It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

As you might have already guessed, I love the notion that it was once common practice to have situations in which it becomes impossible to complete a videogame. To add insult to injury, the games in question rarely mentioned that fact to the player, leaving them to lurch around forever in a broken game, not knowing that the only way to succeed was to turn off the game and start from scratch.

Looking back from this current era of narrative-driven gaming, the fact that this was ever considered a good idea boggles my mind. As a simple matter of pleasing the consumer, it is the very definition of counter intuitive. Add that the inner logic of most early text and graphical adventure games was baffling, cruel, and unforgiving at the best of times and it becomes apparent that it was a small miracle that anyone ever finished a videogame in the early 80s. I’m hard pressed to think of any that I beat.

That didn’t stop me from trying, of course. I logged plenty of hours in games like Zork back then (and back last year and, hell, even back last weekend) so maybe there is something to be said for relentless difficulty and the breakdown of reason.

Let’s take a look at the five best unwinnable situations, be they weird, infuriating or just plain amusing.

5. King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella
IslandAt a certain point in King’s Quest IV, a whale sneezes you out onto a desert island. On that island are the remains of a shipwreck and plenty of sand. What isn’t on the island is any indication that the golden bridle you require to ride the unicorn later in the game is hidden there. There is no mention of the bridle or anything approaching a visual clue.

The only way to get the bridle is to type the command “Look at Ground” while standing on different spots of the island until it appears. Anyone playing the game without a walkthrough is doomed to miss it every time, because no one in their right mind would get to the island and think it was where the magical bridle was hidden.

Thanks Roberta Williams. I really didn’t want to save the kingdom this time anyway.

4. Leisure Suit Larry Goes Looking for Love (in Several Wrong Places)
Spinach DipIf there is one lesson to be learned from Leisure Suit Larry, it is that the only way to survive ten days at sea in a lifeboat is with soda, sunscreen, a sewing kit, some fruit and a wig. Miss one of these items and Larry is doomed, but honestly, they make such an obvious survival kit it’s hard to believe anyone could doubt their importance. I mean, everyone knows that wigs prevent sunstroke and sewing kits double as fishing rods in a pinch, right? Right?

It there is a second lesson to be learned from Leisure Suit Larry, it is that should you have any spinach dip on your person when you get on a lifeboat, make sure to throw it away immediately. Otherwise, it will kill you. Seriously.

3. Zork: The Great Underground Empire
GarlicAh, Zork, the greatest and most vicious example of interactive fiction. I have a special fondness for the Great Underground Empire, despite the fact that it’s authors obviously hate me and never wanted me to play their game in the first place. There are so many ways Zork can kill you or render your quest unwinnable that it hard to not take it personally.

There are more egregious examples, perhaps, but the clove of garlic remains my favorite. Found as part of a sack lunch right in the opening scenes, the game is subtly encouraging you to eat it. If you do, of course, a vampire bat will kill you later in the game. On the other hand, the game is so appreciative of being fed, it’s hard to deny it a snack.

2. King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder
King’s Quest V is Sierra’s monument to sadism in game design. The blue marble cover fills me with loathing like few other games. There are so many ways this game can eff you (not in the endearing, iconic way of Zork – when King’s Quest V effs you, it effs you like a prison sentence), it is hard to pick just one.

When walking to the pie shop (where you can get the delicious dessert from which our logo is derived – for more on that, check out the About section above) a cat will run by chasing a rat. If you don’t throw the boot (found earlier in the desert, but only if you were expressly looking for) at the cat, the rat gets eaten. After that, you may as well restart your game, because if you don’t, you’re just going to die in jail because the only rat in the world that could have helped you escape is in the belly of the cat.

It isn’t that hard to fathom why Sierra doesn’t make games anymore.

1. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
One of the most fiendish and, strangely, beloved of Infocom’s text adventures, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy stands as the most unwinnable of videogames, not because of its devious puzzles, or the fact that Infocom actually made t-shirts to sell to those few who could solve them, but because of the sheer ridiculous scale by which the game quickly slips out of the player’s control.

The game begins in the bathroom of Arthur Dent. Said bathroom contains, among other things, a toothbrush and a screwdriver. Should the player leave the room without those items, the very last puzzle, in which a robot needs tools to fix a space ship, is rendered unsolvable.

Why? Because the toothbrush and screwdriver have been vaporized, along with the entire planet Earth, by an intergalactic construction fleet in order to make way for a new space highway.

And that is beautiful.

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  • Calaban007

    There was also a point in Eternal Darkness for the Gamecube that would cause you to be stuck near the end of the game. You have to collect runes. Well there's one that kind of off the of the normal trek. It's apparent where it is, but I blew past it and didn't get it. Then when I got to this point in the game I could not cast the proper spell to enchant my weapon. So I used all my ammo and all my magic and still could not kill this enemy. I had to start the whole game over again. Sucked Big time.

  • Batman

    You forgot Haunt!!! We could never figure out what to do with the Black Rose, or even if that was the final puzzle….

  • Stu Horvath

    @Batman I never played haunt but after a quick Google search I think I have to!

    @Calaban007 Now that you mention it, I recall having similar trouble with Eternal Darkness, but I can forgive it because everything else about the game was so awesome. I should dust that game off and play through it again. Best 6 bucks I ever spent on a game (thanks, bargain bin!)

  • http://www.ashleylynch.com ashleylynch

    I got to the very end of Doom3 before discovering you need a soul box to destroy the big boss, an item that you are allowed to completely bypass apparently and I didn't have a save that went back that far. I just pretneded that I won and uninstalled. No way I was going through that whole game again.

  • Stu Horvath

    That whole flashlight OR gun thing in Doom 3 made the game more unplayable than unwinnable for me.

  • Crasken

    I'd say that the GAME "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" isn't beloved, but the book and the radio series are.

  • Stu Horvath

    @Crasken I loved it, even though it drove me batty. For what it is worth, it's been ported about half a dozen times and was one of Infocom's top selling titles, which is more than I can say for my personal favorite: The Lurking Horror.

  • Lakawak

    I am 99% sure that the person who wrote this is under 30. HE DEFINITELy did not play any of these games when they first came out. If he did, he would know that things like searching the island in Kings Quest IV was NOT that random because it was common in ALL games like that. And eating the garlic? Only an idiot would randomly eat the garlic or any othr item in a text adventure game.

    Anyone who played games in the 80s KNEW not to eat things for no reason, as well as knew to search everywhere in the Sierra games. You were ALWAYS supposed to assume that everything you got was ncessary and that there was always a reason why you were put some where. It is only kids who think that the world of computer games started with GTA 3 that think that a programmer had enough free memory and storage space to add useless items and locations to their games.

  • Stu Horvath

    @Lakawak Sorry sir, but I am in fact over 30 and did play and love all of the games on the list near enough to their release dates (except Leisure Suit Larry, of course, I was definitely too young for them).

  • regged2post

    Also in Hitchhikers if you didn't do the right thing before leaving earth, your space fleet would be destroyed much later on (maybe my first computer game facepalm.)

  • Stu Horvath

    @regged2post Infocom games in general and Hitchhiker's Guide in particular left me screaming at the Apple IIc screen an awful lot.

  • MonkeyViking

    In Zork 1, the bat carried you to a different location in the game, it did not kill you. Certainly a fair puzzle. What is unfair in Zork is the random outright kill you could face vs. the thief or the troll…frustrating, but not the end of the world. I prefer those games where you really felt a sense of accomplishment from winning rather then the spoonfed games of today that fear frustrating the gamer.

    The Sierra puzzled mentioned are not the criminal ones…how about the "invisible path" puzzles (the whales tongue in KQ4, the path to the vampires castle in kq2?) a narrow path of pixles that are vaguely determined that kill you instantly if you step off…truly sadistic.

  • Batman

    Stu, if you find a 21st Century version of Haunt to play, let me know where. Thanks!!!!

  • Lakawak

    @ Stu…sorry, not buying it. There is no way someone who grew up on Zork and the Sierra games would write what you did. At least not someone with any journalism skills. Again, anyone who started with Zork would never think that a clove of garlic was an unnecessary item. They just wouldn't. And when you were put somewhere in a Sierra game, it was always for a reason. As for the spinach dip in LSL, it again shows that you are unaware of how people played those games. Yes, many people might have died because hey were holding the spinach dip in Leisure Suit Larry. But 99% of people playing that ame had saved the game at most 5 minutes before their death. Because part of the fun of those games was learning from your mistakes. So, you die due to the spinach, restore to your previous point and play again for a few minutes to get to that point, this time remembering to drop the spinach dip. The fact that you act like everyone was restarting the entire game from the beginning yet again shows that you were not a game player in the 80s. And since most, if not all Sierra games had no inventory limit, everyone who knew what they were doing would carry anything and everything they could find or buy because eerything would be needed eventually. So yes…almost all players would have the sewing kit, sunscreen and wig. And as I said, everyone saved frequently. Those that didnt were just dumb kids.

  • Stu Horvath

    @Batman The more I look, the less likely that seems, unfortunately. It sounds really great though! I've an email out to the fellow who wrote it, so we'll see what happens.

    @Lakawak I definitely hear where you're coming from. There was definitely a right way and a wrong way to go about playing these games. However, in the vast majority of text and graphic adventures, particularly those released later in the decade (like the well loved LucasArts games), it was impossible to find yourself stuck in an unwinnable situation. In fact, including an unwinnable situation was usually a conscious design choice, which is something that strikes me as somewhat bizarre but endlessly fascinating on a lot of levels.

  • Berimon

    @ Lakawak You can make assumptions about how people played the game all you want, that doesn't make you right. Unless you actually ARE 99% of the people that played the game, there is no way you'd know how all 99% of them played the game.

  • http://www.naturstein-profi.com Silestone

    Hahah most awful situation that can happen is that.Get on end of the game and cant finishing because of something you need from beginning. Worse for me in that scenario was new era game "Tomb Raider"

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