There are plenty of difficult games out there, but at least most of them have the decency to kill you off the moment your quest becomes impossible to complete — otherwise you'd end up wandering around looking for a way to progress when none exist. Now, in the case of games that are Unwinnable by Mistake it's kind of understandable — either a bug or an oversight has rendered the game broken so there's no way for it to tell the player how screwed they are.
But Unwinnable by Design is a whole other kettle of fish: This time around, the designers have set down giant digital man-traps that exist purely to ensnare the unwary. The worst are those that cripple the game from the start, but let the player continue for hours before the fatal error becomes apparent.
These are especially common in Adventure Games, especially Interactive Fiction. These were originally rife with intentionally unwinnable situations, which became a tradition before waning because players still couldn't stand them.
Zarf'snote Andrew Plotkin's Cruelty Scale of Interactive Fiction, as lifted (and revised) from here, here and here, divides video game types as follows:
Merciful: You only ever need one save file, and use that only if you want to turn the computer off and go to sleep. You never need to restore to an earlier game, because there's no way it ever becomes unwinnable.
Say that there is a large button on the wall, with a sign above it that says 'Inorganic Vaporizer Ray'. When you try to push it, the game won't let you. Instead it says something like 'You'd better not. You'd lose that nifty pocket screwdriver'.
Polite: You only need one save game, but if you do something fatally wrong, you won't be given a chance to overwrite it.
The same as Tough, only there's no sign. You will only find out what the button does upon pressing it and noticing that your inventory is now gone.
Cruel: There is no immediate indication that your game has become unwinnable. You think "I should have kept the save I overwrote three hours ago. Now I'll have to start over."
The same as Nasty, only you just hear a humming noise when you push the button, and there are two buttons beside it that do other, plot-important things. Then, a while later, you need to solve a puzzle and check your inventory... "Hey, where's all my stuff?"
Alternatively, the button that activates the inorganic vaporizer ray is also the one that opens the door that leads to the next area. You may or may not be told that the humming noise was separate from the door opening. The only way to proceed is to disable the ray by solving another puzzle before you press the button, or stash all your inorganic goods somewhere safe if that is an option.
Note that dipping below "polite" is considered a design flaw by most design philosophies today. Old-fashioned adventure games, notably most Sierra games released before 1992, seldom rise above "nasty".
Note that this trope is just for games where the designers constructed an unwinnable situation on purpose, and was not intended as a joke. It is therefore not to be confused with the following:
If the unwinnable situation arises as the result of a programming flaw, like a bug, or a design error such as making it possible to advance to the next stage without collecting a vital item, this is actually Unwinnable by Mistake.
If the unwinnable situation arises after the player had done one or several mistakes to a point they were continuously warned against what they're doing or feel as if the player must actively seek a way to make the game unwinnable, it is Unwinnable by Insanity.
The spiritual opposite of a Hopeless Boss Fight, where you are supposed to fail to make the game continue. Also (in some cases) the worst-case scenario of Lost Forever; early adventure games would often have vital objects or events be easily and permanently missable — in the worst cases, with no indication of what you've missed beyond a sudden game over much later in the game. Contrast Endless Game, for games not supposed to be "won" at all: games that have a High Scores screen instead of a victory condition. Also see Unwinnable Joke Game for games that were made to be impossible despite having a clear goal as a prank.
For cases in which you get a game over from creating an unwinnable situation, see Nonstandard Game Over. Games that wish to rub things in a bit may include a period of Controllable Helplessness. For a milder version where you are at least well aware that you're screwed, see Cycle of Hurting. For situations where the game intentionally makes you think you've lost, see Fission Mailed.
Many game designers have programs within their games that activate if no copy protection is detected (basically if the game is pirated), which essentially makes the game literally unwinnable. Examples can be found here and here.
Though anybody familiar with the SCP Foundation would know not to do this.
As of the latest update SCP-096 now walks around in front of a room containing a pivotal switch, making avoiding him significantly more difficult.
KGB, aka Conspiracy, was a hugely involved espionage adventure game in which it was recommended and nearly required to take notes in order to make any progress. It was VERY easy to make the game unwinnable:
At one point, the main character investigates a butcher shop. Under the desk is a small button. Push it, and nothing seems to happen. Push it again, or don't push it at all, and you die to a trap 10 minutes later. The game never informs you of this button, and it can't be found without pixel hunting.
When checking into a hotel room, you get a mysterious phone call saying only "check the lights." Then you needed to switch the lights on 3 times. Switch them on only once? You die. Twice? You die. Turn them off totally? Dead. And you have to break a cypher, or remember the character who can break it for you, to know what to do if you want to live.
The ENTIRE GAME is timed. It's easy to render it unwinnable by dawdling too long.
At one point, you have to confront the butcher about what you found in his shop. But if you talked to him even once before, he will never open his door to you again. Especially annoying since just a little while before, it looks like you are supposed to interview everyone in the building for clues.
Yet another example: a mad scientist you are questioning can escape, and he has a nervous breakdown before you can ask every possible question. You did not ask the only important one? You cannot leave the location.
In The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, everyone can be killed. However, killing a critical character will render the game Unwinnable by plot design. When you kill any necessary character, the game displays this message:
With this character's death, the thread of prophecy is severed. Restore a saved game to restore the weave of fate, or persist in the doomed world you have entered.
Some NPCs are listed as critical characters when they are not, and give you the doomed world message when they are killed. Crazy Batou is one such NPC. He attacks the player character on sight and possesses a very useful and valuable item.
Morrowind also has many examples on the high end of the Cruelty Scale, as some NPCs in Morrowind aren't marked as essential to the Main Quest and will not give you the doomed world message if you kill them, but you won't discover that they are essential to the Main Quest until much, much later in the game.
Given Morrowind's buggy release, this, and the above point about characters being listed as critical when they're not, are probably examples of Unwinnable by Mistake (inverted, in the case of the first point).
The seven-minute Speed Run of Morrowind — watch it here, or watch an even shorter run here — demonstrates that Munchkin tricks can be used to bypass the plot routes altogether. This changes the problem: the only way to render MorrowindUnwinnable when those tricks are taken into consideration is to collect and then misplace either of the two essential Plot Coupons.
In Hugo's House Of Horrors 2, if you bump into the side of the bridge (a ludicrously easy thing to do), then you'll drop your matches. You need these matches to progress. There is no way to dry the matches, nor is there any other way to set fire to the things you need to burn.
In The Legend of Kyrandia, you can find two apples. Click one and Brandon will take a bite of it. Click the second, and you have nothing to trade the gnome to get the royal chalice back and you might as well restart.
One level in Commander Keen IV featured monsters who didn't harm you, but appeared in puffs of smoke to steal items before you could collect them. This included a key necessary to get to the end of the level. In fairness, however, if you were unable to kill all of these monsters before they got to the key, then you deserve to lose. Granted, you can reload a saved game or commit suicide in a tar pit to try again.
Dracula Unleashed was an Full Motion Video video game that was also part adventure. There are numerous times where you can make the game unwinnable. A few of them are Guide Dang It moments. One requires you to go to a bookstore late at night so you know there is a secret passage there. If you didn't go there, then you don't know that there is a clue you can look for. And if you go into the Asylum unprepared, then Hellsing is strangled in front of you and you can do nothing more but wait for a Game Over.
The original Mega Man game was infamous for the notorious "Magnet Beam", which is found in Elec Man's stage and can only be obtained with Guts Man's weapon or Elec Man's. Failure to pick it up will result in a dead end at the first Wily Castle stage.
Defied by much every LucasArts adventure game after Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders; these games always allow the player to go back and collect items that they need or refuse to let them continue without the required item. This was often viewed as "dumbing down adventure games for the masses" by hardcore Sierra enthusiasts. LucasArts believed that players should not be punished for experimenting in their games, and criticised Sierra's combination of this trope and Trial-and-Error Gameplay as "sadistic". All their adventure game manuals explicitly stated their design philosophy as being "We believe that you buy games to be entertained, not to be whacked over the head every time you make a mistake. [...] We think you'd prefer to solve the game's mysteries by exploring and discovering, not by dying a thousand deaths." (Interestingly, one of the factors that helped create this design philosophy was Ron Gilbert and David Fox's exasperation with Sierra's blatantly ridiculous game design while working on Maniac Mansion. Fox cited a moment in a Sierra game where he attempted to pick up a broken mirror but had his player character die as a result, saying "I know that in the real world I can successfully pick up a broken piece of mirror without dying.")
In The Secret of Monkey Island, if you stay underwater for more than ten minutes after the sheriff throws you off the pier, then the game not only kills you but also continues, giving you the commands float, bloat, bob, and order hint book. The last option gives you the LucasArts helpline phone number.
Of course, the manual for Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders might be the least appropriate place to state the LucasArts Design Philosophy since it was like a Sierra game. Missed something in Maniac Mansion? No problem... you can beat the game with your other partner. But in "Zak McKracken," there was only one way to beat the game. Washed the bread crumbs down the drain? Spent your money and got stuck at a place where you can't win the lottery to gain more money? Accidentally killed someone by removing their helmet on Mars? Got Zak and Annie stuck in jail? Then you can't beat the game. And despite that, Zak McKracken is still more merciful than Sierra by virtue of not murdering you every five minutes.
Dark Seed, which featured art by H. R. Giger, thrives on this. The game has a rather specific solution, complete with many chances to screw up before the end. For example, you only have enough money to buy two items at the store, there are many items available, and you need to buy the right two to win... and you can't buy them at the same time. For another example, you need to set up an alternate way to enter your house before you ever learn that the main way will be blocked. Also, you're playing in "real time", and you need to be in the right place at the right time for certain events. Essentially, the game expects you to keep starting over from the beginning until you get it right.
You need to get put in jail at ONE point in this game with three specific items that you need to put in your cell for later to finish the game. The game hints at one of them if you listen to your car radio, but not the other two.
The sequel didn't change anything. If you die, then you're told that you can't die because of your importance. However, you only get this once. To finish the game, you need to die at a specific time; if you die and think you're safe before then — tough luck.
Elvira 2 is pretty much Made Of Unwin. One of the worst instances: at one point, you need to animate a Frankenstein's Monster so that it moves away from a door that it obstructs. However, if you click on the monster's head beforehand, then you'll automatically cut off the wires connected to its head, making it impossible to animate. The worst thing is, the game never tells you that you have cut the wires; there are no hints that clicking on the head would have any ill effect.
The game even makes jokes with its own unwin-ability. It is possible to get your hands amputated by springing a trap. The game allows you to keep playing... but you can't use any items since your hands are gone.
Some other situations seem unwinnable but have alternate solutions (though you can block them, too). For example, if you fail to get poison from the mad scientist (you only get one try, after which he'll throw you out of his lab and lock the door), you can instead get the key from the piranha aquarium using a telekinesis spell. But if you have only one TK spell (it depends on your level and intelligence) and you spend it here, then you have made the game unwinnable once again.
In Jigsaw, you must collect all sixteen jigsaw pieces to restore history in each time period. While there's a device that tells you if there are jigsaw pieces in your current time period that you haven't found yet, it's sometimes easy to make collecting them impossible, especially when you don't realize that a piece is in an area that later becomes inaccessible. For instance, there are the jigsaw pieces you're supposed to pick up during the mission in "Siberia": fail to press the right button in the missile before it flies out or fail to retrieve the cable you used to get down to the missile so you can use it again on the goose's nest, and at least one of these pieces will be Lost Forever. But the most egregious Unwinnable situation involves the drawing competition at the end of the game. If you haven't drawn at least four animals in the sketchbook over the course of the game, then you can't get the competition prize you need to complete the game. Oh, you didn't get the sketchbook from inside the stool or the pencil under the stool before all the historical intrigue began? Then you had better restart.
Kemco's NES version of Déjà Vu had one unwinnable scenario — if you've used up your last 3 coins going somewhere other than Peoria and have already taken a free cab ride.
There was more than one unwinnable scenario. At the beginning of the game, you find pills in a bathroom that can be filled with various medicines, some necessary to complete the game. In the same room is an unlabelled medicine which turns out to be deadly poison. Presumably the designers meant for you to put the poison in the pills swallow them, die, and load your last save. However, if you put the poison in the pills and continue through the game, it becomes unwinnable because there is no way to put a different medicine in the pills without swallowing them first (or feeding them to an NPC, which will kill that person and also make the game unwinnable). It can take several hours to discover this.
In Corruption, you must be in several right places at several right times, a series of events must be completed in a specific order, and you must avoid a set of pitfalls that you don't know exist even after you lose. Failure to work things out properly can result in anything from long-term imprisonment to your sudden inexplicable death. And then there's The Hospital, where over fifty moves must be done in perfect and precise order without a single indication of what they are.
Guild of Thieves had puzzles so mind-breaking and deliriously insane that even walkthroughs won't always help. It is possible to destroy your ability to complete the game with one wrong command, and there are hundreds of wrong commands. Famously, opening a bag you've just found instantly destroys the ancient sheet music that you didn't know was in there.
The Tower of Druaga features a hero going through a 60 level tower. Each level has a hidden treasure. Some treasures are bad and make the game unwinnable. This fact might not be discovered until many levels later; nor can the item's properties be discerned until it is obtained. A rare case of Guide Dang It in a arcade game.
Also, certain missions in the Portland area, such as the ambulance missions, can become unwinnable after you kill the Mafia boss because the Mafia will be all over you like flies on a carcass.
In Monty on the Run, you had to choose five items at the beginning of the game for Monty's freedom kit, and the game would be unwinnable unless you chose the right ones. This is often claimed to be Copy Protection, but the manual actually didn't tell the player which items to use; it was just Trial-and-Error Gameplay.
Wing Commander III: Heart Of The Tiger has a campaign path depending on your performance on previous missions where you fight against an endless wave of Kilrathi until you either quit the game or die.
It is possible to outlast the "endless" wave of Kilrathi and destroy all the guns on the mother ship at which point you can shoot the mother ship forever with no results. At that point, quitting is the only option.
Wing Commander IV has a point where the plot wants you to defect to the Union of Border Worlds. If you decline the second of two chances and choose to stay with Confed, then infinite waves of Border World bombers spawn until your carrier is destroyed, ending the game. If you cheat and remove all the enemy craft from the mission, then your carrier explodes on its own.
What made this infuriating is that Wing Commander IV billed itself as giving the player the choice of defecting or staying loyal to Confed. Technically, it did; but it punished that second choice hard!
In Omikron: The Nomad Soul, a robotic character will make an offhand mention of his aching joints amid a wall of dialogue. If you don't then go out and find some oil for said robot, then the door locks, the game becomes unwinnable, and you won't find out until much later.
Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat had a stage with so many Orcs it was deemed "impossible" by the makers themselves, and for good reason: there was no stage beyond it. One wily player managed to get through only to have the game lock up as it tried to load a stage that didn't exist.
The never-released Penn and Teller's Smoke and Mirrors game was a big collection of Mind Screw minigames. The "central" game "Smoke & Mirrors" was a platformer-RPG-adventure-ish construct where you play as Penn & Teller themselves. The game came with two difficulties: Normal and Impossible. If you play on Impossible, you get to walk down a street for about a screen before running into Lou Reed, who kills the duo by shooting lightning from his eyes. There's no way to avoid this.
"Sorry boys, this is Impossible mode. Impossible doesn't mean 'very difficult.' 'Very difficult' is winning the Nobel Prize. 'Impossible' is eating the sun."
In the SNES version of Shadowrun, if you don't select the "Talk" option during one of your first conversations of the game, you'll miss a vital "Ask About..." topic that would make it impossible to continue. You won't discover this until about two-thirds of the game later.
In the original Alone in the Dark, you need two small mirrors to defeat the Nightgaunts at the top of the stairs and proceed further into the game. If a monster attacks you just once while you are carrying the mirrors, then they will shatter and are Lost Forever. There are only two mirrors in the entire game. Without both of them intact, the game is unwinnable.
Two other possible unwinnable situations are neglecting to unlock the passage back into the basement so you can get back after the bridge collapses (depending on what version you're playing,) and running out of fuel for the oil lamp, which you need to reach and defeat the Final Boss.
The second game has a bullet-proof vest which reduces damage and keeps Carnby from getting stun-locked. It has limited durability, and if you break it before an area where you must fight off multiple gun-wielding enemies at once, all you'll be able to do is watch Carnby in a Santa suit repeatedly flinch and then fall down dead.
The Dirty Harry game for the NES has a completely normal-looking room which you cannot exit after you enter it, forcing you to reset the system. It's not a bug — the door is replaced with graffiti saying, "ha ha ha."
The Freescape game Dark Side included sensors which zapped you into a prison cell called Io Confinement (often misnamed "I/O Confinement" in maps and walkthroughs) containing an item needed to finish the game, which could only be exited by firing at energy-draining doodads by the door, causing the door to open once you'd sacrificed enough energy. Heaven help you if you ended up there with insufficient energy to do that, or to survive for long once out — or if you destroyed the sensors before they could imprison you.
The first game, Driller, had an even worse feature. Both Driller and Dark Side have a game map in the shape of a rhombicuboctahedron (18 squares and 8 triangles, of which 3 squares and a triangle meet at every corner), the back-story in both cases being that this is an artificial world built around a natural moon by the erection of the square platforms over the moon's surface. In Dark Side, the triangular facets are simply inaccessible (blocked off by forcefields), but in Driller it's possible to drive off the edge of a platform and fall through the triangular hole onto the surface of the original moon... from which there is no way back, so it's quit-and-restart time.
Driller also had an All There in the Manual moment which probably served as Copy Protection. The game involved erecting drilling rigs on each of the world's 18 square platforms, in order to tap gas pockets and blow off their contents into space, thereby rendering them harmless so the moon doesn't explode and destroy its world when struck by a meteor in a few hours' time. The gas pockets varied in size, the smaller ones being harder to locate, and one of them was so tiny as to be impossible to locate without being told exactly where it was — which one of the illustrations in the manual did, so those who got a pirate copy without also getting a copy of the manual (or who didn't bother to read the manual) stood no chance of winning.
The Impossible Quiz. As you progress through the game, you're given skips, which you can use to skip most questions. But the last question is introduced as either the easiest question or the hardest. It turns out that you have to use all your skips to pass it. If you used even one before this, then the game is impossible to win and you have to start over from the beginning.
Not only that, but Question 84 has two hidden skips that you must grab before collecting the star that advances you to the next question. Failure to get both will leave you unable to beat the final question.
Phantasy Star III can become unwinnable if you engage in a little Script Breaking in the beginning by using an Escapipe (which lets you escape dungeons instantly) after being arrested. Apparently, you don't just break the script, you break the whole game. It's a logical place to use an Escapipe if you're not Genre Savvy enough to know you shouldn't have it yet, so the game designers provide messages telling you that you made the game unwinnable after the fact. This also counts as By Insanity, but Sardius seems to have made the error sincerely.
In Nitemare 3D, there are a handful of block- or tombstone-pushing puzzles. Because of the simplicity of the game engine, there is no way to "pull" these items back toward you. Yes, there are places where you can push some of them that permanently block critical paths. It's usually clear immediately when you've messed up.
While still polite compared to others (you just have to die, rather than restart the game), Yoshi's Island DS makes nearly every secret level potentially Unwinnable By Design. The last secret level, for example — Yoshi's Island Easter Eggs — has a room in which there's a platform powered by shooting eggs at it. You can and often will run out long before reaching the end, there's no backtracking, and your only hope is the instakill spikes surrounding you. On occasion, your platform just goes straight past a spike covered obstacle that needs to be raised and gets stuck on the other side.
Ravenskull features such jollities as floor squares that make gates trap you in or objects disappear from your inventory when stood on. Many of these contain treasures and thus have to be stood on; the puzzle is working out the correct order to perform certain tasks so as to prevent an Unwinnable outcome occurring.
Tower of the Sorcerer includes an altar where you can give money to raise your stats. The price goes up on a quadratic scale with each use. The catch? Later levels have additional altars that give you a greater stat increase; but each time you use one, the price goes up for all of them. Using the first one too much can make it impossible to progress.
A game simply known as Bow and Arrow had a level in which a white dove passes by the main character, followed by swarms of black birds. If the player failed to exterminate even one of the black birds, then a later level is impossible. The game's story between levels does say that the dove is carrying a message from you to a helpful wizard, and the later level does say, "I hope the message got to XYZ". The game did not explicitly say, however, that all the black birds had to be eliminated.
Alex Kidd in Miracle World had a situation that counted as Unwinnable when the game was released. If you didn't pick up the letter your brother talked about, then you did not receive the stone slab with the combination on it to unlock the last part of the game. The stone slab is not required, however, if you know the combination of by heart. But if you don't know the code at all, then this renders the game Unwinnable. Guide Dang It now, but the guides probably wouldn't give you the code without the slab then.
Anyone who's ever heard of Final Fantasy XI has heard about Absolute Virtue. It turns out it was originally supposed to be unbeatable. Then people started beating it, but every time a winning strategy was found against Absolute Virtue, the dev. team altered either its behavior or the mechanics of the game to break the strategy. They would also occasionally ban the players who won using it.
Strangely, with respect to Absolute Virtue's Aht Urhgan analogue, Pandemonium Warden, the development team neither patched nor banned the players who exploited the Logout and Cannonball tricks. Though not exploits in the traditional sense, they clearly circumvent the boss's thrash-you abilities by out-of-game means as well as the game's mechanics surrounding player death and recovery.
Final Fantasy III has a very simple one in the form of an Elixir. This is the most potent healing item in the game, and one of the most potent healing items in the series... and you find it in Canaan, the game's third (fourth if you include Castle Sasune) town. You will probably be at level 7, tops. There is a sick woman in town needing an Elixir. Anyone who can't do the math is asking for trouble.note Of course, one item can go a long way...
Final Fantasy IV had the Dark Elf, who lived in a cave where it was highly magnetic and would disable you if you wore anything metal in it. To get past him you needed to have talked with Edward and received a key item. However, if you did not do this, there is nothing stopping you from initiating the battle. While in theory you could defeat him without getting the harp and could still de-equip the armor mid-battle, you could only do so with cheats since the Dark Elf would one-shot any character without armor. If you did not save before-hand, you would have wasted a ton of time.
ICOM's Uninvited has a Ruby in one of the bedrooms in the game. You are warned not to take it the first time you try. If you choose again to take it, then the game will let you continue and even save until you die after a certain number of moves.
There's one location where you can put the ruby down and live. Only. One. Location.It's some kind of pathway outside the house.
The Gateway series of adventure games by Legend could be made unwinnable, but it was usually obvious when you did. For instance, breaking the PV commset in the beginning of Gateway 1 makes it impossible to receive a crucial message later on, but that's obvious because the screen cracks. Wearing the ring while in the mirror room in Hell in Gateway 1 also eventually makes the portals close, so you'll be stuck. But if that happens, then you can simply type "die" and restart.
You can also miss a particular meeting, where certain items are handed out, and be stuck.
In the Prince of Tennis dating sim Dokidoki Survival, your success getting a character to be your boyfriend usually depends on the number of "heart points" you have earned for interacting with him throughout the game. For Ooishi, however, whether he accepts your feelings also hinges on answering a single question correctly. If you answer wrong, then no matter how full your heart meter is, he won't accept your feelings. What's more, you earn heart points for giving the wrong answer. In fact, you earn the exact same amount as for giving the right answer, and so it's nearly impossible to figure out where you've gone wrong.
The original Colossal Cave Adventure had a nasty one near the end — after you deposit the last treasure, you have a small number of moves to get back into the cave system before you're locked out of it (literally). If you're anywhere in the caves when the timer expires, then you're whisked to the last two locations; if you aren't, then you can't get back in — and thus can't end the game.
In the 14-15 or "boss" puzzle (one of the first group-theory puzzles, if not the first), only half the possible arrangements of the tiles can be reached from the solved position by sliding the tiles as one is supposed to do to solve the puzzle. Sam Loyd exploited this to publicise the puzzle by offering a cash prize for solving a position which he knew to be in the unsolvable group.
In Shift, on one level, if you press a particular button, you are trapped in an inescapable little area with spikes above you, and it reveals a message 'suicide time!' that describes the only way to get out of there. Death Is a Slap on the Wrist, though - it simply restarts the level.
On one screen of Shift 4, if you take a certain key before you use a certain arrow, that arrow will get covered, and you will be trapped in a black rectangular area with no way out and no spikes to impale yourself on. Time for the R key!
Everquest had the Sleeper. This fight was intended to be hopeless, but the designers didn't tell that to the players, so they would try anyway. They were careful to not make the boss actually invincible, so others would try it on other servers too. And there can be only one attempt on the entire server, ever. The quest to wake the sleeper can only be completed once and cannot be finished by any other players after completion. Once the raid inevitably wipes, this boss runs rampant through the entire continent of Velious and kills a major NPC. It was killed on ONE server many years later with Zerg Rush tactics in a raid force consisting of over 300 players.
Temple Level 2 had two rooms with doors that permanently closed after you entered them, trapping your party. You had to reload a saved game to continue.
Silver Tower Level 2 had a room with a pile of magic items and a dying Darkmoon priest. You have to kill the priest to get the treasure — but if you do, then the pressure plate he's lying on releases and the door closes, trapping you forever.
Clock Tower 2 (Ghost Head in Japan) features several unwinnable scenarios, most of which involve talking to a particular character in the wrong form. Two particularly cruel instances involve situations that the game doesn't properly warn you about:
Shortly after the protagonist survives an attack from the first enemy of the game, she leaves the room the enemy is lying in and stands in the hallway. You're supposed to turn around and lock the door with the key you used to open the room, but this is never made clear anywhere. If you don't lock the door and you leave the hallway, then the game becomes unwinnable and one of the worst endings will play shortly after reaching another section of the house.
The worst case is the samurai armor the player has to inspect. It can only be examined in the first section of the game. Failure to do so will result in the armor dropping out of a window during an unavoidable cutscene several hours later, killing the player character and securing a bad ending long after anything could be done to avoid it.
Pathologic is cruel — you don't realise how deeply you've failed until up to 12 hours later. Some players have had breakdowns when they realised that they're going to have to start over because they didn't pick up something from an unmarked house.
Turgor, Ice-pick's better translated game is worse. Much of the game centers around the allocation of a resource that slowly kills the entire game world every time you use it, meaning you have to think wisely about what you're doing. You would think that the cleaner translation would mean that the game would actually instruct you on how to not lock yourself into an unwinnable state, but no such luck.
The second game, Martian Memorandum. Aside from all the unfair scenarios, such as preparing to survive for several days in a fridge, you can get screwed bad at the casino on Mars: if, while in the mob boss's office, you fail to do and get everything necessary before you leave, then you're boned. Trying to go back there ever again gets you murdered instantly. But you do have to go there the first time to move the plot.
The fourth game, Pandora Directive is very fair but it does have a single very cruel example. If you enter Dag Horton's office on your first visit to Autotech you'll be free to ransack the place and pick up several useful items. Except you should wonder why the "Travel" button just become unavailable. As soon as you exit the office you're caught and killed. If you saved inside the office you've no choice but to reload an earlier save or restart the game.
On the other hand, trying to get the Good Ending of said game is firmly on the Cruel end of the scale all the way through. Unless you use the "jky" cheat code to see your exact karma points and event flags, you have no way of knowing where, how or if you went wrong.
A big one in Out of This World, among other examples: If the player floods the cave with water but fail to shoot out the wall of the pit so the player can get back into the flooded caverns as well as cross the pit, then the player will be unable to progress. The player also get stuck if Buddy gets killed. Fortunately the game's checkpoint system is based on tasks, not on locations. The player can always die after screwing up and even if that's not possible, a password can still be used that tales the player to the last checkpoint. There are no passwords that takes the player to an unbeatable situation.
In The Theater, an RPG maker game, the final boss battle can be made unwinnable. An imp just before the battle offers you passage to a final save point after a difficult puzzle; in return, you need to give him one of your items. All but one of your items are needed to defeat the boss. Oh, well, that's not so bad; you can just load your sa- OH, WAIT, YOU JUST SAVED! There is no hint beforehand that this will make it impossible to win. The creator, when questioned, claimed that he added this feature because no other game had done it.
The NES billiards game Lunar Ball allows the friction of the pool table to be altered. It goes as far down as 0 — no friction. At 0, balls will move at a constant speed, making it possible for the balls to be caught in an infinite loop if none of them are pocketed.
In Devil Survivor, there is one particular boss (Beldr) that only you, the main character, can damage (and thus kill). If you die, and no live character or demon has (Sama)Recarm on hand, then the battle keeps going... without a chance of winning. Possibly lampshaded in that he will gloat if you go down, though the makers may have done this to give you a chance to revive the lead. Also, while the plot makes this complication clear the first time you encounter him, he comes back during the Boss Rush that precedes the Final Boss, by which point you might have forgotten...
The 1980s platform adventure game Dizzy had a nasty situation two screens from the starting position. A bridge over a deep crevasse needs to be crossed many times during the course of the game. Many, many times. If just once you tread in the middle of it rather than jump, then the bridge vanishes. It doesn't respawn.
In Blaster Master's sixth stage, there's one point where you can shoot upwards through a set of blocks and enter a door, but when you return, the blocks will have respawned, and you can't shoot downwards, so you're stuck for good unless you commit suicide. In some other places like this, you can't do that either, so the only option is to reset.
A small gap to right of the gate that leads to Area 2, falling into it causes you to get trapped because there's not enough room to perform a precise jump through its small entrance and get out.
Rainbird's text adventure Legend of the Sword took this to the limit and beyond. Your character's Hyperactive Metabolism meant you burned through your life force at a tremendous rate, so you had to do things in a very specific order for you to avoid dying of lost energy. On top of this, there were numerous ways to leave something behind when irreversibly entering a new area. The combination of these two factors meant that the situation at any given time would almost always be unwinnable.
Fate/stay night usually kills you outright when you mess up, but features an example that fits the "cruel" category: refusing to cooperate with Rin during Saber's route will jump you to Rin's route, but won't kill you until more than a day later after you've made several decisions, culminating with the game automatically picking a path that gets you killed. The Tiger Dojo is kind enough to point out how far back the decision actually is, but it's long enough the player might have overwritten any saves early enough, forcing them to start over completely.
To make matters worse, there's another example on the "Heaven's Feel" route when Rin asks you to pledge allegiance to her, or else she'll not help you. It looks like an obvious choice, right? it's not. This time you MUST refuse to form a contract with her, or else, when it's decided that Sakura must die, you won't be able to go against Rin and you'll get a Bad End.. Luckily, Rin herself states in-story where you screwed the pooch and the Tiger Dojo drills the point even further with a good dose of Fourth Wall breakage, but between the fatal decision and the Bad end there's a LONG day and since nothing seems to indicate you fucked up (aside from Rin looking crestfallen just after the fatal choice) it's very possible you saved the game already.
The "Heaven's Feel" route has another one: If you promise Rin that you won't unwrap Archer's arm and later don't do it on your own to test it, Shirou will die roughly two hours of gameplay later, following several other choices, as he gets locked out of a choice to save Sakura that means he won't die. Not only is this just as bad as the Fate example, The Tiger Dojo won't even tell you what you did wrong since not having enough approval with Sakura (from any number of other dialogue options earlier) will lead to the same result.
"Heaven's Feel" is littered with these, actually. In one of the most interesting Non-Standard Game Over you can get, after not recruiting Rider's help before going into the final dungeon, Shirou beats Saber at the cost of his mind. To make matters worse, the Tiger Dojo, instead of giving you a hint as what to do, praises you for beating Saber on your own. And that only happens after several other choices are made and a In-Universe day passes.
If anything, they made the scene skipping function exactly because there are lots of Bad Endings. And you will either got stuck on one of them (especially the more cruel ones) or going to try to find all of them to complete the Tiger Dojo stamps.
Knights of the Old Republic features a timed swoop bike race in Taris where the villain always beats your first time. This means that if you set your best ever time on your first time around, it may very well be impossible for you to defeat your own record.
But the plot continues regardless.
Knights of the Old Republic 2 gives you an option to destroy a Door Control Panel on Telos. If you actually destroy it, you will be unable to enter the room later and thus you won't be able to progress.
In Shining Force: The Sword of Hajya, Prince Nick, whose right arm is turned to stone and rendered unusable for the majority of the game, shows up in the confrontation with the Final Boss, Iom. The only thing that can break the invincibility seal on the boss is the titular sword, and he is the only one who can use it. And if Iom happens to kill Nick before he gets a chance to use his sword, which in this battle can easily happen because of how absurdly over-powered the boss is, you'll have to start all over again because it becomes unwinnable.
Dead Rising and its sequel use this design trope well. The plot to find the root of the conspiracy has several key points where Frank/Chuck have to be at an appointed place at or before a certain time to get info/save someone/defeat someone. (Special emphasis is given to Chuck's daughter, who has to be given medication between 7 and 8 AM every day to prevent zombification.) If they don't perform these actions, a warning will come up on screen saying that "The Truth has disappeared into the darkness" - followed by an option to start over while keeping their previous experience - or letting them still keep playing and trying to just get out alive. And since many of the plot threads and additional survivor scoops overlap, in addition to some of the main characters succumbing to Plotline Death later in the story, letting the plot expire is actually the easiest way to get achievements for saving 50+ survivors.
The Interactive Fiction game Savoir Faire gives you several opportunities to screw yourself out of victory. One occurs when you have to retrieve a bauble from a high shelf; you not only have to make sure it doesn't shatter, you also need to throw one of your inventory items up there for it to fall down - and the inventory item you use for that purpose can't be retrieved, so you'd better hope that said item isn't one you'll need later on.
The two playable characters in Head Over Heels have seperate life counters, so it's possible to kill one of them off completely. The game is impossible to beat with only one character though.
In The Longest Journey, there is a risk you'll end up stuck if you don't pick up a certain item inside an archive. There is no early indication you need this item - it's pretty much impossible to know you need it until the very moment you're supposed to use it. What is this item? A can of soda. Which you buy from a inconspicuous vending machine standing inside a building you can't get back into once you've left. Chances are you never even saw the machine.
Originally, the Level Editor in Glider PRO allowed a switch to be linked to a star. When triggered, the switch would destroy the star permanently without excluding it from the number required to win (or turning off its animation). Later versions ostensibly disabled this, but it could still be done with a bit of trickery. (Not that one really needed it to make houses unwinnable...)
WWE Day of Reckoning. Your last match on Heat is unwinnable. No matter what you do, you'll be crushed. Justified because the story doesn't make sense if you're able to win the match.
In one of the story modes in the WWE Smackdown vs. Raw games, If you advance the story by NEVER LOSING A MATCH, and retaining your championship title for many seasons, eventually you will be proposed a special referee match, with Vince McMahon as the referee. The game sets the match rules so that you can't defeat your enemy by doing enough damage a certain body part, knocking them out with a wrestler's signature move, 10 count ring-out, or anything else other than a 3 count pin. The match is intentionally designed that the referee will NOT count to 3 unless your character is being pinned. The reason being that McMahon had enough of you being the champion for years on end, and decided to take it away whether you liked it or not.
In The Journeyman Project, you are a time traveller. At one point, you have to get a computer chip from a robot you disable in one era so that you can fool a retinal scanner in another. The problem is that there are a handful of chips you can take from the robot after you disable it, you can take them in any order, and taking a certain chip (which isn't the one you need to get past the scanner) will cause the robot to explode. There's no indication which chip does what, the game doesn't give any hints about how to solve the scanner puzzle, and there's no way to access the robot again after it's been destroyed. Good luck figuring out where you went wrong and pulling the chips out in the correct order after you restart!
Companions Of Xanth: In the real world, before using the Xanth CD to begin the game proper, you must take the mustard from the refrigerator. You need it to defeat a hot dog half-way through the game.
If you drink from the lake filled with "hate water", there are no apparent ill effects at first, but then your character begins hating everything around himself until he can no longer continue with his quest. Almost mockingly, there's an option to "undo" your last move once the game over happens, but obviously it won't work since you've drank the water many turns ago. Annoying if you were using a walkthrough to avoid unwinnable situations, as drinking from the lake seems to be just harmless game flavor.
A few times near the end of Call Of Cthulhu: Dark Corners Of The Earth, which is especially unpredictable since in most of the game it's impossible to make a mistake during the riddles. But it isn't as frustrating as it seems, because at these moments it is impossible to reach a savepoint.
On the Devil's Reef, a door near the exit of the level must be reached within a timer. To trigger it, you have to put a jewel in a mechanism, run to the other door and put a red crystal in the opened claw in front of the door; when the timer expires, the claws close; if the red crystal is put in the claws the door opens, if not nothing happens. The first problem is that the timer can only be triggered once. The second is that near the triggering mechanism there are claws like the ones you have to reach; the ones near the triggering mechanism hold a green crystal and also open when you put the jewel in the timer's mechanism. The green crystal can be picked up by the player, but if it isn't in its claws when the timer expires the door won't open.
In the Baldur's Gate series, you cannot talk with anyone who's hostile to you. To prevent the game from becoming Unwinnable by making a plot-critical (i.e. you need to talk to them to advance the plot) NPC hostile, the game will immediately kill you if you make them hostile. The methods differ from fire from the sky (Tethoril) to death by a game-breaking amount of magic missiles (Gorion) to spawning assassins that instantly kill you (Aran/Bodhi in their respective paths, Elthan). Most of these NPCs are almost impossible to kill on top of it.
The Fire Emblem series has this built right into the main gameplay, for most of the series. The general formula for a campaign is that you fight one battle, then the next, and you are expected to level up your army and manage your equipment as you go. Your weapons break over time, and units who die in battle are lost permanently. If you lose too many units, or run out of weapons, or rely too much on your Crutch Character and fail to level up your army properly, you may find yourself in an impossible situation.
The final boss of most of the games is only vulnerable to certain characters with certain equipment. Many of these characters can sometimes be missed, killed, or underleveled, and many of these items can be missed, lost, or broken. As an example, in the first game, you will have serious difficulty beating the final boss, Medeus, if you don't have Marth with his Falchion or Tiki with her Divine Dragonstone. Marth is the main character, so he cannot be missed and you get a game over if he dies, but it is quite possible to miss Tiki or lose her in battle. Getting the Falchion is also a fairly involved process.
In Fire Emblem Thracia 776, there are several chapters that require you to use a key (or a lockpick owned by a thief) to progress in the mission. Should the thieves be too tired to participate in the mission (or too DEADfor that matter) and/or you do not have any keys/lockpicks, you will not be able to finish that chapter (and by consqeuence, the rest of the game). In fact, you can encounter this situation as early as the third chapter if you did not do the Chapter 2 Gaiden mission(to recruit a thief that comes with a Lockpick) and unwittingly kill the only enemy that has a Door Key in Chapter 3.
Additionally, from chapter 8 onward in that same game, you are always required to select a minimum number of units in order to begin the chapter; should enough of your units either be exhausted, captured, and of course dead at that time, it is possible to actually lack the required numbers to even start the chapter - nevermind try to complete it.
Also in Fire Emblem: Mystery of the Emblem, there is a later mission where you are supposed to meet with an NPC to receive an item that allows its holder to negate the Plot Armor of the second story's penultimate boss and ultimately kill him, however, it is possible to complete that chapter without ever talking to this NPC, and the game will continue as if you had done so regardless. This will later bite you HARD when you finally get to the game's penultimate boss and you quickly realize that without that item in a unit's inventory, it is impossible to even attack the boss, let alone kill, and there's no way to replay a completed mission outside starting the entire campaign over.
That same chapter also has another item that is required to obtain in order to and get the final two missions and the good ending, that involves collecting all of the twelve Star Orb Fragments. Missing even one of the fragments denies you the chance to finish the whole story. And about half of them can easily be missed if you do not know exactly what to do beforehand.
Likewise, in Fire Emblem: Sword of Seals, you need to acquire and keep eight special, powerful weapons intact and keep a certain character alive in order to proceed to the final three missions and the good ending. Six of these eight weapons are acquired in extra chapters, but accessing them can be impossible unless you know what exactly needs to be done to get to them ( For example, to access one of the extra chapters, you have to keep a fairly powerful enemy unit alive; he won't join you even if you talk to him, but he will deal considerable damage if he gets close.). And, like all the other games, you cannot replay a completed chapter.
In the Facebook app Little Cave Hero there are various levels with underground springs which endlessly produces water. If tiles of water block a path and you can't destroy the source, or if for some reason you can't get the water to hit important water-switches, the level becomes unwinnable. What's worse is that you either have to pay real money or get a item from a Level 20 Facebook friend to be able to restart levels. Also troublesome is that (this being a Facebook game and all) you need to invite friends to get the tools necessary to clear many levels.
In Submachine Extended, the second version of the original Submachine game, a puzzle was added where one of the four pieces you needed appeared in a teleporter once you pulled certain switches and the power was on. However, it also retained the puzzle where you had to burn out the power in order to get another piece. Blow the fuses before you've found the former piece and it disappears again, so you're screwed. Mateusz Skutnik later decided this was a mistake, and in the current version the teleporter does not require power.
In Brain Dead 13, if you run away from any of the "big three," then it's impossible to beat the game without restarting. You'll find out you've screwed up after you've crawled the castle a few times and start to suspect that it has no ending.
That arcade game Crossbow featured unarmed adventurers walking from left to right across a screen, whilst bats, birds, scorpions, monsters, stalactites and arrows moved in on them and had to be shot by the player to ensure safe passage. The arcade cabinet featured a light gun shaped as an actual crossbow, meaning you could aim as quickly as you could move the weapon. The home versions used a crosshair moved by the keyboard or joystick - and in the Commodore version it moved at the same speed as all of the enemies. Accidentally move your crosshair past any enemy, and you can watch it crawl back with no chance to stop a crow or rat chewing through five humans in one go.
The first Medieval Total War has an Year limit that ends the game if the year ends on a specific year. There's a scenario that can happen if you completed most of the provinces and a simple Mutiny on your armies happen, you're completely screwed and have to start over... either again, or an earlier save.
Planescape: Torment can be made unwinnable if you anger the Lady of Pain twice; in this situation, she will always show up and kill you as soon as you leave whatever area you're in. However, the programmers were kind; the game will not let you save if you have done this, and will give you an error message stating that you have incurred the Lady's wrath and saving now would imperil your quest.
A mini-game form of this happens in The Clue Finders. There's one mini-game in Search and Solve where you guess a few times, and then figure out which coordinates the spaces you have to hit are. The problem is, sometimes you can get unlucky and you either a) have all the spaces clustered into one spot (and your initial guesses are on the other parts of the map), or b) they're all spread out; and by the time you know which symbol and colour represents which row and column, you won't be able to win. It's going to take a lot more than just four.
The MMORPG Trickster Online allows you to sell or accidentally drop (destroy) quest items necessary for the story quests. They cannot be replaced, petitioning a GM will only get the response 'well you shouldn't have done that'. Although the game is still playable about 1/2 of the single player content is forever lost and all the EXP those quests can give is gone.
Visual Novels by Key Visual Arts are notorious as being unwinnable without a guide. Choices you make early on can produce a game over late in the game and with so many choices it's nearly impossible to get through any routes.
Probably most noteworthy is Nagamori's route in One: To the Radiant Season where you have to abandon her to be raped in order to get her true ending. Whether or not she's actually raped before you turn back to save her is up to interpretation.
Katawa Shoujo: Shizune's route is an interesting case, because unlike many other Visual Novel stories it has very limited interactivity - only a single choice ( whether or not to sleep with Misha), towards the end of Act 3 (out of 4). Thus, choosing wrong at this point inevitably leads to the player getting a bad end... A whole Act later. Hope you've made a save before (admittedly, this isn't a very "cruel" example because basic decency, logic, genre savviness and even the game itself practically scream at you all the way through what the right choice is - the odds of you getting it by accident, rather than to see all the scenes, are miniscule). More diabolical is the case of the Hanako route: towards the end, after Hanako has locked herself up in her room and wouldn't come out, Hisao desperately calls Lilly on the phone and they have a conversation where Lilly basically spells out to Hisao what he did wrong and how he should act with Hanako... except that if you've made too many stupid choices so far ( treating Hanako like a poor, usless Fragile Flower) Hisao will simply refuse to listen to Lilly and will go out on his own to do something incredibly stupid that gets you a bad end. If you haven't acted like an idiot, this is where you get an actual choice whether or not to do the right thing.
Lilly's is the most ridiculous, though. If you make all the right choices, after she leaves the school to return to Scotland permanently, Hisao has an epiphany and does a Race for Your Love to produce a happy ending. But if you're dishonest about something trivial early in the game, nothing changes until hours later when she leaves and the game abruptly ends, with no hint as to what you did wrong or how things could have turned out differently.
The US Army's version of Full Spectrum Warrior (used for NCO tactical training) includes a mission that is unwinnable, teaching noncoms that yes, you will lose battles and people will die. Defied in the commercial release.
In the digitized-graphics game Titanic, you have three options to escape from the ship after it hits the iceberg: Find Henry and Ribeena Gorse-Jones and get on a lifeboat with them (you have to do this early), win the boat pass from Buick Riviera and use it before the two crewmen run out of lifeboats, or rescue Shailagh Hacker, then wait until almost the time the last lifeboat leaves and talk to Morrow. If you miss all three, the game continues for a few minutes (where you can get some unique lines of dialogue with the other doomed passengers) before the ship sinks and you die. This tosses you to the options screen, the same as dying at any previous point, meaning that if you save after the last lifeboat is gone, you're sunk. Polite level, because who'd do such a thing (unless it's an extra save to get all the dialogues).
Kronolog: The Nazi Paradox (Localized and released as Red Hell in Europe for obvious reasons) is just RIFE with these, mostly from failing to realize you need to acquire and keep certain items to solve later puzzles. Most notable is the zeppelin condom, hinted at in the elevator immediately after the second room in the game (which has the coin required to get the condom) and used to solve the second-to-last puzzle in the entire game. The 12-item limit in your inventory only makes this worse, as some items are not automatically discarded after their usefulness is gone, and unless you write down and remember EVERYTHING, you'll probably discard the condom to make space for other things, rendering the game completely unwinnable from that point on.
Strife: Quest for the Sigil has many Cruel dead ends. One quest giver, Harris, gives you a quest to steal a chalice from the villainous Order's interrogation complex. If you do so the game becomes unwinnable, as he sends you to report to Governor Mourel (who normally is an NPC who gives out an essential quest a bit later). Mourel tells you you are under arrest and waves of Acolytes spawn in all over the city to kill you. There is no way of knowing this will happen and no turning back once you have the chalice. And that's just one dead end. Killing any NPC could potentially make the game unwinnable as that character would not be able to give out important quests or items.
In the indie game Seven Minutes, the entire game is a trap. The only way to win is to do nothing for seven minutes. Leaving the first room makes the game unwinnable and leads to a Nightmare Fuel ending: "You were too eager to know what was out there; but sometimes, there is nothing out there. There is nothing. NOTHING."
Radiant Historia uses a Nasty level of this In-Universe. Stocke, either under the guidance of the player or not, will frequently find his decisions or actions (many of which seem sensible at the time) send events spiraling out of control and ultimately doom the entire world. The White Chronicle allows him to combat this with an also In-Universe version of Save Scumming, traveling back in time to various key events and experimenting with different permutations to try and get things back on track.
In the Accolade adventure game Search For The King, there are two places (Las Vegas and Graceland) that, once you go there, you can't go back. The game will let you go to those areas before you have everything you need, making the game unwinnable. Fortunately, the game informs you that you don't have everything you need as soon as you get there, so you can go back to a previous save and hunt around some more.
Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee has the Hub Level Scrabanian Temple, where, in several areas, you need to light a lamp, then leave. It's possible in at least one area to take the lift up to the exit without lighting the lamp (which is on the bottom level). If you do so, the game is unwinnable, as the next time you enter this area to fix your mistake, you cannot access the lift anymore—it's still up there and you cannot call it down, and thus the exit is unreachable. Time to reload!
In Sonic the Hedgehog 4, the Steelions in White Park Act 3 start creating large chunks of ice the moment they spot Sonic. Towards the end of the Act, they're deliberately placed to completely obstruct Sonic's path, making it impossible to proceed further (even with the powerful Rolling Combo or using Super Sonic) and your only option to let Sonic drown and try again. Since these Steelions are located in a narrow (relative to Sonic) corridor and are already facing the direction where Sonic would emerge, the only way to get through this area is to run past the Steelions' range of ice before they finish (or defeat them before the ice starts forming, which is much harder), easier said than done as there are so many of them. And it's underwater.
Solar Winds can be unwinnable by poor design if you step off the intended story track, either by killing someone you shouldn't have or by picking a wrong dialog option. Once you go Off the Rails, the storyline comes apart at the seams: people tell you to do things you've already done, or you can't find anything to do, or you're stuck taking the two-hour route from Point A to Point B, or...
In the Ultima 7: The Black Gate expansion Forge of Virtue, you can forge a weapon known as the Obsidian Sword, which is capable of drinking the souls of your enemies, killing them instantly. In a combination of Unwinnable By Design and Unwinnable by Insanity, you can use this to instantly kill Lord British, the Big Good of the Ultima games, rendering Ultima 7 essentially unwinnable. Spoony lampshades how ridiculous this is, because while you can do this and make the game unwinnable, you cannot use the touch of death on the final bosses of the game or the villian who you see earlier in the game for some reason.
"So I can kill Lord British and make the game unwinnable, but not to take out the villians, which would be logical."
You can also kill Lord British by having a loose brick fall and hit him in the head as he's passing under it. Same result.
Lord British was killable through player ingenuity and/or persistence in the earlier games. Instead of trying to counter the Lord British Postulate, devs started including ways to kill him as Easter Eggs, naturally rendering the game unwinnable.
Use of the Armageddon in any game that it's included as a spell (not the ritual version in IX) will wipe out everyone in Britannia except the Avatar and Lord British, who informs the Avatar of this trope.
Technician Ted had a very tight time limit — one has to complete the game in 8½ hours of game time (just over 40 minutes of real time). It's just barely possible, but only by not hanging around. Take too long over any task, and it's no longer possible to win. This game also exploits the Endless Death problem of its spiritual predecessor, Jet Set Willy, by deliberately designing some jumps so that if missed, all your remaining lives are burned up; the game even detects this, and after the second fall-to-death cycle, cuts the cycle down to just the death part.
Cannon Fodder: most phases can become unwinnable if you use up all your grenades and missiles with targets still left to destroy. (A couple of phases deliberately give you less explosives than you need to destroy all the targets: the winning tactic in these is to lure enemies to fire on the targets.)
In Soul Sacrifice, if you sacrifice Magusar at any point during the "Seven Years Later" chapters, you won't be able to continue the game since he's the Big Bad of the single-player campaign, and he needs to be kept alive so that you can fight him later. However, it is possible to spend Lacrima to undo the sacrifice and continue the game normally.
The freeware Windows version of the old Macintosh game Bolo comes with a number of maps prepackaged. One of these, called Better Best Map Ever, has all arrival points in the center of the board, which is deep sea and where all the pillboxes are. And even if you sacrifice a lot of tanks to get the pillboxes to hit each other, there will still be a few pillboxes left standing.
The PC version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has a rather severe design flaw in one of level 3's sewers - they've accidentally made one of the pits too wide to jump over. Hence, the game is unwinnable without using a cheat that enables moving through walls. Which is a shame, as it's actually a decent port otherwise...
Getting through the levels in the puzzle game Dweep involves following the right steps perfectly (and there's rarely more than one solution.) No room for error whatsoever—use one item in the wrong place, and it's time to restart.
Isle Of The Dead, an FPS/Adventure Game mix, faceplants squarely into the Cruel type. If you decide to use the flare gun at the beginning of the game (sensible given you're on a desert island), you won't find out until the end of the game that you need it. Whoops! Time to start over!
Trauma Center's Final Bosses are often prone to this, requiring that you postpone using the Healing Touch until the very last moment. Prematurely deploying the Healing Touch may as well result in instant failure. To elaborate:
Under the Knife / Second Opinion: Right before you can deal the finishing dose of serum to Savato, Derek automatically activates a Healing Touch. Even with slowed time, Savato still moves too fast for him to inject the serum. You use your manual Healing Touch to to freeze time so you can finish off Savato; if you've already used it, the Medical Board will be notified.
New Blood: Cardia drops a ring of tumors, which it will when detonate with a ripple attack for hundreds of vitals of damage. You must use Markus's Healing Touch (to slow time down so you can pick up the tumors before they explode) or Valerie's (so that the patient doesn't lose vitals from the explosions) at this point; if you have used the Healing Touch previously in this operation, you're screwed.
Pokemon Stadium 2 has the nefarious Challenge Cup, where you must win a tournament using a team of Pokemon that the game selects at random. The problem is that- and the game' strategy guide admits this- the game will often give you a team that makes completion of the tournament impossible, either because you don't have a good mixture of types, your Pokemons' stats are too low, or some members of your party know useless attacks (all of these problems being depressingly common among Pokemon Stadium 2's rental Pokemon). What's worse is that you need to complete the Challenge Cup on 4 difficulty levels... then on 4 more in R2 mode.
Similarly, in some online Pokemon battle simulators like Showdown! you can select a Random Battle, which, as above, gives you a random team and sends you up against a player with their own random team. It's slightly better than the Stadium version in that you can be at least certain that every Pokemon will be EV-trained and have competitively viable movesets. The levels are also tweaked to try and make it more fair—most Legendaries will be around level 70, while under-evolved Pokemon are generally in the 80s or 90s. This is very little comfort when the Random Number God hands you a team filled with useless Pokemon like Caterpie, or ones that have strategies that rely on other Pokemon you don't have (i.e a sun sweeper like Venusaur always relies on someone else to set up the sun) or a team that shares a weakness. Meanwhile, your opponent may have three Uber-Legendaries that'll destroy you faster than you can forfeit. For extra punishment, you can choose to be ranked for this.
The coin-op game Shanghai 3 (an arcade version of Shanghai by Sunsoft, licensed from Activision) uses fair shuffles, so every deal can be beaten — but not if you don't pay close attention to how the tiles lie, as deals usually include at least one situation (such as a tile being laid on top of another of the same type) which is unwinnable if you remove the wrong pair of that tile — indeed, often four or more of that type of situation.
In the Amstrad CPC game Heroes Of Karn, if you wander too far south, a guard comes by and puts you in prison. The way out requires bribing the guard with money taken from a barrow-wight beforehand. If you don't have the money, you have to restart the game.
Anime & Manga
Kaiji features an example in its second part, the Man-Eating Bog, a pachinko machine designed to never pay out. The defenses ware intricate: first, the balls have to pass through a tight set of pins, followed by a set of flippers (which can be set to block any incoming ball whatsoever), and lastly, the balls have to pass through three trays: one with three holes, one with four holes, and one with five holes. Each tray has only one correct hole. This last one is the kicker: the trays, machine and even the floor itself are tilted ever so subtly, and there's a slight bump around the final jackpot hole. These circumstances make it literally impossible for a ball to enter the fifth hole. And even if that gets bypassed, there are small air blasters installed around the final hole, able to blow away balls that are headed for the jackpot.
Roddick starts off playing this straight when he faces an opponent that "returns everything" — Pong. He then inverts it by making the game Unwinnable by Design for Pong by taking advantage of Pong not being a 3D game and constrained to the back of the court — and lobbing the ball just over the net so it goes under Pong.
Roddick: My life is about finding a way to win.
Fluxx starts off with the rule card Draw One, Play One with no goal in play. At the beginning of the game, it's not possible for anyone to win — yet.
Zombie Fluxx introduced an un-goal, which is played just like a goal — but if it is met, then everyone loses.
Klondike Solitare has many possible deals that are unwinnable; in some cases, there may be no valid moves besides dealing. The odds of dealing an unwinnable game are believed to be between 8.5% to 18%. The fact that the exact odds have not yet been determined has been called "one of the embarrassments of Applied Mathematics."
In comparison, some 99.999% of the possible FreeCell deals are solvable. Of the 32,000 standard games from Windows FreeCell, exactly one (#11982) is impossible to solve. In addition, entering -1 or -2 as the game number results in an unsolvable deal.
XP and onward have 1,000,000 deals. Out of those million, 8 are unsolvable.
Vista introduced games -3 and -4, which are very much the opposite.
Some hands of Blackjack. Example: If, in a two-person game, you have 16, the dealer has 12, and the next card is a 6, 7, 8, or 9, than you will lose no matter who gets the card (Someone will, since the dealer must hit with anything less than 17).
A better example is any hand where the dealer has a 17 or more, you have less, and the next card will bust you. Either you take a card, bust and lose, or you don't take a card, and just lose.
It's possible to just surrender if the game table's rules allow it. (Though it doesn't make you feel any better.) If the situation is unwinnable after drawing one 'hit' card, then you lose even that option.
In the second book, Fire on the Water, there is a magic spear that can be missed. It is the only weapon you get that can kill Hellghast, and you WILL encounter at least two of them. Even if you get it, there is an opportunity to give it to an ally so that he can survive guarding the mouth of a cave and allow you to continue. Sure enough, later on, if you did the right thing and gave it to him... then you made the book Unwinnable. He never shows up again. You are forced to face a Hellghast that proceeds to kill you because you lack any weapon that can harm it.
It is possible to get past this part without having the magic spear, but it requires picking the right skill from the very beginning, choosing the right path, and talking to mice. Guide Dang It! And in the original version, if you had the spear and gave it up, then you missed the chance to talk to the mice. The free online Project Aon version fixes this.
Unfortunately, no one is gonna write a guidebook for a gamebook — at least not a physical gamebook — as it would make the gamebook proper redundant.
The first three books were bad with this. In addition to the magic spear kerfluffle, book two becomes Unwinnable if you fail to get the vitally-important Seal of Hammerdale back in Ragadorn or if you sell it later for extra cash. Also in book two, if you don't have enough money to pay meals and lodging for the entire carriage journey, then you'll be forced to sleep in the stables at the last stop, where an assassin will get you in your sleep.
In book three, you have to go downstairs instead of up at one point, or you'll never meet the captive wizard who has to help you in the final battle. There's also the important-looking magic gem that is evil and will kill you if you hold on to it too long — though if you do meet the captive wizard, then he will recognize it and get you to dispose of it shortly after you meet him.
Book 8. God Kai help you if you begin with that book. Unless you get CS-increasing armor, a high CS, the CS-increasing potion, Kai skills including Psi-blast and Weaponskill, the weapon you gain an advantage with using Weaponskill, and a string of 0s and 9s for the three (or four, depending on how you interpret the text) turns you get in the final battle, you're pretty much SOL.
A third example of near-Unwinnability comes in book 11. If you played through the books and brought the Sommerswerd to Book 10 (forcing you to retain it for 11 — Lone Wolf is unable to do much of anything at the end of book 10, and storage is many miles away), then you're forced to fight three boss battles near consecutively. Even with full health, the Chaos Master has about twice your hit points and is nearly unbeatable. Now, even if you leave the sword behind, you still have to go through all three battles; but not having it with you nets you an even better sword for the Chaos Master battle and reduces the enemy stats.
The book Escape from the Carnival of Horrors could be unwinnable; instead of having a game-over, it would cause you to repeatedly jump back and forth between two pages forever to simulate the player being trapped inside a hall of mirrors.
In another Goosebumps book, you are shrunken to a tiny size and have to deal with a (to you) enormous rat. Your decision in the matter is determined by, wait for it — how many letters are in your first name. If you have an odd number, you successfully evade the rat and can continue onward. If you have an even number? Your attempt to make friends with the rat works a little too well and it takes you back to its nest where you spend the rest of your days raised by a small furry mammal, Game Over.
Another one about a Cave Spirit involved far more than remembering stories. You had to select which weapons or spells your character would be armed with. The hunter's path was always the hardest because your weapons had finite ammo or durability. If you used the wrong weapon at a certain time or didn't PICK the right weapon to use at a certain obstacle, then the game would be unwinnable.
To make matters even worse, you could actually lose the one weapon you needed for the ending by using it on the wrong obstacle early on. Plus, at the beginning of the hunter's path, there are two weapons you NEED to pick to get a good ending — fail to pick any one of them (you can only pick three of four weapons) and you'll meet an untimely end later on. [Hint: the weapon you can use only once is pretty much useless and use of it will spell instant death for you — unless you're on a certain story path, which only leads to two bad endings anyway.] The spellcaster's path is easier, as you can actually choose not to get into any problematic situations until you meet the Cave Spirit again, but you'd better steer clear of the park or else kiss the path's best ending good-bye (because you either will be turned into a frog/snake or destroy the one thing you need to defeat the Cave Spirit to escape).
And in another book, getting one of the good endings is determined by your height. In the same book, on the path to another ending, you die if you're not left-handed.
In Inside UFO 54-40, the best ending is deliberately unreachable through regular gameplay (or, as the book puts it, by "making a choice or following directions").
Ridiculously common in Fighting Fantasy books. Sometimes the book is merciful, such as when it tells you that you need to find "the man of numbers, or his book" or you'll fail, thus setting you looking for those things. Other times, the thing you need to progress is totally arbitrary.
The worst tests are usually in the final couple of rooms or areas — you tend to either take on a henchman of the Big Bad or similar situation and either use an item you may well have missed or used earlier, or perform a series of actions whereby one path in the chain allows success whereas the others are failures. Then the final encounter itself always relies on having retrieved a magic weapon/amulet/potion just to avoid dying immediately and for the right to fight them.
In the City of Thieves Gamebook, if you tried to scale a building you were trying to infiltrate, then you'd be faced by a gargoyle. You're told you need a magic sword to beat it. Say you have one, and the game chides you for cheating, saying you can't have one yet. Say you don't, and you're dead. Oh, and the alternative is to approach a guarded door.
Also from City of Thieves: The player needs to gather a compound to rub into the undead overlord's face, comprised of three items. Just before the final dungeon, you find out you need only two of the three, but you aren't told which ones. The final action in the book is choosing which two you combined. Two combos result in a one line death. The other results in a one line victory.
Talisman of Death: The player has to not only find the Talisman of Death but also carve the correct number on the back. A Cruel situation because, if the wrong number is carved, all will seem fine until the final attack fails to be repelled. Immediate "Your Adventure Ends Here". And unless you find a very well hidden clue, a wrong number will be presented as the right number!
Moonrunner: If a particular item is not picked up and the Big Bad uses a particular random attack, then the book becomes unwinnable because of a hypnotically implanted cue that turns you into a monster in the final area.
Crypt of the Sorcerer: This one goes completely overboard. You have to follow a VERY narrow path to have even a remote chance of winning. Among other things, you need to smear yourself with a certain creature's blood to avoid death from a huge lizard monster in the middle of the book. The creature is met at the very beginning of the gamebook, and smearing yourself with the blood gives you a random chance of dying.
Magehunter also involves a ridiculously narrow win path. The plot involves a body swapping mechanic, and in order to get the proper ending you need to get yourself, the Big Bad and your companion back into the correct bodies by the end of the book. Making the wrong decisions right at the start will leave the bodies mixed up in a way that is impossible to fix, with the result that vast swathes of the book are devoted to activities that will never result in a victory. Only by mastering the body swapping magic and switching into the right people at the exact right times can the reader come out on top.
Rebel Planet: At one point, you break into an enemy armoury. There, you get the chance to take 2 out of 4 weapons. You must pick the right ones and guess which order to use them, or you die. There are no clues to help you.
A Cruel example is found in The Crown of Kings: At the very, very, end of your adventure you will be forced to find a safe means of escape from Mampang Fortress, and the only way to do so without using magic is to have much earlier found and befriended the well-concealed Samaritans of Schinn. If you play as a warrior and either fail to find them, or fail to earn their trust, you will continue your adventure only to discover at the last that you cannot escape the Fortress.
Trial of Champions: This one contains a luck-based challenge forcing you to choose a chain of maneuvers against a blind kendo master, all of which are essentially random and lead to either total victory or end of game with no use of skill or items. The same book also has a wizard who requires you to have gathered exactly nine gold rings from random places as well as the code numbers to use them. Failure at any point is instant death.
The Big Bad confrontation in Return to Firetop Mountain requires the player to have gathered gold teeth with numbers on (Hope you don't have to forfeit a gold item in the eyeball-eating contest!), a series of tiny book pages saying how to use them, a magnifying glass to read the pages, a throwing knife to throw at a rat to avoid it stealing the tooth, and a successful skill roll to hit the rat. After all this, you finally get to fight Zagor, who may kill you if the print-based Quicktime Events didn't already.
Knights of Doom has an amusing but sadistic example in the form of the Assassin's Dagger. This intangible opponent will plague you for the whole game, and can only be permanently defeated by choosing an appropriate skill before the adventure even starts or by buying a certain item. Otherwise the book will give you opportunities to trap the dagger and run away only for it to keep escaping and catching up with you later on. If you don't finish it off then it finally manages to plunge itself into your back just as you confront the Big Bad...
Undoubtedly the most sadistic example from the entire Fighting Fantasy series comes in Creature of Havoc, a book where you play as a monster who begins the story with no free will. Your first few "decisions" are determined by dice rolls. Almost from the beginning, getting the wrong roll will make you miss the only item you can use to defeat the main villain. It is possible to play the book until the final confrontation and lose because you missed an item you could only obtain by 50/50 chance near the very start. To make matters worse, the weapon in question is still buried in a maze of very specific chapter selections, and you also have the option to use it in battle any time in your adventure, and it is destroyed after one use.
Dave Morris generally believed that heroes should be heroes, and in most of his books (other than The Fabled Lands) would punish people for trying to play a Sociopathic Hero. In "Down Among The Dead Men", you and a few shipmates escape from an evil captain; later, after going across the ocean to reach civilization and proving your worth to the others, you become captain and lead a ship against the Big Bad... unless you've acted in a blatantly immoral fashion, such as demanding first dibs on food, murdering another captain in cold blood while they sleep (this also earns a What the Hell, Hero? from your shipmates), or letting a crewmate sing a really depressing song when morale is already critically low, just because you're too afraid to make him stop. In any of these cases, the adventure continues, but you have to note down a Codeword, and when you get to civilization, if that Codeword is on your sheet, your crew decides you're not cut out to be a captain and leaves you.
Some of the Time Machine gamebooks give you one of several inventory items to pick at the beginning. Pick the wrong one? You're gonna be stuck.
Meanwhile has another "Infinite loop" scenario. If you use the SQUID, a device that allows you to experience the memories of whoever you attach it to, on yourself and set it to "Lifetime", you'll see the main character being born, growing up, getting to where the plot takes place and using the SQUID on himself, then since the flashback is part of your memories you'll see it again, and again, and again until you Rage Quit.
In Amazeworld's "The Maze" game, you can get trapped in the "Labyrinth of Death," a vicious cycle of links that form an infinite loop similar to the Goosebumps: Escape from the Carnival of Horrors example on this article, if you click on too many or too blatantly wrong answers. The game is polite enough to warn you to "be very careful" if you're facing a specific question where only one of three answers don't link straight to the Labyrinth of Death, but it won't warn you anywhere else if there are incorrect answers that lead to the Labyrinth.
Films — Live-Action
Amanda's traps in Saw III. Jigsaw actually decrees that she's not worthy of being his sucessor because her "games" were unwinnable, unlike his.
WarGames: The computer thinks its playing a game called "Global Thermonuclear War". After analyzing all the scenarios, it finally concludes: "Strange Game. The Only Winning Move Is Not To Play."
The Kobayashi Maru scenario from Star Trek is designed to be unwinnable, because it is a test of character. Needless to say, Kirk found a way to win by cheating.
The method of cheating is slightly different, depending on the continuity. In the original timeline, he reprogrammed the simulation to make the Klingons more agreeable. In the altered timeline, he programmed the Klingon ships to have their shields go down, turning the simulation into a turkey shoot.
The Wheel of Time has a children's game called "Snakes and Foxes", played with dice and tokens on a simple board. Kids grow out of it once they realize it is Unwinnable without cheating. Heavy foreshadowing indicated that its unwinnability and the need for cheating would be important to the plot. This turned out to be correct.
In Ender’s Game, the Giant's Drink simulation was unwinnable because it wasn't really a game. Its only point was as a psychological gauge for each student. If they tried it a few times and gave up, good. If they kept on playing, despite having their avatar repeatedly killed, they had to be assessed for suicidal tendencies.
Then there was Ender, who broke the system and took a third option. Retconned in the sequel, though.
And even that probably proved a bad move. He didn't refuse to play to avoid the scenario; he was just in the habit of not giving people anything that could be used to understand him or predict his actions. Being unwilling to play a computer game helped lead to his being put in life-threatening danger later.
In the Discworld series, many religions in Ankh-Morpork feature human sacrifice. The good news is they only sacrifice condemned criminals. However, refusing to voluntarily take part in such a ritual is a crime punishable by death.
Likewise, in Pyramids, the late Pharaoh's favorite handmaiden and daughter Ptraci is imprisoned for refusing to take poison and accompany him in death. Taking the poison is, explicitly, not mandatory, but it is considered a great honor. And refusing such an honor is highly offensive and worthy of punishment. But it's not mandatory. This makes sense to everyone except the protagonist.
Catch-22 features the eponymous law, or regulation, or whatever. It is invoked by whatever abusive authority needs a heads I win, tails you lose argument. The prime example: Yossarian learns that insane fliers are kept from flying combat missions, as long as they ask to be grounded. But if you ask, that means you want to avoid combat, which is a rational decision, which means you are sane, and therefore you must fly combat missions.
Games Magazine's Choose Your Own Adventure type short story Horace Beam and the Blue Peril had a cruel one where if Horace does not buy the crystal from the psychic in San Francisco, then even if he makes it to the end he's shark bait due to not being able to access the ship. In short, reject the crystal and the sole hope for even staying alive is to end up in a gulag (a losing ending itself).
Star Trek. Captains who go through Starfleet Academy have to, at least once before their graduation, take the Kobayashi Maru, an unbeatable scenario where, no matter what they do, they will be destroyed by an Alien Encounter. James T. Kirk was the only captain to beat this unbeatable scenario... by reprogramming the computer the night before.
One of William Shatner's own continuation novels had a new character bring up to Kirk about how he was the first to beat the scenario, and then immediately and unwittingly bring him down several pegs by revealing that everyone wins the scenario nowadays. It's become a programming challenge rather than a command one.
Star Trekker, a parody manga briefly published in the US by Antarctic Press until Paramount came down like a mountain on them, subverted this by having the main character (a Japanese captain) FIRE ON the Kobiyashi Maru. Being as that the Maru was a freighter loaded with dilithium crystals, the resulting explosion crippled the nearby Klingon cruisers. The captain was ordering a followup strike to take advantage of the Klingons' momentary confusion when Admiral Kirk himself kills the simulation and walks in to dress down the captain. She, in turn, explains succinctly that as Klingons do not take prisoners and saving the vessel was a clear impossibility, priority had to be given to saving her own ship...which Kirk dismissed, but later we see that it was really more a matter of not wanting anyone else to win the simulation.
It's a standard short story to see what every character has done. Variations include use of diplomacy (ship still dies but considered a win), cheesing the simulator physics (breaks as more ships will spawn), invoking ritual combat (you die, but everyone else lives), and in the case of Nog, bribery.
On Deep Space Nine, O'Brien and Bashir often spend their evenings playing a simulation of the battle of the Alamo in the holosuite, with themselves taking on the role of the doomed Texas soldiers. When asked why in the world they keep playing a battle scenario that's literally impossible to win, they explain that it's such an irresistible challenge precisely because it's unwinnable.
The episode "Court Martial" of the original series has a scene where McCoy comes across Spock playing computer chess. Spock reveals that, because he programmed the computer to play chess himself, he should not be able to win against it. His being able to beat it four times in a row is evidence that the computer has been tampered with.
Knightmare had a No Backtracking rule, meaning it was easily possible for the teams to miss a vital clue or item. In a few cases, this led to an extremely hard Luck-Based Mission. Usually, it was only a matter of time before their mistake came back to kill them.
The most famous game on The Price Is Right, Plinko, is technically close to unwinnable because the official rules only consider Plinko to be won if the full $50,000 is won. The only way to do that is to win all four additional Plinko chips (by correctly answering 'either/or' questions), and then to have every one of the five chips land in the center slot (out of nine) at the bottom of the pegboard. Even hardcore TPIR fans consider the game to be won if that slot is hit at least once, but Word of God disagrees. Nobody has won the game in the 29 years since it's been introduced, and nobody is likely to win it any time soon.
And one early pricing game, "Bullseye" (not to be confused with another identically-named pricing game) has the dishonor of being the only pricing game with a "true" 0% win rate. The player had seven chances to guess the exact price of a car, and would be told whether their bids were too high or too low. They tried pretty hard to make the game easier — spotting the contestant a $500 bidding range, rounding the price to the nearest $10 and even playing it for a sailboat instead — but none of the tweaks helped, and the game was gone only two weeks in.
Incidentally, if you know what you're doing, you could get the exact price (rounded to $10) if you can guess it within a $1,260 price range.
On Minute to Win It, those who make it far enough are subjected to a game they call "Supercoin", where you have to bounce a quarter into the top of a water jug from a few feet away in 60 seconds to win $1,000,000. The producers have allowed people to play it for $1,000,000 after meeting special conditions (either by winning the "last man standing" episodes which award a guaranteed $100,000 to their winners, or being a lucky audience member during their "million dollar mission" during Season 2). No one has won, and the only couple to clear the $500,000 level were smart enough to walk away with the half million. A YouTube user has proven that part of the challenge is possible, the part involving bouncing the coin into the jug, but it took much longer than 60 seconds. Thankfully, losing on Supercoin would theoretically only drop you down to $250,000, which is still a good payout for a night's work.
Until they lampshaded the whole ordeal by putting a safe point conveniently at $500,000
In The Wire life and the system are referred to as "The game". Several characters remark its unwinnability (Bodie : "The fucking game is rigged!", Marla Daniels: "You cannot lose if you do not play.") . However the game is not exactly designed and it shapes itself, it's merely perpetuated by those at the top, who are just an instrument to screw over those below them.
On the Game ShowDistraction, the winner must play an inverted Bonus Round to save his or her prize(s) from damage or destruction. If you were stuck with this endgame, your opponent started shoveling your £5,000 into the cement mixer immediately upon the round beginning, thus making it impossible to save your entire prize.
The "cash in the toasters" round was just about as evil - you had to answer five questions, each of which allowed you to save £1,000 from a toaster before it went up in flames. The first toaster pushed down represented the last question you were asked - even if you had gotten the first four with no problem, the money in the fifth toaster was likely half gone by the final question.
Played for laughs on the short-lived You Don't Know Jack TV series. The "$2 Million Question" starts at $2,000,000 but starts counting down when host Paul Reubens started reading the question, after which something would inevitably interrupt him and stall the question so that the value was down to less than $1,000 by the time he finished reading it.
The American daytime version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? has started asking questions about things famous people did before they were famous. They are always so ridiculously arcane to the point that it's very obviously meant to force the contestant to use a Jump the Question lifeline, or end the game if they have no lifelines left.
Thanks to some Executive Meddling, The $64,000 Question deliberately used nigh-impossible questions in an attempt to flagrantly rig the show and force several contestants to lose. But when they tried it on Dr. Joyce Brothers, it didn't work, in a personal Crowning Moment Of Awesome for her. She practically inhaled all the reference material she could find on her category (boxing) and was prepared for everything they threw at her.
In an episode of Stargate SG-1, the team is ensnared in an alien device that keeps making them relive the same memory over and over again, offering them the opportunity to "set things right". However, every time they try to, the scenario is changed and forces them to fail. Even if they anticipate the previous change and prepare for it, the machine will create a modified scenario in which they still fail.
In one series of FoxTrot strips, Andy bought Peter some guarantee non-violent Video Games. Nice City, which is all about not killing anyone, becomes Unwinnable if you so much as step on an ant.
Games Magazine's Escape from the Forest puzzle has a few. Did you pick the wrong fruit? Or did you land the ark in the wrong place? You'll be torn to pieces by the ogre if you try to reach Anagrammaticus, because you can't assemble the proper word.
Paranoia does this pretty much all the time. The public and private PC goals are routinely in direct conflict, so someone is going to fail at something (cue the Blame Game, which the debriefing is specifically designed to invoke). Occasionally a clever PC will find a way to get credit for appearing to succeed. Individually, goals tend to range from Failure Is the Only Option to merely ludicrously difficult (or "even if the GM can't think of a way to succeed, throw it at them anyway, they might come up with something").
More than one classic Paranoia module doesn't even reach the debriefing stage, with the PCs never even making it back for debriefing. In Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues, the Troubleshooters survive the adventure ... but Alpha Complex doesn't.
In the Paranoia XP edition, the sample mission is winnable, sort of. The PCs can deal with the scrubbot virus just by surviving the finale. Problem is, that wasn't the mission they were supposed to go on. The Troubleshooters were actually supposed to go looking for missing nuclear fuel, but they met with the wrong mission officer.
Erfworld features a turn-based strategy game designed to be unwinnable while following the rules - the only way to win would be to surprise the gamemaster through lateral thinking. Originally Parson wanted to try the game on his friends, until he was teleported into a wargame universe with the same setup but different mechanics...
In Homestuck', Prospit's war against Derse is unwinnable by design without the players' successful intervention.
SBURB can be made unwinnable through a lot of ways. Someone in your player chain loses their discs? Unwinnable. Don't prototype your kernel before entering? Unwinnable. Don't enter the medium before the meteor timer runs out? Unwinnable. A player dies without a backup dream self? Unwinnable. Do something that deviates from the prime timeline? Everyone is doomed and unwinnable, though the prime timeline continues. Enter the game alone? Not unwinnable, but the win/lose conditions are completely different and the entire game is on extreme difficluty level.(However the reward at the end of the game, is also MUCH bigger. Probably as a cruel joke towards any idiot who tries playing the game alone.)
Luckily, there are just as many ways to jump off a unwinnable game state, including an in-game reset button.
In an episode of Family Guy, during a game night the cast was playing Cleveland Brown's choice of board game, Two Decades of Dignity, that purported to simulate the experience of African Americans. After being sent to jail for looking at a white woman, Peter asked how one was supposed to win, to which Cleveland replied, "You don't win; you just do a little better each time."
The Robot Chicken sketch for the Hall of Memory game. The game is only winnable through trial and error, in which every error kills the previous contestant.