently ornamental rings on the end can be twisted & clicked into different combinations for different results.

Live Action TV

  • Torchwood - Captain Jack Harkness' vortex manipulator seems to control just about everything in the Hub not to mention being a teleporter and time travel device when working properly. Similarly, opponent Capt. John Hart has a device which appears to be exactly the same (including the limitation of not actually doing what it's meant to do, despite it never being stated that his VM is anything other than perfectly functional) with the added bonus of his being able to manipulate the rift, which Torchwood requires a massive machine draining huge amounts of power to do...
  • In Firefly there are three switches that the pilot, Wash, always flips whenever he starts doing something. This is remarked on by the actor in one of the commentaries.
  • In the Red Dwarf episode "Parallel Universe", Holly invents the "Holly-Hop Drive", a device intended to move the ship instantly to any point in space (although it actually instead moves the ship into an Alternate Universe). Much to the crew's scorn, the drive is just a red box with two buttons: "Start" and "Stop". In the words of Holly: "If you want to start it, press Start, and you can work out the rest of the controls for yourself."
  • Doctor Who
    • The sonic screwdriver seems able to perform any and all tasks required, just by pointing and buzzing. It has cut, welded, unlocked locks both electronic and mechanical, detonated marsh gas, disabled androids, changed channels on a military communications screen, manipulated multiple computer systems and, of course, unfastened screws. No explanation for its versatility-sans-external-controls has ever been advanced onscreen, but when Amy Pond had to use the screwdriver in "Let's Kill Hitler", Rory commented that it (at least that incarnation of it anyway) had a psychic interface.

      Specific settings have been referenced. in The Empty Child, he tells Rose which one reattaches barbed wire. We don't know how settings are selected. In The Keeper of Traken, however, the Doctor explicitly states that it can't do anything against purely mechanical locks. Also, since it can only manipulate one device at a time, it can't open deadlocks.
      • On occasion, the Doctor gives the screwdriver to a companion to use. His instructions (except for the barbed wire case above) are never more complicated than "point and click", though.
    • Oddly, in the TARDIS we have the inverse: the same function is sometimes activated by different controls. The Doctor and Adric use different controls to open the TARDIS doors in Logopolis, the 9th Doctor dematerialised the TARDIS by twisting a dial whereas the 10th Doctor does it by throwing a particular lever, and so on. One companion had a control that only worked when she took two paces to the right and tried again.
      • According to Matt Smith, the crew actually have a TARDIS operations manual that he was required to read when he became the Doctor. Therefore, yes, the TARDIS controls do have specific functions that the special effects crew have worked out, and the actor isn't just randomly flipping levers and pushing buttons when operating the TARDIS.
    • Jon Pertwee once said that, like the Star Trek example above, he'd assigned functions to every one of the panels on the console. Also, for a New Series example, the Series One Companion Guide states that "the Doctor's got it rigged so that when he pushes a button on one side, it unlocks a lever on the other side," and that's why he's madly dashing about.
  • Mystery Science Theater 3000 - Whenever Joel or Mike needed to see what was happening outside the Satellite Of Love, they'd ask Cambot to "Give me rocket number nine!" The camera would then cut to a view outside the satellite; it would be a completely different angle every time.
  • On The Peter Serafinowicz Show appeared a spoof Apple ad, featuring the "Mactini" a computer so small it only has one key. To type A you press the button once. To press Z, you press it... 26 times. And you do not wanna know how to do punctuation.

Newspaper Comics

  • The transmogrifier in Calvin and Hobbes has an indicator that points to whatever animal Calvin wants to turn into. If he wants to turn into something that is not listed, he just writes it on the side. The Transmogrifier gun, on the other hand, takes a much simpler approach: telepathy! The box that the transmogrifier itself is constructed from is context-sensitive: crawl underneath it and it's a transmogrifier, go into it from the side and it's a duplicator, and climb in the top and it's a time machine.

 Hobbes: Oh no, I'm not getting into that box. I don't want to be transmogrified or duplicated or whatever.

Calvin: What? When the TOP is open, it's a time machine, remember?

    • Actually weaponized when Calvin gets rid of his clones by tricking them into running into the duplicator, then flipping it over to turn it into a transmogrifier.


  • The former Trope Namer, Conkers Bad Fur Day featured the Context Sensitive Buttons, which were big, B-labelled buttons on the ground that did whatever the plot called for.
  • Many games have a context-sensitive button for the player to use in an effort to simplify the control scheme. With exceptions like Conker above, they don't actually appear in the game world.
    • 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 ever-so-slightly just before they pushed it.
    • Similarly, in the 3-D Zelda games, the A button was context-sensitive and gave Link the ability to jump, roll, push, and pull, among other things, depending on the context. The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time was actually the very first video game to display what context-sensitive controls did.
    • 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 asked to speak and prompted to try the Jump button, all Chell does in this context is jump.
  • A Tamagotchi is a very sophisticated virtual pet that's controlled by only three context-sensitive buttons. In general, A is used to navigate menus or selections, B to make choices, and C to cancel. If none of the menu icons are highlighted, B brings up the current time, holding A and pressing B pauses, and pressing A and C together turns the sound on/off.

    Additionally, pressing C when no icons are highlighted will make the Tamagotchi do an animation (on the newer toys), for example, coming up close to the screen and waving.
  • Both Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts II do this with the triangle button.
  • Every bloody thing in the Assassin's Creed series. Though it gives you an unprecedented level of control.
  • The entire point of Super Press Space to Win Action RPG. Every action in the 5-minute game is performed by repeatedly pressing the space bar. Played for Laughs.
  • 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.

Web Original

  • Parodied in The Onion's report on the MacBook Wheel, which uses a single iPod-style click wheel for all input.


Western Animation

  • Ren and Stimpy: when Ren and Stimpy are in the "House of Next Tuesday", they find a machine that will make beef jerky (unfortunately for Ren, the user must provide their own meat). they press one button to cycle through the available seasonings, and then press the same button rapidly to make their selection.
  • Space Ghost - Space Ghost's wristbands have three buttons on head arm. How many powers could he use with those again? Here's a hint, more than six. It didn't help that he usually pressed the same one or two buttons every time.
  • Inspector Gadget - Penny's watch could do a lot, from firing a laser, to remote controlling things, to being used as a phone. It only had three buttons.
  • Parodied in Megas XLR
    • Coop activated a weapon with one button labeled "That Cool Giant Energy Sword Thing". He later activates a different weapon with the same button, and when he does the button is labeled "Exactly the Same Button Coop Just Used Like Five Minutes Ago". This was a running gag in the show, where this same button would have different labels like "Do Something Stupid Coop", "Rip Arms Out of Sockets" and after Coop said, "Maybe you'd like this better, then!", it said "This Better Then". After announcing he was about to use Super Destructor Mode it said "You heard the man kids, Super Destructor Mode"

      Other labels were "Five Minutes left in the Episode" (because he'd always push it right then), "The Right Choice", and the one time the button was missing it was labeled "Save the World". Which was part of a selection which included "Smite the world", "Destroy the world", and "Destroy the world worse".
    • In another episode, Megas is trapped in a giant cocoon by a moth-like alien, and his teammates argue which button he should press: "Destroy Giant Cocoon" or "Attack Moth-Like Bug". Unable to decide, he mashes both, encasing Megas in a giant firebird.
    • On at least one occasion he used the stick shift to go from 'drive' past 'neutral' and 'reverse' all the way to 'Save Jamie'. Coop's Speedometer usually reads as a normal speedometer, but once it measured from "Slow", "Fast", "Faster", and "GOOD CRIPES!".
    • Coop's Oil Gauge reads from "Empty", "Needs a Little", "Almost There", "Good Enough", "No really, I'm fine", and "PLEASE STOP!"
    • Don't forget the slide-knob heater. "Warm" "Hot" "DANG!"
    • More in Powerpuff Girls Doujinshi - On this page of the webcomic, Megas' "Super Desperation Moves" consist of "Raging Fury Final Attack", "Megablast Ultimate Weapon", "Armageddon", and "WTF!!? o_O".
  • Kim Possible - Lampshaded with a Weather Control Machine: Dr. Drakken keeps hitting the same button because, as he says, "These controls are supposed to work intuitively!"
  • In Re Boot, the character Bob uses a keytool called Glitch which has all sorts of functions and transforms into different machines in response to voice commands such as "Glitch! Zipline!" or "Glitch! Scan!" However when Bob panics, he usually just cries "Glitch...ANYTHING!" And Glitch always seems to come up with something that works. Glitch is an intelligent being in its own right, though, so it's justified.
  • The Rustbucket II in Ben 10 Alien Force features one of these in the second episode of season one, when Kevin "borrows" it. Justified, as it is alien technology.
  • The Ed, Edd 'n' Eddy episode "Robbin' Ed" featured "The Thingamajig", which provides exactly what the character needs when they push the button, even if the object is bigger than the Thingamajig. It's used at the end of the episode to resolve the plot.
  • In The Magic School Bus there was a context-sensitive lever that Ms. Frizzle would pull to get the bus to turn into whatever the episode called for. Mind you, that may be justified by the fact that the bus was sentient.
  • Bender's antenna in Futurama. However, it might be more a case of the antenna being the start button for whatever program Bender loads for his needs. No telling for sure.
  • In one episode of Challenge of the Superfriends, Batman presses a button on his utility belt which summons the Batmobile. In a later episode, Batman presses the same button, and it projects a Bat Invisibility Ray.
  • In Batman Beyond, Mad Stan had a detonator with only one button on it, yet pressing it only set off the bombs he wanted it to.
  • Rico in The Penguins of Madagascar has an extreme Stomach of Holding and is capable of vomiting up whatever is most useful at the time.
  • Gyro Gearloose's popsicle-powered time machine (as opposed to his bathtub-shaped one) had a large dial for selecting a time period. Just as in the Calvin and Hobbes example above, an illiterate pilot was able to operate the machine by drawing a picture of Scooge (sic) and turning the dial to it. The dial even sprouted a camera so it could get a look at the picture.
  • In The Simpsons episode I, D'oh-Bot, Homer 'builds' a robot for Bart with one all-purpose button on the control, although the robot is actually Homer in disguise. As it turns out, the button gives him a mild electric shock when pushed.

Real Life

  • BMW developed a system which gave you a single knob/button to control the entire center console with, be it audio, air conditioning, GPS or something else entirely. They called it the "iDrive," which is a Non-Indicative Name as far as most people are concerned.
  • Cellular telephones often have keys below the screen with just a dot or line on them, and they do whatever it says on the screen directly above them. These are literally called "context keys".
  • Also the Nintendo DS. Or any other device with a tactile-sensitive screen. That was the driving principle behind inventing them, after all.
  • The mythical "Do What I Want, Not What I Tell You" button compu-forensic specialists have been seeking since the damn things were invented.
  • The actual system software called "DWIM" (Do What I Mean), developed by Warren Teitelman (back in the late 1970's ? at Xerox PARC ?) Described by Eric Raymond as "Able to guess, sometimes even correctly, the result intended when bogus input was provided." See [1].
  • The right mouse button for computers is something like this. Granted, it takes two presses to do what one wants it to do because the first click creates a context sensitive menu.
  • Ipod Touches verge on this, especially the smaller ones which are only a little bit bigger than large buttons. The regular sized ones have exactly one button below the touchscreen which may be redundant (although convenient). The vast majority of the Ipod's features are accessible using only one finger.