Created By: KingZeal on September 26, 2011 Last Edited By: KingZeal on September 29, 2011

Success Was Never Possible

At the end of their journey, a character meets failure--and never could have won anyway.

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The Hero answered The Call to Adventure and set forth on his journey to slay the Big Bad and Save the Princess, and rescue the Easily Conquered World. Along the way, he faced many hardships: Mooks, Elite Mooks, King Mooks, Giant Mooks and Replacement Mooks. He survived the Sorting Algorithm of Evil and bested all challenges through pure determination. Finally, he's reached the end of his journey and found the castle where the princess is hidden...

...Except she isn't there. In fact, there was no princess the whole time!

Turns out, he's been had. Somewhere down the line, the information the hero got was false. Either the bad guy lied, someone knew far less than they thought they did, or he somehow got the wrong impression altogether. The journey he undertook never had the possibility of succeeding. Every struggle he made to accomplish this goal was a complete waste of time.

Needless to say, this would be a Downer Ending if left to these devices. Depending on how idyllic or cynical the story is, the character could find a way to Take a Third Option and find victory where none was ever meant to exist. For example, though the princess never existed to begin with, his actions nonetheless inspired the world over. A {{Jeanne D'Archetype}} rose up and became a queen, and his heroic deeds have made her fall in love with him.

This trope is not exclusive to heroes, however. A villain could easily find, at the end of his scheme, that he never had a possibility of success. Even if he had managed to kill the heroes off, conquer the kingdom, and build the superweapon, there was some sort of cosmic failsafe keeping him from ever using the MacGuffin.

Do not confuse with You Can't Fight Fate, in which their loss was written by destiny. This trope requires that the win condition that the character set out to accomplish never existed in the first place.

Will frequently overlap with Failure Is the Only Option, "Shaggy Dog" Story and Shoot the Shaggy Dog.

As this is an Ending Trope, SPOILERS BELOW!'


  • In the Final Destination franchise (particularly the fourth film, The Final Destination), it's implied that Death itself is the entity providing the protagonists with their visions. Also, all of the "rules" the heroes discover to escape their inevitable demises are essentially Red Herrings. The truth is, they've been playing right along to Death's whims the entire time.

  • In Wizard's First Rule, the first part of the Sword of Truth series, Darken Rahl seeks Richard Cypher because he is the only person who knows the contents of the destroyed Book of Counted Shadow, which contain instructions on how to use the Boxes of Orden which can bestow omnipotence upon the person who put them in play. The three boxes must be opened in the proper order, with opening them in the wrong order leading either to the death of the player or the destruction of all life in the world. Should Richard fail to assist Darken, the villain plans to open one at random. To him, his own death and the death of all life are pretty much the same thing; after all, if he can't rule the world, then why should it exist? Richard, however, tricks him into opening the box that leads to Darken's death and no one else's. However, in the final book, Confessor, we learn that Darken never would have gotten omnipotence anyway. The boxes require a "key" to be used properly: the Sword of Truth itself, which meant that the only person who could have ever used the box was the sword's wielder: Richard.
  • In Nineteen Eighty-Four, at the end Winston discovers there's no way he could have ever defeated Big Brother, since the Party not only manipulated but invented the resistance.
  • Subverted in The Phantom Tollbooth. Near the outset of Milo's journey, King Azaz says there's something that he needs to tell Milo after he completes his quest, but only gets revealed at the very end. That it's impossible. Yet Milo succeeded because he didn't know that. Yay?

  • In Final Fantasy IX, Kuja dreams of achieving nigh-omnipotence, deposing his old boss, and ruling the twin worlds of Gaea and Terra himself. He struggles with this plan for more than a decade before the story begins and through an intricate and impressive level of Xanatos Speed Chess involving the differing factions of heroes and villains, he at last succeeds in attain enough power to conquer everyone. Then, he discovers that he had always been born with a limited lifespan and that his time is almost up. The immortality he always sought after was a complete lie fabricated by his creator, Garland, in order to get Kuja to do his dirty work. Kuja DOES NOT take this well.
  • In Tales of Vesperia, Commandant Alexei finds out that the superweapon he'd been coveting the entire game was the only thing stopping a Cosmic Horror from eating the planet. He was never destined to succeed in his plans for world domination, because his actions spelled the doom of the entire world even if accomplished.
Community Feedback Replies: 14
  • September 26, 2011
    In Peasant's Quest your goal is to slay Trogdor for burninating your cottage. He's invincible, so the best you can do is throw a sword at him for One Hundred Percent Completion.
  • September 26, 2011
  • September 26, 2011
    ^ Did you read the description?
  • September 26, 2011
    So Failure Is The Only Option would be for what it's described as (namely, more of a meta-trope about long-running series that would end if the protagonists ever actually succeeded at their goal), and this would be a trope about twist endings where both the characters and readers are never really given any hint that the goal is impossible, but discover it is.

    Sound like two different tropes to me *shrug* Some of the examples under Failure might need cleaning up into this trope, though.
  • September 26, 2011
    Related to Fission Mailed
  • September 26, 2011
  • September 26, 2011
    ^^^ Exactly.

    ^ They overlap, but it's not the same. In a Shaggy Dog Story, the entire journey was pointless, but there are no specifics given as to why it was pointless. The goal could have been possible, but things just didn't work out in favor of the protagonist. Furthermore, a Shaggy Dog Story is the definite end of the story, as the pointlessness is what defines the trope.

    As shown in the Tales Of Vesperia and Sword Of Truth examples, this could have nothing to do with the heroes. The villain could also fall under this, which would disqualify the example as a Shaggy Dog Story because the good guys won.
  • September 27, 2011
    In Nineteen Eighty Four, at the end Winston discovers there's no way he could have ever defeated Big Brother, since the Party not only manipulated but invented the resistance.
  • September 27, 2011
    • Subverted in The Phantom Tollbooth. King Azaz tells Milo near the outset of Milo's journey that there's something that he needs to tell Milo after he completes his quest. It's impossible. Yet Milo succeeded because he didn't know that. Yay?
  • September 27, 2011
    In one of the Prince of Persia games, a Princess who was giving the Prince his goals the entire time turned out to be the villain and was only sending him on these quests in hopes that he would end up killed..

    Would this count? More specifics would also be helpful, if needed.
  • September 27, 2011
    ^ Well, what were these quests meant to accomplish? If the ultimate goal he wished for was achievable, that isn't this trope.
  • September 27, 2011
    I think this is tropable, but it needs a rename to clearly differentiate it from Failure Is The Only Option, or I predict massive Trope Decay setting in.
  • September 27, 2011
    ^ It's that trope that's decayed and as Irrisia said, Failure Is The Only Option is already being misued as it is.

    Quite frankly, I have no idea how we can get a more concise, indicative trope name for this YKTTW, but if you have any ideas, by all means...
  • September 29, 2011