Follow TV Tropes


Unwinnable by Design

Go To

"The programmers of this game want you to fail, and when you do, they write 'Ha ha!' on the wall and they laugh about it!"
Noah Antwiler on Dirty Harry: The NES game

There are plenty of difficult games out there, but at least most of them have the decency to kill you off the moment your quest becomes impossible to complete – otherwise you'd end up wandering around looking for a way to progress when none exist. Now, in the case of games that are Unintentionally Unwinnable it's kind of understandable – either a bug or an oversight has rendered the game broken so there's no way for it to tell the player how screwed they are.

But Unwinnable by Design is a whole other kettle of fish: This time around, the designers have deliberately made it possible to be permanently unable to progress in the game. The devs, for whatever reason, have decided to set down giant digital man-traps that exist purely to ensnare the unwary. The worst are those that cripple the game from the start, but let the player continue for hours before the fatal error becomes apparent.

Adventure Games, and Interactive Fiction in particular, originally were rife with intentionally unwinnable situations, and were usually known as "dead ends" during the genre's prime. Meanwhile, a player continuing to play a game that unbeknownst to them had been rendered unwinnable was referred to as stuck in a "walking dead" situation. A hallmark of the genre once, the tradition has waned in the 1990s because most players can't stand them, with many instances most decidedly cases of Fake Difficulty.

Zarf's Cruelty Scale of Interactive Fiction, as lifted (and revised) from here, here and here, divides video game types as follows:

  • Merciful: You only ever need, and might have Only One Save File, and use that only if you want to turn the computer off and go to sleep. You never need to restore to an earlier game, because there's no way it ever becomes unwinnable.
    • Say that there is a large button on the wall, with a sign above it that says 'Inorganic Vaporizer Ray'. When you try to push it, the game won't let you. Instead it says something like 'You'd better not. You'd lose that nifty pocket screwdriver'.
  • Polite: You only need one save game, because if you do something fatally wrong you won't be given a chance to overwrite it.
  • Tough: There are things you can do which you'll have to save before doing. But you'll think, "Ah, I'd better save before I do this."
    • There is a large button on the wall, with a sign above it that says 'Inorganic Vaporizer Ray'. When you push it, all your stuff gets vaporized, and you can't finish the game.
  • Nasty: There are things you can do which you'll have to save before doing. After you do one, you'll think, "Oh, bugger, I should have saved before I did that."
    • There is a large button on the wall, but no sign telling you what it does. Upon pressing it, you discover that it was an Inorganic Vaporizer Ray, and are informed that your inventory is now gone.
  • Cruel: There is no immediate indication that your game has become unwinnable. You think, "I should have kept the save I overwrote three hours ago. Now I'll have to start over."
    • There are three large buttons on the wall. Two of them do plot-important things, but you press the third and it causes a simple humming noise. Then, a while later, you need to solve a puzzle and check your inventory... "Hey, where's all my stuff?"

A game can only occupy one spot on the Cruelty Scale of Interactive Fiction and is rated by its worst game design. For instance, if part of the game is Cruel but it's Merciful otherwise, the game is Cruel.

Dipping below "polite" is considered a design flaw by most design philosophies today. Old-fashioned adventure games, notably most Sierra games released before 1992, seldom rise above "nasty".

Note that this trope is just for games where the designers constructed an unwinnable situation on purpose, and was not intended as a joke.

If the unwinnable situation arises as the result of a programming flaw, like a bug, or a design error such as making it possible to advance to the next stage without collecting a vital item, this is Unintentionally Unwinnable. This includes when the unwinnable situation requires the player to take steps that are blatantly unnecessary, actively warned against, or otherwise feel as if the player must actively seek a way to make the game unwinnable, as long as it is unintentional.

The spiritual opposite of a Hopeless Boss Fight, where you are supposed to fail to make the game continue. Also (in some cases) the worst-case scenario of Permanently Missable Content; early adventure games would often have vital objects or events be easily and permanently missable – in the worst cases, with no indication of what you've missed beyond a sudden game over much later in the game. Contrast Endless Game, for games not supposed to be "won" at all: games that have a High Scores screen instead of a victory condition. Also see Unwinnable Joke Game for games that were made to be impossible despite having a clear goal as a prank.

For cases in which you get a game over from creating an unwinnable situation, see Non-Standard Game Over. Games that wish to rub things in a bit may include a period of Controllable Helplessness. For a milder version where you are at least well aware that you're screwed, see Cycle of Hurting. For situations where the game intentionally makes you think you've lost, but you haven’t, see Fission Mailed. See also The Computer Is a Cheating Bastard and Unwinnable Training Simulation.


    open/close all folders 

Video Games:

    Visual Novels 
  • Fate/stay night:
    • It usually kills you outright when you mess up, but features an example that fits the "cruel" category: refusing to cooperate with Rin during Saber's route will jump you to Rin's route, but won't kill you until more than a day later after you've made several decisions, culminating with the game automatically picking a path that gets you killed. The Tiger Dojo is kind enough to point out how far back the decision actually is, but it's long enough the player might have overwritten any saves early enough, forcing them to start over completely.
    • To make matters worse, there's another example on the "Heaven's Feel" route when Rin asks you to pledge allegiance to her, or else she'll not help you. It looks like an obvious choice, right? it's not. This time you MUST refuse to form a contract with her, or else, when it's decided that Sakura must die, you won't be able to go against Rin and you'll get a Bad End. Luckily, Rin herself states in-story where you screwed the pooch and the Tiger Dojo drills the point even further with a good dose of Fourth Wall breakage, but between the fatal decision and the Bad end there's a LONG day and since nothing seems to indicate you fucked up (aside from Rin looking crestfallen just after the fatal choice) it's very possible you saved the game already.
    • The "Heaven's Feel" route has another one: If you promise Rin that you won't unwrap Archer's arm and later don't do it on your own to test it, Shirou will die roughly two hours of gameplay later, following several other choices, as he gets locked out of a choice to save Sakura that means he won't die. Not only is this just as bad as the Fate example, The Tiger Dojo won't even tell you what you did wrong since not having enough approval with Sakura (from any number of other dialogue options earlier) will lead to the same result.
    • "Heaven's Feel" is littered with these, actually. In one of the most interesting Non Standard Game Over you can get, after not recruiting Rider's help before going into the final dungeon, Shirou beats Saber at the cost of his mind. To make matters worse, the Tiger Dojo, instead of giving you a hint as what to do, praises you for beating Saber on your own. And that only happens after several other choices are made and a In-Universe day passes.
    • If anything, they made the scene skipping function exactly because there are lots of Bad Endings. And you will either got stuck on one of them (especially the more cruel ones) or going to try to find all of them to complete the Tiger Dojo stamps.
  • Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors has a fake ending called the Coffin Ending. The Coffin Ending is exactly the same as the True Ending except that it just simply ends before you even get a chance to see the final room. The reason for this is because you are missing one condition needed to reach the True Ending: You need to get the Safe Ending first. There is no indication of this within the game other than getting the True Ending because the game will notify you that you got both after finishing it.
  • Visual Novels by Key/Visual Arts are notorious as being unwinnable without a guide. Choices you make early on can produce a game over late in the game and with so many choices it's nearly impossible to get through any routes. Probably most noteworthy is Nagamori's route in One: To the Radiant Season where you have to abandon her to be raped in order to get her true ending. Whether or not she's actually raped before you turn back to save her is up to interpretation.
    • CLANNAD is absolutely rife with this.
      • Misae requires you to choose three answers that specifically advance the plot. None of the nine answers you can give seem like wrong answers, and the last one seems too silly/perverted to be the proper answer. If you fail, you get rejected in the final conversation with zero hints of what went wrong, and considering that some routes in the game require you to advance other routes to properly succeed, you're likely to assume that you just need to do other stuff to advance it before looking up a guide and realizing these three questions are the entire deciding factor.
      • Kyou's route requires that you be going out with Ryou, but making decisions that benefit the former than the latter. Worse yet, finishing Ryou's route does not grant an Orb of Light, something needed to activate the post-game story. Most of the narrative of the story basically requires you to be purposefully breaking Kyou's heart whether you like it or not, and rejecting Ryou at any point instantly grants a game-over..
      • Tomoyo, Kotomi, and Fuko all have one thing in common: you have to do part of Nagisa's route. The first requires you do enough to meet the girl, the second requires you do enough to get the club started, and the final one requires that you practically play the whole entire narrative through but change gears towards the end. None of these routes make any indication that you cannot win if you don't do this, ultimately ending in either Tomoya dumping the girl, the girl dumping Tomoya, or a nonstandard Game Over where Tomoya goes home and sulks about how there's no love in his life. Tomoyo's route at least helps by having a moment where the game goes "Gee, I wish that girl could help, but I don't know here, if only I did, this wouldn't have happened", but it doesn't say who it is or what you were supposed to do, and the other two are even worse as you can do half the route without any interruption and without doing any of Nagisa's story and suddenly the route ends with a bad ending.
  • Katawa Shoujo:
    • The prologue can leave you stranded in the bad ending if you make the wrong choices: on the day of the school festival, if Hisao hasn't made plans to attend with one of the love interests, he'll instead spend the day on the school's rooftop drinking himself stupid with his misogynistic Conspiracy Theorist roommate Kenji and ends up falling from the roof and dying.
    • Shizune's route is an interesting case, because unlike many other Visual Novel stories it has very limited interactivity - only a single choice (whether or not to sleep with Misha), towards the end of Act 3 (out of 4). Thus, choosing wrong at this point inevitably leads to the player getting a bad end...a whole act later. Hope you've made a save before.
      • While it's not a "cruel" choice for most players who understand what the choice was asking, as basic decency and game logic would suggest that was clearly a bad choice to make, the vague phrasing has led many less socially-adept players who weren't paying attention to choose to "comfort" a friend in need, only to realise when they see the consequences that they really should have saved first.
    • More diabolical is the case of the Hanako route: towards the end, after Hanako has locked herself up in her room and wouldn't come out, Hisao desperately calls Lilly on the phone and they have a conversation where Lilly basically spells out to Hisao what he did wrong and how he should act with Hanako... except that if you chose incorrectly on a seemingly unrelated decision earlier (opting not to go to town with Hanako after Lilly leaves for Scotland and instead going back to your room) Hisao will simply refuse to listen to Lilly and will go out on his own to do something incredibly stupid that gets you a bad end. If you haven't acted like an idiot, this is where you get an actual choice whether or not to do the right thing.
    • Lilly's is the most ridiculous, though. If you make all the right choices, after she leaves the school to return to Scotland permanently, Hisao has an epiphany and does a Race for Your Love to produce a happy ending. But if you're dishonest about something trivial early in the game, nothing changes until hours later when she leaves and the game abruptly ends, with no hint as to what you did wrong or how things could have turned out differently.
  • In Yandere Chan, it's possible to get into a situation where all three of the possible choices lead to Bad Endings. If you ignore Mia and eat lunch with your friends, she'll ambush you in the hallway and commit murder-suicide; if you ignore your friends and eat lunch alone with Mia she'll eventually kidnap you; and if you force Mia to eat with your friends she'll kill you and them with poisoned ravioli that she conveniently had prepared for just such an occasion. The choice that leads to this situation? Not giving Mia her calculator back when you're at the train station. Want the Golden Ending? Better restart. Fortunately, it's a very short game.
  • Chrono Clock has an in-universe case in Makoto's route. After losing the pocketwatch (and Cro) to Makoto in a "guess the hand with the coin in it" game, Rei eventually finds out through use of the pocketwatch she possesses, Makoto is able to teleport small objects, and is thus able to teleport the coin between hands, effectively making it so that such a game can't be won regardless of which hand Rei chooses.
  • Kara no Shoujo is a particularly cruel example, as simple oversights during Pixel Hunt segments and apparently inocuous choices can lock you on a bad ending with no indication on what you did wrong. Some of those choices even go against common sense, for instance, if you leave the analysis of a certain piece of evidence found on a crime scene to a forensics team, instead of analyzing it yourself, you will get locked on an ending where the serial killer gets you no matter what you do afterwards. Unless you read this visual novel along with a walkthrough guide expect to hit invisible walls a lot.
  • Saya no Uta gives you a choice towards the last act of the story, and this choice decides the game's ending. Calling Fuminori can lead to the ending where Koji dies due to Koji's impatience, while calling Ryoko gives Koji an advantage by having an ally. Anyone paying attention to how these encounters have gone, especially considering neither Yoh nor Omi survived their encounter with Saya when alone, knows the choice you need to make to get a good or bad ending, however once you make a choice, your only way to change it is to reload your save. Should you choose to call Fuminori, there is now nothing you can do to stop what will inevitably happen.
    • There's also another choice much earlier in the narrative that is much more innocuous where you choose to have Fuminori's condition healed, however the game doesn't warn you immediately that choosing this option leads to a nonstandard game over, requring you to reload a save or start the game over.
  • Magical Diary in Wolf Hall has a couple of routes that can be failed by actions that happened months ago (of in-game time) and didn't seem important at the time. In particular, Ellen's route will end abruptly in January if you interfered in Damien's attempt to give her a gift but did not seek her out after the Dark Dance to confess which happened back in October. William's route can force you into the friendship version rather than the romance version based on incredibly innocuous decisions long before that point, such as getting an advance on your allowance and blowing the whole sum early in the game.

  • While The Impossible Quiz provides you with skips, the final question is unwinnable without using your skips. All 7 of them. The game gives you no indication that this is what you were supposed to do with them and there are no saves or checkpoints whatsoever in the game.
  • "Star Trek: the Promethean Prophecy". There's a holographic memento in the very first screen that you can miss entirely, and it's not obvious you'll need it for the mission, unlike the phaser or communicator. It's possible to complete a very big chunk of the game before noticing you're missing something. However, access to the holo is lost pretty early in the game.

Non-Video Games:

  • In a commercial for American Express, (now former) tennis player Andy Roddick faces an opponent that "returns everything" – Pong. He then inverts it by making the game Unwinnable by Design for Pong by taking advantage of Pong not being a 3D game and constrained to the back of the court – and lobbing the ball just over the net so it goes under Pong.
    Roddick: My life is about finding a way to win.
  • Advertisements for a game called Hero Wars have frequently featured videos of puzzles in the lines of "make the lava flow so that it kills the monster without destroying the treasure." At least many of these puzzles are unsolvable. That could be an effort to increase curiosity – especially considering that the gameplay of the actual game doesn't feature such puzzles at all.

    Anime and Manga 
  • Danganronpa 3 Future Arc's Final Killing Game is implied by the Mastermind's last message to be this, as it was a ploy to wipe out all the leaders of the Future Foundation.
  • During the first night of the culture festival arc in Kaguya-sama: Love Is War, a Phantom Thief steals all the spare heart-shaped balloons from class 2-B and leaves behind a note stating that they'll be taking their next target with a picture of a bunch of clocks. Fujiwara, known for her love of riddles, spends the entire second day trying to figure out the meaning behind it, but can't seem to figure out the answer. Kaguya ends up realizing that this is deliberate: Shirogane just threw some nonsense symbols together to distract Fujiwara long enough for him to put together his Grand Romantic Gesture.
  • Kaiji features an example in its second part: the Man-Eating Bog, a pachinko machine designed to never pay out. The defenses are intricate: first, the balls have to pass through a tight set of pins, followed by a set of flippers (which can be set to block any incoming ball whatsoever), and lastly, the balls have to pass through three trays: one with three holes, one with four holes, and one with five holes. Each tray has only one correct hole. This last one is the kicker: the trays, machine, and even the floor itself are tilted ever so subtly, and there's a slight bump around the final jackpot hole. These circumstances make it literally impossible for a ball to enter the fifth hole. Even if that gets bypassed, there are small air blasters installed around the final hole, able to blow away balls that are headed for the jackpot.
  • Sword Art Online has the Grand Quest in ALO. The enemies spawn endlessly, meaning that no matter how long you fight, you'll eventually be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers. The AI is also competent enough to target healers. And assuming that a player can somehow make it past all the enemies and get to the door at the end in one piece, the door is restricted to admins. This is because the door actually leads to where Sugou is holding Asuna and experimenting on the 300 other SAO players' minds.
  • The labyrinth riddle from the Paradox brothers in Yu-Gi-Oh!. They are a couple of liars and in the anime, they change the right answer at will. Yami Yugi figures out the answer because in the standard riddle, the person making the decision finds a sign with the rules but since the Paradox brothers instead told them the rules themselves and indicated there was at least one liar between them, nothing would stop the liar from lying about the rules to begin with. He decides to fight fire with fire and gets the answer out of the Paradox brothers using his own Unwinnable by Design coin game to figure out the way out of the labyrinth.

    Card Games 
  • Klondike Solitaire has many possible deals that are unwinnable; in some cases, there may be no valid moves besides dealing. The odds of dealing an unwinnable game are believed to be between 8.5% to 18%. The fact that the exact odds have not yet been determined has been called "one of the embarrassments of Applied Mathematics."
    • In comparison, some 99.999% of the possible FreeCell deals are solvable. Of the 32,000 standard games from Windows FreeCell, exactly one (#11982) is impossible to solve. In addition, entering -1 or -2 as the game number results in an unsolvable deal.
      • XP and onward have 1,000,000 deals. Out of those million, 8 are unsolvable.
      • Vista introduced games -3 and -4, which are very much the opposite.
    • In general, card solitaires often have a high percentage of unwinnable deals, with FreeCell being an unusual exception. Even an Undo button will not save you in many cases.

    Comic Strips 
  • In one series of FoxTrot strips, Andy buys Peter some guaranteed non-violent video games. Nice City, which is all about not killing anyone, becomes Unwinnable if you so much as step on an ant.

  • In the adventure book series Lone Wolf:
    • In the second book, Fire on the Water, there is a magic spear that can be missed. It is the only weapon you get that can kill Helghasts, and you WILL encounter at least two of them. Even if you get it, there is an opportunity to give it to an ally so that he can survive guarding the mouth of a cave and allow you to continue. Sure enough, later on, if you did the right thing and gave it to him...then you made the book unwinnable. He never shows up again. You are forced to face a Helghast that proceeds to kill you because you lack any weapon that can harm it.

      It is possible to get past this part without having the magic spear, but it requires picking the right skill from the very beginning, choosing the right path, and talking to mice. Guide Dang It!! And in the original version, if you have the spear and give it up, then you miss the chance to talk to the mice. The free online Project Aon version fixes this.
    • The first three books are bad with this. In addition to the magic spear kerfluffle, book two becomes Unwinnable if you fail to get the vitally-important Seal of Hammerdale back in Ragadorn or if you sell it later for extra cash. Also in book two, if you don't have enough money to pay meals and lodging for the entire carriage journey, then you'll be forced to sleep in the stables at the last stop, where an assassin will get you in your sleep.
    • In book three, you have to go downstairs instead of up at one point, or you'll never meet the captive wizard who has to help you in the final battle. Noticeably, the game actually contains some thirty-odd sections on the route if you go the wrong way, including fights and opportunities to use your abilities, all of which are completely pointless on account of the path having no route to victory – it leads to the series' only non-lethal Non Standard Game Over. There's also the important-looking magic gem that is evil and will kill you if you hold on to it too long – though if you do meet the captive wizard, he will recognize it and get you to dispose of it shortly after you meet him.
    • The seventh book, Castle Death, has an In-Universe case: the Maze of Zahda is designed to be unescapable. There are only two ways to escape it: discovering an old door that was bricked up and breaking it down, or a monster shorting out the overhead forcefield with its death throes, enabling you to climb up its corpse to the maintenance gantries. Trying to play the maze fairly will get you killed.
  • Give Yourself Goosebumps:
    • The book Escape from the Carnival of Horrors can be unwinnable. Instead of having a game-over, it causes you to repeatedly jump back and forth between two pages forever to simulate the player being trapped inside a hall of mirrors.
    • Certain bad endings are determined by factors entirely outside of the reader's control. In one Goosebumps book, you are shrunken to a tiny size and have to deal with a (to you) enormous rat. Your decision in the matter is determined by how many letters are in your first name. If your first name has an odd number, you successfully evade the rat and can continue onward. If your first name has an even number? Your attempt to make friends with the rat works a little too well and it takes you back to its nest where you spend the rest of your days raised by a small furry mammal. Game Over. In another book, getting one of the good endings is determined by your height. In the same book, on the path to another ending, you die if you're not left-handed. In some other absurd scenarios, you will be led to a Game Over page if you are not left-handed, if you are reading the book while the weather is rainy outside, or if you are not wearing blue-colored clothes while reading the book.
    • Another one about a Cave Spirit involves far more than remembering stories. You have to select which weapons or spells your character will be armed with. The hunter's path is always the hardest because your weapons have finite ammo or durability. If you use the wrong weapon at a certain time or don't PICK the right weapon to use at a certain obstacle, then the game is unwinnable. To make matters even worse, you can actually lose the one weapon you need for the ending by using it on the wrong obstacle early on. Plus, at the beginning of the hunter's path, there are two weapons you NEED to pick to get a good ending – fail to pick either of them (you can only pick three of four weapons) and you'll meet an untimely end later on. (Hint: the weapon you can use only once is pretty much useless and use of it will spell instant death for you – unless you're on a certain story path, which only leads to two bad endings anyway.) The spellcaster's path is easier, as you can actually choose not to get into any problematic situations until you meet the Cave Spirit again...but you'd better steer clear of the park or else kiss the path's best ending goodbye (because you either will be turned into a frog/snake or destroy the one thing you need to defeat the Cave Spirit to escape).
    • In Inside UFO 54-40, the best ending is deliberately unreachable through regular gameplay (or, as the book puts it, by "making a choice or following directions").
    • There are cases of the readers having to choose between Choice A or Choice B to get out of dire situations. Choice B would lead to Choice C or Choice D which both ended up in Game Over Page, meanwhile Choice A is inaccessible without getting certain item(s) first that most people would not know without getting some Game Over pages beforehand unless they are psychic.
  • Extremely common in Fighting Fantasy books. There are many plot-critical items that are Permanently Missable Content and if you fail to pick them up before the Point of No Return or use them beforehand you are either stuck or cannot defeat the final boss, leading to a Non-Standard Game Over, which you won't be aware of until it's too late. The same thing happens when you have to perform a series of actions whereby one path in the chain allows success whereas the others are failures, often long before your decisions come into effect. Sometimes the book is merciful, such as when it tells you that you need as specific item beforehand or relies on basic genre awareness (bringing a stake and garlic along in a vampire-themed book should always be a good idea), thus setting you looking for those things. Other times, the things you need to progress are totally arbitrary.
    • In the first book, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, you have to find keys to retrieve the treasure in the end. If you don't find them or bring along the wrong ones, the game is unwinnable and you lose even though having defeated the final boss.
    • In the City of Thieves gamebook, the player needs to gather a compound to rub into the undead overlord's face, comprised of three items. Just before the final dungeon, you find out you need only two of the three, but you aren't told which ones. The final action in the book is choosing which two you combined. Two combos result in a one line death. The other results in a one line victory. There are no clues to help you. Also there's an inescapable area: if you try to scale a building you're trying to infiltrate, then you'll be faced by a gargoyle. You're told you need a magic sword to beat it. Say you have one, and the game chides you for cheating, saying you can't have one yet. Say you don't, and you're dead. Oh, and the alternative is to approach a guarded door.
    • House of Hell: There are areas in the game that are inescapable as soon as you reach them, like the kitchen where every possible action leads to death. Also if you fail to pick up a well-hidden clue, you won't find a secret door that gives the only way to win the game. Also, if you roll low on your initial fear score, the game is unwinnable (you have to take at least 8 fear points throughout the game and when you take as many as your initial score - which can be from 7 to 12 - you die from fear).
    • Scorpion Swamp: If you fail to find a certain berry you still get infinite chances to do so to complete the "good" storyline. However you also have the chance to eat it up, in which case the game is unwinnable.
    • Moonrunner: If a particular item is not picked up and the Big Bad uses a particular random attack, then the book becomes unwinnable because of a hypnotically implanted cue that turns you into a monster in the final area.
    • Crypt of the Sorcerer follows a VERY narrow path to have even a remote chance of winning. Among other things, you need to smear yourself with a certain creature's blood to avoid death from a huge lizard monster in the middle of the book. The creature is met at the very beginning of the gamebook, and smearing yourself with the blood gives you a random chance of dying.
    • Magehunter also involves a ridiculously narrow win path. The plot involves a body swapping mechanic, and in order to get the proper ending you need to get yourself, the Big Bad and your companion back into the correct bodies by the end of the book. Making the wrong decisions right at the start will leave the bodies mixed up in a way that is impossible to fix, with the result that vast swaths of the book are devoted to activities that will never result in a victory. Only by mastering the body swapping magic and switching into the right people at the exact right times can the reader come out on top.
    • Rebel Planet: At one point, you break into an enemy armoury. There, you get the chance to take 2 out of 4 weapons. You must pick the right ones and guess which order to use them, or you die. There are no clues to help you.
    • Trial of Champions contains a luck-based challenge forcing you to choose a chain of maneuvers against a blind kendo master, all of which are essentially random and lead to either total victory or end of game with no use of skill or items. The same book also has a wizard who requires you to have gathered exactly nine gold rings from random places as well as the code numbers to use them. Failure at any point is instant death.
    • The Big Bad confrontation in Return to Firetop Mountain requires the player to have gathered gold teeth with numbers written on them (Hope you don't have to forfeit a gold item in the eyeball-eating contest!), a series of tiny book pages saying how to use them, a magnifying glass to read the pages, a throwing knife to throw at a rat to avoid it stealing the tooth, and a successful skill roll to hit the rat. After all this, you finally get to fight Zagor, who may kill you if the print-based Quicktime Events didn't already.
    • Knights of Doom has an amusing but sadistic example in the form of the Assassin's Dagger. This intangible opponent will plague you for the whole game, and can only be permanently defeated by choosing an appropriate skill before the adventure even starts or by buying a certain item. Otherwise, the book will give you opportunities to trap the dagger and run away, only for it to keep escaping and catching up with you later on. If you don't finish it off, then it finally manages to plunge itself into your back just as you confront the Big Bad...
    • In order to defeat the Big Bad in Armies of Death, you need the Crystal of Light. You learn about the Crystal from an Oracle, who will only give you the information in exchange for a golden brooch. The brooch is obtained early on in the game by winning a bar bet. The chance of winning the bet is 50/50. Thus, even if you do everything right, win every battle and succeed at every other test, you have a 50/50 chance of losing the game less than a quarter of the way through and not even knowing it.
    • Vault of the Vampire: Failing to bring along a magic sword and a wooden stake makes the game unwinnable (although the Count could technically be beaten without a magic sword). Also not clearing enough of the Count's coffins when you have the option to does the same trick.
    • A Cruel example is found in The Crown Of Kings: At the very end of your adventure, you will be forced to find a safe means of escape from Mampang Fortress, and the only way to do so without using magic is to have much earlier found and befriended the well-concealed Samaritans of Schinn. If you play as a warrior and either fail to find them or fail to earn their trust, you will continue your adventure only to discover at the last that you cannot escape the Fortress.
    • Another Cruel example comes in Creature of Havoc: your first few "decisions" are determined by dice rolls. Almost from the beginning, getting the wrong roll will make you miss the only item you can use to defeat the main villain. It is possible to play the book until the final confrontation and lose because you missed an item you can only obtain by 50/50 chance near the very start. To make matters worse the game explicitly gives you the option to use it in any battle any time in your adventure, and it is destroyed after one use.
    • Yet another Cruel example in Master of Chaos: In order to make it to the end of the game you require a specific item which you can only gain in the first town you arrive in and you can be booted out of town if you take too long to find it or gorge yourself doing high profile things and get tossed out earlier. One long trip and an exploratory hunt in the final city later and only then does the game hit you with that item you needed to collect, fail to get it? Game over. The game doesn't even hint at where you could have gotten it from and you could have missed it taking another path with the person you get it from. At one point you can even lose it by using it as an item in another decision.
  • Dave Morris generally believed that heroes should be heroes, and in most of his books (other than The Fabled Lands and Heart of Ice) he punishes people for trying to play a Sociopathic Hero. In "Down Among The Dead Men", you and a few shipmates escape from an evil captain; later, after going across the ocean to reach civilization and proving your worth to the others, you become captain and lead a ship against the Big Bad... unless you've acted in a blatantly immoral fashion, such as demanding first dibs on food, murdering another captain in cold blood while they sleep (this also earns a What the Hell, Hero? from your shipmates), or letting a crewmate sing a really depressing song when morale is already critically low, just because you're too afraid to make him stop. In any of these cases, the adventure continues, but you have to note down a Codeword, and when you get to civilization, if that Codeword is on your sheet, your crew decides you're not cut out to be a captain and leaves you.
  • In another Dave Morris example, in Once Upon a Time in Arabia, you're unavoidably captured at one point and thrown in a pit. If you don't have one of two items, you'll get to continue for a few more sections before the game tells you that you're stuck there until you die. The game can become unwinnable before this if you lack the skills to get one of the right items on your particular route. The branches where you join a caravan can be particularly Cruel in this regard if you don't have the right skills.
  • Some of the Time Machine gamebooks give you one of several inventory items to pick at the beginning. Pick the wrong one? You're gonna be stuck.
  • Meanwhile has another "Infinite loop" scenario. If you use the SQUID, a device that allows you to experience the memories of whoever you attach it to, on yourself and set it to "Lifetime", you'll see the main character being born, growing up, getting to where the plot takes place and using the SQUID on himself, then since the flashback is part of your memories you'll see it again, and again, and again until you Rage Quit.
  • In Amazeworld's "The Maze" game, you can get trapped in the "Labyrinth of Death," a vicious cycle of links that form an infinite loop similar to Goosebumps: Escape from the Carnival of Horrors, if you click on too many or too blatantly wrong answers. The game is polite enough to warn you to "be very careful" if you're facing a specific question where only one of three answers doesn't link straight to the Labyrinth of Death, but it won't warn you anywhere else if there are incorrect answers that lead to the Labyrinth.
  • Wizards, Warriors and You: When playing as the Warrior, you're limited to choosing three weapons from an assortment before starting the adventure, alongside your trusty magic sword. There are many times where not having the right weapon (And almost as many where having the wrong weapon) will result in an unavoidable death and failure.

    Game Shows 
  • Knightmare had a No Backtracking rule, meaning it was easily possible for the teams to miss a vital clue or item. In a few cases, this led to an extremely hard Luck-Based Mission. Usually, it was only a matter of time before their mistake came back to kill them.
  • The Price Is Right:
    • The most famous game, Plinko, is technically close to unwinnable because the official rules only consider Plinko to be won if the full $50,000note  is won. The only way to do that is to win all four additional Plinko chips (by correctly answering 'either/or' questions), and then to have every one of the five chips land in the center slot (out of nine) at the bottom of the pegboard. Even hardcore TPIR fans consider the game to be won if that slot is hit at least once, but Word of God disagrees. Nobody has won the game since it was introduced in 1983, and nobody is likely to win it any time soon. The closest anyone came to winning was a contestant in 1990 who dropped four chips into the center slot and one into the $1,000 slot.
    • One early pricing game, "Bullseye" (not to be confused with another identically-named pricing game), has the dishonor of being the only pricing game with a "true" 0% win rate. The player had seven chances to guess the exact price of a car, and would be told whether their bids were too high or too low. They tried pretty hard to make the game easier — spotting the contestant a $500 bidding range, rounding the price to the nearest $10 and even playing it for a sailboat instead — but none of the tweaks helped, and the game was gone only two weeks in. Incidentally, if you know what you're doing, you could get the exact price (rounded to $10) if you can guess it within a $1,260 price range. The equally short-lived two-player variant, on the other hand, pretty much forced a win by ending when one of the contestants nailed the price; ironically, at least two games ended within less than seven guesses even though no bidding range or price rounding was used.
  • On Minute to Win It, those who make it far enough are subjected to a game they call "Supercoin", where you have to bounce a quarter into the top of a water jug from a few feet away in 60 seconds to win $1,000,000. The producers have allowed people to play it for $1,000,000 after meeting special conditions (either by winning the "last man standing" episodes which award a guaranteed $100,000 to their winners, or being a lucky audience member during their "million dollar mission" during Season 2). No one has won, and of the two times the $500,000 level was cleared, one couple was smart enough to walk away with the half million, and the other attempted the game and failed. A YouTube user has proven that part of the challenge is possible, the part involving bouncing the coin into the jug, but it took much longer than 60 seconds. Thankfully, losing on Supercoin would theoretically only drop you down to $250,000, which is still a good payout for a night's work. Eventually they lampshaded the whole ordeal by putting a safe point conveniently at $500,000. However, there was ONE person who managed to win Supercoin in under a minute – the host of the Turkish version!
  • On the Game Show Distraction, the winner must play an inverted Bonus Round, answering questions to save his or her prize(s) from damage or destruction. One game awarded the winner £5,000 in 50-pence coins, which a defeated opponent immediately started shoveling into a cement mixer. No matter how fast the winner answered the questions, there was no way to save all of the money.
    • The "cash in the toasters" round was just about as evil - you had to answer five questions, each of which allowed you to save £1,000 from a toaster before it went up in flames. The first toaster pushed down represented the last question you were asked - even if you had gotten the first four with no problem, the money in the fifth toaster was likely half gone by the final question.
  • Played for laughs on the short-lived You Don't Know Jack TV series. The "$2 Million Question" starts at $2,000,000 but starts counting down when host Paul Reubens started reading the question, after which something would inevitably interrupt him and stall the question so that the value was down to less than $1,000 by the time he finished reading it. Similarly:
    • Idiotest: The money clock starts when a puzzle appears. Without completely guessing or being lightning fast in the very first second, there is no way to win the puzzle's full value.
    • Divided is a game where three (or four) players must lock in the same answers to multiple-choice questions. The clock starts when the question choices appear and takes away money by the hundredth of a second.
  • Some physical challenges in Double Dare (1986) were set up this way.
    • The "Root Beer Relay" challenge involves one contestant filling up a root beer-like substance with a spray tap and sliding it to a teammate who has to fill a bucket across the line with it. At least twice, the bucket was not properly grounded and fell off the stool. The judges would declare this a loss despite such a case being beyond the contestants' control.
    • "High Five", used in Super Sloppy Double Dare, involves contestants breaking balloons that are hanging from a support beam. If a balloon falls off without popping, the challenge is rendered incomplete. This happened at least once, with the team understandably upset at the poorly-designed challenge.
    • Double Dare 2000 has a challenge similar to the one above where a contestant has to put on a hedgehog outfit and crawl underneath a set of balloons. Just like before, the challenge is lost if a balloon falls off without breaking. This once happened, during a Special Olympics episode no less, but thankfully it didn't affect the outcome of the game.
  • The UK Saturday morning kids' show Ghost Train included a gameshow called Skull which began with a quiz section. For every question the contestant got wrong, they'd have one more enemy in the following section (where the enemies were blindfolded and the contestant had to dodge them). However, the final question was a "Mafia question" (Barry Mafia being the name of the villain) which was unanswerable (eg, "What did I have for breakfast this morning?") ensuring there would always be at least one enemy. (Although on one occasion when a contestant got every other question wrong, the player's guess at the Mafia question was deemed correct!)
  • The Flemish Phone-in Game Shows are a perfect example of tricking people into something that seems easy, but that is impossible to solve.
    • During the very first years of those formats, the host was able to invent an answer on the spot. No matter what you answered, the host would say it is wrong, and when the time had come to reveal the answer he/she would remember the answers that were wrong and give an answer that wasn't previously given.
    • After people complained about it, the format was changed. This time the right answer was on a card. If one guessed the answer on the card correctly, the host and people behind the scenes would distract the audience to buy time to switch the card with another one.
    • After government court hearings, the format was changed again and split in two. This time it is "winnable", but good luck knowing the right answers, as they are nearly impossible to know.
      • One format involves guessing names that involve a particular subject. On one episode of Basta, they use one of the panels that has animals as a subject. They go to the zoo to see if they could find all of the animals written on the panels. One animal wasn't in the zoo, so they had to go to a school restaurant to find meat that was made from that animal. You might as well be looking up a random obscure word in the dictionary and asking people to define it.
      • Another one involves a "calculation". The term calculation is used loosely here, because you're not supposed to calculate the sum that is being presented in order to find the correct answer. Instead you have to add up all the letters and numbers to get the correct answer. Note that it's rather dubious as to what means what: while numbers that have been spelled out always work (like in "an after-eight"), the letters themselves are another matter and are frequently switched up (a good question to ask is whether or not the C in the question is just a C or if it's the Roman number 100 – and keep in mind that these games aren't afraid to put up Chinese counting units used in 1100 BC). All in all, you have such an obtuse game that requires such leaps of logic it would make a Conspiracy Theorist seem sane by comparison.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Amanda, once she was allowed to start designing and implementing her own traps in Saw III, had started designing them all to be inescapable. Whether you think this is because of her misanthropy and distrust of people's ability to change or her desire to put them out of their misery so they wouldn't have to deal with the devastating mental aftermath of a trap is up to your interpretation.
  • WarGames: The computer thinks it's playing a game called "Global Thermonuclear War". After analyzing all the scenarios, it finally concludes: "A strange game. The only winning move is not to play."
  • In the Final Destination franchise, once you're on Death's list, it will pursue you relentlessly until you're dead. While it is possible to intervene in someone's death so that Death "skips" them, Death will simply continue working its way through the list until it's cycled back to you- ad infinitum. Attempts to subvert the list such as giving birth, resuscitation and suicide have all failed so far, leaving Death unbeatable. Final Destination 5 introduces the new rule that you can kill someone in order to get their remaining lifespan, seemingly offering survivors an out. However the two characters who use this method in the film both inherit short lifespans and end up dying within a fortnight, the implication being that Death will just manipulate you into killing someone with very little time left anyway.
  • The Kobayashi Maru scenario from Star Trek is designed to be unwinnable, because it is a test of character. Needless to say, Kirk found a way to win by cheating.
    • The method of cheating is slightly different, depending on the continuity. In the original timeline (at least according to the Expanded Universe), he reprograms the simulation to give himself the reputation he hoped to one day have for real so that the Klingons would be hesitant to take him on in a fight. In the altered timeline, he just programs the Klingon ships to have their shields go down, turning the simulation into a turkey shoot.
  • In Wayne's World, Noah Vanderhoff boasts that the most popular game in his arcade is this; in order to reach level two, you have to defeat a certain enemy... which never spawns. Since the players don't know this, they keep feeding the game quarters and play on in the hopes of being the first to beat the level.
  • In Truth or Dare (2017), when the players start trying to use Exact Words to avoid the dares, the evil presence running the game just either ensures that they fail in those attempts at "cheating" or introduces dares that are inherently deadly.

  • Dungeon Crawler Carl: After the interstellar Syndicate destroys and 'reclaims' every man-made structure on Earth, the surviving humans have a chance to win the planet back by completing the eighteen-floor World Dungeon. However, the levels escalate in difficulty to the point where it's (deliberately) nigh-impossible to do; the all-time record is reaching level thirteen, and the one person who did that survived there for just half an hour. The real purpose of the Dungeon is to be broadcast as a galactic reality TV show, thus extracting even more value from the remnants of Earth. Carl determines that he's going to burn it all down and break the people responsible, deliberately disrupting the intended flow of the game to interfere with their expected income and drive them toward bankruptcy.
  • The Wheel of Time has "Snakes and Foxes", played with dice and tokens on a simple board. Kids grow out of it once they realize they can only escape the titular creatures and win by cheating. The game turns out to explain how to deal with the Aelfinn and Eelfinn, including the fact that cheating is necessary and that they work together to trap human victims.
  • In Ender's Game, the Giant's Drink simulation is unwinnable because it isn't really a game. Its only point is as a psychological gauge for each student. If they try it a few times and give up, good. If they keep on playing, despite having their avatar repeatedly killed, they have to be assessed for suicidal tendencies.
    • Then there's Ender, who breaks the system and takes a third option. Retconned in the sequel, though.
    • Arguably, the only real win is Bean's decision not to play at all, and even that is probably a bad move. He doesn't refuse to play to avoid the scenario; he'd just in the habit of not giving people anything that can be used to understand him or predict his actions. Being unwilling to play a computer game helps lead to his being put in life-threatening danger later. It's also a factor in him not being put in command at the end because the instructors didn't know what he was thinking, what his values were or how he would behave under pressure.
  • Catch-22 features the eponymous law, or regulation, or whatever. It is invoked by whatever abusive authority needs a heads I win, tails you lose argument. The prime example: Yossarian learns that any pilots who are insane are kept from flying combat missions and because of the extreme danger of flying combat missions all of the pilots are considered insane. But if you ask to be grounded you want to avoid combat, which is a rational decision, which means you are sane, and therefore you must fly combat missions.
  • Games Magazine's Gamebook short story Horace Beam and the Blue Peril has a cruel one: if Horace doesn't buy the crystal from the psychic in San Francisco, then even if he makes it to the end, he's shark bait due to not being able to access the ship. In short, reject the crystal and the sole hope for even staying alive is to end up in a gulag (a losing ending itself).
  • Conversed in Mako. The sudden twist during the final level of the VR game Mako Assault is that a group of Auran colonists imprisoned by the Alystierians have been brought to the refueling post the players are trying to destroy. Reiser claims that had Lee's team exfiltrated without rescuing the colonists, the game would have sent them on a final bonus level to rescue them, which was deliberately a no-win scenario. However, no such level exists.
  • Propositiones ad Acuendos Juvenes, a 9th century medieval Latin manuscript of math and logic problem, has one. The 43rd problem proposes a situation where a man wants to slaughter 300 pigs in 3 days. However, it says there has to be an odd number of pigs on each day, which makes it impossible. The Other Wiki theorizes this was written to punish troublesome students.note 
    • One answer: "On the first day, I will slaughter one pig. On the second day, I will slaughter one pig. On the third day, I will slaughter two-hundred-ninety-eight pigs, which is a truly odd number of pigs to slaughter in a single day."
  • In The Fifth Elephant, The Game has become this under Angua's brother Wolfgang. When their father was still in charge, the human had a chance at winning and gaining a prize of some kind for risking their life, but under Wolfgang, the human always dies. He's got the game set up so he and his pack toy with the human in question; if the human screws up early, they'll get killed by one of them, but if they manage to get to one of the few possible escape routes in the area, one of the werewolves is already there.
  • Raymond Smullyan's logic puzzle books have a few puzzles that are logically impossible to solve and are presented as either jokes or lessons on the limits of Knights and Knaves scenarios. An example of one of these puzzles is you wanting to marry an island princess, but her father will only let you marry her if you can prove with your statements that you're not a "normal" (e.g. someone capable of telling the truth or lying) but a "knight" (someone who always tells the truth) or "knave" (someone who always lies) instead – which is impossible to do, as a normal is capable of telling all the truths a knight can and all the lies a knave can. As Smullyan puts it in his given solution to this puzzle; "Sorry! Better luck on the next island!"
  • In Christopher Manson's Maze: Solve the World's Most Challenging Puzzle, any door in the Maze can be a one-way trip. Usually there's a circuituous way back around, but a small cycle of rooms are cut off from the rest. Enter any of the doors leading into it, and you'll only be able to circle through that tiny loop forever or hurl yourself into Room 24 and game over.
  • In the biblical story of Samson and Delilah, Samson challenges his wedding guests with a riddle: "Out of the eater came something to eat / Out of the strong came something sweet." The guests aren't able to guess it, so they resort to cheating by pressuring his wife to extract the answer from him. Samson doesn't take this well at all. (The answer is that Samson killed a lion and discovered that bees had made honey in its carcass.) This riddle is impossible for anyone to solve without cheating, since it relies on knowing about a specific incident where presumably Samson was the only one present.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Star Trek:
    • Command track Starfleet Academy cadets have to go through the Kobayashi Maru simulation, an unbeatable scenario where their ship will inevitably be lost with all hands, in order to graduate. This is not a subject matter exam so much as a Secret Test of Character to reveal command capability and personality traits, in particular how each cadet deals with failure. Many short stories examine how each character handled the simulation. Variations include use of diplomacy (crew still dies but considered a win), cheesing the simulator physics (breaks as more ships will spawn), invoking ritual combat (you die, but everyone else lives), and in the case of Nog, bribery.
      • James T. Kirk was the first captain to beat this unbeatable scenario... by reprogramming the computer the night before. One of William Shatner's own continuation novels had a new character bring up to Kirk about how he was the first to beat the Kobayashi Maru, and then immediately and unwittingly bring him down several pegs by revealing that everyone wins nowadays. It's become a programming challenge rather than test of character.
      • Star Trekker, a parody manga briefly published in the US by Antarctic Press until Paramount came down like a mountain on them, subverts this by having a Japanese captain fire on the freighter loaded with dilithium crystals, with the resulting explosion crippling the nearby Klingon cruisers. The captain is ordering a followup strike when Admiral Kirk himself (who doesn't want anyone else to win) kills the simulation and dresses her down. She explains that since saving the civilian vessel is a clear impossibility, priority has to be given to saving her own ship.
    • On Deep Space Nine, O'Brien and Bashir often spend their evenings playing a simulation of the battle of the Alamo in the holosuite, with themselves taking on the role of the doomed Texas soldiers. When asked why in the world they keep playing a battle scenario that's literally impossible to win, they explain that it's such an irresistible challenge precisely because it's unwinnable. After their previous simulations of RAF officers in the Battle of Britain and Spartans at Thermopylae, counselor Ezri was getting kind of worried about them.
    • The episode "Court Martial" of the original series has a scene where McCoy comes across Spock playing computer chess when he should be busy preparing Kirk's defense for the titular court martial case where the ship's computer records are being used to prove that he was guilty of getting a crew member killed via negligence. Spock reveals that he's doing just that, because he programmed the computer to play chess himself, and thus he should not be able to win against it. Him being able to beat it four times in a row is evidence that the computer has been tampered with.
    • In the Next Generation episode "Thine Own Self", Troi thinks at first that the promotion exam is supposed to be unwinnable, and it's supposed to gauge how an applicant handles a hopeless situation. It's not. Troi finally realizes that the only winning move is to order a subordinate to do something she knows he won't survive, so that the ship won't be destroyed. She gives the order, passes the exam, and makes Commander.
  • Stargate SG-1:
    • In one episode, the team is ensnared in an alien device that keeps making them relive the same memory over and over again, offering them the opportunity to "set things right". However, every time they try to, the scenario is changed and forces them to fail. Even if they anticipate the previous change and prepare for it, the machine will create a modified scenario in which they still fail. O'Neill responds with a Rage Quit.
    • There is also an episode where Teal'c is hooked up to a simulator through his mind, and is constantly going through the same base invasion scenario. The other characters realize that because the real Teal'c wouldn't give up, neither will the simulation in trying to beat him. The problem herein is two fold; for one, the machine is based on the alien devices in the former episode, and for two, Teal'c's mission in the simulator is to defeat the Goa'uld trying to destroy the Star Gate Command, but since Teal'c is absolutely convinced the Goa'uld can never be completely defeated, his subconsciousness constantly creates worse and worse scenarios. It's eventually beaten by putting Daniel into it and giving him a 2-second future vision, which eventually pays off and gets them out of the game after finally winning.
  • In an episode of WKRP in Cincinnati where Johnny incorrectly announces the prize for a "guess the songs" contest ($5000 instead of $50.00) he and Venus try to make the contest unwinnable, but the second person who calls in ends up winning it.
  • In an episode of Alice (1976), Mel sets up a "Spell 'M-E-L-S' To Win" contest for a $500 grand prize. After raising the grand prize to $10,000 (to one-up a competitor who offered $1000 on a similar contest), Mel destroys the only "E" game piece to avoid having to pay. (Even if he did want to pay, he didn't have the money.) Vera reassembled the destroyed piece and discovered that Mel ripped up an "M", not the "E". Cue diner regular Henry finding the "E" piece.note 
  • Kamen Rider Ex-Aid: In Kamen Sentai Gorider, Kuroto Dan set up a Locked Room Mystery game, with protagonist Emu and several deceased Kamen Ridersnote  trapped in a Amusement Park of Doom trying to figure out what's going on and how to get out. And simply not playing the game isn't an option, since it's infinitely spawning monsters that will eventually overrun the planet. The main problem is that Emu keeps getting killed and "reset" back to the beginning with his memories of the past loop erased. It eventually turns out that Kuroto made the game unwinnable on purpose, planning to use the despair of the captive Riders to bring himself back to life, manipulating events while disguised as Kenzaki. However, he ended up screwing himself since this draws the attention of the real Kenzaki; once he enters the game, everything comes crashing down because, as established in Blade, if the Joker is the only Undead in the world, the world ends.
  • A two-time All That sketch about a Game Show called "You Can't Win!" is all about this. No matter what the contestants do, they'll never get a question right, since the host will do things such as ask a question with a nonsensical answer, ask a nonsensical question, or even announce a question but never actually say it. The 10 second challenges are also this, since they involve doing things that tend to be impossible altogether (such as turning a sheep into a dolphin). One contestant actually completed a 10-second challenge of eating 400 meatballs, but was still ruled as a loss because she actually ate 403 meatballs, which was 3 too many.
  • A MADtv (1995) sketch about a Game Show called "Get Your Land Back" decides to pull this in a lightning round to eliminate all the contestants so that they don't get any land back. The round involves the contestants having to guess the correct word (Alabaster, shown on-screen below) without any hints as to what it is. When the third contestant manages to guess "Alabaster", we see the word change to "Alabama" and he's considered wrong and eliminated.
  • Just Roll With It: On a game show, the family have to spin a wheel containing donuts, several of which are packed with disgusting flavors. Each one hopes they get the "good" donut in a spin. It's after each has consumed a horrible treat that they're informed there was no "good" donut at all.
    • Blair has to take part in a "high stakes water gun race" against a sinister gang boss. The real-life mothers of the two actors are placed above water tanks and Kaylin Hayman's mother ends up dunked when she loses. When the actor playing the gang boss remarks "we've been having trouble with the tanks," his mother also gets dunked with both actors apologizing profusely.
  • The Thundermans: Games created by Cybron James in the episode "Doppel-Gamers". He advertised that all of his games were unwinnable. They were because he invoked this trope.

  • On Star Trek (Stern), each mission has three stages. On a machine with un-updated game code, the second stage of every mission requires 65,535 shots to complete it. This is a number so ludicrously high that the machine will likely break down before you can get that many shots (making it undoubtedly unwinnable), assuming you don't lose or exhaust yourself before then. A patch released soon afterwards lowered the number down to a much more realistic 15 shots each. This can still be a problem for operators with Star Trek machines in public who don't know about the patch, however.

    Print Media 
  • Games Magazine's Escape from the Forest puzzle has a few. Did you pick the wrong fruit? Or did you land the ark in the wrong place? You'll be torn to pieces by the ogre if you try to reach Anagrammaticus, because you can't assemble the proper word. The earlier Escape from the Dungeon is the same way.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Paranoia does this pretty much all the time. The public and private PC goals are routinely in direct conflict, so someone is going to fail at something (cue the Blame Game, which the debriefing is specifically designed to invoke). Occasionally a clever PC will find a way to get credit for appearing to succeed. Individually, goals tend to range from Failure Is the Only Option to merely ludicrously difficult (or "even if the GM can't think of a way to succeed, throw it at them anyway, they might come up with something").
    • More than one classic Paranoia module doesn't even reach the debriefing stage, with the PCs never even making it back for debriefing. In Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues, the Troubleshooters survive the adventure ... but Alpha Complex doesn't.
    • In the Paranoia XP edition, the sample mission is winnable, sort of. The PCs can deal with the scrubbot virus just by surviving the finale. Problem is, that wasn't the mission they were supposed to go on. The Troubleshooters were actually supposed to go looking for missing nuclear fuel, but they met with the wrong mission officer.
    • And the mission The Quantum Traitor does this even more blatantly; the name of the adventure should be a clue that whatever the players do with the sealed environment they're given, it turns out that what's inside is something that makes their choice wrong.
  • Bleak World has exactly 2 endings for ghosts: the first is walking the Earth as a disembodied spirit for all eternity before eventually turning into a wraith or being killed by a reaper and ending up in the second death. The second is to put all your points into hold at the start of the game (only possible for 2 races) and go through the mind numbing process of causing enough love or human misery to open up a portal to heaven where they will likely be attacked by the final boss anyway.
  • The original Call of Cthulhu RPG from Arkham House is this: even the lowliest enemies can kill you real quick in a direct fight, and even seeing one of them can drive your character insane. It's a wonder why they bothered to print game stats for the actual Mythos figures, which are so overpowering that they can't really be used in actual gameplay (they do lampshade this a bit with Cthulhu itself, whose attack reads "Each round 1d4 Investigators are scooped up to die horribly in its terrible maw.")
  • Many co-operative board games like Pandemic as well as some solo games like Patience (a.k.a. Solitaire) have random initial conditions, which can mean that a given game is lost before it has even been begun when the draw is such that no choices the player(s) can make will lead to victory. To a great extent the aim of the game is to find out whether you're in one of those games or not.
  • In the 15-puzzle or "boss" puzzle (one of the first group-theory puzzles, if not the first), only half the possible arrangements of the tiles can be reached from the solved position by sliding the tiles as one is supposed to do to solve the puzzle. For this reason the boss puzzle is called a parity puzzle: meaning one with two distinct sets of configurations that determine how or if they can be solved.note  Sam Loyd exploited this to publicize the puzzle by offering a cash prize for solving a position which he knew to have the wrong (unsolvable) parity. Many other parity puzzles (like the Rubik's Cube) have a similar situation.
  • An interesting "game" one can play is called Nim. Despite its seeming simplicity, a very sophisticated mathematical analysis has revealed that the layout and rules of the game can be used to predetermine a winner provided the player knows the trick. One easy-to-see version of this involves a single row with a total number of elements that are a multiple of N. Provided the limit of items that can be taken per turn is N-1 (the common limit is 3, so you want a multiple of 4, like 12), as long as the second player knows this, he can always win the game.note  Just as interestingly, if the total number is not a multiple of N, the first player can always win.note 
  • This was the point of the Dungeons & Dragons module "The Apocalypse Stone". Before the story even starts, the world is irrevocably doomed - the goal isn't to save the world, but to go down fighting a la Ragnarok.
  • The BattleTech scenario Last Stand of the Black Watch is like this, as evidenced by the title. The Royal Black Watch was an elite unit of the Star League that was destroyed during the Amaris Coup. In the scenario, the last surviving eight Black Watch Battlemechs are defending themselves from an overwhelming array of Amaris-backed coup forces (36 units or more). There are only two possible outcomes: either the Black Watch dies to the last man, or they inflict enough damage that Amaris decides to Nuke 'em (this is the canon outcome). Black Watch players can only hope to die gloriously and take as many Coup forces with them – canonically, these last eight Royal Black Watch units destroyed more than three times their number in enemy Battlemechs and tanks before Amaris finally nuked them.
  • Chess:
    • Once one player's only left piece is the king, there's no possible way to win the game for this player, because a lone king cannot give checkmate under any circumstances. Even if the opponent runs out of time, it still will only be considered a draw.
    • A draw by insufficient material happens when this occurs for both sides, resulting in a scenario where neither player can possibly checkmate the opponent with their remaining pieces (such as a bare king for each player or each player having a bishop on the same colored squares and nothing elsenote ).
  • The Wretched is a solo-RPG designed around drawing cards from a standard 52-card deck (and a Jenga tower). Games following that design have an objective to draw an Ace of Hearts and clearing 10 tokens (by rolling six on a six-sided die after each set of cards) before four kings are drawn from the deck. The chance of winning is 0.01%, and it's often due to the rate at which cards needs to be drawn, along with the difficulty to remove a token. Games based on this system generally assume that the player will not "win".

    Web Animation 
  • DSBT InsaniT: Kayla, in a rare moment of brilliance, talks about the reasons arcade games are like this in 'VRcade'.
    Kayla: That's because arcades, like all other businesses, need to make money. The longer you play, the less amount of money you are giving them, thus, to gain said money, as you progress through the game, the difficulty increases until it reaches such a spike that even the most reactive and perfectly-timed maneuvers are going to eventually end in your loss, thus requiring you to provide the machine additional funds in order to resume your enjoyment of the game.
    • This is pretty much half the premise of 'Carneelval' where its filled with rigged games. Examples include the rings in ring toss being too light, the balloon darts game having darts that are too dull, and the mallet in the bell-ringing game not being heavy enough.

  • Erfworld:
    • Parson creates a turn-based strategy game designed to be unwinnable while following the rules – the only way to win would be to surprise the gamemaster through lateral thinking. Originally Parson wanted to try the game on his friends, until he was teleported into a wargame universe with the same setup but different mechanics...
    • Erfworld's economy is specifically set up so that none of the factions can ever control a large part of the board alone. Cities are the main source of income, but every one you add reduces the income from every city a side controls. Around a dozen cities you start to lose income by expanding further. The biggest side seen in the series so far, Haffaton, turned out to have a negligible defense even against a tiny side (of pacifists) simply because they couldn't afford the cost and upkeep of units.
  • xkcd 724, providing the image for Unwinnable Joke Game: a Tetris game where the bottom is curved, rendering it impossible to complete a line. The sequel makes up for it, though.
  • SBURB, the Reality Warper computer game from Homestuck, has many subroutines that are unwinnable without considerable lateral thinking. These subroutines are split into making the game a null session (everything needed to win is there and works, but the session is doomed to fail because You Can't Fight Fate), a void session (elements critical to victory are not present in the session, meaning it goes on forever without a win condition appearing), and a dead session (a victory exists, but it's so far removed from a normal session that you might as well be playing a different game).
    • Prospit's war with Derse is inherently unwinnable without the intervention of the players to help defeat the Black King.
    • A session without a Space player is doomed to failure, as only a Space player's Land will have the necessary materials to create the Genesis Frog and leave the game.
    • Trying to play SBURB alone renders the standard win condition and player reward completely unattainable. The game still continues, but in a radically different manner, one that seems custom-built to be as soul-crushingly boring and difficult as possible, to the point that one player who went through such a session (and failed) believes it was designed to be unbeatable. As far as anyone knows, only one player across the infinite number of universes, past, present, and future, has ever succeeded in winning a solo session: the Big Bad, Lord English, aka Caliborn.
    • There is an in-game one-time-use Reset Button known as The Scratch (think broken records and games of billiards). The Scratch restarts a game session with a different set of players who have a higher chance of success, although a win is still not guaranteed. Players in at least one post-Scratch session do NOT have the option to Scratch again, so pre-Scratch sessions need to do all they can to ensure win conditions on the replay before Scratching. The pre-Scratch kids find ways to transport themselves and their fully-prototyped Battlefield into the post-Scratch session to make up for its lack of prototyping.
    • All players must prototype their kernelsprite at least once before entering the game. If even a single player has not done so before entry, the battlefield does not reach its fertile stage and the game is unwinnable unless someone finds a way to bring the missing battlefield and forge, like the pre-Scratch kids did.. Since Sburb exists in nonlinear time, it knows in advance if the players will fail at this, and the players' worlds will be haunted and empty.

    Web Original 
  • Who Says: When Anika first arrives in Heaven, she is dressed in pull-ups, provided an unlimited supply of apple-juice and instructed by their angel caretaker that they will eventually to learn how to "outgrow" the need to potty at all (as well as learn how to see beyond the third dimension) over time. Eventually it's revealed that the opposite was the case, the angels conditioning them into babyhood. At that point, Anika had come to the conclusion that it was all a Secret Test of Character to shed their grown-up worries, but by then she was too far gone.

    Web Video 
  • "The Last Days Of Dr. Wily" has Mega Man: Wily Does it Himself, depicted as a montage at the end of the video. Dr. Wily makes good on some of his ideas mentioned earlier, such as a Bottomless Pit that's too wide for Mega Man to jump over, or having a level start with Mega Man surrounded by One-Hit Kill spikes.

    Western Animation 
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Gaang runs into a man running a Shell Game, propelling the pebble into his sleeve so it won't be found. Toph, being an Earthbender, puts a stop to that very quickly and clears the guy out.
  • In an episode of Family Guy, during a game night, the cast plays Cleveland Brown's choice of board game, Two Decades of Dignity, that purports to simulate the experience of African Americans. After being sent to jail for looking at a white woman, Peter asks how one is supposed to win, to which Cleveland replies, "You don't win; you just do a little better each time."
  • KaBlam!: One episode of "Sniz and Fondue" involved a gacha dispenser that gave out spiders, considered to be the most popular, as one of the prizes inside gacha eggs. However, it turns out that the company deliberately doesn't put any spiders in the eggs so that kids will keep coming back hoping to get them. After bringing down the guy in charge of the company, Sniz and Fondue make a deal with him and are given dispensers that give out nothing but spiders.
  • The Robot Chicken sketch for the Hall of Memory game. The game is only winnable through trial and error, in which every error kills the previous contestant.
  • An old Paramount cartoon with anthropoid animals featured a quiz show for kids. Because of the tight budget, they made the game supposedly unwinnable by means of questions no kid should be able to know so they wouldn't have to pay for prizes. The punchline of the cartoon is that a genius owl comes on stage who can answer anything they throw at him, even beating a computer. In the end, all the owl really wanted was the lollipop given for answering the first (still ridiculously hard) question.
  • In an episode of The Raccoons, wanting to improve sales for his line of potato chips, Cyril comes up with a giveaway contest. He distributes pieces of a jigsaw puzzle into bags of chips, offering a grand prize (an expensive bicycle) to whoever completes the entire puzzle. However, Cyril deliberately produced only one copy of a particular piece, with the intent of never distributing it. Bert, not knowing that the contest is rigged, manages to collect all of the other pieces without too much trouble, but ultimately blows all of his money trying to find the final (impossible) piece. Cyril's plan seems to be working, until the pigs accidentally lose the winning piece in the chip factory's assembly line, leading to it getting packaged into one of the bags.
  • Rugrats: In "Ice Cream Mountain", Stu and Drew Pickles are competing at miniature golf, where the course's final hole, "Ice Cream Mountain", allows a free game to golfers who make a hole-in-one. However, the course owner has fixed it so that nobody would get it. That is, until the babies, who were supposed to be taken out for ice cream, find it, believing it's a literal ice cream mountain, and inadvertently unrig the last hole, to the point of making it impossible not to win, leading to Stu and Drew, along with other golfers, making holes-in-ones and getting free games, much to the horror of the owner.
  • In one episode of U.S. Acres, Roy was hosting a trivia show entitled You Can't Win. He was offering fabulous prizes to anyone who could win, but only asked questions that no sane individual would actually know the answer to (i.e. the address of a particular dry cleaner in Venezuela). Meanwhile, Orson happens to receive an alien necklace that allows him to read other people's minds. Orson uses the necklace to win at Roy's show, not to claim any prizes, but to get Roy to stop.

    Real Life 
  • The literacy tests used to register voters in the South were often made insanely difficult for Black People who were forced to prove themselves as acceptable voters. Subjective grading ensured even schoolteachers and college graduates failed them.
    • Some voters were asked the number of bubbles in a bar of soap.
    • The Amazing Atheist took one of these and tried to do it in the ten minutes one was supposed to solve it. Even as a decently intelligent modern-age guy, he completely failed due to several tiny mistakes and eventually running out of time when he had solved at best 60% of it all. [1]
    • On top of how difficult the tests themselves were, they were also incredibly vaguely-worded and often lacked a standardized answer. An easy example would be "name the three forms of local government in this state" when the state actually only has two forms, meaning that a "correct" answer listing the two could be failed for not listing three, an answer that attempted to list a third could be failed for making up an answer, and an answer that pointed out the mistake could be failed because obviously they're disagreeing with the test and therefore they must be wrong. This meant that no matter how the question was answered, even if someone did know the correct answers, the examiner could fail it if they felt like it (and considering it was the rural South, they absolutely did).
    • Often they were literally impossible to pass, but people whose grandfathers were allowed to vote were allowed to skip the impossible test. This is the original Grandfather Clause. No unfair grading required.
  • Similarly to above, in Australia, the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 allowed immigration officers to submit prospective migrants a dictation test in any European language. Any European language. Its purpose was to exclude any undesirable migrants (i.e. Asians and Polynesians) from entering. For example, a German would have to pass this test in German before being admitted, while a Chinese would have to pass it in English and then, if he succeeded, in any language until he failed, thereby allowing his deportation.
    • On 1934, Communist and anti-war journalist Egon Kisch was asked to pass this test in English and then in several other European languages until he failed to recopy the Lord's Prayer in Scottish Gaelic (more about this here).
      • A related case was Irishman anti-war activist Gerald Griffin, who was failed after being given a test in Dutch.
    • A new form of this would be enforced in the new millennium. You are now required to take an English test before applying for immigration to Australia. And the requirement is so stringent (8 across the board. The maximum score each of the segments in the test is 9) that even native English speakers have been denied entry. Accidentally spoke with an accent or even stammered during the oral segment of the test? Or made a mistake on more than one question in the comprehension segment? Bad handwriting in the Essay segment? You blew it.
  • In the Soviet Union, candidates of Jewish or any other undesirable extraction received special tests in order to fail them without sounding too much like blatant discrimination.
  • Many street level or carnival games are unwinnable. For example, the classic Shell Game often has the scammer running the game stuff the rock into their sleeves so any choice the person makes will be the wrong one.
    • A lot of governments have taken note and by law, carnival games have to be winnable, but only technically such. So instead of making it outright impossible to win, the game is designed in such a way that unless you're a professional athlete with the right skills, know that there's a tiny sweet spot that lets you win, or basically only under the most absolute perfect conditions, you won't win.
  • Speaking about operating systems for computers, due to Executive Meddling between Apple and Nvidia, later macOS versions have discontinued the drivers for the Nvidia graphics cards, so trying to shove a Nvidia card past the point these versions were made (i.e., a Pascal-based GTX, or a Turing-based RTX) for the MacOS version 10.14 (Mojave) will not show images at worst. AMD graphics cards (such as Polaris and Vega-based Radeon cards) on other hand received continued support from Apple, but only on a certain basis. Time will tell if the later AMD Navi-based Radeons will receive Apple support, though.
  • In Test Cricket, a team can win only if they manage to get 10 batsmen from their opponent out, twice. How easy it is for a bowler to dismiss a batsman often depends on how the groundskeeper has prepared the pitch (a 22 yard area between the area where the bowler bowls and the batsman waits to receive the ball). Some pitches are made bouncy to support pace bowling, others are made with crevices to support spin bowling, while some may even have both. And then, some pitches are made “flat and dead” so that batting is much easier. While this is done for the purpose of entertaining the crowd with batsmen easily scoring lots of runs, it also makes the match impossible to win for any side - because it will be impossible to dismiss an entire batting order twice. The match will end in a draw.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Intentionally Unwinnable


Dr. Wily made it impossible

Having enough of everyone getting in his way of killing Mega Man, Dr. Wily designed the stages to be impossible to get through.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (1 votes)

Example of:

Main / UnwinnableByDesign

Media sources: