Win Your Freedom

"The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish."
"Soldiers! donít give yourselves to brutes - men who despise you - enslave you - who regiment your lives - tell you what to do - what to think and what to feel! Who drill you - diet you - treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Donít give yourselves to these unnatural men - machine men with machine minds and machine hearts!
You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You donít hate! Only the unloved hate - the unloved and the unnatural!
Soldiers! Donít fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!"

To any victim of long-term incarceration, being set free from it is the ultimate MacGuffin. Of course, it won't come cheap, but when the alternative is to rot and die in captivity, they'll gladly risk their life on whatever No OSHA Compliance Death Course is required of them to get it.

The favorite motivational carrot of Boxed Crooks and Condemned Contestants, since they're already locked away, but the threat of incarceration can be used preemptively so long as the victim is already powerless to resist. Any kind of Deadly Game or Gladiator Games is likely to have this as the prize since most people wouldn't risk their life without an appropriately large reward. Likewise, the Most Dangerous Game has life as the reward.

One common variant would be when it's the victims friend or family member whose freedom they're trying to win. Shows great dedication when the victim could just turn and walk away and leave them to their fate.

Since the kind of people who are locked up are typically not someone the captors want to let out, not to mention that doing so would mean losing their services, it's common for them to sabotage the victims attempts at fulfilling the terms of the agreement, just changing them as needed, or lying and killing them. If anyone asks, the previous "winners" were Released to Elsewhere. Just about every Evil Overlord does it at some point, typically making the challenge Unwinnable by Design. Of course the hero wins, only to realize he was being baited and breaks free instead.

Forced Prize Fight and Death Course often go hand in hand with this. Practically every Closed Circle adventure game ever.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • The Warden of the Zufu prison in Lupin III: Dead or Alive tells the prisoners they have a chance to escape the jail. They have five minutes to run before the guards start Hunting the Most Dangerous Game.
  • In Berserk, when Guts decided to leave the Band of the Hawk to find his own dream so he could be a true friend and peer to Griffith, Griffith didn't take it well at all. He reminds Guts that he won Guts' service by beating him in a swordfight years ago and declares that Guts would have to win his freedom with his sword. As they get ready for a rematch, Griffith realizes that the strike with the best chance of defeating Guts in one blow also has a high chance of killing him. Griffith decides it doesn't matter. All for naught, since Guts is strong enough to break Griffith's sword with one strike, defeating him effortlessly.

  • Escape from New York/Escape from L.A.
  • The Running Man
  • Death Race
  • Gamer
  • Punishment Park
  • Gladiator, although Commaodus isn't keen on it happening.
  • Megara in Disney's Hercules would regain her soul from Hades if she helped with his scheme. Surprisingly, Hades held up his end of the bargain.
    • Or maybe not so surprising, considering that Meg had outlived her usefulness to Hades by that point. It's obviously the only reason Hades is keeping his end of the deal and setting Meg free.
    Hades: Meg, babe. A deal's a deal. [snaps fingers, Meg's smoke gag vanishes] You're off the hook.
  • The Rock. The man with whom Mason made the deal has no intention of honoring it.

  • The Stainless Steel Rat: when the teenage Jim diGriz and his mentor, The Bishop, are double-crossed and sold into serfhood on a world based on the nastier aspects of mediaeval Italy, diGriz fights his way out of slavery and sets into train a series of events that cause the dissolution of condottieri society. This begins with a nasty fight with a slave-bully to establish his place in the heirarchy.
    • In later life, diGriz helps a planet with a suspiciously Latin American/ Francoist Spain set-up to throw off its dictatorship: this time the battle to the death takes the form of the universe's most crookedly rigged election.
  • Between The Winter Queen and The Turkish Gambit, Erast Fandorin fights in the Russo-Turkish War and is taken as POW by the local governor. However, when he accidentally discovers information crucial to the Russian army, he wins his freedom in a game of checkers (because he is Born Lucky and never loses bets, even when they don't actually involve games of chance) and leaves.
  • AI Programmer Sofia Mendes has to book enough programming jobs to be released from her "intellectual prostitution" by her broker in The Sparrow.
  • In Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, the (apparent) reward which lures the captive rats through their training-maze at the National Institutes of Mental Health is an open passage to the outdoors. It always slams shut before they can escape.
  • The story of Joseph in The Bible has this. Joseph was in jail on (false) rape charges, and Pharaoh was having some bad dreams that no one could interpret. Pharaoh eventually wound up talking to Joseph, who said that the dreams were a prophecy about an upcoming famine and suggested that Pharaoh appoint a wise man to take charge and see Egypt through it. Pharaoh was so impressed that he decided Joseph was just the guy for job.

    Live Action TV 
  • The premise of Alias Smith and Jones. The reformed outlaw heroes will get a pardon once they convince the governor that their Heel-Face Turn is real.
  • On My Name Is Earl when Earl was incarcerated the warden kept giving him "time off" coupons for various good deeds, but when Earl earned enough of them to get out the warden reneged.
  • Sawyer in Lost ironically bypassed most of a six year sentence by agreeing to con an inmate into revealing the location of a large sum of money he stole.
  • Miguel Dominguez in Day Break was let out temporarily so that he could commit a murder.
  • In the Criminal Minds episode "Legacy", the barefoot victim wakes up in a house of horrors and is told that if she can escape by sunrise, she can have her freedom (and her shoes).

    Table Top Games 


    TV Tropes How To Guides 
I will not agree to let the heroes go free if they win a rigged contest, even though my advisors assure me it is impossible for them to win.

    Video Games 

    Web Comics 
  • Beyond Temptation: Demons who abandoned Lucifer during his Rage Against the Heavens are imprisoned in boxes. Their only chance for freedom is to tempt enough souls.
  • Subverted in this very funny Basic Instructions comic:
    Alien Captor: I plan to study you by giving you everything you desire and watching your reactions.
    Scott: Fine by me.
    Alien Captor: You'll have everything but freedom.
    Scott: I've had freedom. I'd like to try having the things I desire for a change.
  • So far, Last Res0rt looks like it's playing this straight, for the criminal contestants. They've all been offered their freedom, if they survive (and, one assumes, win) the games. Cypress Vaeo, one of the people behind the show's creation and their 'face', has this to say to critics:
    Cypress: "I know critics will say that our new show is cruel and unusual, but we're doing everyone a favor here! Death row is far more cruel. Half our players haven't seen starlight in the past ten years! We're following every law and code on the books, and if anyone else has a problem, I have four words...speak with my lawyer."
    Lawyer: (very rapidly) "By asking me a question, you hereby acknowledge that any answer you recieve will be sufficient insomuch as that if you disagree with the answer, I am not obligated to provide you with a better one..."

    Western Animation 
  • Jonny Quest episode "Dragons of Ashida". Mad Scientist Dr. Ashida refuses to let the Quest team leave his island, but he promises to let them go if Race Bannon defeats his servant Sumi in a judo match.
  • In the ThunderCats (2011) episode "The Pit", prisoners of the Dogs are set free if they can win one hundred gladitorial fights in a row.

    Real Life 
  • Historically Truth in Television. unusually skillful and loyal slaves have often been rewarded with freedom.
    • Also Roman gladiators to an extent, though not all of them were forced to become gladiators in the first place. In the later years of the Roman Empire, professional gladiators became increasingly common, though slave gladiators never completely went away.
    • In a bizarrely literal example, those slaves who were allowed a peculiumnote  could usually buy their freedom, by actually purchasing themselves from their masters.
  • At the Battle of Lepanto the Galley Slaves in both the Turkish and Venetian fleets were offered their freedom if they behaved. The Venetians were actually given weapons and told to fight whereas the Turkish Galley Slaves were just told to row - perhaps because while the Venetians were convicts, the Turkish rowers were kidnapped Christians and could hope to be welcomed back as war-heroes if they mutinied against their captors and thus could not be given arms.
  • The story goes that the early 20th Century folk musician Huddie Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly, secured his release after serving 7 years of a maximum 35 year bid for murder by writing and performing a song for the Governor, then again after serving four years for attempted murder, having recorded songs for folklorists John and Alan Lomax. Although his musicianship probably helped, he was also a model prisoner and in both cases had served close to the minimum of each sentence.