Difference between revisions of "Unwinnable state"

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An '''unwinnable state''' is gaming terminology for when a game that has a victory condition enters a state where it becomes impossible to reach victory. This is also referred to as being in a "walking-dead," "dead end," or "zombie" state, because the player is still allowed to play the game, but has reached a point of no return where they cannot progress to victory. Unwinnable states can be distinguished between those purposely added to make a 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. Unwinnable states were especially common in early adventure games, so much that [[LucasArts]] reacted to them by advertising that many of their games were completely free of them.
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[[Image:King's Quest IV - Perils of Rosella, The - DOS - Screenshot - Unwinnable - Bow.png|thumb|256x256px|''[[King's Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella]]'' can be made unwinnable with the first minute of game play.]]
  
There is a bit of a gray-area for what constitutes an "unwinnable state." Generally speaking, the further the player can progress without getting a game over screen after triggering an unwinnable state, the more I view it as a legitimate unwinnable state. I tend to ignore unwinnable instances where it's immediately obvious. For example, in ''[[The Legend of Zelda]]'', it's possible to get stuck in a the fourth underworld of the second quest if you walk 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.
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An '''unwinnable state''', also known as a "walking-dead," "dead end," or "zombie" state, is gaming terminology for when a player enters a point in a game where it becomes impossible to reach victory. Unwinnable states were common in early 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.
  
Personally, I view unwinnable states as being poor game design because they hurt the fun of the game by allowing the player to wander around aimlessly. I usually forgive games that can be put into an unwinnable state when it's obvious that you've done so, either by telling the player or by halting further progress. In general, I prefer when they don't exist at all, either because the game doesn't allow you to screw up (''[[Loom]]'' doesn't even let you die), or because you get a game over letting you know you screwed up (''[[Half-Life]]'' ends the game if a necessary NPC is killed).
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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.
  
==List of Games With an Unwinnable State==
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==Definition==
===''[[Hugo II: Whodunit?]]''===
+
In order for a game to have an unwinnable state, it must meet three criteria:
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!]]''===
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* 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.
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.
+
* 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.
  
===''[[King's Quest]]''===
+
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.
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]]''===
+
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.
Any unnecessary crossing of the rope bridge makes the game unwinnable later on. The score change kind of makes it obvious though.
 
  
===''[[King's Quest III: To Heir Is Human]]''===
+
==Preventing Unwinnable States==
Giving porridge without the correct ingredient, running out of food, or failing to reach the pirate ship in time all make the game unwinnable.
+
There are multiple ways to prevent a player from entering an unwinnable state.
  
===''[[King's Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella]]''===
+
===Immediately End the Game===
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.
+
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.
  
===''[[King's Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder!]]''===
+
===Don't Allow It In the First Place===
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.
+
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.
  
===''[[Maniac Mansion]]''===
+
===Explicitly Telling the Player===
If a kid with a necessary skill dies, and you have Jeff in your group, the game becomes unwinnable.
+
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.
  
===''[[Police Quest III: The Kindred]]''===
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==Examples==
The game can enter an unwinnable state if you fail to do traffic duty on the first day.
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These are games which have unwinnable states that are important to me. For all games, see the [[:Category:Game Mechanic - Unwinnable State|category]].
  
===''[[Secret of Mana]]''===
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{| class="wikitable sortable"
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.
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! Title
 
+
! Released
===''[[Space Quest I: The Sarien Encounter]]''===
+
! Developer
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.
+
! Notes
 
+
|-
===''[[Space Quest II: Vohaul's Revenge]]''===
+
| ''[[Déjà Vu: A Nightmare Comes True!!]]''
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).
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| 1985-??-??
 
+
| [[ICOM Simulations]]
===''[[Ultima VII: The Black Gate]]''===
+
| Incorrectly using the pills can make the game unwinnable. In the NES port, the player can get stranded if they run out of money and free cab rides.
If you fly the magic carpet over a particular mountain on the Isle of Avatar, it 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. You will know this happens if you hear The Guardian laugh maniacally.
+
|-
 
+
| ''[[Gauntlet (NES)|Gauntlet]]''
===''[[Ultima VII, Part 2: Serpent Isle]]''===
+
| 1987-??-??
The game treats a plot-crucial Fawn ale bottle as regular food, so you can inadvertently drink it making the game unwinnable. Also, talking to the ghosts of the mint when you first pass them will make the game unwinnable. You can also destroy any plot-crucial items in the crematorium, but it's pretty obvious you shouldn't do it.
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| [[Atari]]
 
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| The NES port of ''Gauntlet'' requires an 8-digit password to enter the final level, and the password must be collected from 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, but you cannot win.
===''[[Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders]]''===
+
|-
Despite being a LucasArts title, this game has several ways to become unwinnable: if any of the characters die, if you run out of money, or if Melissa and Leslie leave Mars before getting a necessary item or by burning a necessary item.
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| ''[[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]]
 +
| Entering the labyrinth without the necessary items, or failing to get the embers in time, or leaving the Isle of Mists without the right items, puts the game into an unwinnable state.
 +
|-
 +
| ''[[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. 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]]
 +
| Despite being a Lucasfilm Games title, this game has several ways to become unwinnable: 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.
 +
|}
  
 
==Links==
 
==Links==
Line 59: Line 141:
  
 
[[Category: Game Terminology]]
 
[[Category: Game Terminology]]
 +
[[Category: Game Mechanics]]

Latest revision as of 21:05, 25 September 2019

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

An unwinnable state, also known as a "walking-dead," "dead end," or "zombie" state, is gaming terminology for when a player enters a point in a game where it becomes impossible to reach victory. Unwinnable states were common in early 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.

Definition

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.

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.

Examples

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

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 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 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, but you cannot 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 Entering the labyrinth without the necessary items, or failing to get the embers in time, or leaving the Isle of Mists without the right items, puts the game into an unwinnable state.
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. 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 Despite being a Lucasfilm Games title, this game has several ways to become unwinnable: 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.

Links

Link-Wikipedia.png  Link-TVTropes.png