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Mystery Box

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The box! The box!

"Now hold on, Lois! A boat's a boat, but the Mystery Box could be anything! It could even be a boat!"
Peter Griffin, Family Guy

All right, contestant, you've made it to the final round of everyone's favorite Game Show The Trope Is Dope. Now you have a choice to make between two fabulous prizes. The first is an all expense paid trip around the world, complete with a complimentary Rolls Royce and $5 million in cash. The second is... the Mystery Box! What's inside it? No one knows. It could be week-old garbage, or the keys to your new mansion. Maybe it's filled with rocks and mud, or maybe fabulous diamonds. It could be anything! Troper, make your choice!

Although this is mainly a game show trope, this can apply to any medium.

Compare Crate Expectations, Loot Boxes (this trope's gaming-related sister), and Blind Bag Collectables. Has nothing to do with J. J. Abrams' favorite trick; you probably want Jigsaw Puzzle Plot for that.


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    Game Shows 
  • Let's Make a Deal is the Trope Codifier.
  • This was also the premise of Treasure Hunt.
  • The Ur-Example may be Pick a Box, one of the earliest shows on Australian TV. It started on radio in 1948, moved to television in 1957 and ran until 1971. The catchphrase of the program was "The money or the box?".
  • Deal or No Deal has as many as 26. (Some European versions use boxes, but the original Dutch version, along with those playing Follow the Leader on the U.S. version use briefcases instead)
    • By the way, it's almost always mathematically sound to take the box rather than the deal.
  • Sale of the Century: Two examples on the NBC/syndicated run:
    • "Instant Cash," where a contestant can, in exchange for the amount of his lead, take a 1-in-3 shot at selecting which box held a mini-cash jackpot (two had $100, the other $1,000 plus $1,000 per show until claimed).
    • During the "Fame Game" segment, one card read "Mystery Money or Pick Again," where the contestant could take an unknown cash amount ($2 up to $2,000) or try to select another number. It was later modified to read "Mystery Money or Try Again", when the board was modified to work like Press Your Luck (with the contestant hitting their buzzer to stop a flashing light). The 1985-86 syndicated run had "Trip or Pick Again/Try Again" instead (offering, well, a trip).
  • Truth in Game Shows, certainly. In the 1960s (and revived in The '90s) there was a British show called Take Your Pick, where the contestants had the option of taking either the prize money or the key to Box 13. Related to the Monty Hall Problem.
  • The titular Bonus Round on Shop 'Til You Drop. Presented with six mystery boxes, a team has 1:30 to open each and decide whether to keep the gift inside or exchange it for another gift at one of the stores in the mall. Exchanged gifts were only opened at the time of The Reveal while the total value of the prizes was added up; during the first two season (when the total to reach to win was $1,000 instead of $2,500), some of the boxes contained Zonks that only added a few dollars to the team's total.
  • In The Price Is Right pricing game "1/2 Off", there are 16 boxes, one of which has $10,000 in cash. A player can remove half the empty boxes at a time if they can correctly determine if certain prizes are listed at full-price or half off, and narrow down to the box containing the cash.
  • Russian game show What? Where? When? (adapted as Million Dollar Mind Game in the US) has these quite frequently. Usually, a team of six experts are given a description of what's inside the box, and they should guess what is it.
  • Also from Russia, Pole chudes a sort-of remake/variation of Wheel Of Fortune, does it the following way: if a player ends up on the "Prize" section of the wheel, he or she may choose to have a black box brought into the studio. Then the host gives an option to choose between the prize inside the box and an amount of money, which gets progressively bigger. The prizes in question are absolutely random, ranging from an automobile to (most notoriously) a head of cabbage. The player leaves the game after that. (He or she may opt to continue the game instead, though.)
  • The 2019 Food Network game show "Supermarket Stakeout" has four cooks competing for $10,000 outside of a supermarket, with $500 to get groceries which must last three rounds. The catch? They can only get their groceries from people who'd already shopped in the market, and in the first round must "buy them blind" (which means they can't look inside the bags before buying them). If two or more people see a shopper, they can go into an Auction to see who can offer more.
  • "Guy's Grocery Games" did this starting in October 2021, with the episode "Flavortown 2.0." It celebrated a new Flavortown Market, and a new way of judging: every judge put down their scores for plating, taste and gameplay (before they just discussed among themselves). Three chefs competed as of October 2021, and the lowest score in Round 1 was eliminated. Whoever had the higher score after Round Two got to either do "Guy's Trivia Shopping Spree" where they had to find five items Guy describes before time is up (for $4,000 apiece for a total of $20,000 tops), OR they got a "Mystery Check" behind the front doors of Flavortown Market 2.0. Which could be anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000.

    Film — Live Action 
  • In "Weird Al" Yankovic's UHF, there is a game show parody called Wheel of Fish. The contestant wins a very tasty red snapper fish, but is given the choice to take a box. The contestant chooses the box and is mocked: "You took the box! Let's see what's in the box!" ... (box is opened; audience gasps) ... "NOTHING! Absolutely NOTHING! Stupid! You're so stupid!"

    Other Live Action TV 
  • At one point in Boy Meets World, Eric tries to bribe some information out of a hotel desk clerk. The clerk refuses to divulge the information for "Mr. Washington" (a $1 bill) but says he might for "Mr. Franklin" (a $100 bill).
    Eric: Mr. Franklin isn't here, but how about two Mr. Lincolns ($5 bills) and ... a mystery bag! (pulls out small bag with a clown face on it and dangles it in front of the clerk) Maybe it's good. Maybe it's not.
  • On Just Shoot Me!, Nina wants a raise, and Jack offers her one... or what's inside the box. She takes the box, of course, which only has a picture of an ugly baby inside (it's one of Maya's baby photos).
  • Parodied regularly on The Late Late Show. Craig will imagine a box, the contents of which he somehow does not know, and ask the guest to guess what's in it. They always guess "correctly."
  • Inverted in several cooking shows, most notably Chopped. The mystery boxes are what contestants compete with, as they contain ingredients (and occasionally other instructions.)
  • Sesame Street: One sketch involves Kermit having Cookie Monster guess what's in a mystery box with three clues (it's something you eat, it's round, and it's orange). He guesses "cookie" each time and gives up afterward.
    Kermit: What?! How can you give up?! It's something you eat that's round and orange! It's an orange! It's an orange!
    Cookie: Me like that fourth clue. Is it an orange?

  • The 1950 song "The Thing" by Phil Harris is basically this trope. A man finds a box on the beach and is overjoyed by what is inside, but everyone else is horrified by it and refuses to have anything to do with him. What exactly is inside the box is never stated. He spends the rest of his life trying to get rid of the box, to no avail. The last line of the song is a warning to never open a box you find on the beach...

  • Blind boxes in collectible toy lines are often this trope, so much that they have their own trope: Blind Bag Collectables.

    Video Games 
  • Found in, of all places, all of the Treyarch-developed Call of Duty games, starting with Call of Duty: World at War. It's found when playing the Nazi Zombies mode. Using your points to open a box instead of purchasing a gun is a bit of a crapshoot. You may end up with a sniper rifle (which is horrible to fight zombies with at close range) or the all powerful Ray Gun.
  • Lost Treasures in Dungeon Fighter Online. They are uncommon drops from virtually anything with a drop table and spit out two random items when opened, which can range from cheap (but helpful) consumables to extremely powerful endgame items that will usually fetch at least tens of millions on the Auction Hall. The selection of "jackpot" goodies rotates every month. Opening a Lost Treasure requires three Skeleton Keys, which are very rare drops but can also be bought in bulk with Microtransactions.
  • Team Fortress 2 has the "Mann Co. Supply Crate" that randomly drops along with everything else. To open it you need to buy a key from the ingame store for $2.50USD. These crates can contain commonly dropped weapons (enjoy your $2 Equalizer), paint to recolour your hats or a special hat that has a particle effect applied to it. These hats have a <1% chance of actually being in a crate.
    • The crates became more valued with the introduction of "Strange" weapons that count your kills. Now, all weapons obtained from crates, with the exception of certain holiday crates, are Strange, making the deal a bit more fair. Those particle effect hats are still ridiculously rare, though.
    • As of 2017, "Cases" with cosmetic items have since been distributed. They still require their own specialized paid keys to open.
  • Be careful when opening a "mysterious present" in Kingdom of Loathing; it might contain a random gift item, but it also might contain a boxing glove on a spring, which will punch you for severe damage if you open the box.
  • Players that bought a lifetime subscription in The Secret World can give up their subscriber benefits for a month for a Mystery Box that contains either nothing, a pitiful amount of in-game money, or rare and powerful endgame items.
  • This was actually the mechanic for the game Toe Jam And Earl. Players would start off with a random assortment of presents. Trial and error (and bribery) was the only way to discover what was in each type of box, which could just as easily have a helpful item or a free life as spawn an Earthling or bring instant death. Of course all your hard work went out the window if you managed to hit a Randomizer. The game also features traditional mystery boxes with a large question mark on them that don't even let you know what type they are until opened.
  • Eggs in Pokémon GO are similar to Team Fortress 2 Crates. They frequently drop from Pokéstops, and you can't tell what's in them until they hatch, but hatched Pokémon are guaranteed to have relatively high IVs. To hatch them, you must put them in "incubators" and walk/bike a certain distance (either 2, 5, or 10 kilometers). You have one free unlimited-use incubator, so unlike Crates, you technically don't need to pay to hatch eggs; but the "orange incubator" can only hold one egg at a time, and buying additional, limited-use "blue incubators" allows you to incubate up to 9 eggs simultaneously. The game appears to make the vast majority of its income from incubator sales.
  • Electronic Arts and DICE got into a lot of hot water in November and December of 2017 due to their decisions on how to implement loot boxes into Star Wars Battlefront II (2017), something you can read more on its YMMV page.

    Web Animation 
  • When Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse has Skipper host the game show I'm Barbie's BFF!, she begins the final round by asking if any of the contestants would like to open Door #3. Raquelle refuses, recalling how many other game shows have lame consolation prizes. It later turns out Door #3 had Ken behind it, leaving Raquelle frustrated on how close she came to taking him away from Barbie.

     Web Comics 
  • In Slack Wyrm after EdgeGod's weapon was destroyed he consults Otho on what will be his next weapon, revealing a large wall of Impossibly Cool Weapons before settling on a mystery box that will only reveal what is inside when he's in a true life or death situation.

    Western Animation 
  • In The Simpsons, Mr. Burns pulls this out when trying to bribe some nuclear safety inspectors.
    Mr. Burns: You can either have the washer and dryer where the lovely Smithers is standing. Or you can trade it all in for (pulls out a box with question marks all over it) what's in this box.
    Male Inspector: The box! The box! *is barely stopped by his companion*
  • In Family Guy, Peter's offered the chance to get a free boat, but he decides to take the Mystery Box instead, which merely contains tickets to a stand-up comedy show.
    Peter: A boat's a boat, but a mystery box could be anything! It could even be a boat! And you know how much I've wanted one of those!
    Lois: Then let's just...
    Peter: We'll take the box.
  • In one Looney Tunes cartoon, Daffy Duck turns down the "million box" which has a million smaller boxes inside it... and once Bugs gets the box, it's revealed that each tiny box had a dollar bill inside.
  • In the first episode of The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo, Shaggy and Scooby are offered their choice of a fancy doghouse, the airplane in which they arrived or the Mystery Box. The last is actually the Chest of Demons; when opened, it releases the 13 demons that had been trapped inside.
  • The Jetsons and the Spacelys entered a game show and the Jetsons won. George then had a choice: collect the Grand Prize or whatever was behind the force field. If he picked the force field, Mr. Spacely would get the Grand Prize. Fearing for his job, George chose the prize hidden behind the force field. The force field then revealed a new stove (it was earlier shown to the viewers that the Jetsons needed one) and Mr. Spacely got a set of Cogswell products.
  • Roy Rooster won 1 skillion dollars, a mansion with two kidney-shaped pools (to be anatomically correct) and several other prizes but traded everything for whatever was behind curtain number three. He got a dirty sock. The host commented that he's been on it for years and never gave any money but got rid of several socks already. The story started with Roy chasing the end of a rainbow to get a pot of gold but the leprechaun he met there said he no longer had it so he instead gave Roy a dirty sock and a chance to trade it for whatever was behind curtain number one. He got a car and was allowed to trade it for whatever was behind curtain number two and that's how Roy won the prizes he traded for whatever was behind curtain number three.
  • Animaniacs: Slappy Squirrel once left a can at somebody else's garbage bin. The owner didn't like this and the two of them fought to pass it over to each other. One of Slappy's moves was having her rival trade prizes for whatever was behind a curtain. It was the can.
  • SpongeBob and Patrick once tag teamed in a wrestle match and won. They could choose the money or whatever was behind the curtain. The trope was averted because, in that case, the winners were allowed to know what the prize behind the curtain was before they made their choice. Their option was trading the money prize for a trip to a wrestling-themed camp. Much to Mr. Krabs' dismay, they chose the camp.
  • The Mr. Men Show had the episode "Game Shows." In the first segment in that episode, there was a game show entitled Guess What's in the Box, hosted by Mr. Nosy and Mr. Small.
    Mr. Small: The rules are simple. We'll show you a box, and you must guess what's inside.
    Mr. Nosy: Answer correctly, and you'll win whatever's in the box!
    • The contestants were Mr. Rude, Miss Chatterbox, and Mr. Grumpy. Guess who won, and what was in the box; Miss Chatterbox, who ended up winning a donkey.

    Real Life 
  • Newcomb's Paradox is a thought experiment in which you are presented with Box A, known to contain $1,000 and Box B, which may contain nothing or $1,000,000. Your options are to take both boxes, or only Box B. The twist: the person running the game can reliably predict the future. If he predicted that you'd take both boxes, he left Box B empty; if he predicted that you'd take only Box B, he loaded it with the million-dollar payoff. What do you do?
    • The apparently ironclad argument for taking both boxes: It's too late for the game-runner to change the contents of the boxes, so taking Box A gives you an extra $1000 no matter what.
    • The apparently ironclad argument for taking only Box B: The game-runner has a good record at prediction, so taking only Box B makes it very likely that you'll get the million.
  • The Mysterious Package Company offers customized stories in the form of handmade letters and... mysterious packages. Though you can choose a particular story to purchase (usually as a surprise gift to a friend), the exact contents are a secret.
  • In Japan, "Fortune bags" are a common method for retailers to get rid of unsold stock, packaged in mystery bags at a discounted price.

You're gonna choose the box, aren't you? (chuckles) Sucker.


Luxo Jr. IN: Surprise

How well does it match the trope?

4.83 (6 votes)

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