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Critical Existence Failure

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Jumping a bridge, trashing a shopping mall, outrunning dozens of highway patrolmen, and now it breaks!

"It doesn't matter how much health you have. It's just... Are you dead yet? Are you dead or are you alive? If you are alive, continue fighting. If you are dead, retry."

Video game characters on average are incredibly tough. No matter how much you get hurt or what it is that's doing the damage, the worst you'll show for it is blood decals on your suit. You laugh as Universal Poison does five points of damage per step, you shrug off the flying chainsaw robots using your blood to make abstract art like nothing, and you're perfectly fine as long as you have at least one Hit Point left. However, if something removes that last point, even if it was an apple falling on your head (or perhaps multiple cherries), it will cause you to experience Critical Existence Failure and keel over like you had a sudden inexplicable heart attack.

Those subject to this seem to be held together more by their life force than anything tangible, as the act of dying instantly makes them as durable as wet tissue paper in a blender.

Most of this is a function of fair gameplay, especially in fighting games where making a character weaker over time would just make them progressively more vulnerable and susceptible to damage. This trope enables comeback victories which are more dramatic than one side holding the advantage for an entire game, and avoids a situation where an early setback makes it pointless to keep trying because defeat is assured. Of course, this same trope is what makes Cherry Tapping both viable to use and humiliating to have done to you.

Critical Existence Failure also allows certain tactics that would be downright crazy in Real Life to work in the game (e.g. using explosions for a makeshift Rocket Jump because you have enough HP to survive the explosion, bunny-hopping to reduce total damage taken, or running into suppressing fire to either act as a shield for the guys behind you or just get close enough to use a One-Hit Kill weapon). Furthermore, when each unit can keep attacking at full effectiveness until its HP hits zero, a team of players (or a single player controlling multiple units) is incentivized to focus all attacks on one enemy at a time in order to quickly reduce the enemy team's damage-dealing potential. In real life situations such as fighter plane and tank battles, it’s normally more efficient for each vehicle to engage a different enemy to avoid wasting munitions on overkill, and destroy (or almost as good, disable) more enemies more quickly, since in real life taking any damage at all has a high chance of knocking a combatant out of the fight.

This could have a flimsy justification for armoured vehicles — anything which doesn't penetrate its armour arguably would not adversely affect its performance. (The same principle also applies to Deflector Shields.) However, because of the simplified nature of damage calculations, it's entirely possible for, say, an armored vehicle to sustain an anti-tank missile to its thinly-armored back and still keep fighting with a few Hit Points remaining, when in Real Life it would easily cripple the vehicle and/or kill the occupants in the process.

Critical Annoyance often indicates the imminence of this trope, much to the irritation of the player's eyes and/or ears.

If Critical Existence Failure is always a danger, regardless of the attack, the character is a One-Hit-Point Wonder. On the other hand, if it doesn't occur immediately upon zero Hit Points, but waits for just one more hit to land, then the owner possesses a Last Chance Hit Point.

Has some overlap with Death of a Thousand Cuts, Heroic RRoD and No Kill like Overkill, since any attack that inflicts even Scratch Damage can ultimately land a KO.

Compare Exact Time to Failure and Instant Cooldown, for more general examples of unrealistically sudden transitions from "perfectly OK" to "totally dead"; No Ontological Inertia; and Strong Flesh, Weak Steel. Contrast the Chunky Salsa Rule; Didn't Need Those Anyway!; Full Health Bonus; and Subsystem Damage, where losing Hit Points does adversely affect the owner's ability to fight back. See also Attack! Attack! Attack!, which this trope can encourage or at least give the appearance of; and The Last Straw, when a proverbial straw breaks the camel's back. If something is damaged and changes to look the part but otherwise behaves or functions the same, you're looking at Shows Damage.

If you are looking for the trope about having one's existence entirely erased from the time-space continuum, try Ret-Gone. Despite the title, someone doesn't have to literally suffer from this to be an example of Suspect Existence Failure.

Aversions, inversions, subversions and notable examples:

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    Anime and Manga 
  • Parodied in Gintama when the characters find themselves inside a JRPG. Hijikata, perfectly sound albeit having just 1 HP due to a game glitch, slightly bumps his foot into a wooden sign and instantaneously drops dead, complete with a coffin.
  • Taken to extremes in Sword Art Online during the Aincrad arc: players will remain alive so long as they don't die in the game, but after their HP reaches 0, the moment their avatar vanishes, the player will be hit with a high-powered microwave pulse to their brain, killing them instantly.

    Board Games 
  • Robo Rally cleverly avoids this trope, where indeed the robots become progressively more unreliable with each point of damage, until they finally explode.
  • This applies to the board game Talisman, as spells and attacks that outright kill enemies and followers only remove one or two "lives" from a player character's total. True player character death only comes when the last life is removed, save for a rare few "instant death" situations.
  • Magic Realm avoids this trope, where characters each have a number of chits that represent actions such as fighting, maneuvering and casting spells. A damaged character must disable a chit each time he is wounded, therefore damage causes a character to be less effective. A sufficiently damaged character may become helpless, as he no longer has the chits required to wield a heavy weapon or to duck enemy blows quickly enough. When all chits are disabled, the character dies.

    Card Games 
  • Magic: The Gathering has this. Channel / Fireball (or Blaze, Kaervek's Torch, Disintegrate...) Necropotence, which only gets better with Yawgmoth's Bargain. Channel / Bog Initiate / Drain Life. Remember that it's relatively easy for green to get ahead in mana or for red to get ahead in life. Another combo of this variety is Avatar of Hope / Blessed Wind. Once you're down to three life, play the Avatar, and then play the Blessed Wind.
    • A fairly common adage among Magic: The Gathering players is that, while you start with 20 life points, only the last point really matters. Cards like Channel (allows the player to exchange one life point for one point of mana to cast spells) and Necropotence / Yawgmoth's Bargain (pay one life point to draw one card) turned out to be brutally overpowered as designers did not immediately anticipate that players would gladly pay all their life but that last crucial point. Turns out it's pretty hard to lose a game where you've just drawn 19 extra cards.
      • A corollary to this is that cards that do nothing but give you life are considered worthless, except in very exceptional situations or matchups.
      • Interestingly, this was averted in earlier editions of the game; a player didn't lose, even with no life points, unless a phase ended. Prosp-Bloom, the first combo deck, exploited this by playing cards like Vampiric Tutor and Infernal Contract, often dropping to a negative life total in the process of assembling the combo, before finally casting a mammoth Drain Life that would both kill the opponent and gain enough life to get back to a positive number. In fact, the entire point of the Mirror Universe combo deck was this.
    • Also applies to most creatures, who can take damage equal to their toughness and retain their power (attack damage), abilities, etc. and are back to full health by the next turn. Averted with certain creatures such as Protean Hydra and Phyrexian Hydra, which lose power when they take damage (albeit in Protean Hydra's case, only temporarily).
    • Due to how the stack works, this trope can be combined with No Ontological Inertia. When a player loses, any effects they controlled that were yet to resolve are immediately canceled. This means it's possible to avoid death by an unstoppable combo by killing its caster before it resolves, which becomes very easy to do if they've been generous with life expenditure.
  • Since the Yu-Gi-Oh! trading card game was directly inspired by Magic: The Gathering, this trope applies just as much to it. You're still in the game as long as you have Life Points left, and it can sometimes be to your advantage to simply take a hit and sacrifice some LP rather than waste a vital card on a stopgap solution. A number of powerful effects, including the all-negating Solemn Judgment and the summon-negating Solemn Warning, demand a high cost in terms of LP, but if that 2000-4000 LP thwarts the opponent's game-winning move and gives you a chance to retaliate, it's an investment well spent.
    • And now there's Endless Decay, a horrifying monster which has its ATK equal to half your opponent's Life Points. It becomes even easier to summon the few turns between you and Critical Existence Failure.
    • Unlike Magic, in Yu-Gi-Oh! this applies to the monsters you battle with themselves. So long as the monster you're battling with has more Defense or Attack (depending on the position of the monster) than the Attack of your battling monster, that monster will stay on the field regardless of the amount of times it battles.
  • In the Naruto and Dragon Ball Trading Card Game, injured status has its own separate point values. They are often weaker, sometimes stronger, and sometimes they stay the same.

    Fan Works 
  • In Co-op Mode, James averts this by a hair on the very first chapter by being saved by Taylor.
  • In Issei: The Gaming Gear, Issei works like this - as long as his HP are above zero, he'll be fully capable of fighting. During the fight with Armârôs, he manages to make her run just when he has exactly 1 HP.

  • In The Blues Brothers, Jake and Elwood lead the cops on a city-wide chase, destroying hundreds of cars and pushing the Bluesmobile to the very limit. Pretty much the exact second as they arrive at their destination, every single panel on the car falls off at once. Puts their claiming to be on a Mission from God into a very different light, doesn't it?
    • Some fans would claim that the Bluesmobile was no longer needed after arriving at its final destination and could finally rest in pieces.
  • Monsieur Creosote from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life: After a large feast, he explodes after eating a wafer thin mint.
  • In the movie Snow White & the Huntsman, the Queen's brother takes severe damage without showing any effect because the Queen shares her life force with him. After a serious attack, the brother is barely hanging on and begs the Queen for more. Since she is very near death herself, she apologizes and severs the link, causing his death.
  • In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Nick Fury's car has onboard damage control, which is able to tell him precisely how close the car's windows are to breaking. Its constant readouts come across as it giving the window's remaining Hit Points. At one per cent integrity, the window was apparently fully bulletproof, while at zero it is simply no longer there.

  • Because of his condition, Arhys in Paladin of Souls is able to charge the enemy encampment and kill a number of sorcerers, taking major wounds to no apparent effect, until abruptly falling over dead. He died several months earlier, and is kept upright and moving through a magical link with his half-brother and wife; any blows to his body become wounds shared between the two of them. He "dies" when the link is severed to prevent further injuries from killing his half-brother and wife.
  • Life, the Universe and Everything has a passage about the Starship Titanic which undergoes a "gratuitous total existence failure" almost immediately after being launched. An unusual case in that it didn't take any damage; it was apparently built with 0 hp.
  • "The Deacon's Masterpiece" also known as "The Wonderful One-Horse Shay" by Oliver Wendell Holmes. This 1858 poem makes the trope Older Than Radio and may be the Ur-Example. It deconstructs and parodies by pointing out that any construction — in this case, a horse-drawn carriage — tends to have weak points that gradually break one at a time and require replacement. The titular deacon, a True Craftsman, decides to do better: he builds every part of the carriage with such high quality that it will not wear out for 100 years. It works: his incredible shay endures a century with no maintenance at all. Unfortunately, it cannot last forever, and the deacon was so precise that his work lasted 100 years to the second. When the time is up, every single part of the one-horse shay breaks at once. One moment, the driver is perched on the famed carriage; the next, the poor man is surrounded by busted debris.
    You see, of course, if you're not a dunce,
    How it went to pieces all at once, —
    All at once, and nothing first, —
    Just as bubbles do when they burst.
  • In the end of the last novella of The Stranger by Max Frei, the car that brought the heroes home falls apart. Max has just learned that magical cars have no inherent speed limit and drives it far faster than the chassis or the roads were designed for. For hundreds of kilometres. The scene may have been a nod to The Blues Brothers, which gave the trope image.
  • The Dresden Files:
    • In Changes, Harry's Badass Longcoat gets hit with this trope. The Leanansidhe transforms it into a suit of Conquistador armor for the final fight. When Harry gets home and takes it off, her magic wears off and it reverts to its normal appearance, with the amount of damage it sustained in the battle causing it to instantly crumble to dust and leather scraps.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In the original Battlestar Galactica, battlestars and base ships showed no damage after many hits (because they didn't have spare models to damage), until they exploded. Particularly obvious was a combination of this with overused stock footage. A scene filmed for one episode showed missiles striking a base ship, causing a rapid chain reaction of explosions and then causing the ship to explode. It happened so fast that the explosions didn't have time to fade away, which would have shown that they didn't actually blow up a model. Still, it looked convincing enough... until they reused the footage in another episode. This was their only shot of a missile hit on a base ship. But this time, they had to show a ship hit and not destroyed. So they used the hit shot - and cut away before the final explosion. And, of course, the next shot with the base ship showed no damage.
  • Star Trek
    • The budget for Star Trek: The Original Series wasn't high enough to damage and repair the ship models for episodes so we occasionally saw things like an enemy tearing up the Enterprise with cutting beams in an episode, and there would be nary a scratch on the ship after the battle.
    • Used rather egregiously in Star Trek: Voyager. With the exception of the "Year of Hell" two-parter, any damage Voyager ever sustains is repaired by the next episode, even though they're stuck tens of thousands of light-years from any shipyard capable of handling a Federation capital ship (see also Infinite Supplies). And they didn't have the "no budget to damage the models" excuse either, since the series used CGI.
    • Egregiously doesn't come close to how TNG handled radiation exposure. While the Enterprise [crew] was subject to radiation, T-1 second and no effects whatsoever (not even a mention to show up to sickbay). T+1 second of exposure and presumably everybody was dead. Oddly enough, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was mentioned in one of this editor's physics textbooks as "a fairly accurate portrayal of death by extreme radiation".
    • Averted with later series. An entire episode of Star Trek: Enterprise is devoted to damage sustained from flying into a Romulan minefield in the previous episode. Also, when the ship takes damage fighting the Xindi in season 3, the damage remains in place until the ship returns to Earth and can be repaired.
  • The way angels and demons in Supernatural die is an interesting example. They can be nicked, sliced, and tortured using their respective magic knives for seemingly forever until they get stabbed once with it in the heart or gut and then they die rather spectacularly. One is left to wonder what property it is exactly of the knife that's doing the killing. Lots of monsters on the show work the same way, able to take a seemingly unlimited amount of damage from whatever weapon it is that is supposed to kill them until you stab them in the right place and then they die all at once.
  • Kamen Rider Ex-Aid: the Rider's uniforms have a Rider Gauge that determines how much damage they are able to endure. The moment the gauge becomes empty, their bodies will begin to vanish. Until then, however, they are perfectly capable of continuing to fight. Most Riders' Game Drivers have a failsafe installed that automatically terminates their transformation if their Rider Gauge starts to run low, so as to prevent potential death.

    Professional Wrestling 
  • The Bryan & Vinny Show described singles matches in Dragon Gate USA as live-action recreations of a video game played by God, particularly due to the Japanese wrestlers' tendency to not sell until the instant their endurance gives out. Until that point, they fight at full strength, regardless of injuries at a particular part of the body.

  • Destroy the Godmodder uses this trope, but doesn't always get it all the way right...
    • A lot of the events are triggered by the godmodder losing health.
      • Such as him refilling his health bar instead of failing in the first game.
    • Players avert this sometimes by having a more powerful attack become used by the entity as it takes damage.
    • And then there's the Virus, which had glitch resistance, which slowly made it more erratic as it went downnote  but at the same time had virus integrity, which was supposed to be its version of health, which had absolutely no effect as it went down.

    Web Animation 

  • In a project for a Japanese class, known to many as the flash hit Final Fantasy A+, the main character continuously hits the Big Bad's weak point, the multiple choice section on the tail with his pencil sword. Every time he hits the tail, he hits a Wrong Answer, which takes twenty points off his "health", which are shown as his grade score (0-100). He hits every wrong answer at a grade of 50, which leaves him with -10 health. Possibly hanging a lampshade to this, the boss wonders how he's still alive when he makes the final blow, hitting the Right Answer for 9999 damage.
    • After the fight, players see that the protagonist is wiped out, with a double F grade on his forehead. The Headmaster comes in and tells him to move his hair over to show that it's not a FF but a FFA+, which stands for Final Fighter A+. Not only did he get a full heal, but he graduated.
  • In the internet game "Need For Madness", the object of the game is to race a car against other cars, or "waste" all the other cars so your car is the only one left. Since your car can also be wasted, there is a guage at the corner of the screen that indicates how damaged your car is. You can have an extreme amount of damage and still be alive, but if your damage reaches 100%, you are wasted.
  • In The Adventures of Bayou Billy, you can be suplexed, stand up, then instantly fall over dead. Lampshaded by Spoony in his review.
  • Parodied in StarCrafts, which at one point shows a Medivac with 1 hit point left as little more than a dented metal slab with a single sputtering engine that is somehow still able to fly.
  • In RWBY, Aura serves as a sort of in-universe HP total. Huntsmen are completely impervious to real damage until their Aura is broken. In tournament-style fights, Aura depletion is considered defeat. In a real fight, people who have run out of Aura don't last very long, as every subsequent strike results in a realistic injury. The Creatures of Grimm, who have no aura, take visible damage nearly every time they're hit.
  • Little Runmo: At some point, Runmo shuts off the machinery that is processing Extra Lives into some manner of sludge for the Dring King to quench his apparent thirst. Soon as he goes to check on him afterwards, he's not only dead, he's been reduced to B O N E S like he had died of thirst months ago.

    Web Comics 

    Web Original 
  • In Worm this befalls Aegis, whose power includes a minor Adaptive Ability that gives him hyper-redundant biology and the ability to run on adrenaline for much longer than normal. As a result, it's very hard to tell when he's taken a truly serious injury. Most mooks and supervillains can't do enough damage fast enough to overwhelm him, but when he fights a certain enemy that can, he dies of it.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Film, Web Original, Professional Wrestling, Roleplay, Web Animation, Literature, Webcomics, Board Games, Live Action TV


Curly's existence failure

Like every other Blade Strangers fighter, Curly will continue to move and fight without any handicaps regardless of her current health: even after suffering a full combo while already at low HP, she will still get up and jump around as if she was in perfect condition. However, hitting the robot girl with a simple slap to the face after all of this will cause her to experience sudden Critical Existence Failure and immediately knock her out.

How well does it match the trope?

4.33 (6 votes)

Example of:

Main / CriticalExistenceFailure

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