To any victim of long-term incarceration, being set free from it is the ultimate MacGuffin. Of course, it won't come cheap, but when the alternative is to rot and die in captivity, they'll gladly risk their life on whatever No OSHA Compliance Death Course is required of them to get it.
The favorite motivational carrot of Boxed Crooks and Condemned Contestants, since they're already locked away, but the threat of incarceration can be used preemptively so long as the victim is already powerless to resist. Any kind of Deadly Game or Gladiator Games is likely to have this as the prize since most people wouldn't risk their life without an appropriately large reward. Likewise, the Most Dangerous Game has life as the reward.
One common variant would be when it's the victims friend or family member whose freedom they're trying to win. Shows great dedication when the victim could just turn and walk away and leave them to their fate.
Since the kind of people who are locked up are typically not someone the captors want to let out, not to mention that doing so would mean losing their services, it's common for them to sabotage the victims attempts at fulfilling the terms of the agreement, just changing them as needed, or lying and killing them. If anyone asks, the previous "winners" were Released to Elsewhere. Just about every Evil Overlord does it at some point, typically making the challenge Unwinnable by Design. Of course the hero wins, only to realize he was being baited and breaks free instead.
- The Warden of the Zufu prison in Lupin III: Dead or Alive tells the prisoners they have a chance to escape the jail. They have five minutes to run before the guards start Hunting the Most Dangerous Game.
- In Berserk, when Guts decided to leave the Band of the Hawk to find his own dream so he could be a true friend and peer to Griffith, Griffith didn't take it well at all. He reminds Guts that he won Guts' service by beating him in a swordfight years ago and declares that Guts would have to win his freedom with his sword. As they get ready for a rematch, Griffith realizes that the strike with the best chance of defeating Guts in one blow also has a high chance of killing him. Griffith decides it doesn't matter, having gone Yandere for him over time. All for naught, since Guts is strong enough to break Griffith's sword with one strike, defeating him effortlessly.
- In the Dressrosa arc of One Piece, this is part of the legendary gladiator Kyros's backstory. As a teen, he killed two people in cold blood as revenge for his own dead friend, and was arrested as a result. King Riku, not wanting the youth's life and fighting prowess to go to waste, offered him a deal: he'd give the boy his freedom back if he could win 100 battles at the Corrida Colosseum tournament. Kyros effortlessly won those battles, but kept going as the townspeople still hated him for his crime. He eventually did stop, at 3000 victories, and earned himself not just his freedom but also a place as captain of the Dressrosan army and bodyguard for King Riku and his daughters.
- Megara in Disney's Hercules will regain her soul from Hades if she helps him find Hercules' weakness. Naturally, she ends up falling in love with him - which gives Hades the leverage he needs anyway. Hercules gives up his Super Strength for twenty-four hours in exchange for Meg's freedom (and, crucially) safety. Hades agrees, in an unspoken Magically Binding Contract.
- In Ferdinand, the bulls believe if they defeat the matador they will be set free. Only when Ferdinand enters the ranchers house does he learn that the bull never wins. Ferdinand, however, does win his freedom by not fighting the matador and winning the crowds respect.
- In Gladiator, Maximus pretends this is his motive for fighting. In reality, he wants to get close enough to Emperor Commodus to kill him.
- In The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon Jinn makes a bet with Watto that if Anakin wins the podrace, then Watto must give Anakin to Qui-Gon. When Anakin wins, Qui-Gon immediately frees him and takes him to the Jedi Academy.
- In The Rock, FBI Director Womack promises Jon Mason that if he helps them infiltrate Alcatraz, then they will set him free. Womack has no intention of actually setting Mason free, but Agent Goodspeed pretends Mason was killed and vaporized during the operation, so Mason can gain his freedom.
- Subverted in Thor: Ragnarok. The Grandmaster of Sakaar claims that anyone who can best his "champion" in the Gladiator Games will win their freedom. Not only is his champion the nigh-invincible Hulk, but the moment it looks like Thor's going to win, the Grandmaster goes back on his word and activates Thor's Shock Collar.
- The Stainless Steel Rat: when the teenage Jim diGriz and his mentor, The Bishop, are double-crossed and sold into serfdom in a world based on the nastier aspects of medieval Italy, diGriz fights his way out of slavery and sets into motion a series of events that cause the dissolution of condottieri society. This begins with a nasty fight with a slave-bully to establish his place in the hierarchy.
- Between The Winter Queen and The Turkish Gambit, Erast Fandorin fights in the Russo-Turkish War and is taken as POW by the local governor. However, when he accidentally discovers information crucial to the Russian army, he wins his freedom in a game of checkers (because he is Born Lucky and never loses bets, even when they don't actually involve games of chance) and leaves.
- AI Programmer Sofia Mendes has to book enough programming jobs to be released from her "intellectual prostitution" by her broker in The Sparrow.
- In Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, the (apparent) reward which lures the captive rats through their training-maze at the National Institutes of Mental Health is an open passage to the outdoors. It always slams shut before they can escape.
- The story of Joseph in The Bible has this. Joseph was in jail on (false) rape charges, and Pharaoh was having some bad dreams that no one could interpret. Pharaoh eventually wound up talking to Joseph, who said that the dreams were a prophecy about an upcoming famine and suggested that Pharaoh appoint a wise man to take charge and see Egypt through it. Pharaoh was so impressed that he decided Joseph was just the guy for the job.
- In Midnight Tides, book five of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, the Drownings are a popular public spectacle in Letheras in which condemned criminals who couldn't pay the requiered fine to win their freedom can do so by trying to swim across the canal with a sack full of coins strapped to their back. The amount of coins depends on the crime. Since few ever manage to make it across, wagers are usually made about things like the distance, number of strokes or the manner of drowning. note
- In This Immortal, when captured by the Kouretes, the group of protagonists is given the option that one of them fight the Dead Man to win all of their freedom. Moreby is very confident that whoever fights will lose, as that's what always happens.
- The premise of Alias Smith and Jones. The reformed outlaw heroes will get a pardon once they convince the governor that their HeelFace Turn is real.
- On My Name Is Earl when Earl was incarcerated the warden kept giving him "time off" coupons for various good deeds, but when Earl earned enough of them to get out the warden reneged.
- Sawyer in Lost ironically bypassed most of a six year sentence by agreeing to con an inmate into revealing the location of a large sum of money he stole.
- Miguel Dominguez in Day Break (2006) was let out temporarily so that he could commit a murder.
- In the Criminal Minds episode "Legacy", the barefoot victim wakes up in a house of horrors and is told that if she can escape by sunrise, she can have her freedom (and her shoes).
- In The Slammer, the prisoners have to win their freedom by being the most popular act in the Freedom Show.
- Recurring in Spartacus: Blood and Sand, related to reasons in Real Life, below:
- Earliest (chronological) use, Gannicus is freed at the end of the games to inaugurate Capua's new Arena, as part of a Batman Gambit by Batiatus' rival to deprive him of the best gladiator in the city (and perhaps the Republic).
- Spartacus agrees to channel his passion into victories in the Arena, under the condition that Batiatus will find and procure his wife, and the two of them can eventually be freed together. This doesn't work precisely the way Spartacus had hoped.
- Invoked by Spartacus' friend Varro. A Roman citizen who'd sold himself into slavery to cover his gambling debts, he hopes to win enough money fighting in the Arena to cover the remainder of his debts and earn his freedom to be reunited with his (still free) wife. This also does not go according to plan.
- Barca earns enough money betting on Spartacus and Crixus' victory against Theokoles to buy freedom for himself and his lover, Pietros. Barca makes the mistake of pressing Ashur too hard for his winnings, so Ashur sees to it this also goes awry.
- Crixus and Spartacus again find themselves at cross-purposes briefly in the first season finale, as Crixus wants to remain a gladiator, earn his freedom, then seek out his lady love, fellow slave Naevia, while Spartacus wants to lead a slave revolt.
- And of course, the bulk of the series is about the slaves trying to win their freedom in a way Rome had never intended.
- A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Almost everything Pseudolus does is because his master, Hero, has offered Pseudolus his freedom in exchange for helping Hero win the heart of Philia, a "courtesan" in the house of Marcus Lycus.
- Radiant Historia - Stocke has to do this by trampling through a set of gladiators.
- Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne - Wanna prove your "innocence" in front of the Mantra Army Court? Get ready to punch out Thor.
- Discussed in the ending credits of Portal 2
- Mortal Kombat is this on a much larger scale. The tournament determines whether or not Earth Realm will be spared an invasion from Outworld.
- Freedom Wars - You (and most people living in the Panopticons) have been sentenced to one million years' imprisonment, but you can work off that sentence by volunteering to take up arms against robotic monsters and other Panopticons.
- In old Draenor in World of Warcraft, an ogre city kept orcs as slaves and gladiators for their amusement. They promised freedom to any orc who could kill one hundred opponents in the ring. One orc, Kargath, met the challenge, but found that freedom to be a lie and was locked up in a deep prison with those other orcs who met the quota. Kargath and the orcs cut off their hands to escape their bonds, grafted weapons to their stumps, murdered the ogres, and became the Shattered Hand Clan.
- The Garlean Empire in Final Fantasy XIV conscripts soldiers from conquered territories to feed their war machine and prevent any uprisings. They offer an incentive for service by promising full Garlean citizenship to the soldiers and their families if they provide twenty years of service in the military.
- Beyond Temptation: Demons who abandoned Lucifer during his Rage Against the Heavens are imprisoned in boxes. Their only chance for freedom is to tempt enough souls.
- Subverted in this very funny Basic Instructions comic:
Alien Captor: I plan to study you by giving you everything you desire and watching your reactions.Scott: Fine by me.Alien Captor: You'll have everything but freedom.Scott: I've had freedom. I'd like to try having the things I desire for a change.
- So far, Last Res0rt looks like it's playing this straight, for the criminal contestants. They've all been offered their freedom, if they survive (and, one assumes, win) the games. Cypress Vaeo, one of the people behind the show's creation and their 'face', has this to say to critics:
Cypress: "I know critics will say that our new show is cruel and unusual, but we're doing everyone a favor here! Death row is far more cruel. Half our players haven't seen starlight in the past ten years! We're following every law and code on the books, and if anyone else has a problem, I have four words...speak with my lawyer."Lawyer: (very rapidly) "By asking me a question, you hereby acknowledge that any answer you recieve will be sufficient insomuch as that if you disagree with the answer, I am not obligated to provide you with a better one..."
- In Girl Genius the Castle Heterodyne prisoners are all trying to earn enough points that the bombs strapped around their necks are disabled and they are allowed to go free. This happens very rarely as the castle usually kills prisoners before they earn enough points.
- In Undead Friend the main characters are trapped in a Deadly Game and the only way out is to earn enough points and challenge the people in charge during a specific event in the year. If they don't play they get erased from existence. So the story centers around the main characters trying to get free of the game.
- Ross's Game Dungeon: While reviewing Armed & Delirious, Ross proposes that the prison system be changed so that instead of criminals being sentenced to X number of years in prison, they should instead have to stay in prison for as long as it takes them to win their freedom by beating a brutally difficult gaming challenge. For instance, the punishment for assault would be to complete a no-death run of Super Meat Boy, and the punishment for murder would be to beat Armed & Delirious with no hints or walkthrough of any kind (an Impossible Task considering the game's utterly incomprehensible Moon Logic).
- Jonny Quest episode "Dragons of Ashida". Mad Scientist Dr. Ashida refuses to let the Quest team leave his island, but he promises to let them go if Race Bannon defeats his servant Sumi in a judo match.
- In the ThunderCats (2011) episode "The Pit", prisoners of the Dogs are set free if they can win one hundred gladitorial fights in a row.
- Historically Truth in Television. Unusually skillful and loyal slaves have often been rewarded with freedom.
- Also Roman gladiators to an extent, though not all of them were forced to become gladiators in the first place. In the later years of the Roman Empire, professional gladiators became increasingly common, though slave gladiators never completely went away.
- In a bizarrely literal example, those slaves who were allowed a peculiumnote could usually buy their freedom, by actually purchasing themselves from their masters.
- At the Battle of Lepanto the galley slaves in both the Turkish and Venetian fleets were offered their freedom if they behaved. The Venetians were actually given weapons and told to fight whereas the Turkish galley slaves were just told to row - perhaps because while the Venetians were convicts, the Turkish rowers were kidnapped Christians and could hope to be welcomed back as war-heroes if they mutinied against their captors and thus could not be given arms.
- The story goes that the early 20th Century folk musician Huddie Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly, secured his release after serving 7 years of a maximum 35 year bid for murder by writing and performing a song for the Governor, then again after serving four years for attempted murder, having recorded songs for folklorists John and Alan Lomax. Although his musicianship probably helped, he was also a model prisoner and in both cases had served close to the minimum of each sentence.
- The idea behind the Wehrmacht's Strafbataillon (Punishment Battalion) concept, wherein soldiers who would otherwise have been jailed could volunteer for these units to redeem themselves - the catch being that the Strafbataillon did a lot of hard fighting and survival was not guaranteed. The Strafbataillon was very much a product of the Interwar period's zeitgeist of optimism and self-improvement. During World War One Imperial Germany only executed 15 soldiers and Kaiser Wilhelm pardoned a further hundred from execution. The Wehrmacht saw this as indicative of the country's past moral failings given that Britain had executed 500 and the French 5000, and hoped that could make its soldiers man up by 1) better training and propaganda and 2) taking a tougher stance against those who Lacked Moral Fibre (to use the British term). This entailed denying the existence of what the Anglo-Americans called 'shell shock' or 'battle fatigue' (and what we would call PTSD) and the creation of Strafbataillon. The Strafbataillon continued to expand throughout the war even though the length of service was always sufficiently short for there to be a realistic possibility of survival. Later in the war, after news of retreats and surrenders, execution was reinstated and the Wehrmacht ultimately shot more than 15,000 men for 'cowardice'.
- In 1942 the Soviet Red Workers' and Peasants' Army created Strafbaty on the German model. However, the generally high turnover of Soviet combat troops may have translated into lesser chances of surviving service in a Strafbaty than a Strafbataillon.
- In late 1941 the Soviet Union decided to allow political prisoners and ordinary criminals to volunteer in the Red Army and, if they survived, win their freedom. This contributed to and partially justified the opinion that many officers and combat soldiers had of the logistics troops, which was that they were a gang of food-hoarding thieves, rapists, and murderers. To no-one's surprise, after the war's end the demobilization of the army resulted in a massive crime wave.