Unwinnable state

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King's Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella can be made unwinnable within the first minute of game play.

An unwinnable state, also known as a "walking-dead," "dead end," or "zombie" state, is gaming terminology for a subset of soft locks. A game can be said to have entered an unwinnable state when it becomes impossible to reach victory, and it isn't readily apparant. Contrast that to a soft lock where it's apparant you're stuck almost immediately after it occurs. Unwinnable states were common in early text and graphic adventure games, especially those made by Sierra On-Line, so much in fact that Lucasfilm Games reacted to them by advertising that many of their adventure games were completely free of unwinnable states.


Early in my understanding of video games, I thought unwinnable states were a clever idea that made games more realistic, but, after being burned by them several times, I have changed my mind. Games don't need to be realistic, they need to be fun and interesting. I now view unwinnable states as poor game design because they hurt the enjoyment derived from playing a game. It's hard to relax and appreciate a game when you're constantly afraid that any minor mistake will require you to reload and lose hours of game play, or worse, never discover that you did anything wrong. I usually forgive games that can be put into an unwinnable state when the game makes it obvious that you've done so, but I prefer unwinnable states to just not exist at all.


In order for a game to have an unwinnable state, it must meet three criteria:

  • The game must have a victory condition. Naturally, a game that can't be won is unwinnable, but so many games are like this, it's not worth noting.
  • Something the player does, either through action or inaction, must make it impossible for the player to win.
  • After the game is an unwinnable state, the player must be allowed to continue to progress in the game for a fair amount of time.

This third criteria is subjective based on much further you can progress in the game. For example, in The Legend of Zelda, it's possible to get stuck in a the fourth underworld of the second quest by walking through a one-way wall into a locked room without a key. However, the player is then clearly confined to a two room area, so I don't consider this to be an unwinnable state in the traditional sense. The further the player can progress after triggering an unwinnable state, the more it should be viewed as a legitimate unwinnable state. I do not count games where it becomes apparant within a few seconds that the game is now unwinnable, however, most of the games listed on TV Tropes are of this type.

Unwinnable states can be divided into two categories, those purposely added by the designers to make the game harder, or those inadvertently added due to a lack of foresight by the designers either by bad planning or a bug in the program.

Preventing unwinnable states

There are multiple ways to prevent a player from entering an unwinnable state.

Immediately end the game

In the game Half-Life, if a necessary NPC is killed, the game immediately ends with the game over screen, so you don't have to worry about wondering which NPCs are important. While this does hurt immersion, it prevents the player from having to wander around aimlessly.

Don't allow it in the first place

It requires a lot more effort on behalf of the designers, but unwinnable states can be completely prevented by not allowing the player to do anything that would get them stuck in such a way. It usually requires a fair amount of clever design work to organically protect the player without making them feel like they're being protected. For example, in the game Loom, you can never put the game in an unwinnable state because the designers always allow the player to backtrack and retrieve something they may have missed. It's only after the player achieves everything they need that a section is closed off, but the game handles this quite seamlessly.

Explicitly telling the player

If the game doesn't have a proper game over sequence, it can at least unequivocally tell the player that they've reached an unwinnable state and need to reload or restart. At that point, if the player keeps playing, it's their own fault.


These are games that are important to me which have unwinnable states. For all games, see the category.

— This section contains spoilers! —

Title Released Developer Notes
Déjà Vu: A Nightmare Comes True!! 1985-??-?? ICOM Simulations Incorrectly using the pills can make the game unwinnable. In the NES port, the player can also get stranded if they run out of money and free cab rides.
Gauntlet 1987-??-?? Atari The NES port of Gauntlet requires an 8-digit password to enter the final level, and the password must be collected from hidden objects in well-hidden rooms throughout the course of the game. If you miss any of them (and most of them are very easy to miss) you can keep playing the game all the way to the penultimate level, but you cannot enter it to win.
Hugo's House of Horrors 1990-01-01 David Gray Eating the chop makes the game unwinnable.
Hugo II: Whodunit? 1991-02-10 David Gray There are a couple instances. One involves the matches, and is fairly obvious, there are two not so obvious ways involving Aunt Hester; the game becomes unwinnable if you reject her offer, or, if you don't take advantage while she's doing something.
Hugo III: Jungle of Doom! 1992-02-20 David Gray If you cross the bridge without getting all of the items from the plane, the game becomes unwinnable, though, the in-game dialogue hints you in the right direction.
King's Quest 1984-05-10 Sierra On-Line The game becomes unwinnable if you are carrying a necessary item and are robbed by the dwarf, if you eat the beans, or if you don't get a specific item before descending into the hole.
King's Quest II: Romancing the Throne 1985-05-?? Sierra On-Line Any unnecessary crossing of the rope bridge makes the game unwinnable later on. The score increase for each crossing clues you into thinking something is up.
King's Quest III: To Heir Is Human 1986-10-01 Sierra On-Line Giving porridge without the correct ingredient, running out of food, or failing to reach the pirate ship in time all make the game unwinnable.
King's Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella 1988-09-?? Sierra On-Line This game has several, one is especially insidious. If you leave the island with the pelican without getting an item that isn't visible or even hinted it, you will put the game in an unwinnable state because you can never return to the island. Other examples include failing to return the diamonds to their rightful owner, using the arrows unnecessarily, getting to nightfall without a key item, or digging in the wrong spot.
King's Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder! 1990-11-09 Sierra On-Line This game allows for dozens of unwinnable states including: using money or trading goods incorrectly in town for various items, letting the rat die, not getting both items in the vault, entering the forest without the requisite items, eating or giving away the wrong food at any stage in the game, failing to rescue Cedric, or missing one of several items throughout the game, three of which are in timed sequences. Most of these are fairly obvious, but a handful are unexpected.
King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow 1992-10-13 Sierra On-Line There are about a dozen. Most are pretty obvious like missing a conspicuous item or failing to talk to someone, but some are more difficult like entering the labyrinth without the necessary items, leaving the Isle of Mists without the right items, failing to get the embers in time, missing the key, etc.
The Legend of Kyrandia: Book One 1992-08-?? Westwood Studios You can not return from the final island, and if you don't bring four specific items the game becomes unwinnable. There are many items to choose from, and no real indication which ones you'll need.
Maniac Mansion 1987-10-05 Lucasfilm Games There are a whole bunch of unwinnable states involving not getting items in time or damaging them. Also, If a kid with a necessary skill dies, and you have Jeff in your group, the game becomes unwinnable.
Police Quest III: The Kindred 1991-??-?? Sierra On-Line The game enters an unwinnable state if you fail to do traffic duty on the first day.
Secret of Mana 1993-08-06 Square If you take the first cannon service to the Water Palace, but walk back to the cannon without entering the palace, then take the cannon to Gaia's Naval you become stuck in that area because you need a spell you should have got in the Water Palace to leave. This is clearly a design oversight.
Space Quest I: The Sarien Encounter 1986-10-?? Sierra On-Line There are three problems with the sand craft which are pretty insidious. Two regarding how you buy it, the other if you fail to protect it. There is also one that occurs from crossing a land bridge unnecessarily.
Space Quest II: Vohaul's Revenge 1987-11-14 Sierra On-Line This game has a couple, some are obvious like failing to get or use the order form properly. One particularly bad one comes from failing to explore the swamp thoroughly. Another occurs if you are kissed by an alien (under normal circumstances).
Ultima VII: The Black Gate 1992-04-16 Origin Systems If you fly the magic carpet over a particular mountain on the Isle of the Avatar and hear The Guardian laugh maniacally, you will trigger a gate near the end of the game to close, making the game unwinnable. This is especially bad because you won't find out until many hours of game play later. This occurs due to a programming oversight where ground events are triggered even when the player is flying. There is also a not uncommon bug where a dead body doesn't show up when it's supposed to which prevents moving the plot forward. It's clear something is amiss because NPCs talk about the body that isn't there. Also, the sandbox nature of the game makes it possible to kill plot-crucial NPCs, making the game unwinnable.
Ultima VII, Part 2: Serpent Isle 1993-03-25 Origin Systems Talking to the ghosts at the haunted building directly on the way to the mint can make the game unwinnable, and there is nothing to suggest you shouldn't talk to them. The game also treats a plot-crucial Fawn ale bottle as regular food, so you can inadvertently drink it making the game unwinnable. These two are most likely design oversights. You can also destroy pretty much every plot-crucial item in the crematorium, but it's pretty obvious you shouldn't do that. Also, the sandbox nature of the game makes it possible to kill plot-crucial NPCs, making the game unwinnable.
Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders 1988-10-?? Lucasfilm Games There are several ways: if any of the characters die, if you run out of money, if you drop necessary items into the slot at Annie's office, if you leave Mars before getting a necessary item, or if you burn a necessary item.


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