The art of playing mutually exclusive tropes at the same time, by making the situation itself ambiguous so the viewers/readers can't know for sure what's going on. While this trope can come into play unintentionally, for example as a side effect of Faux Symbolism, it's normally intentionally played by the authors. This can be done to make the story more interesting in general, as a way of Getting Crap Past the Radar, or simply to appeal to several audiences at the same time - each of them likely to interpret the situation in whatever way they are most familiar with.
A trope is being played. But what trope, that depends on a premise that we cannot know for sure: Either some vital piece of information is missing, or we are left with contradicting information and no definite verification about what is correct and what is not. Take for example the page quote above, quoted from a song about an unidentified character. This song could be one of several different tropes, depending on who he is.
When played straight, the characters probably (but not necessarily) know what they are talking about, but they're not giving the audience all the information needed to know the situation for sure. (Again with the song, the singer's character surely know who he's talking about, but he sticks to calling him "he" plus various honorifics, never telling the audience what kind of character he's really talking about.)
When invoked or debated, the characters themselves ponder the nature of the situation they are in. This only applies to cases where they don't know that the trope is - say for example that they are having a strong emotional reaction and are pondering whether it's The Power of Love or The Power of Friendship. In a detective story, the detectives might be unsure or disagreeing - not merely about whether or not a certain suspect is guilty or not as a simple "who did this" level, but about the the basic nature of the situation they are investigating. Note that examples only count if the uncertainty is left unresolved: Brief uncertainties stop being this trope when they get a definite answer.
When adding examples, list the alternatives - both what the unknown factor is, and what tropes the different alternatives result in.
Only add examples where the alternatives are reasonable. If needed, make an argument for why it's a viable interpretation. Also, don't add situations that are only temporarily ambiguous: If the situation is clarified after a little while then it is not an example.
Supertrope to Ambiguously Gay and Ambiguously Evil. Compare Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane for another kind of uncertainty. Contrast Epileptic Trees, which are conclusions that viewers draw when they don't limit themselves to information objectively present within the work. Also see Cryptic Conversation.
WARNING! There are unmarked Spoilers ahead. Beware. Spoilers cannot be avoided, since they are often vital parts of the analysis.
No real life examples, please; we'd be here all day.
- Neon Genesis Evangelion has quite a bit of this, partly resulting from that Rule of Symbolism mentioned in the trope description. The most notable example would be the final scene of End of Evangelion, where the true meaning of Asuka's words remains up to viewer interpretation.
- At the end of the first season of Haruhi Suzumiya (which in chronological order would be the sixth episode) it is left very vague as to whether Haruhi recreated the world or not. Kyon and Koizumi don't know either. There is really no way to know for sure, only that the events surrounding the moment when it would have occurred, if it did, really did happen.
- Multiple explanations for various happenings are also presented. For example, Koizumi claims that Haruhi created the espers and either attracted time travelers and aliens or created them, while Mikuru says that Koizumi is lying and that the residents of the future have their own goals. Nagato refuses to say what the IDTE thinks because neither she nor the previous two have the slightest bit of proof that they can show to Kyon and any of the three could easily lie to him. Another big ambiguity that is touched on occasionally but never truly addressed is whether Haruhi is a god or not. One of the early theories that Koizumi presented, a large number of fans assume it to be the case, but even Koizumi himself doesn't know if it's true or not.
- 5 Centimeters per Second: Is the woman that Takaki passes at the railway crossing in the third act really Akari? The fact that she doesn't wait to acknowledge him despite getting her memory jogged a short time ago by finding the letter she had intended to pass to him years ago is suspicious, and invites speculation that it could have been a doppelganger or Takaki's hallucination instead. Official artbook A sky longing for memories unhelpfully uses the phrase "the woman" rather than explicitly confirming or denying that it's her, further muddying the waters. The manga attempts to settle the issue by having an apparition of young Akari appear and wave goodbye at Takaki after the latter has turned his back rather than try going after the woman, but given the number of divergences it has from the film, how much stock is to be put in this is left as an exercise to the reader.
- Watchmen has an open-ended ending where Rorschach's journal is seen lying in a pile of papers and reports in the New Frontiersman, and a hand is seen reaching for the pile. The significance of the journal is that Rorschach uses it to expose Ozymandias for the murders of The Comedian and Moloch, which could potentially lead to an investigation that would expose Ozymandias. However, spoiler: the journal only exposes the murders of The Comedian and Moloch, and does not actually expose the squid monster ending, as Rorschach was not aware of the squid monster when he submitted the journal. And an underground newspaper may find it hard to expose a man as rich and powerful as Ozymandias.
- Inception ends with an Esoteric Happy Ending where Cobb is so happy to see his children again that he forgets to check if his totem stops spinning or not - which is his way of seeing the difference between reality and dreamworlds! Will it stop spinning shortly after the scene? If so, the ending is Earn Your Happy Ending, with an implied Happily Ever After. Or will it not? If so, it's kinda a Lotus Eater Machine.
- Also invoked (earlier in the film) by Mal and Cobb, who keep taking opposing standpoints on This Is Reality versus All Just a Dream.
- Also invoked by one of the sedative makers who treats a group of people who are so dependent on the sedatives that its the only way they can dream anymore. Cobb notes that they come to him to dream; he counters "No, they come to wake up".
- Source Code ends with Colter going back into the titular program and completly averts the destruction of the train using everything he had learned from his previous attempts. Then we see Goodwyn recieving a text message he had sent from within the program, and acting surpised when she hears that the bombing had been prevented, so did Colter actually change the past, or is he now in an alternate timeline within the program?
- Angels with Dirty Faces ends with a confident gangster wimpering and begging to live as he dies in the electric chair, even though he had arrogantly ignored the prospect of his death up until that moment. A friend of his had told him to stop the proud and confident act so that the kids who knew him would stop viewing him as a role model. Did he take the advice and fake the whole thing to discourage the kids who looked up to the gangster lifestyle, or did he really just lose it?
- In The Matrix, Neo has superpowers because he is in a computer simulation. In the sequel, he is revealed to have superpowers in the real world as well. Does this make him a Superhero kind of The Messiah? Or does it simply man that the "reality" is actually a computer-generated Dream Within a Dream?
- The 2008 movie Doubt invokes this. You're left never really knowing if the priest is actually guilty of the allegations.
- In fact, the writer/director has only ever revealed the answer to this to the actors who played the priest, showing that a) there was a very definite answer intended and b) we're not supposed to know for sure... but Father Flynn sure does.
- Changeling: By the end, Walter is not returned to Christine... but in the epilogue, one of Northcott's escaped victims has been found. He says that both he and Walter escaped from their prison, but were separated in the dark. Maybe Walter was recaptured by Northcott, maybe he got away.
- In Attenberg, the relationship between Marina and Bella... is it Friendly War, With Friends Like These... or even Belligerent Sexual Tension? Maybe all three at once!
- The movie Cloverfield is an interesting example of this. The film acts as a deconstruction of giant monster movies, showing what it would be like to be a civilion in a giant monster attack. As such the monster's origin is left almost completely ambiguous because the characters themselves have no idea where it came from. The only thing that comes close to giving an idea about where the monster comes from is the ending which shows a large object falling from the sky into the ocean far off in the background. The fans and theorists are torn as to whether the object is the monster falling from space (meaning the creature would be an alien) or a piece of space junk, like a satilite, falling into the ocean and waking up the monster (which means the creature is an at least partially natural creature). Both explantions just raise more questions.
- John Carpenter's The Thing is almost literally one situation after another full of plot threads that are never fully resolved and left to the viewer's interpretation. Who got to the blood? What happened to Fuchs and Nauls, when were Palmer, Norris, and Blair infected? Are Mac and Childs infected or are they still human? To this day fans still debate on these questions and more.
- Happy Death Day originally had an ambiguous ending, where Tree is in the hospital, the movie ending with the wife of the professor she had been sleeping with sneaking in, dead set on revenge. The director had wanted it this way because it left the ending open, so if the movie was a flop, it meant Tree was Killed Off For Real and nobody would expect a sequel, but if it was a success, it would be a Sequel Hook with a second movie seeing her regenerate and revive yet again. However, test audiences didn't like it, as it cheated poor Tree out of a well-earned happy ending, so it was changed. And a sequel did occur.
- Is the main relationship in the novel The Story of O simply Casual Kink and Property of Love, or is it Destructive Romance/Romanticized Abuse? The novel exists in two versions. These versions have very different endings, casting the rest of the story in very different light. In the most popular version (which most adaptations are built on), the first option might be the most likely. In the alternative version, the second option is far more likely. That version of the novel ends with the protagonist and her boyfriend agreeing that she should commit suicide... and she does.
- The Lady or the Tiger, by Frank R. Stockton is an example of Morton's Fork where the final decision and its result is never revealed. The tendency of people to bug the author to tell them which was the real ending prompted its sequel The Discourager of Hesitancy which a group of characters who ask are told that they shall find out the answer one they can answer an equally ambiguously ended story.
- From a Buick 8 has multiple examples because the story is based around the idea that you'll never have all the answers. Is the Buick alive? Intelligent? Did it kill Curtis and more.
- In A Passage to India what really happens to Adela is never explained, the reader is left to draw their own conclusion. We'll never know what the author intended becuase Forster refused to say during his life
- Leviathan has one of these concerning the Goliath. Is it a fake, a delusion, or does it call down Nickel-Iron asteroids through magnetic force? Since it's totally destroyed, there is no clear answer.
- A Simple Survey has a number of short stories that end before resolving the situation. For example, in one story humans have developed technology that lets them see into hell, and portrays it as a nice place. The narrator converses with a demon, who claims that her kind are too lazy to punish sinners, and invites him to enter hell. However, an angel intervenes and claims that it's an illusion, to trick people into going to hell willingly.
- The sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has an episode called "Normal Again", which follows the Cuckoo Nest trope: Buffy is injected with a poison that make her hallucinate... Or is it the other way around? According to a psychiatrist, who may or may not be a real person, she is in fact getting better: She has been sick all along, and now she's finally waking up from years of catatonic schizophrenia. So, the whole series is either This Is Reality or a mad All Just a Dream with a dash of The Schizophrenia Conspiracy. In the end, Buffy chooses her life in Sunnydale over her life in the mental institution, but the ending leaves it ambiguous whether or not the world she settled for is the real one.
- Law & Order: Special Victims Unit loves to leave stuff unresolved for the audience to ponder. Usually, it's on the simple level whether the guy is guilty or not (such as in the episode "Doubt"), but sometimes they take it to a much deeper level. The detectives just keep spawning new theories, and none of them either gets verified. For example, the episode "Slaves" features a husband, his wife, and their nanny/girlfriend/Sex Slave Elena. They keep the relationship hidden...
- Either because Elena is in the country illegally, and also because her conservative aunt and other relatives would not approve of her living in a polyamorous relationship,
- Or because they have kidnapped Elena and held her against her will until Stockholm Syndrome set in.
- So, it's pretty much Safe, Sane, and Consensual, Polyamory and Casual Kink versus Complete Monster and A Match Made in Stockholm. The husband claims the first option, but that might just be From a Certain Point of View or even Blatant Lies. As for Elena, she never gets a voice in the matter. The kidnapping theory is implied to be the correct one, but if it's actually verified then that happens after the episode is over.
- The only outright verification given for the Complete Monster viewpoint comes from the wife, and only after she has been...
- A. proven guilty of murdering Elena's aunt without her husband's knowledge or consent.
- B. force-fed "oh, go ahead and blame it on your husband anyway" by the detectives as a "Get Out of Jail Free" Card.
- Much of Life on Mars, British version, was highly unclear as to what was reality.
- Person of Interest episode 4, "Cura Te Ipsum": We never find out if Reese kills the serial rapist or lets him go.
- Lost. True to its gnostic roots, it eschews answers about the nature of the universe in favor of personal revelation according to the perspectives of the characters (and the viewers). A close-up of eyes is a recurring visual motif, characters making a decision based on incomplete or outright fraudulent information pops up repeatedly, and questions like "Is the Light spiritual or scientific in nature?" "Is Jacob a god, a superpowerful conman, or a scientist who sets an experiment in motion and watches the results?" or "Do the Numbers really mean anything, or is Hurley mistaking coincidence for fate?" are never clarified, to the dismay of some fans.
- Blutengel's song Solitary Angel (see page quote) is about a saviour who is "not from heaven sent" - which means it could be a secular force or a spiritual force other than the God of Christianity. This character could be a powerful human, since "angel" is a common metaphor for generic benevolence. The character could also be a powerful vampire, since most of the songs from the same band are about vampires and they routinely use "angel" as a euphemism for "vampire" or "lover". And of course, it could also be referring to an angel in the literal religious sense - either one that simply works on it's own accord, or a fallen one. So, what trope or tropes is this?
- Invoked in Miley Cyrus' song Who Owns My Heart: the protagonist is having a strong emotional reaction. But she doesn't know if it's caused by The Power of Love or by Crowning Music of Awesome.
- Johnny Byron, the main character of Jerusalem, is a former daredevil and fantastic Munchausen who claims to have met the ninety-foot giant who built stonehenge. In the second act, Byron shows the local teens a drum that he claims was the giant's earring, saying that the giant told him to bang on it if ever he needed the help of the giants. In the final moments of the play, when Byron stands alone, bloodied and beaten, his land in the woods about to be invaded by a bulldozer and a dozen local constables, he beats the drum and calls upon the mythological figures of England. At this point, the text of the play says "Blackout", but the original production from the Royal Court Theatre that has since moved to Broadway ends with the rumble of enormous footsteps in the distance.
- In Shadow of the Colossus, the only clear part of the plot is that Wander is trying to revive Mono by unsealing Dormin, and Lord Emon wants to stop this. This leaves us with a whole boatload of varying interpretations - for a small sample, is Wander a Villain Protagonist or a Woobie? Is Dormin displaying Dark Is Evil or Dark Is Not Evil? Is Emon a Hero Antagonist or a Knight Templar? Indeed, director Fumito Ueda is on the record as wanting each player to form their own story, and boy has the fandom taken him up on that.
- Used to skirt around the issues of violence, death and sexuality in Rule of Rose, where most characters are young children. Especially whether Mr. Hoffman sexually abused Clara and Diana. An infamous scenario features Hoffman summoning sad, reluctant Clara to his room, and you can witness through a keyhole how he...makes her scrub the floor, though in a very innuendo-laden position.
- Silent Hill: Shattered Memories actually builds the entire crux of the plot around this, with the nature, outcome and even symbolism of the plot dependent on both the player's actions and interpretations.
- Modern Warfare: Both the villains, Khalid al-Asad and Imran Zakhaev, blame the west for their two countries' problems. While their actions are morally reprehensible, whether they're power-mad dictators America is trying to save the world from or Knight Templars doing what they genuinely think they have to do to stop American imperialism is open to interpretation. Very much Truth in Television. The ambiguity even extends to the nuclear detonation—it's never confirmed in the first game who set it off: Zakhaev, al-Asad, a suicidal Mook, the NEST team trying to diffuse it....
- Much to the Fandom's chagrin, Mass Effect 3 ended with this trope. Beyond the presence of a Gainax Ending, there is the apparent explosion of the mass relays in every ending except Control, which would doom the entire galaxy, given that an exploding mass relay has shown to release energy on the scale of supernova, in addition to the enormous amount of Fridge Horror in the endings (see Inferred Holocaust). In fact, even in the control ending, the Catalyst's dialogue seems to imply that controlling the reapers will eventually lead to And Then John Was a Zombie, causing the reapers to return to destroy the galaxy and renew the cycle. Apparently, this was the desired effect of the endings, as the lead writer Mac Walters (allegedly) wrote, in ALLCAPS on a piece of note paper regarding the endings "LOTS OF SPECULATION FROM EVERYONE."
- Gunnerkrigg Court: In an early chapter, Reynardine apparently attempts to possess Antimony, which would have killed her. Much later, Coyote insists that trying to kill Annie would have been out of character for Rey, leading many readers to reinterpret the earlier scene as an elaborate attempt on Rey's part to fake his own death and go into hiding, rather than a genuine possession attempt. Tom Siddell has confirmed that he deliberately set up the scene so the fanbase would be divided on the issue. In a later chapter, Reynardine admits (to a minor villain whom he then kills) that he was so desperate to escape his prison that he indeed was willing to kill Antimony, and says that he can never forgive himself for it.
- Homestuck. The short version: A character who has the explicit ability to return from any death, except one that is either heroic (Heroic Sacrifice) or just (Die for their crimes), dies and does not return. Hardly any readers think this is a heroic death, but there's ambiguous evidence suggesting that it's not a just death either, and that the real reason the character doesn't return is because of a cosmic accident cheating them out of their revival. Word of Hussie has outright stated that he intended for this to be ambiguous and divisive.
- Invoked in this episode of Zinnia Jones, about how different Christians interpret The Bible differently.
- The longer, spoileriffic version:The character in question is Vriska, the comic's Base Breaker and reigning queen of Alternate Character Interpretation. She had committed many murders, was deliberately responsible for the creation of Bec Noir, and was killed while leaving to fight Bec Noir--if Vriska had not been stopped, Bec Noir would have killed all her friends. However, Vriska's Freudian Excuse, her eleventh-hour remorse over prior misdeeds, and her desire to reform may or may not have redeemed her enough that her death no longer qualified as just. Further complicating the matter, the simultaneous (for a given value of "simultaneous") destruction of a magic clock, whose pendulum was swinging between heroic and just, may or may not have interfered with the universe making the right ruling on the nature of her death. Death sure is confusing!