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There are no winners in a nuclear war.
"When I am taken, all my memories will fade, crowded out by eternal suffering. My imagination takes over and I see myself struggling through the body of the King, wracked with agonies and unable to remember any other existence. I know that I will have no more thoughts of freedom or safety or home because my very understanding of the concepts will be lost to me and it hurts. it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts"
— The protagonist of Yahtzee's "The Expedition"

Let's say a character comes across something that Was Once a Man and, after discovering the source of The Virus that made it that way, looks in the mirror to find that he shows all the signs of being infected with it.

Or perhaps he learns that everyone who's come before him to a certain Eldritch Location, looked at a particular Brown Note, or touched the Artifact of Doom he's just tucked in his pants pocket has suffered a horrible and irreversible fate.

Or could be that he's adrift in the remotest part of the Pacific Ocean with a storm coming; buried alive in an airtight coffin; has a badly-infected wound; or he's just been diagnosed with stage four testicular ligma and given three months to live. Either way, Downer Ending, huh?

—Wait, why's the progress bar only halfway through the movie?

That's because the rest of the plot is going to be about how screwed this guy is, and unless he can Find the Cure!, fight off his fate, or have some miraculous Deus ex Machina save him, it's gonna be a long, slow, death march. In most cases, he's not going to find the cure or get rescued. (Except maybe in Fan Fic. By aliens. Or wizards. Or wizard aliens.) But this does not preclude moments of false hope.

The story almost always ends just short of his final transformation or death, and sometimes begins with a later scene that shows him doomed. It is also almost always told from the first person. These stories are usually Apocalyptic Logs. A basic feature of the Whodunnit to Me? plot.

This may happen because of a Viral Transformation, The Virus or The Corruption. Compare Tomato in the Mirror, when the character was that way all along. Contrast And Then John Was a Zombie, when this is used as an ending twist. Also compare Heroic Willpower, which particularly special heroes can use to resist their fate. Not related to Doomed by Canon or Foregone Conclusion, although they can cover protagonists who are doomed. May lead to acting like a Sheep in Wolf's Clothing.

Since this is a form of foreshadowing and an Ending Trope, unmarked spoilers abound!


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • Misuzu from AIR. In fact, this spread like a virus.
  • At this point in time, Eren and the rest of the current titan shifters in Attack on Titan. A shifter will die 13 years after inheriting their titan powers if they're not passed down beforehand. This is known as the Curse of Ymir, after the first person to wield titan powers died 13 years after acquiring them: the idea is that nobody can possess the powers for longer than Ymir did.note  The plot currently involves trying to save Eldia and Paradis Island before Zeke's term is up. There's no known cure. Ultimately, the surviving Shifters by the end of the series are spared death thanks to Eren's death and Ymir's spirit properly passing on eradicating the power of the Titans from the world.
  • Guts from Berserk has been heavily implied to eventually become this. The manga is still ongoing, so this hasn't happened yet, however.
  • All the kids in Bokurano, due to the way that mecha battles in this series generally work — if you win, you die. If you lose, everybody in your universe dies.
  • Light Yagami of Death Note is confirmed by Word of God to have effectively ruined his life the moment he picked up the titular Artifact of Death. That Ryuk told Light as early as their first meeting that he would be the one to ultimately kill him should be more than enough indication of this.
  • Seita from Grave of the Fireflies: The first scene is him dying in the streets and then it flashes back to the past.
  • The human characters from Hell Girl get Ai to drag their enemies to Hell, but in exchange they will also go to hell when they die.
  • In Puella Magi Madoka Magica, the magical girls are doomed to become witches — if they don't die first.
    • According to Word of God Sayaka is doomed to become a witch in every timeline that she makes a contract.
  • Hibiki of Symphogear is going to die. The opening scene of the show is Miku visiting her grave. The rest of the show is functioning as a How We Got Here to this. And then it's subverted when we get past that point.
  • Chtholly's fate in WorldEnd: What Do You Do at the End of the World? Are You Busy? Will You Save Us? had already been sealed since the first episode's Cold Open, and one of the series' whammies after The Reveal only hammered the point further, as fitting for the series' tragic genre.

    Comic Books 
  • The Mask had Stanley Ipkiss turning more psychotic as a result of all the murderous release the evil alter-ego brought by the mask gave him. His girlfriend doesn't like it, and eventually kills him to stop him from continuing his killing spree (this was changed in the movie, as Stanley's inhibitions lost by wearing the mask are much less evil).
  • The comic version of Sin City: The Hard Goodbye shows Marv realizing that he was going up against the Roark family: a powerful crime family with many connections and no morals. Marv realizes that he's as good as dead but soldiers on anyway. He even surmises that he'll probably end up strapped to the electric chair, which is his inevitable fate — but not before he takes down both Kevin and Cardinal Roark, the ones responsible for Goldie's death.
  • The Bloggses from When the Wind Blows are basically already dead once the nuclear war happens. After that, they slowly succumb to radiation poisoning, not realizing what's happening to them until it's too late.

    Fan Works 
The DCU
  • In Less Than Zero (Kenchi618), Max learns that the reason why the supersuit his late parents deigned was never picked up by the military is because it's a Flawed Prototype. Said suit taps into the electricity stored within the body in order to function; however, over time, this causes the wearer's atoms to store more and more energy until things start shutting down from the strain. Since Max himself has been using the suit so much, he's now forced to search for some kind of solution before it's too late.

Elfen Lied

  • The very first chapter of Family Sticks Together establishes that Alex is dying, with the fic depicting his life flashing before his eyes. In Chapter 21, he takes the bullet to protect Kaede.

Escape the Night

Harry Potter

The Hunger Games

  • Weeping Willow: The protagonist of this Hunger Games fanfilm is doomed to die in the arena because she's a 12-year-old kid and, according to established canon, no tributes under the age of 14 ever survived the Games. She does make it into the final two along with her older brother, but that's where her luck runs out as she has been fatally wounded by the male tribute from District 1 and dies as her brother watches helplessly.

The Legend of Zelda

  • Bound Destinies Trilogy: In Blood and Spirit, Link learns that he is doomed to inevitably succumb to Majora's influence, becoming the demon's servant. Even the Master Sword can do little more than temporarily slow down the corruption process. This doesn't stop him from continuing to fight for as long as he can.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • The original ending of The Crazies (2010) remake had avid getting a nosebleed, this showing that both him and Judy were actually infected with Trixie.
  • District 9 plays with this trope. It may not be the best example, since the moment of realization occurs halfway through the film, and no one prior to Wikus had experienced it before. However, it definitely counts. He isn't going to die, though, he is just turning into an alien. And Christopher said he would come back for him.
  • Christine from Drag Me to Hell is cursed to get sent to Hell. The movie is about how she tries to lift the curse.
  • Max of Elysium is given 72 hours to live after getting doused with radiation. And if that wasn't enough, the brain-encrypted data he steals is designed to instantly flatline anyone who uses it.
  • Final Destination is basically Doomed Protagonists: The Movie Series. The characters all survived a horrible accident but death must balance its scales so they die horribly one by one.
  • Seth Brundle of The Fly (1986) knows that he's screwed the moment he realizes that his transporter merged him with an ordinary housefly. It's only a matter of time until he mutates into something unrecognizable and inhuman.
  • Godzilla in the film Godzilla vs. Destoroyah. He dies of nuclear meltdown due to a radiation overdose.
  • In Ikiru, the protagonist Watanabe learns early on that he has stomach cancer and will die in a matter of months. The rest of the film is about how he decides to spend the time that he does have and others' reactions to them.
  • Scott from The Incredible Shrinking Man gets exposed to radiation and he begins to shrink. He embraces his fate and becomes fascinated at the idea that he will see new worlds not visible to the naked eye.
  • This is the very idea behind Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï, but in a simple crime drama. You know what's coming. And so does he.
  • From the beginning, you know that the entire cast of Melancholia is going to die as soon as the titular planet destroys Earth in both the first scene and the ending.
  • The heroine of The Ring (the U.S. version at least), when she realizes that she only has a few days to live after watching the tape.
  • Pretty much all the protagonists in the Saw films are doomed to fail in winning their games. It's a matter of when, not if.
  • Seven Pounds, in a rare, self-inflicted version.
  • The title character of the movie Simon Birch is going to die. You know this from the beginning, as the First-Person Peripheral Narrator is narrating the entire movie over his grave.
  • It's revealed halfway through Synchronic that Steve has an inoperable brain tumor.
  • This Gun for Hire, another classic noir, features a betrayed hitman out for revenge against insurmountable odds. Along the way, he makes a friend and ascribes greater meaning to his goal, but it is clear that there is no real way out for him.
  • Everyone in Threads. It doesn't look like humanity, at least in the UK, will last beyond a few generations.
  • Withnail and I ends with Withnail alone, in complete and utter despair, still unemployed, and on the brink of getting evicted. It's not a question of whether his self-destructive lifestyle will kill him, but a question of when. (Withnail's real-life counterpart, the little-known actor Vivian MacKerrell, never found success in life and died fairly young of throat cancer).
  • The Wolfman (2010) ends with most of the characters dead or infected by lycanthropy.
  • In The Wrestler, Randy collapses due to a heart attack and his doctor tells him in no uncertain terms that he has to stop wrestling or he will die. But after he messes things up with his daughter, wrestling is all that he's got.

    Literature 
  • At the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston and Julia are slated for execution by the Party, and they know it.
  • Several stories by Clark Ashton Smith including: The Double Shadow, Genius Loci, The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis, and The End of the Story.
  • Flowers for Algernon implies that Charlie will eventually die as a result of the intelligence-enhancing operation he underwent, as Algernon and other lab animals died after having the operation.
  • Commonly used by H. P. Lovecraft. For example, at the end of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, the protagonist realizes that he shares ancestry with the people of Innsmouth, and is destined to eventually turn into a Deep One.
  • Similar to "Drag Me To Hell", Billy from Thinner is cursed to lose weight and waste away thanks to a curse.
  • Roald Dahl concluded The Witches with a more bittersweet form of this trope. The hero is permanently turned into a mouse, shortened lifespan and all. He doesn't mind because he wouldn't want to outlive his grandmother, with whom he plans to spend his remaining years hunting witches. The Witches (1990) made the ending more unambiguously happy, a change which angered Dahl to the point where he stood outside his local cinema with a megaphone urging moviegoers not to see The Witches ([1], [2], [3], [4]). Mind you, this was mere months before the man died; that's how pissed off he was.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Part of the premise of Breaking Bad is this, as the protagonist is dying of cancer.
  • Chernobyl starts with the protagonist Legasov's suicide. It's later revealed that he didn't have long to live anyway, because he spent too much time near the destroyed reactor helping with the cleanup.
  • Dan-oh from Extraordinary You is shocked to discover that not only is she just a character in a comic book but she is also going to die from a Soap Opera Disease. The series deals with how she can change her fate.
  • Invoked in one episode of The Mentalist, where Jane and Lisbon appear to be this after they're supposedly exposed to the lethal virus that killed the Victim of the Week. The audience knows it's just another Batman Gambit from Jane, but Lisbon doesn't, and is furious when Jane finally tells her.
  • Person of Interest had a season 2 episode where Team Machine helped a man who was poisoned with radiation. They help him reconcile with his daughter and get revenge but he still dies.

    Music 
  • The Caretaker's album series Everywhere at the End of Time features this trope in audio-simulation form, putting you in the shoes of someone who's going through all the phases of dementia, from the beginnings of memory loss through confusion, panic, and the inevitable ending of brain-death.
  • In "Space Oddity" by David Bowie, the sudden end of transmission to ground control appears to indicate that something happened to Major Tom — although his later appearance in "Ashes to Ashes" possibly subverts this trope.

    New Media 
  • Two of Yahtzee's Fully Ramblomatic stories, The Hopeless Endeavour and The Expedition, end this way: one with the main character discovering that he's the latest in a series of thousands of clones infected with a terminal disease that will kill him within a few days and cause him to be replaced with another clone and the other with the main character becoming a prisoner of Chzo.
  • At the end of the uncensored version of SCP-835's uncensored after-action report, it's revealed that the hero has been infected with The Virus and will soon go into containment with the other victim.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The Tabletop RPG Dread uses a Jenga tower for action resolution: the greater the risk, the more blocks need to be pulled to succeed. Whenever someone knocks the tower over, their Player Character is doomed to die sometime during the story, but they keep playing and pulling blocks until then.

    Theater 
  • Hamilton, who is often remarked by Burr as "running out of time".
  • This is pretty much the point of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The duo are marked for death yet they don't know how to avert their inevitable fates.

    Video Games 
  • Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter. About thirty minutes into the game, protagonist Ryu is "infected" with the dragon power. At no point in the game does he even think about trying to find a cure or a way of fixing his condition. You do the math. Then subverted in the final cutscene when, at the end of his life, Ryu is granted a second chance by Odjn.
  • Promotional material for Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate makes it clear from the start Trevor never makes it out of Dracula's castle.
  • In Corpse Party, even if one avoids all the Wrong Ends and follows the True End path, four of the main characters die, along with a plethora of other victims.
  • Cyberpunk 2077: V gets shot in the head while they have the personality biochip slotted into their head. Their death activates the chip, bringing them back to life, but also causes their brain to get slowly overwritten by the personality on said chip, belonging to Johnny Silverhand. V is slowly losing their sense of self, and the entire second and third act of the story revolves around V's race with time to find a way to separate themselves and the personality on the biochip. It turns out that, while V and Johnny can be untangled, the chip has degraded V's brain beyond repair, and they only have six months to live. They can also give their body to Johnny, but that involves them being forever trapped in the virtual space, essentially stuck in limbo forever.
  • Nearly every ending in G-Darius ends this way. Even the best ending is a little ambiguous.
  • In both Dark Souls and Dark Souls II, the player character is one of the Undead. Sooner or later they will go Hollow — using Humanity and Effigies only delays the inevitable. Due to the nature of the Curse, even death is denied to them (and in fact may speed up the process). In the first game the protagonist doesn't even try to save themself, merely following the advice of others in the hopes of doing something meaningful with their remaining time. In the second game the protagonist is lured to Drangleic with rumors of a possible cure that doesn't exist. Ultimately, they don't go Hollow, though their fates at the end of each game are arguably worse.
    • However, if you complete the DLC of Dark Souls II you actually do find something that can stave off hollowing indefinitely, but if they choose to stay alive this way or sacrifice themselves is up to the player's imagination. Also, the "cure" is not permanent and only affects one person at a time, meaning the player can do nothing but watch everyone else they might have met die and turn hollow. Possibly forever.
    • In Dark Souls III, the Grand Finale of the series, it is averted. By taking certain steps, there is a way to survive the inevitable end of the Age of Fire. However, doing so pretty much requires sacrificing your moral compass by siding with the Pilgrims of Londor and becoming the Lord or Lady of Hollows who Usurps the Flame. You essentially become the First Flame and the Dark Soul incarnate.
  • Might be the fate of the two lead protagonists in Dead Rising. Even the fate of the survivors are in question, well in Otis' opinion anyway. Also, at the end of the "real" ending, the message "And yet he complained that his belly was not full." is shown.
  • The ending to the original Diablo has your player character, after defeating the title archdemon, sticking his soulstone into his or her own head to attempt to contain his evil. Come Diablo II, this turns out to have been a very bad idea, and not only did the player character become the new host for the Lord of Terror, but the others were also corrupted by the other Evils and your new protagonist has to kill them.
  • Dragon Age: Origins. At the end of the game just before the final battle, you find out that in order to kill the Archdemon, a Grey Warden has to strike the final blow and will die in the process. You can choose to sacrifice yourself or ask the other Grey Warden in your party to do it, or Take a Third Option.
    • The joining ritual that the wardens undergo is itself a death sentence. You die 30 years or so later, as your body finally succumbs to the taint.
  • Damn near every playable character in Eternal Darkness. Which, you know, is inspired by Lovecraft, so...
  • Shirou during the Heaven's Feel route in Fate/stay night, after having his arm removed by the Shadow and getting Archer's grafted onto him. The Dangerous Forbidden Technique that comes from using it would be survivable (though with a reduced lifespan) if he had years of gradual training to ease into it and did not have to overuse it — unfortunately, he hasn't got the luxury of either. Whether this is a subversion or not depends on the ending; in the True End, he gets better, in the Normal End, he doesn't.
    • The prequel, Fate/Zero has this happen to Kiritsugu, who is cursed by the Grail, and dies a few years later, before Fate/stay night begins.
  • Final Fantasy:
    • Final Fantasy X. At first, Yuna is doomed as were all the summoners before her to die after the Final Summoning is performed. Once the cycle is broken, Yuna is no longer doomed, but it becomes clear that Tidus is now doomed because he only exists as a dream of the Fayth and will fade once Sin is destroyed and the Fayth awaken.
    • Final Fantasy XIII-2: Serah. The game also reveals that all the player characters except Fang and Vanille were supposed to be this for the previous game.
  • Halo:
    • In Halo Wars, this is the fate of Sgt. Forge when he volunteers to take the slipspace "bomb" into the shield world's sun.
    • Noble Six from Halo: Reach, after staying behind to cover the Pillar of Autumn's escape. The game doesn't even attempt to hide it, with the first view of the titular planet focused on their broken helmet in the middle of a burned-out wasteland.
  • The protagonist of Heretic 2 contacts an incurable virus early in the game and is looking for a cure (and the source) for the most part of it.
  • This tropes serves as the basis of Hero Must Die. The protagonist dies shortly after defeating Satan, but is granted an extra five days to live by an angel to see the world that he saved. No matter what you do over your last five days, the protagonist is always fated to die and be taken to heaven, leaving his companions and lover to mourn his loss during his funeral.
  • Jak II: Renegade: After being experimented on for two years, Jak has become corrupted with dark eco. He is repeatedly assured that there is no good waiting for him at the end of the tunnel: first he'll go insane, after which he'll die a slow, painful death. There is no way of taking away the eco, but luckily the Precursor entity within the stone is able to balance him out, halting the effects.
  • The Legacy of Kain series has Raziel. Pain, betrayal, torture, humiliation and death? Oh yes, he has that coming in spades, but his is a more brutal kind of doom: After being executed by his master Kain, he's resurrected as a soul-devouring entity. Later, he becomes bound to a spectral blade known as the Reaver. After traveling back in time he learns that the Reaver is in fact the soul of his own future self, once imprisoned within the blade and driven insane after millenia, and that it is his destiny to suffer the same fate. He resists at first, but by the end realizes it has to happen and accepts it.
  • The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask: By the time the First Day dawns, Mikau is mortally wounded. No matter how quickly you reach the appropriate spot, it's already too late to do anything but play the Song Of Healing and get the mask left behind.
  • Mad Rat Dead: The titular Mad Rat is killed by a scientist during a dissection in the opening cutscene, but is granted a chance by the Rat God to turn back time and relive his last day as he wishes. However, the "dissection" performed on Mad Rat was actually a failed heart surgery, and the Heart currently in his chest came from a cat. He's doomed twice - he either follows the Rat God's directions towards cheese and is eaten by a cat, or he defies the Rat God and dies from heart failure. In the end, he decides to turn back time to before his surgery so that Heart can live on, even if it means dying alone... that is, until Heart turns back time to stay with him a little while longer.
  • It looks like Rockman Trigger will remain stuck on Elysium. He's been up there for over a decade, and all of Roll and Tron's attempts to bring him back to Terra have failed.
  • At the end of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Old Snake, having survived fighting numerous Metal Gears, walking through a microwave chamber, and fighting Liquid Ocelot, knows that he only has about six months to live before his artificially accelerated aging finally kills him. But it's okay, because he's happy.
  • Persona 3 ends this way. All the heroes know that it is futile to fight Nyx Avatar. Sure enough, after fighting it, The Battle Didn't Count. Shouldn't be all that surprising because it's a MegaTen game and "Memento Mori" shows up quite a bit in the intro. It's ultimately subverted by the protagonist making a Heroic Sacrifice to contain Nyx Avatar.
  • The Nameless One is damned even in the best endings of Planescape: Torment. Somehow it's not a Downer Ending, as Nameless is at peace with himself, and battling in the Lower Planes is old hat to him by now.
    • And you've worked for that damnation almost the entire game - the quest for your mortality (and death) began right at the end of the first "dungeon". On a happier note, depending on who you have with you at the end and whether they survive said end, they promise to come for you.
  • Red Dead Redemption 2: In an early Chapter 2 mission, protagonist Arthur Morgan goes to retrieve a debt from a very sick looking man. He eventually loses his temper and beats said man down, who then coughs right into his mouth. It's then revealed later on that the man passed his Tuberculosis onto Arthur, and since the game takes place in 1899, roughly fifty years before the development of antibiotics, this ultimately seals his fate by the end of Chapter 6.
  • Resistance 2, where Hale has indeed been corrupted by The Virus, and fully transforms at the end
  • A couple of R-Type Final's endings leave the pilot disabled and floating in space.
  • Sonic Adventure subtly plays this with E-102 Gamma, the White Sheep of Eggman's animal-powered robot army who ends up on a path to hunt down and destroy his E-100 series brethren in order to liberate the innocent animals inside. It isn't highlighted until he's gone through most of his list that it includes himself — he goes into the final battle with his older brother, E-101 Beta, fully aware that even if he wins, he has to die too so the bird inside him can be freed. He gets his wish.
  • In The Walking Dead Season One, Lee Everett gets ambushed by a walker and is quickly bitten on his left wrist near the end of Episode 4. The entirety of Episode 5 is then focused on rescuing Clementine before Lee dies from the bite's infection. Although you can choose to cut off Lee's arm in an attempt to stop the infection, Lee will still die by the end of the game.
    • The Walking Dead: Season Four seems to be shaping up in a similar way: Clementine gets bitten by a zombie on the leg. Her protege, AJ, manages to amputate her leg, ultimately leaving her crippled, but alive. Before we know she survives, she still manages to take AJ to safety. There's multiple factors that likely contributed to Clementine surviving while Lee didn't; she's younger, likely has a better immune system due to living in the apocalypse for longer, her leg was amputated sooner after the bite and cauterised with fire, and she passed out and got to recover in peace, unlike Lee.

    Visual Novels 
  • No matter what you choose to do in Slay the Princess, almost every one of the Multiple Endings closes with you dying horribly. Even in the "good" ending where you survive, you're stuck forever in the cold expanse of space and completely alone, now that your quest is done. At least you get to come Back from the Dead every time.

    Web Original 
  • Stand Still, Stay Silent: In that universe, Plague Zombie bites can take anything from a few days to a couple weeks to start showing consequences. The small chance of not being infected after all means it's worth waiting to see if symptoms appear or not, but once they do, the only possible outcomes are being killed by The Plague or becoming a zombie. This "showing symptoms" scenario eventually happens with Tuuri.
  • Twisted Tropes: The strip shows the morning routine of what it turns out to be a Star Trek's Red Shirt before the Away Team's expedition. Anyone who knows about Star Trek can tell he's not going to live for long.
  • Four out of the six members of the Lambsbridge Gang in Twig are human experiments created with an intended expiration date in their early twenties at the latest, where their bodies and minds will break down under the strain and the scientists maintaining them can move on to new and improved iterations of their projects.
  • Watermelon: A Cautionary Tale: Jimmy is explicitly told if he eats watermelon seeds he will grow a watermelon in his stomach. He does it anyways and slowly becomes a watermelon over the course of a day.

Alternative Title(s): Infected Protagonist

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