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Failure Is the Only Option

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Tank: Who... do you work for?
Bob: Uhh, Tom Nook.
Tank: What? HE SHOT ME!
Bob: Oh. You didn't do what he asked?
Tank: No, I did what he asked. He shot me anyway!

A series premise that allows the heroes or the villains to win minor battles along the way but prevents them from ever truly winning their overall "war" and achieving the Series Goal without ending or completely changing the series. They can't win, because then, of course, it would end the series.

On shows with premises like these, there will be episodes in which the characters make an attempt to actually resolve the premise. The frequency of such eps can range from occasional (Star Trek: Voyager, "Timeless") to frequent (Gilligan's Island, Samurai Jack, Dungeons & Dragons (1983), Pokémon: The Series). Conversely, a character may briefly rise above his Genre Blindness and try to take advantage of the permanent state of failure, consequently falling right into Springtime for Hitler. When a show's impending end is known ahead of time to the producers, however, they may choose to go out with a Grand Finale, in which Failure is no longer the Only Option.

A related trope is Perpetual Poverty; the show's plot is the characters making a living doing something entertaining to audiences such as catching criminals for money (or maybe being criminals), and if they ever had a windfall they might actually choose to do something less troublesome and therefore less entertaining. Thus, if they ever do get their hands on a windfall they have to quickly lose it.

Fission Mailed, Hopeless Boss Fight, and Stupidity Is the Only Option are when this trope is applied to video games, where the player must fail, be defeated, etc. in order to advance the story. This is usually done by making the hero extremely weak at that point in time, or making the boss unbeatable due to superior level or some outside force, especially if it's still early in the game. Mind you, it is almost guaranteed that somebody somewhere will come up with a hack or unorthodox strategy to get around this, resulting in either a complete failure of the plot to acknowledge the player’s victory, the game crashing, or some kind of Easter Egg.

If the Big Bad of a given work appears at the prequel, you can be sure that he will not die at the end: he has to live on, to be the big bad of the main work. In fact, all the initial conditions of the main work are unavoidable, including but not limited to the presence of the villain. Consider for example the first Star Wars trilogy, and the prequel trilogy. It is a Foregone Conclusion that Anakin would live on, that he would fall to the dark side, but also that most Jedi would be killed, that the Republic would turn into the Empire, etc. Any attempt of the heroes in the prequel to change this is doomed to failure.

In cases of game shows with recurring contestants who keep bumbling their chances at winning a game, they are usually defined by the trope Born Unlucky (and if it gets really out of hand, they might be branded a Memetic Loser), but once the streak of bad luck is lampshaded and starts to become an in-joke regarding when or if the contestant figures out how to finally win and is expected to lose (or they themselves expect to lose), it transitions into this.

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    open/close all folders 

  • It is a trope as old as advertising itself that anybody depicted using a competitor's product is doomed to failure.
  • Trix commercials — Goal: Eat a bowl of Trix. Despite many, many attempts, is only achieved when the company holds a vote, and the voters overwhelmingly support giving the rabbit some damn Trix. In an early commercial for Trix, he actually did get a bite of Trix. You can see the commercial here. Of course, it doesn't help that he gets the Trix and then proceeds to dance around, singing about the flavors, giving the kids plenty of time to steal it back. Trix used to have the Trix Vote every presidential Election year. Trix Rabbit won in 1972, 1980, and 1996. The election wasn't run again since 1996. One commercial was outright cruel about it, as the Rabbit DID get a bowl of Trix at one point, but as he goes to pour the milk, the carton was empty, prompting "Got Milk?"
  • For years Nestlé Quik chocolate mix had its own rabbit mascot, the Quik Bunny, who was forever trying (and failing) to make his Quik last by drinking it slowly.
  • Cocoa Puffs had Sonny the Cuckoo Bird, who was always trying to avoid going "cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs" but never quite making it. (Although, there was one commercial where he turned the tables on one of the kids and made him go cuckoo for it.)
  • For that matter, that leprechaun never achieved his goal of keeping his Lucky Charms Cereal. It seems that kids love dicking around with cereal mascots.
  • Fred, Barney, and Barney sneak-swiping Fruity Pebbles. Fortunately, this ended around 2010, switching to Fred and Barney cheerfully eating cereal together, except with Barney testing to see what less than 64 pebbles on your tongue does.
  • Charlie the Tuna will never be caught by StarKist, no matter how many attempts to show off his "good taste" he tries.

    Anime & Manga 
  • Played for laughs in one of the shorts in Akame ga Kill!. The short is a parody of dating sims while Tatsumi and Esdeath are trapped on a desert island. No matter what he clicks on the menu, the choice automatically goes to the one that makes Esdeath advance on him. At one point, Esdeath is slowly coming at him and all of the menu choices read 'Take Me Now'. Not even him clicking the option button works.
  • Assassination Classroom will end as soon as someone successfully assassinates Koro-sensei. Of course none of the assassination attempts shown in the first hundred chapters or so are going to work.
    • Slightly Subverted with the revelation of Koro-sensei's real identity and his inevitable fate, since the class still has a slight chance of reversing it. And then it was subverted again in a heart-wrenching way.
  • Baki the Grappler: Baki, and just about every other fighter in the series, dreams of beating Yujiro. Not. Gonna. Happen. The only fighter who's ever come within a thousand miles of beginning to give Yujiro a decent fight is Kaku Kaioh, and that all went south as soon as Yujiro figured out the secret to his Xiao-Lee technique. Now the manga has ended and Yujiro's still undefeated. Seems like someone's the Creator's Pet.
  • In Bakuman。, the main characters are trying to get a manga published that will get an anime, so that Moritaka Mashiro's love interest Miho Azuki can star as the heroine, and they can marry after fulfilling their dreams. Not counting the many times they submitted one-shots or names that got rejected even before they could be considered for serialization, their first manga, Detective Trap, gets canceled and their second manga, Tanto, ends after they decide that they're unable to make it popular enough, and that it would likely be canceled before it got an anime. Their third manga, PCP, defies the Rule of Three when parental concerns that kids will imitate the "perfect crimes" prevents it from getting sponsors for an anime despite being popular. Eventually, though, they succeed in their goal with Reversi.
  • In Berserk, this was deconstructed and then horribly, horribly reconstructed in the case of Griffith's dream of getting his own kingdom through winning the Kingdom of Midland's war against the Tudor Empire. All he had to do was wait around for the right moment to get Princess Charlotte's hand in marriage and the kingdom would be his. Of course, taking place in the Berserkerverse, you knew that this was too easy to accomplish. So after everything falls apart for Griffith (which was actually partially his doing, since he took Guts' departure AFTER winning the war a little over the top, which led to his erratic behavior with Princess Charlotte, which led to his horrible imprisonment and torture) and his dream looked all but destroyed... hey, whaddya know? Griffith has the chance to go after his dream again! ...By making the most vile and horrible of all decisions that he could possibly make! Hooray!
  • Subverted in Chrono Crusade to earth-shattering effect, when Aion actually successfully goes through with the Atonement Ritual. And failure is the only option for the heroes.
  • In City Hunter, this is Played for Laughs regarding Ryo's numerous attempts at scoring with the ladies, which always end up failing, whether due to circumstances, the ladies themselves managing to weasel their way out of it (Saeko is especially notorious for this, much to Ryo's irritation), and/or someone else's intervention (usually Kaori's).
  • Cowboy Bebop:
    • The crew of the BeBop: they're reasonably competent in fighting, killing, or catching bounty heads. But, some random technicality or accident always prevents them from actually getting the reward and escaping Perpetual Poverty — and worse, any money they DO get is usually bled away to nothing by the bills run up by Spike's destructive tendencies on the job. From the very beginning of the series:
      Spike: What happened to the million-woolong reward we got for that last guy?
      Jet: The repair bill from that cruiser you wrecked... and the one from that shop you trashed... and the medical bill from the cop you injured...KILLED THE DOUGH!
    • And they always pass on the opportunity to get rich by less ethical means. For example, once they stumbled onto a secret that could make them billionaires, but when they blackmail the Gate Corporation with it, all they demand is that they stop trying to find an old man their resident kid hacker has befriended in online chess games... who drops dead of old age a few minutes later anyway.
  • According to Word of God, this was the inevitable fate for Yagami Light from Death Note: If the police found out that he was Kira, they would catch him and lock him up and Ryuk, realizing that Light could no longer provide him with any more entertainment, would've written his name in the titular Artifact of Doom, killing him. If, however, the police had not found out that Light was Kira and he had killed all who were threats him and erased all clues pointing in the direction of him being Kira, then Ryuk would've realized that Victory Is Boring and, since Light could no longer provide him with any more entertainment, he would've written Light's name in the Death Note, killing him.
  • Dragon Ball:
    • No matter how many times you throw yourself at the big bad of the week, you will always fail. Only Goku is allowed to vanquish the monster once and for all. The only few times this did not happen was during the fight with Vegeta who was taken down by Yajirobe, Great Ape Gohan and Krillin with Goku's Spirit Bomb, while he did defeat Frieza, then with Gohan who defeated Cell, and even then Goku assisted from beyond the grave. The only two times that Goku wasn't involved was [a] when Garlic Jr. returned from the Dead Zone, only to be sucked back into it when Gohan destroyed his source of power and [b] when Frieza came to Earth for the first time and was killed by Trunks.
    • This trope is lampshaded by Piccolo in the Saiyan Saga after he gets called out for berating Gohan for getting frightened while fighting Nappa. Piccolo silently admits that it doesn't matter how they do against Nappa, then realizes that if Vegeta is ordering Nappa around then Vegeta must be even stronger, so even if Nappa is defeated, the heroes would have to face an even stronger villain. He was right, as not even Goku was able to defeat Vegeta.
    • Frieza obtaining his wish on the titular Dragon Balls for immortality during the Namek Saga turned out to be this. When Frieza did obtain all seven balls, he runs into a problem where he has no idea how to actually use them. Unlike Earth's Dragon Balls which could be used by anybody; Namek's Dragon Balls required a password which had to be spoken in Namekian, something he never anticipated as he killed every Namekian they came across. But on top of that the dragon the balls summoned, Porunga, only responds to wishes spoken in Namekian, something Frieza learned the hard way when he tried and failed to wish for immortality from Porunga, just for his wish to be ignored.
  • The entire premise of Dropkick on My Devil focuses on Jashin-chan's quest to kill Yurine Hanazono, which always ends in failure.
  • Eureka Seven: Renton's quest to sneak a kiss to Eureka. He succeeds beyond that: Eureka reveals she loves him and shares a real kiss with him.
  • Excel♡Saga — Goal: Conquer Fukuoka/F City for the glory of ACROSS. Between Excel's energetic stupidity, Hyatt's penchant for dying and coming back to life (sometimes multiple times within an episode) and Il Palazzo's side hobbies, it doesn't look like the citizens will be subjugated any time soon. How far ACROSS progresses in this goal depends on the continuity.
    • In the manga: Il Palazzo starts an electronics company and floods Fukuoka with cheap and effective products, earning him a lot of influence in Fukuoka. Il Palazzo doesn't progress from there though, and starts to feel like he has gotten sidetracked.
    • In the anime: Il Palazzo gets rid of Excel near the end of the series and successfully conquers the city in the next episode.
    • In both instances, Il Palazzo does a lot better once he gets rid of Excel.
  • The goal in Fullmetal Alchemist (2003) is to create the Philosopher's Stone, and once it's actually created, the only way for the brothers to accomplish their goal is to have Al die (don't worry, he gets better). Failure IS the only option, even until the end.
  • Get Backers: Aim to earn money to clear debt.
  • Girls Go Around Goal: Get out of the Time Loops. Overall works, until the final chapter reveals the true goal of the time loop! Goal: Have everyone manage to graduate from high school without one of them dying. Result: They can't. Initially, Kyousuke died. If Kyousuke is saved, Chihiro dies. When Kyousuke saves Chihiro, Shiina ends up getting run over by a car. If Shiina is saved, the Class Rep ends up dying. Class Rep survives, Izumi dies. And if Izumi is saved, Ootsuka dies... so Kyousuke decides to commit suicide since he can't save all the girls and won't abandon one... which results in Chihiro creating a time loop to prevent his death, beginning the cycle again.
  • In Green Worldz, Iwatobi always falls short of killing Acacia in both the original and new timeline.
  • Pretty much every story arc of Hakaiou Noritaka! has him realize there's a powerful martial artist that wants to defeat him, try to make amends only to fail miserably, and try and set up things to avoid the challenge or otherwise give himself a decisive advantage only to end up having to fight anyway or the rule lawyering backfiring. This got particularly bad with Goraev, where the students' council president sabotaged Noritaka's otherwise successful attempt at becoming friends because Goraev had previously said Japanese are weak and wanted them to fight.
  • Haruhi-chan - Nyoron Churuya-san : Ashakura will never get Kyon and Churuya will never get her smoked cheese, nyoro~n.
  • Hell Girl: Hajime's goal: Stop people from using Hell Correspondence to send people to Hell, and thus damning themselves in the process. No matter how close he gets to stopping somebody from pulling the red thread on the Curse Doll, they'll always do it. Probably the worst example is in episode 18, where a Fat Bastard Rich Bitch has been holding a little girl's dogs hostage and killing them whenever she suspects the little girl might be telling somebody about what she's doing. Both Hajime, the little girl's teacher AND two police officers manage to break into her house when they hear the little girl over the intercom begging the Rich Bitch not to kill the puppies one of the dogs had, and subdue her, uncovering the fact that she'd not only murdered her parents to get her inheritance, but also her infant son to keep him from potentially trying to steal her money. At first it seems that Hajime finally stopped somebody from pulling the thread, and was just moments away from taking the doll from her, when she discovers that the Rich Bitch had already drowned the puppies in the bathtub... There's one exception to the rule, and even then the show leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not the victim will simply try again.
  • Medaka Box: This is Kumagawa Misogi's whole existence. He is someone who has failed at everything he's ever attempted, to the point that his whole character is defined by the very concept of "defeat". He can't even imagine himself truly winning; every gamble he takes is with the assumption that he'll lose. Thus, he's become a "veteran at losing fights", manuevering things so that he's defeated in certain ways that further his own goals. However, it's gradually pointed out that the primary thing maintaining this unnatural losing streak isn't just bad luck. It's his own insanely defeatist attitude that ensures that he never feels like he's won at something.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion:
    • Humanity was doomed no matter what happened. In one corner, the Angels trying to bring about 3rd Impact, in the second corner, SEELE trying to bring about 3rd Impact and lastly NERV (Gendo) trying to bring about 3rd Impact.
    • In the middle of the arena, we have Shinji who decides to settle it all quickly and initiates the Third Impact and kills humanity by himself, despite having fought to prevent this the whole time.
  • Nerima Daikon Brothers — Goal: Get enough money to buy a dome for the band to play in. Even after defeating the villain and getting enough money to buy the dome, something happens (The people usually come back for their money), and the band ends up just as penniless if not in debt by the end of the episode.
  • Everybody from all races, even God himself, is incapable of breaking Sora and Shiro's undefeated streak in No Game No Life. Even the siblings couldn't best each other over 500 matches of poker games and ended up no contest.
    Shiro: Blank never loses.
  • WATAMOTE ~No Matter How I Look at It, It's You Guys' Fault I'm Not Popular!~ is about the introvert main character, Tomoko, seeing that her years of playing Dating Sim games haven't helped her to become popular, tries to become popular though various means. Naturally she either screws them up or is unwilling to learn from her mistakes to try again. Later on in the series, this is averted: Tomoko slowly grows out of her problems, matures, and starts developing a social circle.
  • The main goal of Bash in Orc Eroica is finding a wife. Each volume has Bash encounter a woman he has some chemistry with, only for them to not get together for various reasons. If he ever did get married, the series would end.
  • Outlaw Star has Gene Starwind and Jim Hawking's desire to make it rich. Instead, partially due to the fact they are Blessed with Suck in the form of having a Grappler ship (a very rare and large ship that consequently costs a fortune in docking fees, ammo and basic maintenance) that is sought after by the Kei Pirates (which means they're constantly getting shot up and thusly needing to spend more money on ammo and repairs), they're constantly on the edge of bankruptcy. The one time it looks like they might succeed, heading after an ancient sunken Outlaw ship containing a stolen shipment of Unobtanium, they succeed... and discover at the episode's end that, because the treasure comes from a time when the Unobtanium was harder to find and consequently it's purity level isn't up to current standards, it's actually worth less now than it was when first stolen, so their net gain is $0 — what money they did make from selling it was just enough to pay the bills and fix the damage the ship took getting it in the first place!

    In the very end, Gene manages to survive the whole Galactic Leyline incident and gets just enough notoriety to get the honor of a nickname in the Outlaw's hangout Blue Heaven: "I'll Pay You When I Make It Big". Yup, he's still at it, his nickname is a joke. At least it's not all thorns for him, though; he's used to space now and he's even got a girlfriend.
  • Pokémon: The Series:
    • For nearly 25 years, Ash Ketchum has never been able to win a regional Pokémon League Conference in spite of winning the required 8 badges and training his team to be at the top of their game. Due to the cyclical nature of the show, the general assumption from fans is that if he wins a Pokémon League, he becomes Pokémon Master and the show will then end in spite of the fact the regional League Conference is not an indication of being the best of the best in the world. However, despite the loss record, Ash has been noticeably climbing up the ranks with each League participation, culminating him into winning the Alola League and then later, the World Coronation Tournament which leads him being crowned as the World Monarch and officially the strongest Pokémon trainer in the world. Ironically, this is immediately followed up with Ash being retired as the main character, despite admitting to himself that he isn't a Pokémon Master yet and setting off on another journey with Pikachu.
    • Team Rocket. Since their goal is usually to capture Ash's Pikachu, they simply can't win. Ironically, several episodes make it appear that if they tried going after someone else's Pokémon (or tried a non-criminal path) they'd be successful. Unfortunately for them, the plot dictates that they must follow Ash and co. around the planet, so some outside circumstance will see them fall back to their old ways. Unlike Ash, who ends his tenure as the world's best trainer, Team Rocket still remain as losers chasing after Ash and Pikachu when the final episode draws to a close.
  • Puella Magi Madoka Magica:
    • Homura's goal to defeat Walpurgis Night and preventing Madoka from becoming a magical girl, and has been doing this for about a couple of times now (maybe even a thousand), but Madoka still becomes a Magical Girl, and rarely a Witch. In an odd subversion, Homura fails and Madoka becomes a magical girl in the finale, but because Madoka knew of the Awful Truth behind the magical girls, her wish in trade for becoming a magical girl is to rid the world of that truth, messing up time and space to the point where she gets a Cosmic Retcon and turns the world into a better place.
    • All magical girls, prior to Madoka's wish in the "current" timeline, fall victim to this trope because they all eventually gave in to despair and became witches themselves.
    • A more personal example is what Word of God says will happens if Sayaka Miki contracts and becomes a magical girl or not in a given timeline, If she doesn't, she lives; but if she does she will always fall into despair and become a witch, or if she's lucky enough to not witch out, she will wind up dead by some other means which is what happens in the post Cosmic Retcon universe.
  • Gender-bending series — Goal: Un-genderbend. Ranma ½ and Cheeky Angel both feature Megumi Hayashibara's character trying to get rid of a Gender Bender curse. Other characters in Ranma try to get rid of other Jusenkyo curses as well; also, Akane's efforts to learn to swim or stop being a Lethal Chef, and Ranma's attempts to shoo off members of his Unwanted Harem.

    Ranma ½ did have one exception: Ryōga; who, by the last chapter, only had lingering feelings for Akane, and was perfectly happy to let Ranma and Akane wed as long as he wasn't there (unfortunately, he was the only one that felt that way and ended up at the wedding anyway). The pig curse, on the other hand, is still there, but that just makes his girlfriend like him more. The whole Nodoka subplot was also resolved — fitting, as the various reasons for the endless string of failures for Nodoka to see Ranma as a man are some of the most convoluted possible.
  • Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei. All of Nozomu Itoshiki's attempts at suicide fail. He even survived having his name written in the Death Note!
  • Sgt. Frog: The successful invasion of Pekopon (i.e. earth) would pretty much end the series...
  • Shaman King: From the beginning, Yoh's goal was to become Shaman King. Later on, it gets to the point where Yoh admits that his brother Hao is going to win... period. There's only a matter of what to do next.
  • This trope runs all through Superbook, The Flying House, and their spin-offs and reboots. The usual premise of these stories being that somehow, kids from the present wind up in the days of the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible. As the goal of these shows is to acquaint children with Biblical events, ultimately, everyone is Doomed by Canon, causing this trope to manifest itself in a couple of ways: 1) Even though the protagonists have foreknowledge of the events in the Bible that they are witnessing, no one they meet will believe them. In variations on this, someone will believe them, but be in no position to actually do anything about it, or they simply will not be able to alter the past, no matter how hard they try. 2) Biblical figures will invoke Reed Richards Is Useless hard. On occasion, the kids will meet someone who has access to enough power to send them back (Moses, Elijah, Jesus), and said people will either refuse their request, be called away on urgent business, or otherwise present an excuse why they can't have the kids sent back. Also invokes Broken Aesop: God has a plan, but in order for it to work, everyone has to be idiots, and contrived coincidences have to happen all the time.
  • In Teasing Master Takagi-san the protagonist has an adorable "war" going with his cute classmate, with each of them trying to get the other to blush and react to their antics. It's very obvious she is always going to win every single one of these contests, although "failure" is a relative term when you have the cutest girl in the class paying this much attention to you.
  • The Evil Organization Florsheim from Tentai Senshi Sunred will never succeed at step one of their Evil Plan to defeat their Arch-Enemy Sunred and then Take Over the World (step one being to defeat Sunred), because Sunred is so ridiculously powerful nothing they throw in his path would ever stop him. Sunred, on his end, will never bother to defeat Florsheim or chase them out of the city. He's long since retired from the Sentai biz, Florsheim are about as dangerous as a girl scout troop, and they're the closest thing he has to friends since he retired.
  • Marie Kagura in the Tona-Gura! manga has the goal of restoring her "perverted" brother to his pre-puberty status as her friend and playmate. She does not understand that, even if he behaves himself, that boy is never coming back.
  • Most of the cast of Urusei Yatsura had differing and often conflicting goals which would never be achieved: Lum, to get Ataru to settle down; Ataru, to be free of Lum without actually losing her; Shutaru and the Stormtroopers, to get rid of Ataru; Ataru's mother, to be a respected member of the community; and so on.
  • All of the Yu-Gi-Oh! anime series are pretty bad about this. Even though they're playing a card game, of which the consequence of losing would normally only be a hit to the loser's ego (if that), Yu-Gi-Oh! animes tend to have the heroes facing challenges where losing = death for various reasons (be they shadow duels or other), meaning that it's essentially a Foregone Conclusion that the heroes will win before they ever start their duel and failure is the only option for the villains.
    • Yu-Gi-Oh! ZEXAL was particularly bad about this. It was intended for Yuma to avert the usual Invincible Hero tendencies of the franchise by starting out sucking at the game and eventually becoming a master. However, because the show added the note that, if Yuma loses to a Numbers user (read: virtually every important person in the series), Astral will die, Yuma never loses a Duel if there's anything at stake, because otherwise the show would end. This turns his "growth" into a big-time Informed Flaw.
    • On the less meta side of this, Jaden's duel against Brron in Yu-Gi-Oh! GX is discovered to be this mid-duel. In a nutshell, the loser of the duel dies. However, each time Jaden damages Brron, one of his captive friends are sacrificed. Meaning either Jaden surrenders and gets himself killed, or all of his friends die. Even worse, Brron's deck has several cards that force Jaden to damage him. By the end of the duel, most of Jaden's captive friends have been sacrificed, and although Jaden wins, he becomes his Superpowered Evil Side in the process.
  • While not the main goal, in several Yo-kai Watch episodes (of series featuring Nate as the main character), Nate tries to get his crush Katie to get a crush on him in return. Sadly for him, the Yokai of the segment and their michiefs think otherwise.

    Comic Books 
  • The entire DC & Marvel superhero universe is built around this. The popular villains; The Joker, Magneto, Lex Luthor, etc. have too much of the appeal of the comics to ever be dispatched for good. Decades of excuses as to why they can always come back have ultimately formed the basis of what these worlds are. Heroes have codes against killing, even though this invariably results in an endless series of deaths of innocents when the villains strike again. This makes such codes look foolish and hypocritical. When villains are arrested, they either escape prison with ease, or are released by a corrupt and foolish justice system — making the hero's commitment to law and justice look equally foolish. The result: While good wins at the end of most comics, the good seem to suffer far more and accomplish little in the greater scheme of things.
    • This also applies to any hero or villain whose motivation is I Just Want to Be Normal, including The Thing, The Scorpion, and the aforementioned Hulk and Swamp Thing. In Marvel 1602, Reed Richards actually tells Thing that the universe will never let him become human again for very long because that would make his story less interesting.
  • Archie Comics: Despite the occasional teaser to the contrary, Archie will never make a final choice between Betty and Veronica.
  • Batman:
    • Mr. Freeze will never be reunited with his wife. Depending on the continuity, either her health will never recover to the point where he can thaw her out, or Batman and the police will keep foiling his attempts to help her, or she won't love him anymore because he's a supervillain, or she won't love him anymore because she herself has become a more villainous villain than he is. Any option is possible except the one Mr. Freeze wants, because then he has no motivation anymore.
    • No matter how many times poor Harvey Dent tries to reform, undergoing surgeries to restore his damaged face... he rapidly snaps back to his Two-Face persona, scarring half of his own face again. This fate follows him even in some stories out of regular continuity.
  • Groo the Wanderer: Groo's goal is to stop wandering. Since Groo causes chaos everywhere he goes, this will never happen.
  • The Incredible Hulk: Bruce Banner will never get rid of The Hulk. Heck, one time Bruce lost the ability to turn into the Hulk, he was savvy enough to observe he would be back. Sure enough. One story has Doc Samson and the army capture Bruce and place him in a chamber filled with NOX. General Ross (IIRC) says that they will lobotomize Banner to stop Hulk and Samson is shocked. Bruce says that he accepts this, since his only wish is to die. Samson says that it's both the wish of him and the Hulk and shuts off the oxygen valve, making Banner breathe pure nitrogen. The last screens of the comic show Banner's heartbeat slowing down, until he dies. The last panel shows one, big, green, powerful heartbeat. The best case scenario Banner will ever achieve is his Merged Hulk/The Professor incarnation, the Strength of Hulk but the Mind of Banner and when he goes berserk he transforms into Savage Banner, Savage Hulk in Banner's puny body. He's not rid of Hulk but at least he can't hurt anybody as much as before.
  • Iznogoud: Iznogoud's schemes to depose the Caliph are destined always to end in failure, usually with the vizier himself much worse off than before. It even gets lampshaded in the theme song for the animated adaptation.
    Iznogoud the Grand Vizier. He never wins, this much is clear.
  • Judge Dredd: From 2020's "Carry the Nine" to 2024's "A Better World", a recurring plotline involved the radical plans of Accounts Judge Maitland, who had almost by accident discovered that moving money from putting Judges on the streets to educating citizens would actually reduce crime. But even though the story is clearly on her side, if her proposed reforms were actually adopted throughout Mega-City One, the strip would stop being Judge Dredd. She ends up assassinated, possibly with the collusion of Head of Street Judge Hernandez, and her project is discredited, definitely with the collusion of Hernandez.
  • Monica's Gang:
    • Jimmy Five — Originally Cebolinha — with his ironically named "Infallible Plans". Goal: take over the street and/or a plush bunny from Monica. And it brings another example of this trope, by his friend Cascão/Smudge - Goal: not joining the scheme... and then the beatings after they fail (usually because Smudge screws up)
    • For Cascão, there's also the goal of getting him to take a bath.
  • The Punisher: Averted, as the Punisher knows full well that all the criminals he kills won't change a thing in regards to actual crime rates, or bring back his family, or ever bring him peace- he has simply made it his life's work to kill as many criminals as he can until he inevitably dies. This is something neither the criminals nor the heroes (especially Daredevil, who often ends up defending said criminals in court because he believes in due process, often ending up looking like a fool in the process) understand. Depending on the Writer, Frank Castle may even be punishing himself for failing to protect his family.
  • Secret Wars (2015): The "natural" inhabitants of Battleworld will never truly triumph over God-Emperor Doom and this goes double if you are one of the Barons. If you're not struck down by Doom himself, it's either his Thors or one of the heroes unwittingly putting a stop to their mad plans.
  • Sigil: Tchlusarud is a Saurian warrior and the youngest of the Matriarch. His quests always end up in failure and humiliation. Since the Matriarch doesn't tolerate failure, she forces him to wear the armor of a commoner and later banishes him.
  • Sleepwalker: The titular alien hero is always trying to find a way to return to his home dimension. Several opportunities come up throughout the series, but Sleepwalker is forced to repeatedly give up his chance at returning home for reasons ranging from the need to protect civilians in danger, to defeat a group of supervillains, to retrieving Spider-Man from another alien dimension.
  • Sonic the Hedgehog (Archie Comics): Invoked from the villain's side. Mammoth Mogul can't defeat Sonic the Hedgehog? Fine. He'll just quit trying—he's immortal, after all, so he's easily going to outlast that annoying blue blur. And in the meantime he'll amuse himself making life difficult for Sonic in any way available short of outright attack.
  • The Spectre: The Spectre is a Fallen Angel named Aztar who repented shortly after Lucifer's Rebellion. Recognizing that his heart was in the right place but his mind wasn't, God promised that Aztar would be let back into Heaven once he had punished every mortal sinner who escaped justice at mortal hands. Given human numbers, speed of reproduction, and rate of Karma Houdini, Aztar is still at it.
  • Swamp Thing: The original premise was that Alex Holland had been changed into a swamp monster in a freak accident, and was trying to find a cure. The original series, once the book's original creative team left and were replaced, did end with Swamp Thing cured but the condition was quickly overturned in haphazard fashion during a guest-spot in Challengers of the Unknown. His series was relaunched in 1980 and the focus once again became on Swamp Thing wanting to become human, which writer Alan Moore (who took over the book with #20) felt had to go and go for good since it left the series stuck in an endless loop of failure. He promptly spent his second issue of his legendary run on the series revealing that Swamp Thing was a plant elemental creature with Alex Holland's personality/memories and sealed the deal by producing the remains of Holland, having Swamp Thing meet Alex in heaven and having Swamp Thing pretty much not care about his life being a lie after a brief Heroic BSoD.

    This is ironic, given that in spite of the popularity of Moore's run on Swamp Thing and his retcon, DC pretty much refuses to market Moore's version of the character in other media. Pretty much every Swamp Thing show, movie, cartoon uses the original "man to monster" origin for Swamp Thing and the Failure is the Only Option trope to drive the plot.
  • The Tomb of Dracula: So you get to be the protagonist in an issue of a series named after the villain? Yeah, good luck trying to kill him.

    Comic Strips 
  • Peanuts:
    • Charlie Brown. Lucy Van Pelt. Football.
      • At the end of the comic, Charlie Brown may have succeeded. Lucy was called inside when Charlie Brown was about to kick the football, so she asked Rerun to hold it. In the strip itself, when she later asked Rerun what happened, he said: "You'll never know!" However, Schulz said, after drawing the last strip, that he'd just realized "that little round-headed kid is never going to kick that football", we can presume the ball remains unbooted.
      • In 1983, there was a strip that featured him choosing to walk away from Lucy and the ball, which certainly represents a kind of victory in itself. In the last panel of the strip Charlie Brown, having walked away from Lucy, sees a number of other kids holding footballs for him.
      • There was one comic story where Snoopy took up magic tricks and turned Charlie Brown invisible. While in this state, he does manage to sneak up on Lucy and kick the football. It would be used in the animated special It's Magic, Charlie Brown.
    • Charlie Brown and baseball-playing, kite-flying, writing with an ink pen, talking to the Little Red Haired Girl, etc. To elaborate, on one occasion he won a game, but had to revoke it because Rerun bet a nickel on it. On two occasions, he legitimately won games... only to later find out a girl on the team let him win. Though his team has won several times, except only when he is not able to make it. Or the time when a bug hit every team in the local league except his.
    • Linus and seeing the Great Pumpkin
    • Lucy and getting Schroeder's attention (same story with Sally and Linus)
    • Snoopy shooting down the Red Baron or getting one of his novels published.
  • Dilbert: The 2011-05-08 strip sums up the possibility of success for those who work at Dilbert's ruinous company.

     Fan Works 
  • Paradoxus: Eudora vastly overpowers every one of the heroines regardless of which franchise they are from or whether they are original characters. Any attempt to beat her, either idiotically solo or in a group, would end in a humiliating defeat. Exemplified by Altalune when she decided to stay in the past for a chance of beating Eudora in exchange for her own continued existence (pesky self-correcting timelines) — she promptly gets curb-stomped so badly she would have died if not for Queen Daphne and Galadwen's intervention. This trope is made even more glaring when it's revealed not even Bloom, the bearer of the magic that created the Magix dimension, ever had a possibility against Eudora. Later, is revealed Marion could defeat Eudora, but has been gathering power to fight an even more powerful evil.
  • Star Wars The One Canon: Palpatine makes two serious attempts to reconquer the galaxy following his defeat at Endor. While the Dark Empire and the First Order are able to conquer vast swathes of space, they are unable to actually hold it long, contrasting sharply with the decades-long stranglehold on the galaxy Palpatine was able to maintain prior to the 1st Galactic Empire’s collapse.

    Films — Animation 
  • Pocahontas: After Meeko breaks into his room and takes his food for absolutely no reason, Percy naturally wants revenge. As he receives a villain label merely because of association, he never gets it. Even after he disassociates himself with the villains, he still never wins.
  • WALL•E: The captain seems like this (though it's worded more "Success is not an option") towards an EVE coming back positive.
    Captain: No probe's ever come back positive before....
  • In the Ice Age series, no matter how hard he tries, poor little Scrat is never going to get his hands on that acorn (or any acorn) for more than a few seconds.
  • In Epic (2013) Mandrake complains that no matter how much they destroy, Queen Tara can regrow it all back with a wave of her hand. Of course, if she were gone and had no successor...
  • In Turning Red, the 4*Town concert and the red moon ritual involving Mei's family that she is obligated to undergo are on the same night meaning there was never a possibility to go to the concert without her family's knowledge even if she had enough money to buy tickets for herself and her friends.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Introduced in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the Kobayashi Maru scenario Starfleet Academy students undertake. In this scenario, students are confronted with a situation where the eponymous civilian freighter is crippled in the Klingon Neutral Zone and are presented with two choices; either abide by Federation rules and leave the ship to its fate, or attempt to rescue it, which causes them to be confronted by Klingon warships. There is no way to rescue the freighter or win against the Klingons, nor are the recruits expected to do either; the purpose of this test is, instead, to assess how the students act in a no-win situation. note 
  • Laurel and Hardy:
    • In the short Perfect Day, all they're trying to do is go on a picnic, but one hilarious mishap after another ensures that their car never makes it more than a half-a-block from the house before winding up at the bottom of a giant puddle.
    • For that matter, very few of the comedy team's films end with them achieving success, usually because Stan does something utterly boneheaded to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
  • The Legacy, a 1978 horror film. The two main characters cannot leave the mansion, no matter what they try.
  • Godzilla:
    • The goal of the JSDF (Japanese Self-Defense Force) in nearly every film is to destroy Godzilla himself. Needless to say, they never do. And, this is even when they build weaponry specifically designed to kill Godzilla. IE: Mechagodzilla, M.O.G.U.E.R.A, Kiryu, the Dimension Tide satellite, etc. No matter what they try some twist comes along that repowers Godzilla and lets him destroy the weapon or they are forced to use that machine to help Godzilla against a bigger threat and the machine ends up being destroyed in the process. Or if he is seemingly destroyed, the final shot of the film reveals that he may have survived after all.
    • Averted in, ironically, the very first film of the franchise, in which Godzilla was decisively killed at the end. The Godzilla who appeared in Godzilla Raids Again was explicitly called a "second Godzilla," a separate member of the same species. Later Continuity Reboot sequels often claim that the original Godzilla regenerated after all.
  • Dog Day Afternoon: The whole bank robbery was one big blunder, just like the protagonist personal life. There was hardly any money to steal, and the protagonist whole goal to leave the country with most of the hostages, scot-free, was nothing but wishful thinking.
  • Dr. Strangelove, in which an insane US Air Force General sends his nuclear bombers to attack the Soviet Union, without orders to do so, in the belief that a lightning strike will successfully defeat the Soviets. The President and his war cabinet overcome repeated crises in order to prevent the attack from going ahead, and are almost successful, but it is all for naught. A combination of systemic and personal failures on both sides leads to the end of the world. The theme of failure is subverted in a series of vignettes in which the last remaining bomber crew go to their deaths believing that their mission was a complete success.
  • The Halloween series. Michael Myers is an indestructible psychopath who's apparently destined to wipe out his family's bloodline. No matter how much terror he wreaks or people he kills, he always gets blown away or shot down before he can accomplish this, and the only time he ever succeeded was in Halloween: Resurrection. Ditto for poor old Doc Loomis, who's never able to put Myers down permanently.
  • No character in the Final Destination movies has ever succeeded in cheating Death (as in not a single one who was supposed to die didn't eventually die a violent death). In the second movie, it looked like there were two people who did succeed, but newspaper clippings showed they died violently afterwards anyway. A character from the fifth movie managed to have someone else die in his place, but that person was going to die in a few weeks anyway, so he dies a violent death too. A second character manages to have someone die in his place (it's hard to explain) but he dies violently too because he was on a flight that his girlfriend was destined to die on.
  • Saw: While some characters do escape the traps, that's only the minority who are important enough to make it to the end of the film. The rest are sweet out of luck. Not only will they fail to escape whatever trap they are in, but they will experience the maximum amount of pain possible in trying to do so.
  • Pain & Gain: The protagonists' various attempts to kill Kershaw by car crashing, explosion, running him over via a car and crushing his head with a car wheel all ended in failure. Not to mention the subsequent attempts to reach Kershaw in the hospital and hotel.
  • Brute Force: No one can escape from Westgate Penitentiary, no matter how hard they try.
  • John Wick: Chapter 2: John's quest to permanently retire from his assassin profession, as well as anyone's attempt at John's life, which invariably ends up with the would-be killer getting a bullet in the head or a knife stab. If you are targeted by John, consider your life forfeit.
  • Trapped: The Alex Cooper Story: Conversion therapy. As every real medical professional, and most people on the street, knows, Cure Your Gays simply does not work, has never worked and can never work.
  • The Star Wars prequels; "The Clone War was the perfect trap. By fighting at all, the Jedi lost everything". The main problem faced by the Jedi was whether or not to support the Republic war effort. If they didn't, they'd lose support among the peoples of the Republic, and leave an entire army to the whims of possibly corrupt bureaucrats and generals. If they did fight, their order would have to militarize heavily, forcing an entire generation of Jedi (Including Anakin Skywalker, their eventual downfall) to become more violent and merciless, not to mention that it made the politicians mighty nervous, thus losing them popular support anyway.

  • 2666: The critics eventually admit that they’ll never find Archimboldi, but know he's somewhere in Santa Teresa.
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: The main premise. Foolishly accepting the challenge of a Mysterious Stranger, the young Sir Gawain has to pay up and travel to the Green Knight to have his head chopped off. He either fails to make the journey, and is a failure as a warrior, chickens out and loses his honor, or makes it in time and gets killed. Even though he panics at the last moment and tries to escape and also failed some of the tests of his honor on the journey, the green knight still appreciates that he showed up at all and performed at most of the tasks very well and spares his life to allow him to return home.
  • Harry Potter:
    • Big Bad Voldemort is a practically invincible Magnificent Bastard against everyone else, but against Harry Potter? Anything from Deus ex Machina to playing the Villain Ball will happen to ensure he somehow fails. When he killed Lily Potter, he effectively signed a contract with this trope. It may be true that Anyone Can Die, but Harry inevitably has to survive to the next book. Prior to the end of the series, J. K. Rowling liked to tease fans about the possibility of this being subverted in the last book, suggesting that the series might end with Harry's death. For years, fans debated whether Harry would survive or if he would be forced to destroy Voldemort in some kind of Heroic Sacrifice. Both turned out to be true.

      There's also the fact that Laser-Guided Karma is in effect. Many of Voldemort's past crimes and choices are implied to have influenced events to cause his ultimate downfall. His drinking of unicorn's blood in the first book. The curse he placed on the Defense Against Dark Arts teacher position. His creation of seven Horcruxes also seem to have corrupted his body and possibly his mind, making him even more insane than he was as a kid. His killing of Myrtle and framing of Hagrid the first time he opened the Chamber of Secrets are the same circumstances that allowed Harry to find out and destroy the Basilisk and Voldemort's diary, which hinted Dumbledore at Voldemort's Horcruxes. His refusal to spare Lily not only set the prophecy in motion, but also made Snape turn against him completely. Voldemort is his own Spanner in the Works.
    • Also, Hermione's attempts to shut down Fred and George during Order of the Phoenix. The closest she ever got was stopping them from testing the things on other students by threatening to write to their mother. While she got them to go along with that in an act of instant compliance (a reaction from the twins that had never been seen before or since), all it caused them to do was test their sickness sweets on themselves.
  • In Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts novels, Ibram Gaunt was promised that the first planet he conquered in the Crusade would be his. He told this to the Tanith First & Only, and that they could muster out on it. In the first novels, various factors ensure that no one will let him conquer a planet, or admit it if he did. It gets mentioned much less in later books.
  • The Baby-Sitters Club were allowed to succeed most of the time, but once the problems got big, like trying to keep an autistic savant from being sent Off to Boarding School or reform a racist family, the Aesop was always along the lines of You Can't Make A Difference When You're Thirteen Years Old. Little Sister was even worse about this, with Karen failing at nearly everything she tried to do because You Really Can't Make A Difference When You're Seven Years Old. The only time Karen actually succeeded was during a Whole-Plot Reference to The Secret Garden, since you can't very well have your Mary Lennox surrogate not shake things up.
  • Tolkien's Legendarium:
    • The Silmarillion: Fëanor, the mightiest elf that ever lived, made the Simarils, jewels so beautiful that Morgoth (Sauron's boss) himself stole the jewels. He led an entire army of high elves across the sea, slaughtering the elven shipwrights to get the needed ships. When he does get to Middle-Earth, he is killed by the Balrog Captain in the first battle. His oath to get the Simarils back kills five of his seven sons, and the oath forces his sons to attack friendly elven nations when Lúthien manages to retrieve one of the Simarils from Morgoth. After the final battle, the two remaining sons of Fëanor steal the two remaining Simarils; only for their holy light to burn their hands which had been stained with elven blood, to the point that one kills himself and the other throws away the Simaril to wander Middle-Earth in penance. In short, Fëanor is directly responsible for all occasions of elf-on-elf bloodshed, and the destruction of his sons.
    • The Children of Húrin:
      • Túrin's sister died of sickness when he was young. His father was captured by Morgoth. His mother basically went insane. His other sister... that he didn't know he had... well, we'll get to her. He got sent away from home, and accidentally killed a noble (in self-defence, but he didn't think anyone would buy that, so he ran away before learning he had been pardoned). He lived as an outlaw for years, and eventually when he was recognized by yet another kingdom for his prowess in battle, he met a woman he fell in love with. Remember when we said "We'll get to her"? His sister had lost her memory, and was found by Túrin in that state; no one (including her) knew who she really was, so they got married. After a couple of years ... and having at least one child ... she recovered her memory and realized she was married to her brother, so she committed suicide. Túrin returned from battle to discover this, and then he committed suicide.
      • After being captured by Morgoth, Túrin's father Húrin, was forced to watch what happened to his children and wife while powerless to do anything about it. He got out again just in time to find his insane wife the day before she died.
    • The Fall of Númenor: The last king of Númenor Ar-Pharazôn, who in addition to be a power-hungry tyrant with an oversized ego is terrified of dying, decides to conquer the Undying Lands to prevent his own death. Ar-Pharazôn's attempt to invade the above of angelic beings goes as well as anybody (except him and his followers) would expect; but even if the king had impossibly won, he would have never reached immortality. The Undying Lands are called "undying" because their inhabitants are immortal Ainur and Elves; no mortal will become deathless if they move there, and in fact their lifespans will be shortened (a fact which the Ainur previously explained the Númenoreans, but the King's Men preferred to believe Sauron's lies).
  • Catch-22 — Goal: Leave the army alive. Yossarian does eventually succeed at the book's conclusion, but by deserting rather than being discharged.
  • Invoked as the basis for a brutally satirical short story in Stanisław Lem's Memoirs of a Space Traveller: The Further Reminiscies of Ijon Tichy. Attempts to correct history and create a better world fail spectacularly due to a combination of mishap, incompetence, and malice; resulting in a thoroughly fouled-up world — i.e. the one we currently live in.
  • In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the government says this to the rebels. Whether or not this is true is up to debate.
  • In The Red Tape War, this comes in two flavors:
    • At the beginning, Millard Fillmore Pierce is dispatched to investigate an attack from one warring planet on a battleship temporarily dry-docked on a neutral world in the war zone. Before he can even start heading towards the planet in question, he stumbles on not one, but two interdimensional invasions. Guess what he hasn't even started on when the book ends?
    • Each chapter presents at least one problem for the protagonists to solve. The most dire of these must be solved by the next chapter, but attempts to solve any of the others are doomed to fail until the book is near its conclusion, leading to a steadily amassing pile of increasingly bizarre problems.
  • Discworld: C.M.O.T. Dibbler is like a rat, firmly convinced that just around the corner, there will be cheese, even though every corner turned has so far been cheeseless. Some of his schemes worked, but were unfortunately tied to the near-destruction of the world. So he always reverts to selling sausages on the street.
  • Thanks to a curse, this is literally true for Kallor of Malazan Book of the Fallen. No matter how high he climbs, he inevitably goes down in flames, and takes everyone else with him.
  • It isn't just that Failure is The Only Option when it comes to trying to assassinate the Antichrist Nicolae Carpathia in the Left Behind book series; it's also that only Jesus Christ is able to defeat him, as the Word of God dictates.
  • Invoked, enforced and conversed throughout the Sven Hassel novels to the point it became a running joke — regardless how brutal the victory was gained, how boring the inactivity is or how hard the Schnapps hit the poor Wehrmacht trooper in the head, someone, usually Obergefreiter Joseph Porta, would remind the others they fight for defeat, they expect to lose, they would never imagine the Reich could win, the war is lost, usually ending with a drunk "Hail Defeat!" (pun based on the Third Reich slogan "Hail Victory!" -- ''Sieg Heil!''). As most of the men in the 27th Panzer Regiment were convicts who had all reasons to hate the Third Reich and anything pertaining to it, losing the war meant their liberation as well.
  • Time Scout: Things are looking very good for Skeeter at the end of Wagers of Sin. At the start of Ripping Time, he's working several menial jobs. Given his past, there really wasn't any way he could just become a hero.
  • In Stephen King's The Dark Tower series, the epilogue reveals that Roland is stuck in an endless loop of finding the Dark Tower and being sent back to the middle of his journey. Although this time he has an important Plot Coupon that he'd never been able to hold onto before, hinting that maybe he'll be able to finally win for good.
  • This is how most of the characters in My Name Is Red see the world. Things can only decay and get worse. The viewpoint is culturally informed.
  • Within Star Wars Expanded Universe, Sith or other Dark Side Force-users will always rise up again. Be it release of Sealed Evil in a Can, corruption of a young Jedu by a Tome of Eldritch Lore or a whole forgotten Sith society from a Hidden Elf Village, the conflict between Light Side and Dark Side Force-users continues for millennia, plunging the galaxy into one large-scale war after another. If you think that Anakin/Vader destroying the Sith under the Prophecy of the Choosen One broke the cycle, think again.
  • Young Wizards:
    • The whole series and the point for the existence of wizards deal with this trope. The Lone Power invented entropy and while everyone acknowledges it will be the death of the universe, they also know that the point of wizards is to slow down entropy as much as possible.
    • Exists on both sides of the wizards vs Lone Power battles. The Lone Power who exists outside of time, has already been redeemed, but its shadows still crop up. The wizards know that beating him in linear time won't make a knowable difference while the Lone Power knows it will ultimately lose and be redeemed.
  • In Spellsinger the hero Jon-Tom's main goal is to get back to our world, while forced into adventures in the meanwhile. Mudge the Otter on the other hand just wants a simple life of gambling, drinking and sex but is also forced into going on these quests. Both are subverted as Jon-Tom finds a gateway in which he can go between worlds whenever he wants but ultimately decides to stay in the fantasy world as it has grown on him. While Mudge willingly gives up his sleazy lifestyle once he realizes true love, as he doesn't want to risk offending his girlfriend, and wants to be a role-model to his future kids.
  • Escapist Dream tells the story of a virtual reality world where geeks can live a life similar to a comic book, anime or video game, and the attempts of a few individuals to fix its many problems. All of their hardwork, from removing the computer bugs that’s been affecting the place, to waging war against a mad geek who tried to take it over, were all in vain in the end. Throughout the course of the book, they have to realize that the deaths of many people inside (including young teenagers), would inevitably lead to the government closing the virtual reality world. Its destruction is further cemented upon when two of the main protagonists ended up fighting each other and causing its destruction. These endings pretty much ties the theme of the book: that no matter how much the geeks try to escape the real world into a place made solely for them, the problems of the real world would continue to hound them and force them to face it.
  • Hammer's Slammers is a special case: The Slammers almost always "win" in the sense that they accomplish the specified military goals they were hired for, but no one who hires them ever comes out ahead for having done so.
  • Tantei Team KZ Jiken Note: Wakatake never gets the spotlight he yearns. The rest of the team calls it "Wakatake Syndrome."
  • The Judge Dee Fan Sequel "Medecine chinoise à l'usage des assassins" (Chinese medicine for murderers) has a woman ask an apothecary for help with her philandering husband, getting an aphrodisiac to put in his dinner. The husband comes home, eats, feels the effects of the aphrodisiac... and promptly goes to see his mistress. The wife tries again, getting a potion that will sap his libido. The husband comes home, eats, falls asleep... and when he wakes up feeling refreshed, goes to see his mistress. The third try has a more permanent effect.
  • The Neverending Story: If a human who comes to Fantastica fails to find their way back to the human world, without exception they all eventually attempt to supplant the Childlike Empress as supreme ruler of Fantastica, losing their memories all the while through wishing. The fate of all who stay on this course is to wind up in the City of Old Emperors as nearly mindless creatures without memory or ability to speak, performing ridiculous meaningless activities forever.

    Myths & Religion 
  • Classical Mythology:
    • Sisyphus, a Greek king condemned to roll a boulder to the top of a hill, only to have it roll back down, for eternity.
    • Tantalus (The source of the word tantalize), who is surrounded by fruit and water that always recede away when he reaches for them.
  • Celtic Mythology takes this to an incredible extreme, placing an elaborate system of taboos upon their mythic heroes that all but guarantee they'll incur the wrath of some deity or other sooner or later. The fate of Cu Chulainn, hero of the The Cattle Raid of Cooley, is a prime example: he was invincible as long as he abstained from consuming dog meat. But before a major battle he found himself passing an old woman who offered him dog stew. It was either eat it, and become mortal; or refuse it, and violate Sacred Hospitality. Damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. (and his enemy Medb knew this.)


    Pro Wrestling 
  • In-universe, the "I Quit" match is said to be the specialty match for John Cena. His character, an All-American Face with massive appeal to kids, has "Never Give Up" as one of his mottos. So trying to make him quit in one of these matches is a fool's errand. This had previously been the option for Mankind when in an "I Quit" match. However The Rock chose to Take a Third Option and play back over the stadium's sound system a recording from an interview featuring Mankind (in which he happened to speak the words) in order to have the words aired, and thereby "spoken" by his opponent. When Mankind points this chicanery out a few weeks later, the two did battle again in the now famous Super Bowl Halftime Empty Arena match, which ended with Mankind winning the title off the Rock by pinning him with a forklift.
  • During the Attitude Era Vince McMahon was constantly trying to put "Stone Cold" Steve Austin in these situations. Arguably the most brilliant was putting Austin against Kane in a First Blood Match. The match stipulation is whoever bleeds first loses, however Kane wore a full body suit and a mask at the time, so he had no exposed skin to bleed from.

    Puppet Shows 
  • Sesame Street:
    • When Mr. Snuffleuppagus was first introduced, all attempts by Big Bird to get anyone else to see him, or to believe in his existence were destined to fail. This drove Big Bird crazy, along with a number of young viewers. Eventually, the producers relented and allowed others to see and interact with him, starting with small children. The decision was mostly based on the realization that they were promoting Unfortunate Implications - "adults will never believe you".
    • No matter where Mr. Johnson goes, he'll always get Grover to provide service for him. And the service is always terrible, even on rare occasions where his server is actually NOT Grover.
    • No matter how long the shows runs, Oscar will never be left alone in peace.
    • All Cookie ever wants is to prevent himself from eating the cookies with the letter of the day, but can't ever win.

  • The Doctor Who Expanded Universe BBC audio story arc Hornets' Nest has the Doctor researching the enemy Swarm through time, each encounter giving him enough information to travel further back and battle them earlier. Obviously, he's doomed not to actually defeat them until he returns to The Present Day, Because Destiny Says So; if he stopped them in 1832 then he couldn't have battled them 100 years later, which was where he learned about their actions in 1832. He is particularly annoyed when he realises he caused their earliest success, as the Stable Time Loop resolved itself through him.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Call of Cthulhu. Defeating the Elder Gods. The only rules given for Cthulhu itself is that it consumes 1d6 investigators per round. Later editions give it a full stat workup, meaning that's it's not impossible to kill it, just desperately unlikely — and part of that stat block specifies that being dead isn't permanent for him.
    • Call of Cthulhu is practically Failure Is The Only Option: The Game. Your characters will go insane. They might be killed by cultists, ritually sacrificed by cultists, devoured by cultists, devoured by monsters, devoured by ancient evils, or they might commit suicide to avoid those fates, but they will almost certainly die too. Being alive and sane by a campaign's end is a rather momentous achievement.
  • In the official Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 worldwide campaigns, the bad guys (okay, the worse guys) will lose. No matter what. Honestly, you might not even bother. It's like the creators have already thought up an ending in advance! True, they always lose. But as it is said in the Horus Heresy books they are destined to win. Well, Chaos at least. It is said that they will whittle away at the Imperium until eventually all of humanity is destroyed. Considering most every daemon or Chaos Space Marine can't die, this is easily understood.
    • In a particularly silly example, the Storm of Chaos Fantasy campaign: One small backwater village, intended merely as a speedbump for the bad guys, was held for somewhat like five weeks, finally forcing the Chaos players to find a way around it. In the fluff summary after the campaign, the village got merely a passing mention - as being easily overrun. The guys who'd spent the past weeks successfully defending it were somewhat annoyed, to say the least.
    • Abbadon the Despoiler in background, Justified in that the only way out of the Eye of Terror is to attack a heavily fortified sector of space that has entire planets populated by Badass Normals plus with twenty Space Marine chapters on hand. (Note this is all before the Imperium starts to send reinforcements), then throw in the fact that Chaos is inherently self-destructive and it's no wonder Chaos always peeters out and fails in every Black Crusade... Even when he does win the Cadian Gate in Gathering Storm, Necron and Eldar interference means the Warp rift he hoped would consume Terra went way off target, Chaos being Chaos meant his army fragmented soon after the battle, and Guilliman's revival meant the Imperium was far better prepared and armed for when he prepared for Round 2.
    • Played quite blatantly with the Medusa V campaign. The Space Marines did, in fact, fail to achieve all their goals; leaving the Imperial Guard and Eldar roughly tied for first place, with the Eldar being the ones to kill the Big Bad Ygethmor. Since the Space Marines are Games Workshop's major cash cow, allowing a Xeno race the victory simply would not stand; so they were declared to have achieved enough of their goals in both the planetary and space campaign to be granted the "moral victory"; thus keeping the Imperium in the first two slots, and pushing the Eldar to third.
    • Though in a larger context, even the forces of Chaos are doomed to failure, because the stalemate of eternal war has to be maintained to keep the game marketable. The World Is Always Doomed can't be maintained if the world actually meets a definitive doom.
    • Tzeentch actually invokes the trope on himself and his forces. If his forces were ever to definitively win, then he would have no one to plot against, which would range from being boring for him to him literally wiping himself from existence. So, if his forces ever started to win, he would be just as likely to be the source of their downfall as his enemies.
      • He is the only Chaos god this truly applies to. Khorne doesn't care who is dying, just as long as someone is. Slannesh and Nurgle just don't really require an antagonist for their worship.
    • Despite the issues with Games Workshop having to maintain a stalemate at least for the Imperium, if you focus on the setting itself, pieces of fluff from the Codexes and all the supplementary material, you realize this might as well be the motto of the Imperial Forces. They are faced with half a dozen threats which could single-handedly destroy them. In fact the only reason for the Imperium still existing is the fact said threats are fighting each other. If the creators of the game weren't forced to keep the cash flowing in by keeping the Spaces Marines as the victors, humans would be dead already.
    • The Orks actually invert this trope with their Insane Troll Logic. Being a race of Blood Knights, they believe there are only three outcomes to a fight: they win, they die fighting, or they retreat (which isn't failure because they can just come back for another go).
    • In truth, it's more anyone who attempts to change the Status Quo who loses. But since Villains Act, Heroes React, most of the time the evillest side loses.
    • Interestingly played in Graham McNeill's book Iron Warriors, where the titular Iron Warriors and thus Chaos actually win; but this keeps in spirit with the bad guys losing because in this book the Adeptus Mechanicus are even WORSE. To give an idea of how unusual this is, when he announced internally about the victory of Chaos in the story, the entire team assembled was shocked that he'd even consider to, much less actually, have the Iron Warriors win..
  • Paranoia - Goal: Survive. Failing that, see to it that one of your back-up replacement clones survives (this one is actually doable... sometimes). Failing that, at least get your enemies killed along the way.
    • Secondary goal: Make it up to Ultraviolet clearance. This conflicts spectacularly with the GM's goal, which involves strapping targets to everyone's backs, and usually results in upwards of five hundred percent casualties, thanks to characters coming in six-packs.
    • There are also plenty of other possible uses of this trope, such as requiring the players to test out a new form of grenade and provide accurate data on their explosive yield (with failure to do so being treason), but they have to return all grenades intact (with failure to do so being treason). And you can fail on both these fronts if an "ally" with Telekinesis activates them while they're still on your belt (which is also treason, but awesome treason).
  • Ravenloft: This trope applies to most of the Darklords, who have been stuck in an Ironic Hell for their sins. Generally, they have something they think will end their suffering, which they will periodically go after, and which will without fail screw them over. Count Strahd will never be able to successfully romance Tatyana's latest reincarnation. Ivana Boritsi will never have a happy relationship since her kisses are lethally toxic. Kas's dreams of conquest will never achieve anything but disaster and the list goes on. Unbeknownst to most of them, their actual win condition is to admit that they reaped what they sowed, but most will never achieve this state since if they were humble enough to actually do that, they would never have become Darklords to begin with - the requirement for that post is literally crossing the Moral Event Horizon. The sole exception was Lord Soth, who couldn't be used anymore due to license issues. In-universe, a magic mirror that kept replaying his crimes helped him overcome his chronic tendency to blame everyone but himself and acknowledge that he was responsible for all of his pain and suffering. He then just stopped caring about anything. Eventually the Dark Powers released him since they saw that nothing they could do to Soth could possibly be worse than actually being Soth.
  • There have been a few times it looked like peace would break out at last in BattleTech. Of course, the game is called BattleTech, so something will inevitably plunge the Inner Sphere into war again. The two largest Successor States form an alliance that looks like it will finally conquer the other States once and for all? Throw in a Clan invasion! New Star League formed to combat Clan invasion? FedCom Civil War! Civil war over? Blakists launch a Jihad! Republic of the Sphere rises from the ashes and peace ensues? HPG blackout! It really never ends.
  • In chess, it is not uncommon to end up in a situation where you would be at a great advantage... if only it weren't your turn. Instead, making any move at all (as you are forced to) would cause the enemy to gain an advantage or cause you to lose yours. This specific scenario is called zugzwang, German for "compulsion to move".
  • Subverted in the Star Trek: The Next Generation board game A Klingon Challenge; if the game isn't beaten in the allotted time, the accompanying VCR tape will show the Enterprise being destroyed. However, a text scroll then informs the players that the Enterprise went into a time-loop at the start of the game, and that it can only be broken via stopping the villain.
  • Vampire: The Masquerade refers to Cain (yes, THAT Cain) as the very first Vampire, and also the oldest "living" Vampire in existence. The older a Vampire gets, the more powerful they become. In one of the Splatbooks, you can find a stat list for Caine on the off chance the players should decide to battle the oldest Vampire on the planet. It contains two words:
    "You lose."


    Theme Parks 

    Visual Novels 
  • Boyfriend To Death: No matter what you do in the first game, you'll always get a bad ending. At least this is averted for the sequel.
  • Doki Doki Literature Club!: Sayori and Yuri's suicides.
    • On your third day in the club, your childhood friend Sayori confesses two things to you, a) that she has had lifelong depression and b) that she is in love with you. You're then given an option to reciprocate or to turn her down, but keep her as your dearest friend. The next day, if you picked the former option, you'll walk into Sayori's room to see her corpse hanging from the ceiling, and blame yourself because you didn't realize that, before everything else, she wanted things to stay the way they used to be. If you pick the latter, the same will happen, but this time you'll blame yourself because you didn't give her the relationship that she wanted.
    • After the above happens, the game restarts, but the whole thing's wrong. It's acting like Sayori never existed, everything and everyone except for Monika starts glitching in horrific ways, and your friend (or girlfriend, depending on which route you take) Yuri undergoes severe Sanity Slippage, later revealed to be due to Monika Mind-Raping her by messing with her code. She hands you a poem heavily implied to have been both written in her blood and covered in her cum, violently cuts herself out of the ecstasy of being in your presence, and begins loosing her grip on reality. She's somewhat aware that she's going insane, and hates it. It all culminates in a very obsessive, disturbing love confession, and you being given a choice to accept or reject. No matter what you choose, the next thing she'll do is take out a knife and stab herself thrice: the first two times in the gut, the last time in the heart. If you rejected her, it's because she was too heartbroken to take it. It's unclear why she'd do it if you accepted her, but consensus is that either a) she wanted protect you from what she was becoming, or b) Monika was right about her having a fetish for knives.
  • In Little Busters! you cannot get Rin's proper ending before getting her bad ending. Trouble is, Rin's ending is also a huge failure and leads into the real final route.
  • A unique in-universe example in Virtue's Last Reward: In order for "true path" Sigma to learn information which he needs in the "true path", the only thing Sigma can do is experience the events of timelines in which him and others are murdered, blown up, and succumb to suicidal urges. Although he himself doesn't realize this is what he's doing, the other timeline versions of himself all are oblivious to the entire thing. In other words, he has to experience multiple failures and deaths in order to gain what he needs to survive.
  • Kana: Little Sister - Goal: save your most important person from succumbing to her illness and live happily ever after. There is actually no real way for the player to win in the end. In most endings the protagonist's (adopted) sister dies despite his efforts, whereas in the one ending in which she survives she decides to leave him after a while. The only difference is the measure of defeat.
  • In Fate/stay night the Holy Grail War is fought between seven Master-Servant pairs over the Holy Grail with six Servants needing to die before the Grail appears. The Servant Assassin can't possibly win because a) his Master is also a Servant, so the Grail wouldn't be formed until she died and if that happened he'd fade away too and b) he's bound to the Ryudou Temple gate so even if he did survive until the Grail appeared he couldn't go claim it. One of the Masters, Illyasviel von Einzbern is in a similar situation. She can't claim the Grail because she is the Grail.
    • Kirei Kotomine can't enjoy good things like being married and his job in the Church but also has a fully functional moral compass that fills him with self loathing for doing what he really likes, making people suffer. He's stuck never being happy one way or the other.
    • Speaking of the Einzbern family, it seems that no matter what they do in the Third Grail Warnote , they'll manage to lose said war. In the timeline of Stay Night, they summon the Avenger-class servant Angra Mainyu, who despite having the same name as the Zoroastrian god of evil, is actually one of the weakest servants that can be summoned, and gets killed very quickly; however, he corrupts the grail, leading to the events of Fate/Zero and Stay Night. In the Third Grail War in the back story of Fate/Apocrypha, which is in an Alternate Timeline to Stay Night, they instead summon the Ruler-class servant Shirou Amasuka, yet despite having a servant who can Command Seal the other servants into killing themselves, they still manage to lose the war.
    • Assassin of Black and her Master Reika Rikudo from the aforementioned Apocrypha cannot hope to win the Great Holy Grail War either. Unlike the other Servants of Red or Black, they were a rogue pair that decided to win the Grail by killing the weakened Black Faction before defeating the Red Faction. Even ignoring how the Assassin class is the weakest in a Grail War, Assassin of Black can only operate at her best under a strict set of conditions. She simply doesn't have the power to defeat many of the Servants one on one. Even assuming Reika and her Servant defeated the Black Faction, they'd have no way to claim the Grail since it's on the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, a mobile flying air fortress guarded with extremely powerful magic.
  • In the Ace Attorney series, any true culprit will fail to get away with their crimes if Phoenix Wright is involved as the defense attorney in court. Lampshaded further in the third game's final case by Mia and Wright who told Dahlia Hawthorne that all the crimes that she has ever involved in has ended in failure.
    • This also happens to the heroes on a few occasions by virtue of But Thou Must!. You won’t be able to continue a story until you’ve failed a certain case or investigation, even if you know you shouldn’t do certain stuff. Two noticeable examples from Apollo Justice are leaving a crime scene despite being told not to so no one will tamper with it in Case 4-3 and Phoenix’s last trial in Case 4-4.
  • In ClockUp's Maggot Baits, all three endings—one Bad and two Bittersweet—have Shogo, the protagonist, dying.
  • Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony:
    • You have to vote for Kaede as the killer in the first trial, even if you know Tsumugi is the one who actually killed Rantaro, because you're not supposed to know it before reaching Chapter 6.
    • This also has to happen during the sixth trial. Once Shuichi rejects Danganronpa, he rejects both hope and despair as well. All the minigames during this part of the trial make you answer the question "What must you never give up?", and with the answer being "hope", you have to fail all of them on purpose to progress.
    • The Death Road of Despair is technically possible to clear during Chapter 1 (although very hard), but to progress the story, you have to fail it. You'll get an opportunity to clear it in Chapter 5, where you can use the Electrohammers to disable traps.
  • In Disco Elysium, it is possible to frequently save both the bacon of the Player Character and other characters the right skills are up to snuff. But alas, one of the Central Themes of the story is failure, so there are a few important story events where everything inevitably goes sideways, and no ammount of skills can charge it.
    • It is not possible to solve the case before the mercenaries hold their "tribunal" and attempt to gun down the Hardie Boys. The most you can do is downplaying the trope by finding ways to mitigate the number of deaths. Confronting Ruby is the Point of No Return, and the fight always breaks out upon your return to the Whirling-In-Rags.
    • At the climax of the Tribunal shootout, your skill check to dodge Kortenaer's Last Breath Bullet will always fail.
    • In the final dream sequence, your skills throw everything they have into winning back Dora/Dolores' heart. They're beaten and humiliated, one after another.

    Web Animation 
  • Red vs. Blue. Most of the Blue's and Red's plans end horribly. The only time they really win is when they work together. When they are trying to kill each other, for obvious reasons, they can't.
    • In Revelation it's revealed that Alpha was tormented by being placed in scenarios where it could never succeed. Also, because Tex was based on the Director's memory of a woman he loved, but her death was the thing he remembered most clearly, she also can never succeed; this is the reason why she never really accomplished her goals in Blood Gulch. She was designed to fail at the last moment.

  • Buildingverse runs on this, to the extent that there is a literal fail-field hanging around apartment 42.
  • Get Medieval - Goal: Build a signal device to attract someone who could get Asher (and Neithe) off this backwater planet (Earth, specifically 14th century France). When people weren't eating Asher's power sources (citrus fruits), the signal served as a beacon to mob hitmen already looking for Asher's dad, and was picked up by an archeologist already on the planet (who ended up getting ship-jacked by the aforementioned hitmen). The comic has an actual ending where they succeed, but the Big Bad gets a Karma Houdini.
  • El Goonish Shive: Pandora's Goal: To make magic available too all mortals so that her half-immortal son can safely use his powers to the fullest without breaking Immortal laws. The reason it will fail: 1) Magic itself has a sentient will of its own. 2) Magic wants to be known only by a select few individuals. 3) Should it ever become as widespread as Pandora wants, it would alter its own fundamental nature so as to cut humanity off from it completely, potentially for millennia. She does not take learning this well.
  • An in-universe example in Homestuck. In every successful session of Sburb, the White King is destined to lose his one-on-one battle with the Black King and have his staff taken from him (the White King may or may not die as part of this; it presumably depends on the session). Once the Black King has the staff he uses it to start the Reckoning, starting the final battle in which the players and their allies must defeat him and destroy the staff before everything is destroyed. The Black King being killed by Jack Noir before this happens is when the Kids session goes completely Off the Rails.
  • Kick The Football, Chuck - Goal: Charlie Brown must fight and overcome his cancer after being treated with chemotherapy. This fight is represented metaphorically with Chuck trying to kick the football Lucy has laid out for him. Seriously.
  • Megatokyo - Goal (for Piro and Largo): Find a way to afford plane tickets back to the U.S., abandoning most of the plot. Yeah, that's gonna happen. They only really attempt this once—Largo gets the money through blackmail, but they waste it all on video games and anime merchandise (which is how they got stuck in Japan in the first place). They eventually get jobs, all the money from which is funneled into Largo's booze and computer parts; several chapters in, they've mostly forgotten about trying to go home.
  • Misfile - Goal: Reverse the misfile. If Ash and Emily were restored to their original bodies and lives, the main dramatic tension of the series would disperse.
  • Polandball: Called "cannot into [verb or noun]". A more exhaustive list can be found under "terminology" on the Polandball wiki.
    • Most famously, Poland cannot into space.
    • Greece cannot into monies.
    • Turkey cannot into EU.
    • Khazakhbrick cannot into BRICs.
  • Schlock Mercenary: Maxim 70. Failure is not an option - it is mandatory. The option is whether or not to let failure be the last thing you do.
  • Starslip - Goal: Find a timeline or universe in which Jovia is alive. Subverted when, after failing to steal a time machine so he can save Jovia, Vanderbeam's future self travels back and gives him the time machine, which he received from his future self twenty years earlier. Then double subverted when Vanderbeam fails to put the time machine to any use.
  • In Subnormality, there's a game show called "Not Worth It", which features quiz questions so absolutely depressing to know the answer to that even when you win, you lose.
  • Terror Island - Goal: Convince the other roommate to buy groceries. Vaguely achieved with Bartleby, but the groceries were taken away by Aorist. When Stephen and Sid finally get groceries together, the comic immediately ends.
  • xkcd strip #844 "Good Code" is a flowchart that explains how to write good code, or possibly not.

    Web Original 
  • The Whateley Universe also falls under this with a few character arcs, generally intersecting with the First Law of Gender Bending. However, it is also subverted in at least one case. Jade gets to become closer to being a real girl...using plain old surgery!
  • Worm has Contessa, a parahuman with the superpower of precognition, specifically allowing her to see the precise path to victory in any given situation. Unfortunately, the world also has the Endbringers, a trio of monstrous creatures that regularly destroy cities and are slowly driving humanity to extinction. Contessa's organization, Cauldron, has primarily been seen organizing evacuations. Zig-zagged: Endbringers are immune to Contessa's power - and they were never the true threat anyway. But Contessa's power and the plans derived from it did turn out to be useless against the real enemy - Scion.


Video Example(s):


The Tax Collector

In "Our Ancestors the Humans", the aliens encounter a tax collector who threatens to take the house's furniture, saying that they owe 23 years of back taxes. They use Etno's time machine to teleport to certain time periods, only for the tax collector to follow them every time. The episode ends with the tax collectors from all four depicted time periods showing up at the aliens' door, much to their chagrin.

How well does it match the trope?

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Example of:

Main / FailureIsTheOnlyOption

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