Trial and Error Gameplay

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At least the developers put a pit in the corner on this one.
"A Gygaxian dungeon is like the world's most fucked up game show. Behind door number one: INSTANT DEATH! Behind door number 2: A magic crown! Behind door number 3: ten pounds of sugar being guarded by six giant KILLER BEES!"
SteveD, RPGnet forums

"Q: How do I get past the second screen? After the spike walls and all...

A: Look around once you get a game over."

A popular variety of Fake Difficulty, Trial and Error Gameplay is what happens when a game developer decides the best way to punish a player's incorrect action is to to kill his character, end the mission in failure, or otherwise force him to repeat that part from the beginning again. And, in the most Egregious manner possible, this occurs whether or not it was even possible to know in advance that it was a bad move at all. In the end, the only thing the player can do about it is reload the area and/or savepoint, play through that section again, and remember not to do that next time. In essence, Trial and Error Gameplay is whenever it is necessary for the player to fail before realizing what is necessary to succeed.

This is not limited to Nintendo Hard games. It does not necessarily result from Everything Trying to Kill You. Even ordinary games can abuse the non-permanence of death. It can feel much worse in games that have set pieces, voice acting, or (heaven forbid) unskippable cutscenes that do/say/show the exact same thing every time like a skipping record playing a song you can't get out of your head.

Take heart. As annoying as this trope can be, it's far better than the game becoming Unwinnable.

Ron Gilbert of LucasArts fame rants about this trend here, and intentionally designed his games to avoid this trope (co-worker David Fox added that, unlike adventure games, "I know that in the real world I can successfully pick up a broken piece of mirror without dying"). LucasArts, it should be noted, became so opposed toward this trope in their adventure games that they often erred on the side of deathlessness. Others who've decried the trend include this IGN blogger and Shamus Young(of DM of the Rings fame).

Also known as Curse You Sierra, a lament directed toward the company most prone to putting such puzzles in their games. Save early, save often, and don't overwrite saves.

Amusingly, in Edutainment Games or Puzzle games, trial and error may actually be the puzzle itself. These count, but barely, because you may not be punished for getting it wrong, since the entire point is Trial and Error until you get the solution right. There are also in fact entire games dedicated around this concept too, although to be fair, these games generally tend to give you clues after you make an incorrect guess.

This is much worse when combined with Check Point Starvation. That said, it is possible to reduce the difficulty by watching and closely studying YouTube videos of it being done right. Or wrong. Compare Try Everything and Character Select Forcing.

Examples of Trial and Error Gameplay include:

Real Games

3D Action Games

  • The Half Quake series of Half Life mods is full of this, along with at least one instance of Unwinnable. This is quite bluntly lampshaded in the first of them with the Hazard Course being replaced with an object lesson in sadism, and justified by the game being intended to punish the player character, torturing and eventually killing them.
  • This is a complaint sometimes leveled at Stealth Based Games, such as Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell. Getting through an area undetected may require several specific actions performed consecutively, which can often only be discovered through trial-and-error.
  • Defcon 5 invokes this trope due to massive use of Guide Dang It; you're plopped down in the game's setting (a Mars colony ready to be opened) with no idea of what you're supposed to do, a map that only lets you cover your immediate area, and the requirement of picking up data pads scattered around the compound for items and info on your next mission (which are so vague you practically need a strategy guide to make heads or tails of).
  • The Tomb Raider series dips in and out of this trope a lot, even between levels; some levels have many dangerous traps but are fair as long as you don't blindly run into everything (or show some haste when you do) and pay a modicum of attention to the surroundings, while others spring fatal (or at least very damaging) traps that are near-unavoidable with very little warning. TR 3 is probably the peak of this, with some levels having a seemingly sadistic desire to throw death-traps at you around every corner (the limited save system if you are on the PlayStation version also doesn't help).
  • At the Legendary difficulty level of Halo 2, the Jackal snipers kill you in a single shot and are surprisingly accurate. They can even shoot before directly aiming and bounce their beams off walls. Thus you are usually not aware of them until you have been killed. The best strategy for dealing with them involves memorizing the places they appear in the level.
    • Similarly, the Goddamned Drones attack in swarms and cherry-tap you to death with plasma fire, and you often don't see them coming until it's too late to avoid death.
    • The series' randomized jack-in-the-box Respawning Enemies, which also make Legendary a Luck-Based Mission at times, ie you may get either a group of flunkies and a regular Elite, or two Ultra Elites spawning at a given point.
    • H2's Legendary in general is a big load of trial and error, fake difficulty and luck-based situations. Not fun. Ironically enough, co-op is even more frustrating on Legendary, since both players start over when one of them dies.
      • There are lots and lots of scenarios where, in order to survive, you have to know what's coming, be ready for it, and go through all the right motions exactly. (i.e., "Okay, I'll go here, shoot that Sentinal tube, go here, shoot that one, go here, kill that flood wave...") Which you obviously won't unless you've done the section before, and probably gotten killed many times. Many parts are almost choreographed, with there pretty much being one right sequence of when to take cover where, who to shoot when, when to go where, and so one, which you'll pretty much only discover by just doing the section repeatedly, trying tactics and maneuvers, and seeing what works and what doesn't over many attempts.
      • The middle game in a trilogy being more mindless/the worst is something of a Bungie tradition.
  • Mercenaries 2: World in Flames has this annoying type of gameplay in several of the missions. As a particularly frustrating example... Your vehicle: a lightly armoured SUV. Your objective: drive around eight tanks, several static recoiless rifle positions, and multiple rocket grenadiers on your way to the corporate headquarters. Good luck!
  • In First Encounter Assault Recon Interval 2 you jump out of a window, land in an alley and find Alma there. Only this time, she's pissed and is engulfing everything around her in flames. She walks towards you. You shoot. She's invincible as usual. 'Running past' equals death. Behind you is a part of a building, basically a dead end. What do you do? Die a lot figuring out everything previously said. Then, as you back up towards the dead end trying to fight the inevitable and figure out how to live, she suddenly force-throws you through a window high above the dead end. On to the next lev-...Wait, that's all you do? Damn.
  • The Hitman games are perfect examples of this trope. It is virtually impossible to succeed on your first try, and a large part of the game is learning from how you screwed up the last time.
    • Maybe for Silent Assassin ratings, but it's perfectly possible (and save for the last few levels of each game) easy to complete the missions on your first go.
  • Divinity 2: Ego Draconis holds the belief that the modern gamer has no developed sense of inference or observation, and can only learn from repeated killings pointed at the face. Worse, it's a very engrossing game, so players often forget to save regularly before this trope rears its drooling head.
  • An example from STALKER: Call of Pripyat: During an early mission, you're tasked with recovering a strange artifact from an old barge. As soon as you pick it up and exit, another stalker approaches you with an obviously fake sob story about his brother being sick and needing the artifact or something. If you refuse, he pretends to let you go, only to call a couple of buddies and shoot you in the back a moment later. Since you're caught by surprise and with no cover, dying is nearly unavoidable. The obvious solution, of course, is to reload your save and shoot him first.
  • Fear Effect. The game practically lives and breathes this trope.
  • The Max Payne series is famous for taking the "quickload junkie" style of older FPS games and pushing it to the extreme. Expect to die instantly upon rounding a corner or entering a room a lot, forcing upon you numerous attempts to get the combination of aiming, strafing, and Bullet Time usage just right.

Adventure Games

  • As mentioned above, almost every Sierra adventure game ever made.
    • Quite possibly the most bizarre example of this is in King's Quest V, where one defeats a yeti by... throwing a pie at it. And there are many more outrageous puzzles of this nature to be found in the game.
      • This is made even worse by Graham having the option to eat the pie when he's about to starve instead of eating (part) of a leg of lamb (which you may not have) so you can't defeat the yeti. This makes the game Unwinnable, with your only recourse to restart the game. To top it off, the game never tells you that it's a lost cause to continue, either.
    • The developers of the Space Quest series have said that they adopted Have a Nice Death messages as a response to this trope. After all, they reasoned, if you're going to die a lot, you might as well get a laugh out of it.
    • A seasoned player of Sierra adventure games will be ready to save at every opportunity while playing the first Gabriel Knight game, until realizing that your character won't die no matter how haplessly he stumbles into secret voodoo conspiracies. That is, up until about the fifth day, after they've successfully thrown you off.
  • ICOM adventure games such as Shadowgate, Deja Vu and Uninvited are also prone to this. It's somewhat mitigated by restarting the game one screen back.
  • The Darkseed games, although those are more susceptible to Unwinnable issues than is normal for this trope.
  • Infocom tends to do this a lot as well.
    • A particularly harsh example is the time machine in Zork III. There's only one year you can travel to safely. Too early, and you die one way. Too late, and you die a different way. Unless you somehow correctly guess the year, you have to narrow it down through trial and error, saving and restoring.
    • Their take on The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy is particularly blatant, whether due to "follow the script" sequences that punish errors, or things as arbitrary as not giving a sandwich to a dog near the beginning of the game.
      • The game in general, however, is known to be extremely cruel about being Unwinnable by Design. If you don't cheat, then you will probably need to restart multiple times to figure out: How to get to the meeting with Marvin in 12 moves; exactly which 10 items you need and where to get them; that you even NEED to give the sandwich to the dog; what you need to acquire in order to solve the Babel fish puzzle; etc.
  • Slouching Towards Bedlam doesn't involve trial and error gameplay. However, it justifies the save/restore function as an ability, and writes the trial-and-error aspect into another character that also had that ability.
  • Played with in Star Trek: Borg, in which the process of dying and "reloading" actually occurs in-game, courtesy of Q. In order to win the game, you have to let yourself get assimilated by the Borg, get some important information from them, then die and use the knowledge you gained now that you're human again. Q will actually commend you for this "outside the box" type of thinking.
  • Wax Works and the Elvira games are notorious for this kind of game play. The players are often given little clue as to how to solve some of the puzzles, with all sorts of deathtraps from nowhere, and too many ways to render the games unwinnable.
  • One of Ron Gilbert's complaints in the rant linked above, time limits, is played straight in RAMA. Although your explorations of the titular ship have hitherto been fairly leisurely and forgiving in constraints of time, and death has been a minor setback-a return to a point shortly prior to your death after a few remarks from Arthur C. Clarke that basically boil down to "We put this here, it's pretty apparently dangerous, you screwed with it anyway, try to be more careful in the future". Even after you've crossed the frozen sea and entered the city, things have been undemanding at worst. Through all this your play has been trial-and-error gameplay, but it's justified because you're a scientist studying this ship and you know about as much about it as any other character. Then, the Sudden But Inevitable Betrayal happens and you have six real-time hours to solve the problem if you're standing still. When you move, the game deducts a couple of minutes from this timer to simulate the time it takes for movement. The same applies for performing an action. So you have significantly less than six hours to get off the ship, to do it you have to go to a completely new area of the ship, and you're so severely limited for time that the only way to get out in anything like a reasonable number of tries is with guide in hand.
  • The Immortal is practically a Gygaxian dungeon in 3D video game form.
  • While the FMV-heavy Dragon's Lair did not make use of this trope (if you died, it was because you missed the visible signal), at least one computer version does. There were numerous sequences where Dirk had to react to dangers at the right time, and these were not telegraphed. Memorization was necessary in the end.
    • Even more oddly, the cartoon invoked this trope. During a commercial break, the viewer was asked to choose Dirk's next move. When the show came back, it was revealed whether or not each choice resulted in his death. (Admittedly, this is a clever way of invoking the beautiful death animations from the game.)
  • This is used interestingly in Shadow of Destiny; the main character always dies at the start of each chapter, and the rest of the chapter consists of trying to avoid that death after going back in time.
  • Some MUDs, a form of text-based proto-MMO popular in the '80s and '90s, had "deathtraps"—rooms which killed your character instantly upon entering them and deleted all your equipment. The only reasonable way to avoid this was to use a spell or ability that lets you see what's in neighboring rooms and check every single one before entering. Understandably, some MUDs removed deathtraps to avoid driving players insane.
  • Ragnarok (also called Valhalla) is a surprisingly expansive roguelike game, with an insanely high number of ways to die or screw up royally. While there are a minimum of in-game warnings (don't eat speckled mushrooms, the gods can't be killed, etc.), most of the time, it will be down to player experience to determine things like turning into a plant is near-instant death, to survive Niflheim, you need to be cold resistant, sentinel gaze attacks are incredibly dangerous, petrification resistance is a very good idea, randomly mixing potions at low levels (and low HP) is risky...
  • Panic!! could be considered the epitome of trial-and-error. You play the entire game by pressing buttons to see what happens. Most of the buttons either make a silly gag happen, blow up a real-world monument, or teleport you to another scene. However, there are exactly three Game Over scenes, and a few more than three buttons can take you to them.
  • Many older Interactive Fiction games rely on this, where it's generally referred to as 'learning through death'. It's frowned upon in modern IF games, though less so when the plot of the game is built around it, like in Adam Cadre's Lock and Key.
  • Fairly well-averted in A Vampyre Story. The game almost always gives you enough information to solve puzzles without a guide, although sometimes you need to be sharp to catch it. As a non-spoilerriffic example, you need to lube up some hinges early on in the game, and in your bedroom you pick up some body oil that'll do the trick-but there's only enough oil for one hinge. No fear-the game will, if you "look" at the body oil, tell you it was made from oils extracted from nuts and dried fruits, which coincidentally you can also collect from your room. In some of the later puzzles it gives you all the pieces (a cop who desperately wants to be recognized as a hero, a little girl's dress, and a bat about the right size to fit into it) and leaves you to figure it out for yourself.
  • Shadoan is a mixed bag on this. Actual puzzles are usually Moon Logic Puzzles. The problem comes with not running into a Drop in Nemesis who can insta-kill you, not going to certain areas where you'll be insta-killed, skipping certain fights where you'll be insta-killed . . . . Sometimes you even need to abuse the fast-travel system to get past screens without actually entering them.
  • Theresia, frankly, is mean about this. Open the lower door of the cupboard? You got a necessary item! Open the upper door of the cupboard? It shoots an arrow at your head! What, you wanted a clue which door to open? (To be fair, in the first half of the game the wrong choice is often smeared with blood, but the second half requires Save Scumming and / or Healing Potions.)
  • Surviving High School is also big on this. Most choices reveal a character's personality...AFTER you make them. Especially on dating. Luckily, it's friendly with them. Oh, and the actual system for leveling attributes is pretty mean.
  • One puzzle in The Space Bar revolves around predicting the assignments of guard dogs queeps. The game kind of implies that it's possible to figure it out through logic, but it's a thousand times easier and more reliable to just reload.
  • On Aztec Challenge on the Commodore 64, one of the levels is a room with booby-trapped floor titles. You have to step on the right ones in the right order, or else you get shot through with arrows. As one would imagine, this level usually takes several attempts before the player is successful.
  • In Ghost Trick the main character has the power to rewind time to four minutes before a person's death, and is encouraged to use this power extensively since in some cases it takes a lot of tries to figure out which objects to manipulate and in which order.
  • During the first part of The Secret of Monkey Island, part of the player's training in swordplay involves learning snide insults to throw opponents off-guard; without these insults and witty come-backs, the player can't win a sword fight. These quips are learned by hearing other pirates use them in fights; thus, the player is required to repeatedly enter fights with other pirates and lose, trying out new insults and weak come-backs until finally gaining enough to win a fight. The frustration of this is lessened, however, by the fact that the player can't actually die.

Driving Games

  • In the very first race of Midnight Club, there is absolutely no way to tell that you need to use a certain rock as a ramp to reach the finish point. The only way to possibly discover this is to watch one of the computer racers do it, which by definition means placing 2nd or worst. Of course, you need to place 1st in order to proceed in the game, so you must fail the mission at least once just to see how it's done.
    • Midnight Club 2 is even worse, stretching this trope throughout the entire game in very annoying ways. Possibly the best example is in the third race of the game where the player spends the majority of it racing along the long, wide open highway, traveling at top speed. Near the end of the race the player must navigate an off-ramp while still going full-throttle, and of course a semi truck will pull right in front of you and block your path when you get close. The only way to get through unscathed is to drive precisely between the gap in the truck's wheels. The game gives the player almost no indication of which path to take, with an overhead arrow pointing directly at the next checkpoint, regardless of the actual layout of the streets. Blindly following the arrow will inevitably cause a player to crash into buildings or concrete dividers.
  • In the dragster wheelie competition in Need for Speed Pro Street some of the cars cannot pull a wheelie no matter how many upgrades you buy. Some of the cars are much easier to use for drifting too, and the game doesn't give many clues about what to buy. It's not a massive problem since the wheelie competition only comes along when the player will probably have enough credits to buy the 'right' car. But it's irritating to spend ages tinkering with car set-up and driving style in a vain attempt to get the nose of a Supra or RX-7 to lift when the game should mention somewhere that it's a waste of time.
  • Wangan Midnight Maximum Tune 3 's Ghost Battle mode. When you select a ghost to battle, you are only told the starting ramp, and not what route the ghost take, which gets annoying if, say, you select a ghost that starts on one of the faster routes (i.e. Wangan or Yokohane), and thus put all your tuning points into power and leave nothing for handling, but the race ends on the curvier C1 loop and you keep crashing into walls because your car has no handling whatsoever. The only way to know the route for sure is to have already battled the ghost or watch someone else race it.
    • Racing against normal ghost cars is tough enough (though more skillful players can take advantage of the Rubber Band AI). Battling against the King Ghosts takes it to a whole new level, requiring both skill and luck, since the Rubber Band AI is pretty much turned off for the player (meaning even the slightest collision is a surefire way to lose). Moreso if the player who set that King Ghost run did a near perfect run, and if the player challenging the King Ghost has a high level (A or higher) which increases the density of traffic that gets in the way. Even some of the most skillful players may take dozens of attempts to beat them, and King Ghosts have been known to remain unbeaten for at least a week.
  • Both Stunts and its Spiritual Successor Track Mania have an unwritten rule that the first run of a track must be played not to win, but to know the layout.

Horror Games

  • In Alone in the Dark 1, there are two "evil books" in the library's secret room(which is a Guide Dang It to find). The first, "Fragments of the Book of Abdul", hurts you, while the second, "De Vermis Mysteriis", instantly kills you if you so much as look at the front page. Unless, that is, you are standing on the pentagram symbol in the room, Guide Dang It.
    • If you accidentally bump into a ghost (touching the one by the fireplace is almost certain on the first try), they come to life as a nightmare-fueling swirling cloud of psychedelic death that chases you around the house until it kills you.
    • Another unavoidable first time death occurs in the hallway leading to the library, the woodsman painting starts throwing axes at you. Further down the hallway, a painting of an Indian starts shooting arrows that home in on you, at which point death is inevitable. The player learns the hard way to put the Old Indian Cover on the woodsman painting, and to shoot the Indian painting with the bow and arrows.
    • Let's not forget just trying to simply open the front door of the house. One of the books you can find contains something that could remotely be considered a clue to this, but it's obscure enough that it's doubtful a single player has ever been stopped from trying to open the door in good faith (rather than to see the death) on their first playthrough.
    • AITD 2008 is rife with moments like this, such as the part where you have to scale the side of an exploding building. Often due to shoddy game design.
  • Fear Effect, a Playstation Survival Horror game, embodies this to a tee. Given the mechanics of the health system (and the really arbitrary way of healing yourself), anything you try, be it solving a puzzle or duking it out with enemies, will usually result in a "special" death scene (which ranges from being shot to death, immolated, asphyxiation, and other bizarre ways to die). Many, many, times. It stops being funny when this happens 10 times in a row.
    • See some of the many deaths here -- [1]
  • Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth has a scene (pretty directly lifted from H.P. Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth) where you have to escape from some Innsmouth goons. There is one, and only one, correct escape route, and it is not very obvious. Taking a wrong turn will usually get your (unarmed) character gunned down.
    • And don't forget the ending, where exactly the right route must be followed, without even an inch of strafing, and you still can die because the timer doesn't stop even during the final cutscene.
  • The House of the Dead series loves doing this by throwing zombies in mid-attack at you, though this doesn't happen in House of the Dead 4. Then there's the times when civilians, who take off lives if shot, suddenly appear.
  • The creepy and utterly brilliant Lovecraft adventure game Shadow of the Comet has a bit where your character visits a labyrinth-like crypt. After you meet a giant slug-like monster, you have to escape from the crypt as it chases you. Unless you had the good sense to draw a map, the beast will tear you to pieces dozens of times as you try to find the right route.
  • Elvira II - The Jaws of Cerberus. If you enter the wrong room without protection, you'll get killed by a vampire, or burn to death, or ... In addition, if you lose a vital item (accidentally or by spending it for a spell - or for the wrong spell), the game is Unwinnable.
  • The author of BOH doesn't mind this, and answered it in the FAQ.


  • Depending on how charitable, fair, or even consistent the writer is feeling, this can be the only possible way to win at a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Fortunately, it's not hard to flip back to the previous page.
    • Parodied by the Kingdom of Loathing Choose Your Own Adventure booklets, which has obviously wrong choices to humorous effect. For example, Section 1 of one booklet has the player getting beaten up, and one of two choices at the end of Section 1 is "If you have no short-term memory, go to Section 1."

Platform Game

  • The legendary Cinematic-Platformer-cum- Survival Horror game Another World, AKA Out of this World, combines this sort of level design with Everything Trying to Kill You, and, to add insult to injury, makes your character a One-Hit-Point Wonder. Fortunately, Eric Chahi, the game's designer, acknowledged making one of the most Nintendo Hard games of his time, and provided unlimited continues, somewhat easing the players' frustration.
    • It should be noted that without Trial and Error Gameplay, the game would take roughly an hour to complete. Depending on who you ask, this can be seen as shameless padding to compensate for storage limitations (it was graphically advanced for its time), an outdated method of creating a cinematic gaming experience by forcing you to perfect action movie stunts, or just part of the game's inexplicable charm.
  • Many of the newer Sonic the Hedgehog 2-D games are like this. Try running full speed ahead (the whole point of the series) only to run into an enemy as a result of having mere milliseconds to react to it once it appears. Better games in the series will have a short wall or upward spikes to let you know when it's time to stop running.
    • The final boss in Sonic Generations is much harder than it should be due to the game not telling you how to attack. You just have to experiment until you figure out what works.
  • The little-known 8-bit NES game Clash at Demonhead took this to another level. Midway through the game, you HAVE to meet with one of the game's Big Bads, you CANNOT beat him at this point, and you HAVE TO DIE and press Continue in order for the story to continue.
  • Every single Platform Hell game and Mario hack ever created. Miss that perfect jump between two walls of spikes while dodging numerous Bullet Bills and spin jumping off a conveniently timed enemy? Instant death to the character. I Wanna Be the Guy, The Unfair Platformer, Sybion Action and Kaizo Mario (and every game based off the latter) are common users of this trope.
  • Early 1990s platformer Rick Dangerous suffered from a combination of this, One-Hit-Point Wonder and Everything Trying to Kill You. Literally every area was filled with dozens of hidden spikes, which would pop out of walls and floors, and you wouldn't even know they were there until you'd been hit (and sent right back to the start of the last scene). The only way to play through the game was to patiently wander into all the hidden traps on any given screen, remember where they all are, and avoid them all the next twenty or thirty times you replay it. May be considered an early Platform Hell.
  • The old SNES game Prince of Persia contains one instance of this. While normally, every trap, hazard and enemy is clearly marked, there is one instance in one of the later levels where you find two identical potions. One increases your life total, and the other instantly kills you. Thankfully this is near a save point. This scene is absent in every other port of the game.
  • Kirby's Dreamland 2 had a section in world 7, where there was an Auto-Scrolling Level with dead ends and no way to go back. There were 3 ways to go. And it happens several times.
  • The original Wonder Boy had platforms floating on the screens alone. Jumping to the next one was a leap of faith based on a random guess that ended in death if you guessed wrong.
  • Many of the green stars in Super Mario Galaxy 2, because they're found floating above bottomless pits, and in places carefully put just where the camera can't see. Hence quite a few of them are just 'jump in the general direction and hope you land on the star'. Or in the case of Flipsville, hope you fall into a star you can't judge the location of.
  • Donkey Kong Country Returns takes this to an extreme, especially in the mine cart and rocket barrel levels where a slightest mistake will cost you a life. It's even worse in the temple levels due to there being no checkpoints, so be prepared to be back at the start very often (and soon see the pig beckoning you to take the easy way out and use Super Guide).
  • Battletoads is much, much easier once you've memorized every obstacle instead of needing to react to everything as it comes.
    • Up to avoid the the lower barrier, down to avoid the upper barrier, jump the low wall, up, up, down, down, jump, down, up, down, crash into the lower wall for the warp point!
  • Mega Man X 5 had a motor-bike stage which is basically all trial and error. What makes this noteworthy, though, is that this stage and this stage alone requires the player to jump while the "Ready!" stage start animation is still playing. In all other stages, the player can't move while the animation is playing. The only way to realize that this stage is special is by dying once. The rest of the level is also an effort in trial and error, as you're often required to make decisions (upper path or lower path?) with no way of knowing what's ahead.
    • The same thing happens in Mega Man 2. Specifically Quick Man's infamous laser section. Sure, you can use the time stopper (if you have it) to stop things from moving, but if you did that you wouldn't be able to use it later in the level (because guess what's Quick Man's weakness).
  • The whole of X6. Specific portions of levels are simply completely impassable if your character can't double jump or air dash.
  • 2 had two bosses completely invulnerable to the Mega Buster and with only one weapon (each) that worked against them. If you used up too much weapon energy for those weapons too early, the battles were Unwinnable until you either grinded for more weapon energy on the next life, or lost all your lives and used a continue.
  • 9 also had its "you will die with no warning" moments. On passage in Plug Man's stage looks safe, until a block suddenly materializes in its entrance, sending anyone trying to jump into it to the Spikes of Doom below. One set of spikes in Splash Woman's stage cannot be seen until you've take the jump, and if you're now aimed for them, the games Jump Physics aren't enough to let you steer away in time.
  • If you've played the SNES game The Lost Vikings, you know this one so well. As awesome as the game is, if you mess up even ONCE, you are DOOMED to repeat the level, almost inevitably. Use the wrong viking? Level is Unwinnable. Go down the wrong pit? Level is Unwinnable. One of the vikings dies? Level is Unwinnable. At least you get an unlimited amount of retries.
  • The final level of Trine has a bad case of this. You have to climb up a narrow tower ahead of rising instant death lava while an undead wizard busily conjures objects to block your path. You're forced to endlessly repeat the level (and its loading screen) as you memorize exactly where and when the wraith will suddenly spawn a load of spiked balls, crates, or planks to block your progress.
  • Voltorometer Recharged, for no good reason, suddenly decides to throw hidden bottomless pits at you during the escape sequence that happens after the final boss.
  • In 8 Eyes, the first seven stages were theoretically playable in any order, but since each boss was vulnerable to only one weapon, and there would be a change of weapon after each boss, the game was nigh unwinnable to players who didn't know that the proper order was Spain, Egypt, Italy, India, Africa, Germany, Arabia. The manual told players to figure this out for themselves.
  • Yoshi's Island DS is this trope in spades, partly because the secret and extra levels are difficult enough to class as Platform Hell. Two of the most notable (read worst) examples of this are the various rooms in Yoshi's Island Easter Eggs (such as the one where the lights last for about two seconds, in a room filled with bottomless pits and enemies or the egg powered platform which is almost impossible to time correctly the first time around), or the rather unfair part in Yikes Boiling Hot! where after knocking down a bunch of rocks to use as platforms, the next one is followed by an instant death stream of lava timed just enough after the initial event that most people would be standing right under it where it fell.
    • Yoshi's Island 1 also has this in Endless World of Yoshis, with not only the free fall section littered with instant kill spikes that you have to figure out as you go (three times without a checkpoint) but also the one way barrier in the cave. The key you need to open the locked door is the other side. You're meant to find a boulder to hold the door open while you retrieve the key, but this is never even hinted at during the rest of the game nor ever required.

Puzzle Game

  • Chip's Challenge has several of these, mostly involving Frictionless Ice. Level 140, ICEDEATH, relies on guessing which direction to take at every point on the ice of which typically only one of the four directions leads to safe ground, while the other three lead to a watery grave. Of course, you could always map the stage out manually.
    • The final level also hides the exit square underneath blocks. You need to push them out of the way to find it. However, most of the blocks on the level have fire underneath, and will kill you instantly if you push them.
  • This is the point of The Impossible Quiz. WRONG! -1 LIFE
  • As the name implies, the Lemmings Tricky level "Lost something?" appears to have no exit. The exit is hidden inside the rock which floats above the path the lemmings take when they enter the screen.
  • A lot of levels in Scribblenauts are like this. Oftentimes, the game gives you almost no indication of what to do, or very vague indication, and you're left to your devices.
    • Many of the game mechanics are like this. There is no outward indication, for instance, that helicopters are electric, and so will electrocute anything you attach to them by a chain. Which is stronger, a Warrior or a Samurai? Hey, that Knight just ate the Carrot I was going to feed to the Horse! Maybe I can kill that Jersey Devil with a Black Hole—oops. Figuring how any two things in the game will interact is half the fun.
    • The sequel, Super Scribblenauts, takes it to another level by having many seemingly open-ended puzzles that can only be solved in very specific ways. Getting to the front of a queue? No amount of stealth, force or other silly solutions will do, you have to give the other people in the queue an item they're interested in which somehow makes them leave the queue. Putting a child to sleep? None of your regular methods of putting anything to sleep will fulfill the criteria, despite making the child sleep. The solution is to give the child something like a teddy bear, which in any other circumstance would have no such effect.
  • The flash game Life Ark - just about any time you click on the wrong spot, the game becomes Unwinnable and the game only vaguely indicates that this has occurred. (Couldn't you guys have provided an "undo" button, at least?)
  • Needless to say, Puzzle games frequently use this trope. Some actually are entirely about trial and error.

Edutainment Games

  • While the player would not be punished with death for running out of allotted guesses, a couple Clue Finders games used this trope and the entire point was to test hypothesis and try to find out the logically correct answers.
    • Reading: The final challenges were basically comparable to Lingo or Mastermind, in which you have to type in a word and are then told whether or not you got any correct letters in the right places, or correct letters in the wrong places. This can be a little frustrating, as one can eventually run out of guesses and have to start over. Especially painful if they just figured out the password but ran out of guesses because the player typoed or it was another word that has just one letter difference between another word.
    • One of the games in Search And Solve had this. You had to get a certain number of "kinks" out of a vending machine robot's circuits, and in order to do that you had to pick a column and row (Represented by colours and shapes). In order to work the kinks out, you had to guess which colour and shape were which row and column, then get the right coloured shape to push the kink out, so fairly simple, right? Well, every time, it's randomized, and you only have a certain amount of guesses. (And you would be surprised how "hard" the puzzles you had to solve in nine or less turns were compared to just the ten-guess ones!) So not only was it a Luck-Based Mission, but also pure Trial and could just be incredibly unlucky and have all the kinks clustered to one side of the field and your first couple guesses were all the shapes and colours that do not contain any Kinks so the minigame is Unwinnable. It wouldn't be that uncommon to be doing it much more than Four times (like the other minigames) simply because of the trial and error.
  • Grannys Garden opens with a grid of sixteen trees which resembles a copy protection screen, except the only purpose of it is to try every single one until you find the magical one. Later, you encounter items which will end up triggering a trap if picked up, and others that you'll need to progress, and there's no intuitive way to distinguish between the two.
  • The river-rafting minigame in Oregon Trail II is pretty much this, as you often can't see a rock coming until it's too late to dodge it.

Role Playing Games

  • Dwarf Fortress. Unless you read an incredibly comprehensive guide before even downloading it (which you probably won't understand anyway; until you play enough to learn the interface, it will all sound like gibberish), you probably won't even know how to play the game. Until after you've started, been horribly confused by, and lost multiple fortresses. The motto of the game, of course, is "losing is fun."
  • A lot of the bosses in World of Warcraft have abilities that will kill everyone if you don't do exactly the right thing. Some of them are obvious. If you get a message saying the boss is looking at you and a circle of fire starts to gather underneath, probably time to move. But some of them no one would ever guess until its too late, eg. when the boss starts casting a certain spell jump into the damage field it previously placed so that when the spell goes off and puts everyone to sleep, the damage you take from the field will wake you up. Or hurt the boss' aids until they're nearly dead so that when she frenzies you can kill one of them instantly, because that will dispel the frenzy for some reason. Consequently a pretty sizable chunk of higher end gameplay consists of looking up what the bosses do in advance, and carefully making absolutely sure that everyone knows what to do when. In other games, this might be considered cheating. In Wow, it's the only way to get anything done.
    • An unusual example in that a large part of the playerbase demands that it be like this - since a boss with nothing more complicated than normal gameplay mechanics will be fairly easy to the high-level player who has mastered their class and is properly geared, they complained that they were able to beat the boss first time. The only form of difficulty remaining is for the boss to have surprising tricks that must be learned through trial and error. Boss guides are so easily found online as well that not using them is regarded as a form of Self-Imposed Challenge.
    • Some bosses demand adjustment on the part of the group fighting them to take into account group makeup, gear and skill. One boss in the Firelands transforms based on how many players are in one spot; the longer he stays in one form without transforming, the more often he uses special attacks, but the more times he transforms, the stronger his attacks get. Not only do you have to judge how long you keep him in one form before switching, but the amount of time he can remain in one form gradually decreases over the course of the battle, as a form of soft enrage. Even if you know the general strategy to defeat such bosses, finding the right way to execute those strategies requires quite a bit of work, and often a few wipes to test your group's capabilities.
  • At one point in Persona 4, you are given a serious moral choice to make. It's fairly clear to most players what the "good" thing to do is. However, doing so involves getting through several dialogue choices. Picking the wrong one even once gives you a bad ending. Oh, and this occurs right after some lengthy cutscenes.
  • Playing Persona 3 on Hard Mode during your first run-through becomes this. You often go into a boss fight with absolutely no idea what the boss can do, which often means a Total Party Kill because you didn't go in with the right set of resistances and abilities.
    • With save points and reusable teleporters popping up before each of these bosses, it's easy to save before casually throwing your bodies at the boss to test the water, then just reload and go grab the Personas/teammates you need.
  • Suikoden Tactics had an interesting twist on this trope: when you Game Over, you keep the Experience Points you earned during the failed battle. As such, you can Level Farm and Trial-And-Error at the same time.
  • Final Fantasy IV: The After Years has a boss near the end of the game who will wipe out your party before you get a chance to act unless you've brought two specific characters along with you. While one of those characters is pretty good and likely to have been chosen, the other is absolutely useless up to this point and pretty much guaranteed to not be in your party. So, the typical player will play through and get a Game Over at least once, at which point they'll get a hint as to one of the characters they need to bring. Bring that character, but not the other, and you'll get a Game Over, but this time a hint as to the other character you need, at which point you can finally proceed with the game. But if you want to avoid one of these characters being Killed Off for Real, you'll have to bring along two more characters, with no hints being provided by the game that this will help.
    • Well, Fridge Logic can help after the first playthrough. Hint: the character in danger of being killed needs the help of three white-magic casters, all of whom should be related to him. Oh, I'll just say it: the required party is Cecil, Golbez, Rosa and Ceodore.
  • In Mass Effect, the dialogue/Interrupt system never tells you exactly what Shepard is going to say/do when you select an option. Ninety-nine percent of the time it does Exactly What It Says on the Tin, but sometimes an option won't be properly explained and you'll be forced to reload.
    • Older RPGs have this issue as well. However, their generally larger dialog boxes allowed for this problem to sometimes be avoided. Fallout 2, at least, actively averted this aspect of the trope: it allowed you an optional character perk that would just show you which dialog options would evoke positive or negative reactions. Play without it, though, and you could very easily tick off some of the game's main characters—perhaps permanently.
  • Chrono Trigger has the optional boss Son of Sun, which is a floating eyeball-like monster with five smaller orbs surrounding it. Attacking it directly doesn't hurt it and triggers a powerful counterattack. Attacking one of the smaller orbs does one of two things: Four of them will trigger counterattacks, and the fifth will cause damage to the boss. They all look exactly the same. To win the fight, you need to attack the smaller orbs until you find the right one, then focus on that one until the boss shuffles them around.
  • Fallout: New Vegas downloadable content Dead Money includes a number of sequences having the player advance through an area before nearby radio signals set off the explosive collar that they are forced to wear for the duration of the expansion. These segments can be made easier by destroying the signal emitters (radios, PA systems), but the emitters are often hard to see in the dark and hazy environments of Dead Money, and at times simply cannot be destroyed at all, often making the player resort to a disorienting charge, often resulting in repeated deaths and frustration.
  • The Elder Scrolls III Morrowind expansion Tribunal has a nasty end-game sequence of death-puzzles. Most of which involve trial and error using the WASD keys or jumping at 'just' the right time to avoid getting killed, regardless of what defensive precautions you might have taken. The fact that the Elder Scrolls series' pathfinding has always been suspect makes this a particularly egregious offender...
  • Many of the bosses in the Shin Megami Tensei series can be like this. Most bosses have specific elemental weaknesses to exploit, and there's often no way to anticipate them beyond checking online or just dying and trying again with what you've learned.
    • The dungeon-crawling portions of Strange Journey can also get like this, with mazes of teleporters or one-way doors that will throw you back to the start or dump you into a roomful of damage/status tiles if you take a wrong turn.
  • Dark Souls. The whole game. Often you're given no hint of an ambush or trap, and you have to learn the levels by endlessly replaying them until you finally succeed. Bosses and minibosses don't respawn, which makes subsequent runs after you've defeated them much easier.

Shoot Em Ups

  • In Xenon 2: Megablast, two powerups - the side-shot and the rear-shot - are mutually incompatible. At the mid-point and end of each level you are given the opportunity to sell and buy equipment, but without having already played the following section there's no way of knowing which one of the two you should have - and if you get it wrong, you will lose.
  • The C64 shoot-em-up Delta is pretty much the embodiment of this trope. Enemy waves will quickly scroll across the screen, usually before the player can hope to kill them with their pea-shooter of a gun, and will inevitably destroy the One-Hit-Point Wonder player ship. A post on a C64 forum described it as an "interactive memory test disguised as a game".
  • Thunder Force III has a few death traps that, without prior knowledge, are nearly guaranteed to kill you. Examples include a pillar of lava on Gorgon that doesn't stop, very sudden enemy attacks, and the moving terrain in Haides.
  • At a glance, Ikaruga doesn't require a lot of this. But playing for score, which requires stringing together chains (shooting 3 consecutive same-colored enemies), is like studying for a final exam.
  • Subterranean Animism is quite fond of this. Examples include the sine-wave bullets in stage 1, the wave of fairies immediately after the stage 2 midboss battle (which shoot aimed bullets that fly a considerable distance before slowing down to normal speed, effectively automatically killing you if you try to fly up to the top to auto-collect the items that Parsee drops), Parsee's second boss spell card, Yuugi's last spell card, and basically all of stage 5 (see the annotations for this video).
    • To be honest, a lot of the game is this. The only way you're going to get the good endings, or, indeed, even survive the later stages, is to memorize how the stage works, shoot the right things, dodge in the right ways, and, most importantly, memorize the attack patterns the bosses use.
    • Whether or not ZUN knows (or has always known) that long streams of aimed bullets will eventually end up boxing some first timers in is up in the air. The length of such streams is one of the major differences between easier and harder difficulty modes on most of his games. Pulling them in a direction that will leave you an escape route ('streaming') is a required skill in the later Windows games.
  • A vast majority of the challenge in the R-Type series is knowing exactly where to be at all times, even when there's nothing dangerous on-screen. In fact, an empty screen is a good sign that SOMETHING is about to clamp down or fly open or sweep through and trap and crush you, unless you know beforehand which square inch of the screen is safe. That square inch also moves around a lot, and its interior walls usually spray bullets at you.
  • Topping Ikarugas chaining is Raiden Fighterss Micluses. To find out where they are, you'll either be doing this trope A LOT or watching superplays. Finding Micluses is only required if you are playing for score.
  • Last Hope by NG:DEV.TEAM is a good modern example. It's even more memorization heavy than ''R-Type'', to the point where even getting past the first level requires you to plan and memorize a path through the entire stage.
  • Image Fight and Image Fight 2 are both extremely memorization heavy shmups by IREM. The Penalty Stages are pretty much guaranteed death unless you've memorized it entirely.

Strategy Game

  • Pretty much any game ever produced by Paradox - with Victoria: An Empire Under The Sun being the uber example and many of the others not far behind. Not least because either what you need to know is Not In The Manual or The Manual Is Wrong.
  • Later levels of Valkyria Chronicles have elements of this to it, as does character selection as something as simple as not including the right number of different types of troops can severely mess you up.
    • Chapter 14 is particularly bad about this: The briefing says your mission is to capture the enemy camp, but nothing even remotely hints that, when you do capture it two giant tanks appear from the top and bottom of the map, and you're objective now is to destroy both of them. If you left your Anti-Tank units behind, you're screwed. There's also Chapter 13, where the only path to the enemy camp is blocked off by a minefield. If you forgot to bring an Engineer, who can disarm mines. you're pretty much forced to restart. There's absolutely no way you can know about that minefield until it's already too late.
  • A particularly bad example can be found in Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3: Uprising. The final Allied mission has you going up against an Empire commander after choosing one of two locations to build your base on, no big deal. The northeast position looks far, far more defensible and has closer ore nodes, so most players will probably pick it on their first playthrough. However... As soon as you kill off the Empire commander, the real Big Bad reveals himself and comes gunning for you. The map expands to accommodate his base and guess what - it's DIRECTLY north of the earlier mentioned starting position. Which before marked the edge of the map, so you probably have no defenses there whatsoever. And he starts out with a ridiculously huge and well-equipped strike force already rushing to attack you. Hell, there is a good chance his longer-ranged units will be shelling you before the cutscene even ends. If you didn't know this was coming you are basically GUARANTEED to die, and even when you're prepared it's a difficult battle.
  • Final Fantasy Tactics has shades of this, since you're never given a clue as to what sort of situation you're getting into before a battle. You just have the (very basic) layout of your team's immediate starting area, so if you unwittingly put your team of melee combatants into a map against, say, a whole team of archers and mages on the other side of a valley or river, you're in trouble.
    • Especially bad during several sequential battle sequences, where you no longer have the option of Level Grinding if you don't have the right job classes available or if you simply aren't high enough level for the enemies. This can lead to several instances where the game is essentially Unwinnable... Especially during the final game sequence if you made the mistake of passing up your special characters in favor of the generic ones and thus missed the dozens of fights which comprised the "optional" portion of Chapter 4.
  • Supreme Commander and its standalone expansion, Forged Alliance, rely heavily on scripted events and changing objectives during the singleplayer campaign, often meaning you're screwed unless you took every possible precaution or knew what was coming. So you destroyed the enemy base and captured that important building? Hope you've built defenses around it, because now you have to protect it from waves of enemies coming from the edge of the map! Built your defenses on the north side because that's where the enemy was? Well, the map just expanded and you're suddenly being attacked from all sides! Didn't build a naval force because the enemy didn't have one? Suddenly a huge fleet appears! And so on. The missions are actually fairly easy once you know what's about to happen, but trying to pass a mission on the first try is an exercise in frustration.
  • Commandos 1-3 is basically the very definition of this, Attack the wrong guy, you die, stash a dead guy in the wrong place, you die, time your takedown wrong, you die. Lose focus on all of your spread out men for 15 seconds, you die. Anything but doing exactly what the developers originally wanted you to do will result in certain critical mission failure, this trope is the only reason they can make 3 missions and call it a campaign.
  • Fire Emblem games can be this to a player trying to not lose any units. Often, units will spawn behind where your main force is likely to be at a certain point in the battle, and you have your healers, mages, and archers in the back. Or it will just be one of those damn foggy levels.

Visual Novels

  • Yes, some Hentai games include this. Biggest would be Tsukihime and Fate/stay night. If you don't leave a room, you die. If you attack a temple, you die. If you refuse the call, you die. Luckily, you get NUMEROUS "Have a nice death" things from the Tiger Dojo or Ciel-Senpai.
    • A general rule of thumb in Type Moon games is to always pick the most dangerous option when you're given one. Playing it safe usually ends up with you being eaten by a shark on the ninth floor of a hotel.[1]
  • Enzai is quite merciless if you want to get another ending that's not suicide or being a sex-slave, partly because the only choices that would lead you to a satisfactory ending are counter-intuitive at best. You chose to open the folder that would possibly have information on how to escape prison before a box of chocolates? Enjoy your remaining 30 gameplay minutes before the game kills you. Wanted to go to Jose's cell for a notebook that allegedly would set you free from jail? Say hello to your new life as Durer's sex slave. Especially frustrating since some of the options the game presents can become auto-chosen based on your previous actions.

Card Games

  • The game Mao is completely based around this, as for the most part only one person will know the rules and talking about them is forbidden. The main way to learn the rules is by getting penalized for breaking rules until you figure them out. And then the rules change.

Tabletop Games

  • As displayed in the page quote, Tabletop Games players have a term for a dungeon with particularly random ways to inflict instant death: Gygaxian, though the term also implies heavy use of Malevolent Architecture. One of the most famous modules of this type is the Tomb of Horrors. People who survived that module largely did so by searching everything for traps, and sending Mooks to open every door in the dungeon. (It should be noted that it takes more effort to roll up a new character than to load a saved game.)
    • Favourite Tomb of Horrors moment: There's at one point a statue of a demon that holds an orb. This orb is a teleporter you need to pass through. There's ANOTHER identical demon statue right next to it. That one isn't a portal though—it's a Sphere of Annihilation. Oh, and to get through the teleporter safely, you need to perform a non-obvious sequence of actions.
  • The board game Mastermind is actually the entire point of this trope. The object of the game is for one player to put down pegs in a pattern, and for the second player to guess what colours the pegs are and in which order they're placed. The first player then tells them whether they have any correct colours in the right places or correct colours in the wrong spaces, so the second player has to use those clues given by the first player to guess what order the pegs are in.
  • Also the entire point of Battleship, where both players try to destroy the other players' fleet by guessing a random square on the grid, and then being told whether or not they hit a ship or missed it, and if you hit, you have to guess what adjacent squares contain a ship as well.

Game Shows

  • The Price Is Right has a few games where the player can make a guess, is shown what they got right, and can try again. The best example is Clock Game, which is about guessing the value of the prize, being told it's higher or lower, and repeating until getting it right on the dollar before the clock runs out.
  • Lingo involves guessing what the word is from the provided letters.

Fictional Examples


Western Animation

  • Robot Chicken featured this with the Memory Game. The next player had to remember how every previous player died in order to get to the prize.
  1. You probably think we're joking. We're not. You can get eaten by a shark on the ninth floor of a hotel if you made the wrong choice in the first path deviation in Tsukihime.