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Doom as Test Prize

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"The experiment is nearing its conclusion. The Enrichment Center is required to remind you that you will be baked, and then there will be cake."
GlaDOS, Portal

Sometimes, passing a test or winning a competitive event turns out to provide a "reward" that the winners would never want. In short, it's Schmuck Bait, but you had to earn it. Its purpose may be to identify people who need to be dealt with because they're powerful enough to threaten the setter, or to select people who would be suitable for a job they'd never take willingly, for enslavement, or for dismantling.

If this is discovered before completion, may lead to Springtime for Hitler. Sister trope to Lottery of Doom, where the "winners" are chosen by chance rather than ability, and Morton's Fork, where passing or failing the test both result in death (or some other nasty punishment). If the test is intellectual, this can be the dark subversion of Only Smart People May Pass. Compare Condemned Contestant, where the competition is something you end up in after learning that you're doomed. Frequently qualifies as Schmuck Bait. See Earn Your Bad Ending for many video game cases.

Compare The Cake Is a Lie. For broader (and less lethal) examples of rewards that the winner regrets getting, see Undesirable Prize.

Note that this is often a Reveal trope: expect examples to be spoilers


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    Anime & Manga 
  • The State Alchemist program in Fullmetal Alchemist has a rigorous screening process that seemingly rewards the most skilled alchemists with a constant salary in exchange for giving the state their research and occasionally putting their expertise to military use. Its actual purpose is to find five people who have attempted human transmutation and seen the Gate of Truth, then use them for a ritual that will harvest the souls of their entire country (which they'll technically be spared from, but only momentarily).
  • The Promised Neverland:
    • The children of Grace Field House take daily intelligence tests. Ray, Emma, and Norman score perfectly on most of their quizzes and are thus prioritized by the demons living outside of the orphanage to eat. Said demons feed on humans, with smarter and younger victims being more valuable, so Child Prodigies such as these three are highly coveted by the demon elite.
    • There's also how they scout out new Moms for the orphanages. To qualify, you need adequate grades and a letter of recommendation from their own Mom. Pass, and you get to be fitted with a death switch and thrown into a world of intense competition to become an active Mom, and until you succeed, you're pretty much breeding stock unless somebody needs an assistant.

    Comic Books 
  • Dungeon: The Early Years: Marvin decides to take Herbert to his former martial arts master to cure Herbert of his Non-Action Guy tendencies. The master takes Herbert along with another student, who very quickly proves himself superior to Herbert in every way. On the final day, the teacher congratulates him... and stabs him, explaining that the student could have one day surpassed him. Marvin doesn't take it well.
  • Fantastic Four #254 has the Four visit the world called Mantracora in the Negative Zone. There, high priest Taranith Gestal selects the finest minds among the people for an unspecified higher purpose. In fact, Gestal is an alien that needs fertile minds to power his spaceship's organic computer; many people so selected are shown in a comalike state, with their heads wired to a central processor.
  • In one Judge Dredd story, a couple apply to emigrate from Mega City One to an off-world colony. There are vastly more applicants than openings, so the couple pull every dirty trick possible to get on the short list, and eventually get to go the colony world — which is a barren, frozen hellhole. It turns out that all of the colonists are people ruthless enough to lie, cheat, steal, or even murder to get to the supposed off-world paradise.
  • In the "Kitchen Irish" arc of The Punisher MAX, a very misanthropic elderly Irish-American gangster leaves what is rumoured to be a hoard of treasure to various separate Irish gangs in his neighbourhood, giving each of them part of the geographical location in the hope that they'll kill each other over it. After much violence and death, the survivors finally do decide to get together and go to split the hoard peacefully. Whereupon it turns out to be a huge bomb that explodes and kills them all. Leaving them just enough time to read the word "CUNTS" scratched into the plastic explosive charge.
  • Wonder Woman (1987): Hippolyta organizes The Contest to find a new Wonder Woman after having a premonition that Wonder Woman will soon die in the line of duty. The whole thing is orchestrated so that an Amazon other than her daughter will be the one to bite the bullet, and by the time Diana susses out her mother's intentions and goes to try and save the winner, Artemis is already in the fight that will claim her life.

    Film — Animated 
  • In Billy & Mandy’s Big Boogey Adventure, the main characters at one point cannot pass through a gateway until The Gatekeeper has performed "The Test". The Test turns out to be the giant Gatekeeper putting the characters in his mouth. As they taste good enough, they pass the test and have to escape being cooked alive.
  • In Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva, the characters are entered into a competition with the prize supposedly being eternal life; however, not only are the losers apparently killed (though it's later revealed that they're simply sent away), but the eventual winner is planned to have their personality replaced with that of the host's dead daughter.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Clonus: Healthy young men and women in an isolated colony are promised the opportunity to move to America if they pass a rigorous physical fitness exam. The actual reward is death so the body can be harvested for organs.
  • In Flash Gordon (1980), Ming claims that he subjects planets to induced natural disasters to see if they are capable of recognizing them as an attack and retaliating. If so, they are a threat to him and get destroyed or conquered. (It's possible, though, that he's just saying this to torment Professor Zarkov: the opening scene suggests that he attacked Earth because he was bored.)
  • The Hellraiser horror franchise centers around the Lament Configuration, a geometric puzzle which when solved summons a bunch of BDSM demons to rape and torture the solver for eternity. (Some people do so actively knowing about this, thinking that they'll enjoy it. These people usually end up regretting it, but there are a few who really are that perverted.) The one person who was spared this fate was a mentally traumatized young girl who only solved the puzzle because she has a compulsion to complete such tasks, with Pinhead acknowledging she was being used by her doctor as a proxy to avoid their wrath.
    Pinhead: It is not hands that call us. It is desire...
  • In The Running Man, it turns out that the surviving ("winning") contestants on the titular game show aren't actually pardoned and released to a life of luxury, but instead they just get executed off-screen, with their corpses hidden away.
  • In Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, the evil cyborg Overdog has built a maze full of deadly traps inside his fortress. Captives are regularly thrown inside and made to run through it. The whole spectacle serves to entertain the crowds, but the twisted game's real purpose is only revealed when heroine Nikki managed to evade all perils and reach the end; she is not freed as promised, but bound to a machine that saps her life energy and transfers it to Overdog's body, making him stronger.

  • The legend of Robin Hood has an archery tournament with a kiss from Maid Marian as the prize. It's really a trap, because whoever wins is obviously going to be Robin in some sort of disguise.

  • The Blood Guard: The "winner" of the Glass Gauntlet is to operate the titular device to transfer Agatha's soul into a new body, which will end up killing said user.
  • In the children's sci-fi novel Brainboy and the Deathmaster, a popular series of video games is used to find orphan child prodigies with exceptional intelligence who can be adopted by the developer and "persuaded" to work on his genetic engineering project.
  • A subtle, insidious version occurs in Isaac Asimov's novel The Currents of Space. The inhabitants of the planet Florina are tested by the off-planet Sarkian overlords, and the best and brightest are given training, status, and positions of local authority - and are forbidden from having children. This is an anti-eugenics plan intended to make future generations of Florina stupider and more docile.
  • In Jorge Luis Borges' story "Death and the Compass", a series of mysterious clues lead a detective to the site of another predicted murder, which turns out to be his own.
  • The heroes in Deltora Quest and its anime adaption enter the Rithmere Games, a combat tournament, for money to continue their travels. The winners are secretly drugged, taken to the Shadowlands and forced to compete in Gladiator Games for the Shadow Lord's entertainment.
  • Dying Earth: In the short story "Guyal of Sfere", Guyal is ordered to act as the judge in a contest to determine the most beautiful maiden in a village. He notices that the girls, rather than dressing their best as he would expect, seem to be actively trying to hide their beauty, and that the ones he eliminates from contention seem relieved rather than disappointed. After he picks the winner, he learns that the "prize" for winning the contest is to be sacrificed to a demon.
  • Featured in a Henry Slesar short story called "Examination Day", later made into an episode of the same name for The Twilight Zone (1985). A 12-year-old boy undergoes a mandatory IQ test administered by the government. In the last scene, the parents are notified that the boy exceeded the IQ limit, and are asked how they'd like his remains to be handled.
  • In the Give Yourself Goosebumps book Escape from Camp Run-for-Your-Life, the prize for completing "The Selection" (a series of very dangerous activities) is to become a slave on an alien planet named Xentron.
  • In the Goosebumps book The Horror at Camp Jellyjam, the titular camp encouraged everyone to compete in various games. Those who won enough medals were then kidnapped and forced to wash a giant monster.
  • In The Hammer and the Cross the viking Ivar the Boneless receives a coded message of challenge, consisting of a sheaf of wheat, an eel, and a caponnote . He offers a reward to anyone who can explain it, which an English slave does: The sheaf stands for Shef, commander of the enemy army, the Eel for Eel Island, where the challenge is to take place... Even though he doesn't actually say it, this implies that Ivar (who has that nickname for a reason) is a eunuch, a deadly insult. The slave demands his freedom as a reward, which Ivar grants. As soon as he leaves, he gets a spear in the back.
  • In the Philip K. Dick short story "The Hanging Stranger", the protagonist sees a corpse hanging from a lamppost right in the middle of town. He grows more and more confused when no one cares about this incident. It turns out everyone in the town has been killed and replaced by bee people disguised as humans, and the hanging corpse was placed there as a test to get people who haven't been replaced by bees to reveal themselves.
  • In The Historian, all of the clues to Dracula's survival and whereabouts turn out to have been deliberately planted so that he can identify gifted researchers to be either recruited or vampirised and enslaved.
  • In Island of the Sequined Love Nun islanders who are 'chosen by the goddess' actually have their organs harvested, usually nonfatally.
  • In The Tripods, girls who win their villages' beauty contests and are sent to serve the Masters wind up dead and preserved in glass.
  • One Warhammer short story depicts a mighty warlord of an incoming chaos invasion holding a contest between several of his chieftains. They each take their war parties and go to the wastelands to impress him. When the protagonists win, it turns out that the reward for winning the warlord's favour is being killed and ritually stuffed — as he fully expects to die in the massive war he is going to, his favourite chieftain's party is to act as his vanguard into the afterlife. Subverted when it also turns out that they knew all along and did their best willingly, considering it an honor — chaos barbarians are like that.
  • In Larry Niven's short story "What Can You Say About Chocolate Covered Manhole Covers?", at a party, a man proposes an idea: that the human race was created by aliens placing small groups of Homo habilis at various places around the Earth and letting them evolve separately. When the groups met up and mated, their descendants would have superior intelligence by virtue of hybrid vigor and would make good servants. Some of the people at the party deduce additional information about the aliens and thus pass the aliens' intelligence test. As a reward, they're kidnapped and taken to a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri, to be the subjects of a new seeding experiment.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Angel: In "Provider", a group of Nahdrah demons offer anyone a chance to solve a unique puzzle in their possession. Fred manages to solve it, then it turns out they were looking for an exceptionally smart person so that they could cut off their head and use it to replace the head of their dying prince. Fortunately, Angel and the others rescue her.
  • In the Babylon 5 episode "A Day in the Strife", an alien probe arrives at the station and offers unimaginable technical gifts to anybody who can answer a series of scientific questions. It's actually sent by an unknown culture to identify and destroy any other culture advanced enough to hypothetically be a threat to them.
  • Doctor Who:
    • In "The Dalek Invasion of Earth", the Doctor realises that his cell contains items that will allow him to escape, and does so. Oops, it was an intelligence test to select people to be turned into cyborg zombies.
    • The logic puzzles that people must solve in order to gain access to "The Tomb of the Cybermen" are designed so that the Cybermen can convert anyone clever enough to get in into Cybermen themselves.
    • In "The Krotons", the Krotons select the most intelligent people among the native population to extract some form of mental energy from them. They then kill the person by spraying them with something, implied to be an acid.
    • In "The Five Doctors", only those who survive crossing the Death Zone and navigate the traps in Rassilon's tomb can ask his disembodied presence for the gift of immortality ... which he grants by transforming them into a living sculpture in his crypt, thus eliminating such dangerously-ambitious people from Gallifrey's power structure.
    • In "The Long Game", journalists look to get promoted to floor 500, where it turns out they're fed to the Jagrafress.
    • It's stated that this happened offscreen in "A Town Called Mercy", where a group of Kahler warriors competing to be the best for a secret mission actually got experimented on against their will and turned into cyborg weapons.
  • The Outer Limits (1995): In "Human Trials", a number of candidates are selected for rigorous and nightmarish training for an important government mission. At the end of the story, every single candidate except one has been eliminated, and the people in charge of the test arrive to congratulate him. When the survivor asks what the mission is, they cheerfully tell him that there was no mission. They simply wanted to find a physically and mentally tough candidate that they could subject to painful and hellish experiments to test the limits of the human body. They then proceed to do just that.
  • In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Arena", according to Word of God, the Forced Prize Fight was indeed a Secret Test, but not quite as it comes across. The script includes a bit of dialogue (not aired, but included in James Blish's novelization) which reveals that the Metrons had planned to destroy the winner of the fight rather than the loser, considering the winner to be a bigger threat to them. Ultimately subverted, as they are impressed when Kirk refuses to kill his downed opponent.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In one Dungeons & Dragons setting, there is a fortress in the Abyss that local demon warlords keep fighting over. The legends says that all the current demon lords passed through it at some point and it is regarded as a proving ground where leaders test their skills against each other. The legend is mostly true - but the current demon lords observe the fortress closely, using its legend to spot dangerous competitors early.
  • In Mage: The Ascension, the final adventure book reveals it to be the case for Technocracy. If you are competent enough you get promoted and the best of the best join the head council. This is an honest promotion. However, the technocrats, despite their claims to the contrary, are also mages and Clap Your Hands If You Believe works much stronger for them than for humans. Since the guys at the top are never seen and just operate as The Omniscient Council of Vagueness, the image is so ingrained into the whole organisation, that anyone promoted all the way up ceases to exist as a person, joining the Hive Mind haunting the council room.
  • On the plane of Amonkhet in Magic: The Gathering, those who complete the Trials of the Five Gods are killed and made into zombies to serve in Nicol Bolas's undead army. (To be fair, the losers are also usually killed and made into zombies — just ordinary mummies to be used around the city rather than Bolas's super-soldiers.)

  • In Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Pericles has to answer a riddle: answer it right and win the hand of a King's daughter, answer it wrong and die. But it's a Morton's Fork since anyone who correctly answers the riddle discovers that the King is having an incestuous relationship with his daughter, and therefore the King has them killed.

    Video Games 
  • In the Mass Effect series, the technological artifacts that allow the development of the titular technology have been planted by the Reapers to identify younger civilisations to be "harvested" and drive their technology in a direction that will make them vulnerable.
  • Nidhogg: The goal of the game is to make it to the other side of the screen, where you are then eaten by the titular creature. Though with how little background we're given, the player characters may have wanted that.
  • All the citizens of the valley in Pikuniku are very jealous of Eli when he's chosen by Sunshine Inc. and whisked away for a fabulous free tour of their corporate headquarters! Too bad he's actually been taken as an experimental subject and genetic source for Mr. Sunshine's evil plans...
  • In Portal, the "reward" for completing all nineteen test chambers is a one-way trip into a furnace. Chell narrowly escapes the trap, however.
  • The Well Speaks To Me: In They Watch from the Walls, Mr. Pumpkin invites children, most recently the protagonist Carrie, to brave his Haunted House "attraction", promising a surprise to anyone who makes it to the end. It turns out that the "prize" is being stuffed in a cage and sold to pedophiles.
  • World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King is secretly this for the heroes, since the Lich King's grand plan was to put the heroes through trial after deadly trial until only the strongest remained to face him, then kill them all to serve him as the most powerful group of death knight commanders in history. The heroes do receive their "reward", but of course, things still don't quite work out the way the Lich King planned.
  • XCOM: Enemy Unknown: The Alien Invasion is actually a test for humanity set up by the Etherials to learn whether humanity has the technological and psychic potential to serve as their slaves for their (unspecified) goals. To this end, the Etherials have been purposefully feeding humanity their tech and knowledge of psychic powers until humans have surpassed all other races Etherials have previously enslaved. Then, however, their plan has Gone Horribly Right: the humans have become strong enough to kill them all.

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • There are ancient descriptions of Spartans ordering helots to select the best of their number — allegedly to give them freedom, but in reality to kill off potential rebels.