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, will reach a point where they cannot progress to victory. Unwinnable states can be distinguished between those purposely added to make a game harder, or those inadvertently added do 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 their games were completely free of them.

There is a bit of a gray-area for what consists as 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.

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).

List of Games With an Unwinnable State

Hugo II: Whodunit?

There are a couple instances. One involves the matches, and is fairly obvious, there are two not so obvious way involving Aunt Hester. The game becomes unwinnable if you reject her offer, or, if you don't take advantage during the process.

Hugo III: Jungle of Doom!

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

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 an item before descending into the hole.

King's Quest II: Romancing the Throne

Crossing the rope bridge unnecessarily makes the game unwinnable later on.

King's Quest III: To Heir Is Human

Giving porridge without the correct ingredient or failing to reach the pirate ship in time both make the game unwinnable.

King's Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella

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, 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

This game has several unwinnable states including: letting the rat die, not getting both items in the vault, eating or giving away the wrong food, giving the needle to the wrong person, missing an item in the cell, or failing to rescue Cedric.

Maniac Mansion

If a kid with a necessary skill dies, and you have Jeff in your group, the game becomes unwinnable.

Police Quest III: The Kindred

The game can enter an unwinnable state if you fail to do traffic duty on the first day.

Secret of Mana

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.

Space Quest I: The Sarien Encounter

Regarding the sale of the sand craft, you must deny first offer, but accept the second offer, otherwise the game becomes unwinnable. This is a pretty awful example. It can also be stolen, and the game becomes unwinnable as well.

Space Quest II: Vohaul's Revenge

This game has a couple, some are obvious like the order form/whistle, one is not so obvious involving an item in the swamp. Getting kissed by the alien also makes the game unwinnable under normal circumstances.

Ultima VII: The Black Gate

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.

Ultima VII, Part 2: Serpent Isle

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 plot-crucial items in the crematorium, but this is pretty obvious.

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.