An unwinnable state is a concept found within many text adventures, adventure games, and role-playing games when a situation arises where it becomes impossible for the game to be completed, due to a mistake made on the part of the player, rather than a software bug (which is known as "unwinnable by mistake"). Situations like this are known as "unwinnable by design", because the game developers designed the game in such a way to trick the player into making their playthrough unwinnable. The only way to escape an unwinnable situation is to restart the game, load a previous save made before the unwinnable state was reached, or commit in-game suicide if possible. In most situations, the player was not informed when their game became unwinnable, and only through trial and error would they discover the mistake. Players often were left wondering aimlessly about searching for something which would continue the story or finish the game, not knowing that this was impossible. Because of this, an unwinnable state is also known as a walking dead, dead end or zombie situation.
Unwinnable is not to be confused with the concept of Unbeatable Enemies or Unbeatable Bosses, when either a monster, boss, character or puzzle is too difficult or powerful for the player to beat, either at the time it is encountered or at any time. It should also not be confused with Never-ending games, where the gameplay does not have a definite end and continues until the player has had enough of the game and stops playing. Games that have an unwinnable state have a set ending which can be completed under normal circumstances, but this ending cannot be reached after a certain mistake because the game world has become unwinnable.
To give an example of an unwinnable dead end scenario, imagine that a game starts in, or at some point must enter, a cave. As soon as the player leaves the cave, it collapses behind them and cannot be re-entered. Later on, the player finds a house with a locked front door. The key to the front door is inside the cave, but if the player did not search the cave thoroughly before leaving, this door can never be unlocked because the key cannot be retrieved. Thus, the game is unwinnable.
However the player, not knowing this, will continue to think that they will find a key or some other method to enter the house so they will keep looking until they read a walkthrough, loads an earlier save game made before leaving the cave, restarts the game or stops playing.
Unwinnable situations occur due to an earlier mistake or oversight by the player that cannot be corrected, such as the player has lost or destroyed an essential object, became trapped in a place with no exit, failed to complete a puzzle within a time or turn limit, or failed to interact with a non-player character to meet a certain goal.
When this happens, there is no hope for an optimal ending (or, in many cases, any ending), and there is no indication that the game is now unwinnable since the player is still in control and a game over has not occurred. Thinking that the game is not advancing because of a puzzle that he hasn't solved yet, the player is reduced to exploring and even trying increasingly outlandish actions to find a way out of the puzzle. The player rarely knows exactly what caused the dead-end situation, which can cause severe frustration. Some players prefer to either cheat or rely on walkthroughs in order to finish games that can result in dead end situations.
In some cases unwinnable scenarios are intentional, whereas in other cases they may have been overlooked by the designer. In cases where the designer wishes to include an unwinnable scenario, they may choose to make it less frustrating by warning the player about it while it is still correctable. For instance, in the earlier example, if the player attempts to leave the cave before getting the key, it may say, "You feel like you may have forgotten something. Perhaps you should search the cave some more."
Reasons for Unwinnability
The early generations of text adventure games tended to have a lot of chances that could lead players to unwinnable states, as a way to make a game deeper and more challenging; this kind of game design was not yet considered unfair to players. It was usually considered a product of the game’s difficulty rather than poor design and encouraged (or, as its critics would say, forced) replayability.
Veteran players created save files before every major action to minimize the chances of making the game unwinnable. Some games let the undo command take back an action or event, including the player's death, but many designers considered this cheating. Other games limited the use to one undo over a certain number of turns. In the case of unlimited undos these could be used instead of multiple save files. The undo/save feature however did little good in cases where the player had to replay half the game in order to correct a mistake he made much earlier.
Infocom's Zork I: The Great Underground Empire was particularly notorious for leaving players in unwinnable situations without cluing them in. Many other early Infocom games deliberately had the same issues, as a means of extending playing time to justify their cost.
Mike Dornbrook, Infocom's Head of Marketing, conducted a customer survey in late 1984 which showed a clear correlation between the Infocom games players considered their favourites and the games they had actually finished. This piece of marketing intelligence led to the more foolproof design of Wishbringer and later games. Modern graphical adventures are much more resource-intensive, and it can be an arduous task to search through earlier parts of such a game for a missed object. Therefore, unwinnable states have come to be equated with bugs or design flaws that designers overlooked.
As a generalization, Sierra's graphical adventures during the '80s and early '90s tended to contain walking dead situations, whereas LucasArts often boasted that most of their games could not result in a dead end. Although some die-hard adventure purists scorned such practices as "dumbing down games for the masses", more game companies adopted the approach over time like Sierra, whose previous games such as King's Quest V and Codename: ICEMAN are rather notorious for the large amount of zombie situations. Space Quest V marked a departure from Sierra's traditional zombie situations and deliberately contained only one, which informed the player when it was triggered in order to give them a fighting chance to reload and try again without excessive wandering.
In modern interactive fiction, unwinnable states that are not forewarned have also gone out of fashion, and are now considered appropriate only for games specifically designed to be difficult and unforgiving (such as Varicella).
List of Examples (A to Z)
After 10 levels which stop the player from leaving without taking all possible items, level 11 lets the player leave without finding and taking two essential items. This situation is immediately followed with a canoeing sail in which one has to randomly pick 1 out of 2 possible fork paths. There are 5 forks, which gives the player a 1 in 32 chance to finish the sail. With that said, the paths are predefined and thus can be taken from walkthroughs.
If the player takes a wrong turn at somewhere in the far middle of the Amazon River, they will be stuck because upon attempting to turn back, the Indian will only say "You should go back to the Amazon River. Now." and the Continue button isn't available, making the game unwinnable unless the player starts at a place above or below that river, or restarts the whole game.
When in the jungle, players must blow a poison dart at a wild boar blocking the path, causing it to charge. If players do not click the tree branch above at the right time (or at all), the boar will run in the wrong direction instead of opening a new path in the underbrush that is needed to finish the game. There is no suggestion that the game is unwinnable after this.
In the Castle Center, taking the Mandragora before taking the Nitro will prevent players from using the Mandragora, since the Nitro must be used first. Since the Mandragora is vital to completing the level and cannot be dropped or placed and cannot be carried along with the Nitro, it is impossible to continue on.
If players drop the vase in a room not containing the pillow, it will shatter and the game cannot be won because the vase counts as an item of treasure that must be found intact to win the game. Also, if players use the coins to buy new batteries for the lamp from the vending machine, the game cannot be won for the same reason.
At the very beginning of the game, players are required to pick up a photo showing the sky above the protagonist's in-game house. This photo is used in the final puzzle of the game, so if the player is careless with the picture and inadvertently loses it in the Succ-U-Bus system then the game is unwinnable.
If players wait around the main entrance of the Willamette Parkview Mall in the beginning of the game until around 7pm, a different cutscene will be triggered than the one relating to the storyline after the zombies get in. Players will then not be able to do any storyline missions, or be rescued by helicopter.
In the original Duke Nukem, one can complete the level on which the RoboHand is found without retrieving the RoboHand; however, the next level cannot be completed without it: A ledge Duke must reach is one graphics block too far away for him to reach by jumping; he may reach it only by using the RoboHand to activate an extendable platform. At this point, it is impossible to return to the previous level to retrieve the RoboHand. This is an example of unwinnable by mistake, due to developer oversight.
Upon time travelling to the future, the player finds a newspaper dispenser in a train station. The newspaper inside is needed a few minutes before the endgame to block a vent filled with deadly poison and kill the alien captors. Players who missed the newspaper would find themselves trapped in their prison cell with no way to escape and face the final enemy steps away.
One of the most infamous examples of an unwinnabale state is early on in the game, Arthur Dent is presented with the opportunity to pick up a massive pile of junk mail while in his house. Later on in the game, the player must use the junk mail in a puzzle involving a Babel Fish Dispenser, and the need for the junk mail arises only after testing it several times. The junk mail is by this point however unobtainable, as it has been destroyed along with the rest of Earth by the Vogons. Also destroyed are the screwdriver and toothbrush from the very first scene, which are necessary to finish the final puzzle at the very end of the game. Furthermore, players need to give a dog a sandwich during the early stage of the game, or the game will become almost unwinnable. This is not evident until the very last part of the game, although this particular situation, unlike the others, can be rectified later in the game. Finally, when Ford Prefect is offering the player his towel, taking it from him results in an unwinnable game.
There are several actions that can lead to a game that cannot be finished. For instance, if Gorrister kills Harry before he can tell all the necessary information, the game becomes unwinnable.
If I.M Meen defeats the player, the all their inventory will be lost, including Writewell's Book of Grammar that is needed to defeat him, making the game unwinnable.
Indiana Jones and his father are tied to chairs facing back-to-back in the Nazi castle, with seemingly the only way to escape being a battle axe held by the suit of armor. However, knocking the axe loose always results in a black "censored" box covering the characters, with a trickle of blood emanating from the bottom. Players are actually meant to knock it over before being captured.
Rosella is stranded on an islet. Behind a rock there is a bridle (which is not visible, nor hinted at, and can be found only by explicit searching) which she will use to ride the Unicorn later on after she leaves the islet. There is no way to return to the islet after she has left.
Early in the game a rat may be eaten by the cat simply by walking past the bakery. Through no action of the player, the rat may die and the game will become unwinnable because the rat must be alive later in the game to progress. Even more confounding is the fact that in order to save the rat, players must have found a boot in the desert, which, unless the player was specifically searching for it, they will be unlikely to find it.
Also, players are given a pie at one point in the game. If players eat the pie or feed it to a starving vulture, a later enemy will be unable to be killed. Also, the player must retrieve all the items that they can find, or else the game is unwinnable (example: If King Graham ignores the piece of Cheese in the mouse-hole that is located in a cell that the blue beast puts him in, he will not be able to escape the cell again when he returns to get it). Finally, if Graham does not save Cedric after both of them are attacked by the harpies, Graham is killed by Mordack after the former tries to convert power from the latter's wand into Crispin's.
Link's Awakening carries two potential unwinnable situations. In the fourth dungeon, the Angler's Tunnel, it is possible to jump over a large pool of water that should only be possible to traverse with the Flippers. Afterwards, players will see two blocks which need keys to open; yet, at this point, players should only have one key. Opening a block will lead to an unwinnable game, since players need a second key to open the second block, but the first key should have been used elsewhere in order to get more keys. This flaw was fixed in the Game Boy Color version of the game, by making the pool of water wider and impossible to jump over.
The other is in the second dungeon, Bottle Grotto. In the dungeon, players are one key short of the number of locked doors in the fist hall of the dungeon. Complicating this is the fact that it is mandatory to open the last door so players can obtain the Power Bracelet. If players don't save one key to open this room, they will be permanently stuck because the Power Bracelet is required to move bottles blocking the path. Because the last door must be opened, it is easy to waste all the keys beforehand. If the player does use up all the keys, the dungeon will become unbeatable, as well as the rest of the game. The player will then have to start the game over again.
Twilight Princess can become unwinnable by mistake if the game is saved while players are inspecting the ancient cannon immediately after opening the passage leading to it. Normally, Shad would follow the player to the cannon. However, if the game is saved and reloaded, then the game forgets that Shad followed the player. In order to speak with him, player need to go back through the passage, but attempting to leave causes him to speak the dialogue that he would usually say after having been to the cannon. Nintendo did fix this glitch, and allowed players to trade in their glitched copy for a fixed one if they became stuck by it.
Another unwinnable situation can occur after crossing Bridge of Eldin for the first time. After the bridge is made impassable, if players save the game and quit before entering the Twilight Realm, the game becomes unwinnable. When starting up the game again, Link ends up on the side of the bridge away from the Twilight Realm. The game remembers the bridge being destroyed and it is impossible to reach the Twilight Realm. This requires a complete restart of the game to fix.
Before the player leaves the cruise ship, Larry must obtain several items - including a soda, a wig, and some thread - in order to survive on the lifeboat. Later in the game, he must obtain a knife, a pin, a parachute, and a bottle before boarding an airplane, all of which are needed later.
If the player backtracks to the room before the room where they fought the Rhedogian boss of Sector 3's Desert Refinery just after beating the boss, a door that was supposed to have unlocked during the fight will have locked again. The door cannot be opened again.
In the original Myst, burning the movie tickets will render the game unwinnable. However, directions inside the original manual of the game warns the player against doing so.
The game has quite a few unwinnable situations, the most memorable of which was an elastic strap at the bottom of the ocean about halfway through the game. The plot gives a sense of urgency, and the player is encouraged to act quickly and explore the ocean to find the secret entrance to the villain's hideout. In the screen at the bottom of the ocean that is the least likely to be visited by the player, there is a hard-to-see elastic strap. If it is not picked up, the game unfolds without any problem except for the very last action where the elastic strap must be used to win the game. Between the appearance of the strap and the ending, there is an arcade sequence with a maze, so this feature needs to be replayed when/if the player must restore their game.
It is possible to render the game unwinnable right after the opening scene. If the player purchases an Escapipe (dungeon escape item) in Landen just prior to the wedding scene, and uses it to escape the dungeon before being released by Lena, the player will be forever locked in town and the game's plot will not progress. The king, when spoken to, will instruct the player to hit the reset button on the console and try again.
If players don't take the jail key when Chief Sherles isn't in his office at one point in the game, they won't be able to take the secret key, because it is located in the pocket of a person who is sleeping in the cell.
If the player commits murder on any non-player character, steals an item without its owner's permission, or reads a private letter, the game still continues, however at some point soon thereafter a character called the vigilante appears, chastises the player, and takes all items in the player's inventory. This renders the game unwinnable, however the player may continue in a "walking dead" mode if he/she believes the vigilante simply hid the items somewhere (similar characters steal items in games such as Colossal Cave Adventure, yet the player is usually able to retrieve them).
At one point, someone offers to give the player money as a trade for the skimmer. Players need to refuse his deal, leave, come back, and accept his new offer of both money and a jet pack. If players take his original offer, later in the game, they will die at a point at which they must have a jet pack. In the original AGI version, if players decline both offers or leave the screen without first removing the key from the skimmer, they will remain stranded in that location and therefore be unable to proceed further in the game. This was slightly changed in the VGA remake, in that there is another way to find money if the player declines both offers; however, the jet pack remains essential to finishing the game.
There are two ways to put the game in an unwinnable state based on the same item. On the space station, players can obtain an order form which is necessary to beat the game. If players don't have the order form by the time they reach the planet's surface, the game becomes unwinnable since it is then impossible to return to the space station. Also, if players don't mail the order form before climbing down into the chasm, the game becomes unwinnable because they can't return to the mailbox.
If players enter a battle with a Dry Bones with no flowers points or any items that restore Flower Points, (such as Royal Syrup), The game basically becomes unwinnable because players are unable to use special moves which are necessary to beat them. (Normal moves won't defeat a Dry Bones.) The only way out is to either reset the game or let the Dry Bones defeat the party.
There is an innocuous item right near the start of the game in Gramps' cabin, a book, that is used almost literally right before the game's end to complete it (one of the last three steps). Gramps' cabin cannot be revisited after warping to Tonetown; thus, the player could play through almost the entire game before realizing that the book is needed to finish it.
A player can combine two key items, the small rod covered in iron sand and the small bowl, to create a compass. This will result in an unwinnable situation since players need the small rod to get a key. Players can also trap themselves in the room with the Akbal Jewel by not opening up another exit beforehand before taking the Jewel. The game will, however, tell the player that they are trapped and should hit the reset button.
Near the end of the game, the player must type "move" or some similar term in order to break Trilby's limbs. At a certain point after that, players must then type "die" in order to kill Trilby. However, if Trilby's limbs are not broken before a certain point, then Trilby will not be weak enough to die when the time comes - and if the player saves in this situation, it makes the game unwinnable and the player must restart the game from the beginning.
The game warns players that if anyone dies, it will be impossible to win. A player can die if they wake up the guardian of The Sphinx, drown in the Atlantic Ocean (after jumping off the plane going to Bermuda/falling from the Caponian spaceship, and using the parachute) after one hour of not doing anything, or falling from a great height (after being transported there by the Caponian spaceship, a location meant for the biplane), or die from running out of oxygen on Mars. Players can also get stuck by running out of funds in the cash-card when they need to leave an area, by allowing Melissa and Leslie to leave Mars prior to obtaining the white crystal, or by burning a necessary item.