Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy

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"By all means, writers, let your story wander around the dank, twisty little passages. You may even permit that journey to come to a bad end. But without some light source, your story will be eaten by the Grue of Indifference."
The dePlume Dimension, "Always Keep a Door Open"

It is often said that 'conflict is the soul of drama'; without some form of conflict to fuel things, there's no engine to drive the story and thus little reason to engage with it. However, we here at All The Tropes would like to propose an amendment to this phrase which includes something important but, sadly, all too often forgotten:

Meaningful conflict is the soul of drama.

Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy occurs when a conflict exists that simply lacks any reason for the audience for give a damn about how it is resolved. This is often because all sides are abhorrently, equally evil- or at least, far enough gone that any difference between the two is splitting hairs. As such, consumers of media affected by Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy tend to approach conflict between parties or factions with remarkable indifference; because no matter who wins, the universe will still suck. (And while it would be really nice to see them all lose, it ain't going to happen.) In other words, there is nothing at stake. For all that there is technically a conflict happening, for all that the audience is concerned there might as well not be, because they have no reason to care about who wins or loses.

This is basically the emotional result of Black And Black Morality. Because the conflict between the equal evils is essentially meaningless, there is no dramatic tension. Maybe one Eldritch Abomination eats you in a slightly less painful manner than the other one, but either way, you're still screwed. You can't support any factions or hold on to any ideals after this effect has set in. All you can do is sit agape as the writers apparently attempt to outdo themselves at making the setting even worse and more unpleasant and more nihilistic to the point where the media is as monotone-miserable as Joy Division. This trope is not just about a World Half Empty, but about Evil vs. Evil and too much cynicism producing this effect.

A variant is "True Art Is Too Angsty", basically when Shoot the Shaggy Dog meets True Art Is Angsty; a story is simply too bleak, angsty and without hope for the audience to really care what happens. Leaving aside how obviously and overly depressing this is to read, if the characters are doomed to failure no matter what they do, and it is too obvious that they are doomed and their every action to avert this is pointless and hopeless, then the ending is inevitable and can be seen a mile off—so why bother continuing on with the story? This, of course, does not mean that all stories have to end happily—but most of the time, a good Tragedy works because the characters involved are given a chance to escape their Downer Ending but, for whatever reason fail to do so; take away this chance, and usually what will happen is that the story just ends up being a lengthy description of unremittingly unpleasant things happening to someone.

When applying to individuals, this is basically one of the reasons why the "Wangst" trope happens.

A sure sign of audience apathy setting in is if they start rooting for the Omnicidal Maniac - the setting is so bleak that no part of it is worth saving. When total oblivion looks like your best option, something is wrong.

Often results in readers saying the Eight Deadly Words, or concluding that the plot boils down to a Wangst-fest.

For games with more than one playable faction, this trope has its advantages. It allows people to choose sides with no interest other than the technical interest of playing one side or the other (or, such as in MMORPGs, the interest in teaming with real-life friends).

Compare Angst Dissonance and Only the Author Can Save Them Now. See also Too Happy to Live and True Love Is Boring.

If the hero of the story openly lampshades their own apathy toward the outcome of the story, they might be a Nominal Hero.

No real life examples, please; let's remember the Rule of Cautious Editing Judgement. Not everyone on this wiki is a pessimist.

Examples of Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy include:

Anime and Manga[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Ergo Proxy can, in its early stages, fall victim to this trope. Near the beginning of the series, there were a few moral dilemmas stemming from black and black morality. Stop the Proxy that's loose in Romdo and the fascist government regains total control over the city. Don't stop the Proxy and it'll continue a murder spree.
  • By the end of Code Geass, a world war breaks out between two factions trying to create identical oppressive worldwide dictatorships. After this, the trope is subverted: after Lelouch conquers the world, he oppresses it to make sure every single person in it will hate him, and then commits public Suicide by Cop, ending the tyranny and marking the first step to world peace. It was his plan all along.
    • It's already going that way early in Season One; the very first episode features Lelouch mind-controlling a platoon of soldiers into suicide and doesn't seem at all moved, and a few episodes later he carries out an operation which involves sacrificing his own troops without their knowledge as well as endangering and killing numerous noncombatants, making it rather difficult to sympathize with the protagonist.
      • The soldiers' recent actions (happily running around committing genocide) had sent them hurtling across the Moral Event Horizon. Their leader's actions (shooting one of his own men in the back for refusing to shoot an innocent bystander who had seen too much) quite possibly qualify him as a Complete Monster. Throughout the series, Geass manages to avoid Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy through Gray and Black Morality.
    • This applies for the leaders of the two factions. But globally, Code Geass avoids this effect by having a lot of nice characters put in the middle of a war started by evil leaders.
  • Desert Punk, albeit a comic series falls into this. Almost every single character is a massive Jerkass, and the few exceptions never prosper in this world. By the middle of the series, it's quite clear that none of the three major characters have a Hidden Heart of Gold. Pretty much summing things up is the comment by the Lemony Narrator in the last episode in respect to the After the End setting, which is to the effect that "With people like this, it doesn't matter if humanity goes extinct."
  • Pick any Hentai manga that a): tries to have a serious plot, and b): focuses primarily on people being raped and tortured. Dawn of the Silver Dragon is a good example of how this typically goes. (The few aversions tend to have a cult following—for instance, Soul Chain seems horrible at first, but has only one completely evil villain, as well as one heroine who genuinely loves the hero and tries to help him.)
  • Black Lagoon, especially in its early stages. The anime version tones it down a little.
  • Done beautifully in MD Geist. Our hero really isn't any better than the Big Bad and eventually releases the Death Force simply because he knows how meaningless his life would be with out something nasty to fight.
    • Let that sink in for a moment: he obliterates humanity just to be an asshole. He obliterates humanity. Just to be an asshole. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.
      • An alternate viewing is that it wasn't anything as human as to be an asshole or even to escape meaninglessness but the man-made ultimate soldier simply being the ultimate soldier. The sequel further posited that Geist literally physically thrived on continuous warfare, a trait unforeseen by his designers, so you can't really write him up as an insane man or a programmed machine.
  • Texhnolyze. While there are characters who are noticeably better or worse than others, no one is truly good, with even the most sympathetic characters being Anti Heroes of the Type III variety and up. A lot of viewers saw the show's Downer Ending coming a mile away, and were just waiting for everyone to give up and die.
  • The final episodes of Paranoia Agent, when a mysterious but solitary menace turned into a city-wide all-consuming biomass, destroying uncounted Innocent Bystanders amongst a handful of previously developed characters. Fortunately this was a brief enough period to avert Ending Fatigue, and still got the point across by changing scope.
  • Naruto: The battle between Sasuke and Itachi: one betrayed his village and sided with Orochimaru to obtain enough power to kill the other, while the other tortured and mindraped the former by killing their entire bloodline. Oh, and joined Akatsuki.
    • Though in all fairness, Itachi has been seriously hinted at as not evil, given his interaction with Naruto just beforehand. Also, Sasuke isn't really a villain yet due to him killing Orochimaru, Deidara, and is trying to kill one of Konoha's most dangerous enemies. And the audience also hopes that, after killing Itachi, Sasuke can finally get better. Of course, then comes The Reveal, and then... well, things just go downhill from there.
  • Cannon God Exaxxion. The alien invaders are basically Nazi Elves. The defending humans don't give a crap about collateral damage and will basically kill and destroy at will. While Kenichi Sonada had dipped his toe in this trope before, this was when he took a swan dive into it, and never really surfaced.
  • Season one of Hell Girl in particular can get a little ridiculous. Every episode, you're introduced to a new Complete Monster with no real objective other than to prove his/her guilt in as many obvious ways as possible. Even when they get what's coming to them, it's not before they've completely ruined someone, or many peoples lives, sometimes irrevocably. And you know the next episode is just gonna feature someone even crueler.
  • Bakuman。 features this in-universe with the main characters' reactions to Nanamine's "Classroom of Truth," in which everyone, including the main character dies, with Mashiro saying that having the main character's efforts turn out to be in vain doesn't work.


Comic Books[edit | hide]

  • This is the most common criticism about the post-Civil War Marvel Universe. The heroes are written as being horrible people at the very least, and no matter who wins the Crisis Crossover, it only gets worse.
    • It briefly looked like as of the ending of the Siege storyline, things would take a turn for the better. Captain America (comics) was alive again, and the Avengers had stopped fighting each other. Then an evil Norse god flooded the world with depression waves and started a war that killed Thor and Bucky, and now the Avengers and the X-Men are being jerks and fighting each other.
  • Alan Moore's works often skirt the edge of this Trope, or dive right over it:
    • V for Vendetta, for example, gives the reader the choice of fascist totalitarianism that keeps order and keeps the people fed or the chaos and violence of the post-revolutionary era which the comic makes overtly clear will lead to mass starvation (we're to understand that the eventual "voluntary anarchic order" will make things better in the long run).
    • Watchmen gives us the choice of "inevitable" nuclear annihilation or a Roman peace maintained by fear and a lie.
  • The Walking Dead is obviously not meant to be a light-hearted comic, being set in a Zombie Apocalypse, but even for the genre it gets progressively darker over time. Every single gain the characters manage to find is always ruined, many characters continually die in dark and gory ways, and the ones who've managed to stay alive become more and more traumatized until Rick declares "WE ARE THE WALKING DEAD!" And since the zombie apocalypse is global with no known cure, there seems to be no end in sight.
  • Wanted. In a fight between a group of nihilistic, mass-murdering, serial-raping assholes who want to continue ruling the world in secret and a group of nihilistic, mass-murdering, serial-raping assholes who want to rule the world openly, why should the reader really care who wins? Heck, you might as well root for the series' antagonist, Mr. Rictus. At least he's good for some Black Comedy (literally; it's that kind of comic).
  • Justice League: The Rise of Arsenal was responsible for destroying Roy Harper's character following his dismemberment at the hands of Prometheus and the death of his daughter in Cry for Justice. On the one side there is Roy, reeling from the loss of his only child, grappling with the fact that he may no longer be able to use a bow and arrow, and suffering from impotency and hallucinations (whose source was not clarified as stemming from grief, pain medication, or his infected right arm). He lashes out at his friends and family for trying to help, begins stealing pain killers from Dr. Mid-Nite, goes back on heroin, and turns into a murderous anti-hero after being goaded into killing Prometheus's ally the Electrocutioner (by a hallucination of Lian) then burning down his home. However, on the other side, his friends and family truly don't help the situation that much. They don't seem to have fully understood just what Roy has lost. Dr. Mid-Nite was completely oblivious to the fact that Roy was stealing pain killers, quite easily in fact. Cyborg designed him a shoddy mechanical arm meant to work around the infected nerve endings in Roy's arm, while simultaneously enhancing his pain and limiting whatever abilities as an archer he had left. Wally West does absolutely nothing to help, Donna Troy stops after Roy accuses her of "whoring around in space with Kyle Rayner" while her husband and son died in a car crash. Though, someone who's gone through everything Donna has should've understood Roy's suffering a little easier. And Dick Grayson consigns to have Roy locked in a substance abuse center for super villains after he has a vivid hallucination while on heroin. Dick does so with the consent of Black Canary, who washes her hands of Roy and considers him a lost cause. It's hard to root for Roy when he's acting like such an asshole, but given that his family and friends treat his loss with such negligence, it's hard to side with anyone in this comic.
  • At this point, the X-Men in general. While we always have some sort of speck of hope hanging around, odds are good that it's either going to be wiped out or have the positive effects eventually negated. Doesn't help that the editors prefer the mutants as a minority always under attack instead of ever having a chance of not living in fear of getting blown apart in mass on buses.


Fan Works[edit | hide]

  • Some readers think that Code Geass Megiddo is heading this way.
  • Partially Kissed Hero, full stop.
  • The Road to Cydonia reveals itself as this soon after Reflections Lost on a Dark Road begins; Inuyasha}} shows up as a more idealistic figure, but is revealed as All Just a Dream of a schizophrenic psionic Kagome. But even that pales before the introduction of the Dark Titans - all are quickly neutralized by UNETCO forces, upon which they are repeatedly subjected to intense, proselytizing cynicism.
    • Starfire runs right into Herb of the Musk, who is so dedicated to Just Following Orders that despite realizing that she's desperately trying not to kill him, he just uses her hesitation to casually beat her unconscious. X-COM then Mind Rapes her and almost vivisects her. Only the appearance of the other Titans proves her a non-combatant(due to being more subtly Mind Raped), which leads them to instead draft her without a second thought and imprison her in an environment that browbeats her with UN legislature that aliens have no rights, and she's not an exception.
    • Jinx makes a friend for the first time since she left both the HIVE Academy and the Titans, a rogue alien clone of Akari Unryuu, only for X-COM to accidentally-on-purpose return her to alien control so they can experiment on her.
    • Raven gets a pat on the head by X-COM psi researchers, who refuse to acknowledge her Eldritch Abomination father as real, instead encouraging her to abandon her training and embrace her darker emotions to tap into her new-found Mind Control abilities. She of course gets Drunk on the Dark Side.
    • Titans!Ryoga efforts at bonding with his fellow Titans are mocked by his militaristic counterpart, saying that pretending to be a Nice Guy will only make them unready for his inner darkness when it finally breaks loose.
    • Cyborg gets it the lightest - his courageous superhero act is mocked by X-COM, who want him to Stay In The Lab building superweapons.


Films[edit | hide]

  • Being John Malkovich suffers from this; all the main characters are, at the very least, horrifically selfish human beings who don't really care who gets hurt in pursuit of their various wants. The only remotely sympathetic character in the movie is John Malkovich himself, and that's mostly because he's more of a plot device than an actual character.
    • For the uninitiated, Charlie Sheen(!) has, by the end of the movie, very likely learned that John Malkovich is trapped in his own head while other people dominate him, and he is likely going to follow the puppetmasters who are possessing Malkovich into the next host, an adorable and harmless seven year old girl.
  • A common problem in horror movies: the cast of potential victims is presented as a bunch of obnoxious jerks, and/or complete idiots, to the point where it's hard to feel bad for them when they finally start dying. Although for many that's part of the appeal. Case in point: British horror film Cherry Tree Lane. A dreary middle-class couple bicker. Yobs break into their house and torture them. Who cares?
    • On the other hand, if the horror movie has a sympathetic family as a victim it could have another negative effect ranging from Shoot the Dog to Moral Event Horizon (as far as the writers) to Crosses the Line Twice. Which could also turn off certain viewers as well, which possibly explain the constant obnoxious jerk characters as a substitute. Horror films (especially mainstream American horror films) likes to be broadly appealing. You can't have a popular horror film where expies of The Waltons and the Cosbys are brutally murdered by the Psycho/Demon/Werewolf/Vampire/Alien.
    • This also applies to the related genre of suburban/middle-class peril: films from Fatal Attraction to Cache/Hidden suffer from the fact that their heroes are smug and successful without any moral virtues or other good qualities to endear them to the audience.
    • Of course, while it might be too horrifying to subject, say, a family to the events of a horror film, making potential victims unlikable and rooting for the monster are both Comically Missing the Point of horror. Why should you be scared of something you're actually hoping to happen?
  • The third Pirates of the Caribbean movie had this problem, with everyone backstabbing each other and shifting alliances on a whim that it got hard to root for anyone by the end. Of course, such a thing should be expected, given that the protagonists are all pirates by this point, even Will and Elizabeth.
  • 300. The narrator described the Spartans as the ultimate good guys. Because of his unreliability, though, it turns out the Spartans were just as insane and bloodthirsty as their Persian enemies. Because of that, while the narrator described the battles between the Spartans and Persians as "good vs. evil" (or "order vs. chaos" if you prefer), to audience members, it seemed more like "bad guys vs. worse guys."
  • The first Underworld. The final battle is werewolves versus vampires, throughout a dark underground complex. Everybody's wearing similar black leather clothes, carrying similar weapons and fighting in extremely low light, and the audience hasn't received any clues to cheer for either side. Even if you wanted to pick a side to support, you'd never know who was who anyway.
  • Law Abiding Citizen; at least for more sensible viewers who're not cheering Clyde on after he's murdering attorneys, judges and lawyers indiscriminately. He's initially seen as sympathetic, because Darby killed his wife, daughter and got away with it by paying off Clyde's attorney, but after the aforementioned slaughter during the movie's second half? Not so much. Of course, the members of the justice system come off no better, as they're unilaterally portrayed as horrible individuals who could care less about enacting true justice than do stuff that only benefits them. Well, except for Cindy, though she dies too. No side looks any better than the other near the film's end. Nick, very conspicuously, has ethical issues with his job. He's suppressed most of them by the Time Skip, but Clyde brings them roaring back.
  • The Final Destination series has this problem involving the second variant of this trope. There's no point in getting emotionally attached to them or rooting for them to make it, because the rules say death will not be cheated and they're all going to die.
  • Part of the reason the James Cameron / Guillermo del Toro film of At the Mountains of Madness was canceled (the other part was an out-of-control-budget) - it's an R-rated horror film about two races of fighting Eldritch Abominations who pay no mind to the doomed humans, and unlike Underworld there isn't even a romantic plotline to root for. It's also possible the execs thought it was just Alien vs. Predator in the Antarctic with tentacles and penguins.
  • Some critics said America's Sweethearts had this problem, particularly with the eponymous couple. Eddie is a ticking time bomb (although it's understandable, given the headline-making breakup) and Gwen is an unapproachable, manipulative Rich Bitch who can't even put ankle boots on right.
    • And the agent is mining all the drama for his own benefit. The only likable character is Gwen's sister mainly because she has to put up with Gwen and is just beginning to grow a backbone after losing a bunch of weight but her goal is to get together with Eddie so it doesn't really matter.
  • The Wrestler has this in spades. The main character is a self-centred, drug addled, has-been deadbeat father trying to cling onto his glory days while being way past his prime. The entire film is showing how much his life sucks up until he gets to have one last match, with him missing the chance to reconnect with his daughter due to being drugged up, nearly destroys his relationship with his stripper love interest because he gets drunk and insults her, and basically becomes so self destructive he destroys whatever was left of his physical health. Then, he forces himself into an early grave by taking enough 'roids and crack to leave him near-death, and suffers a heart attack while wrestling.
  • This could be the reason why Welcome to The Dollhouse and other films by Todd Solondz have never gotten much mainstream attention.
  • An older example of this trope can be found in the Universal movie House of Frankenstein. The characters aren't very likable (with the possible exception of Lawrence Talbot), the story is rather cynical, and in the end, everybody dies. Not even Svengoolie's So Bad It's Good sense of humor could save this one.
  • The Breakfast Club can have this effect on more cynical viewers. The kids are a severely dysfunctional lot, and the adults are either apathetic or screwing the kids over for no real reason. Arguably, the Neon Genesis Evangelion of John Hughes films.


Interactive Fiction[edit | hide]

  • Adam Cadre's Varicella attempts to avert this by having its Villain Protagonist, while still amoral and self-centered and willing to murder people to claim the Regency, not as evil as his rivals for the Regency, nearly all of whom are truly horrible people who seem to enjoy their acts of abuse and Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil. But of course Varicella is still a short-sighted person who can't foresee just how horrible things become when the prince takes the throne and becomes an even greater Complete Monster.


Literature[edit | hide]

  • Robert Cormier wrote a lot of books that fit easily into this, and a few books that would have avoided this if the likeable characters hadn't died or been beaten into submission. The best chance his characters are ever given is that the next life might be better than this one (and his later works deny even that.)
  • Hells Children by Andrew Boland, is this for most people.
  • The Hunger Games seems like this at times, especially when District 13's war tactics and overall militarism become morally questionable. Hell, forget District 13, a lot of people find Katniss horrible enough that this happens.
  • Deliberately used in The Sound and the Fury: the first brother is severely mentally handicapped, and although hard to hate, his section of the book (written from his perspective) is so confusing that it's impossible to identify with him. The second brother is completely insane and lusts after his own sister, so you really want to turn away from him. The third brother already has turned away from turned away, and narrates in a completely comprehensible style, so at first you like him, but then he's a total Jerkass who hates everyone around him. The only sympathetic characters are the ones who never get to narrate.
    • Some things to point out here. The first brother, Benjy, has severe autism and is essentially a child in an adult body. Anybody with autism and anybody who likes children ought to be able to identify with Benjy. The second brother, Quentin, does not really lust after his sister. He lied about it to his father because he was trying to protect her. He tries to be a good person, but he lives in a world that frankly does not care about his values. He self-destructs because he is unable to adapt to the standards of the world. Quentin is actually quite sympathetic. The third brother, Jason, is indisputably a Jerkass. However, his mother beat her nastiness into him. This could qualify him as a Jerkass Woobie.
  • While Blood and Chocolate is by many standards a good book, it suffers from this twice over. On a larger scale, Humans Are the Real Monsters who hate and fear werewolves, while werewolves sometimes provide very good reason why humans hate and fear them. On a smaller scale, any of seven or eight different characters, including the main character and both love interests, could be argued to be the most repulsive character in the book for one reason or another, and of the two characters who're most likeable one's a Straw Feminist who's not treated very seriously and the other gets eviscerated by a supposed friend. The silver lining is that the werewolf female lead and human primary love interest could balance each other out--except that humans really can't trust werewolves, so he winds up trying to kill her.
  • Robin Wasserman's novel Skinned has a similar problem, since it initially discusses Fantastic Racism against cyborgs, then applies Cybernetics Eat Your Soul. Do you support genocide, or do you root for inhuman freaks?
  • Night Watch is a debatable case. The eponymous Night Watch claims it wants to improve the world, but in practice this means making everyone else think like they do, and their actions include putting Hitler in power. The Day Watch talks of freedom of choice, but they're selfish, hedonistic, and frequently hypocritical. Muggles are snacks, and there's nothing they could conceivably do to influence the situation. On the other hand, it's only the upper ranks that are rotten—both the Night Watch and the Day Watch have good and honorable members in the field.
    • This comes full circle when it is revealed that at the highest levels, the Watches are actually working together; the conflict between them is mostly for the sake of keeping the Others away from normal people, and the Watches often deliberately sabotage their own efforts to overtly influence human society. Their real plans to improve the world are much more subtle and cooperative.
  • Many Tom Holt books suffer from this. The protagonists are sometimes just as cynical, ruthless, selfish, vapid, cowardly, and/or nasty as the erstwhile antagonists. Valhalla and Little People are particularly memorable in this regard.
  • In "The Merchant's Tale" of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, the merchant's tale of a wife's adultery is supposed to show women as dishonest, but the poisonous way all characters, including the wronged husband are portrayed makes it difficult to sympathise with any of them. This is almost certainly deliberate, as several of Chaucer's characters lets their view colour their stories and how badly they tell them.
  • Wuthering Heights can induce this reaction, in the 'too bleak and angsty and without hope' subcategory. (Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books parody this with an anger management class for the characters, who are warned that their drama has made the story more angsty and angry as time goes by, and they risk going the same way as Titus Andronicus: "Once a gentle comedy of manners, it's now the daftest, bloodiest tale in all of Shakespeare!")
  • A Song of Ice and Fire, particularly after what happens to the sorta-light-gray principal.
    • If we're talking about Ned, he was definitely more on the side of strongly light with a bit of gray thrown in for texture. The closest character that comes close to him is Jon Snow, who still maintains his honor and dignity, to some extent or another, despite the crap he's put through.
  • Any of the deeply cynical, grim and gritty fantasy series that have cropped up in recent years can have this affect on readers; The First Law trilogy possibly being the most unrelentingly heartless.
  • Many of the critics and even some of the fans claim that Twilight suffers this badly in the Love Triangle the third book Eclipse is built around. Edward, Bella, and Jacob all come off as extremely possessive, selfish and emotionally manipulative Jerkasses to the point that some found all possible resolutions to the triangle equally repugnant.
  • The works of Bret Easton Ellis can have that effect, as pretty much everyone in them is completely shallow, self-absorbed and stupid.
    • Given that this is deliberate, you probably know what you're in for when you start one of his books.
  • A number of the more recent[when?] Star Wars Expanded Universe series are falling into this trope. Starting with New Jedi Order, the books have become progressively Darker and Edgier and everything just seems to be getting worse. Came to a head in Legacy of the Force, which ended with Jacen dying after being hacked to pieces and left in an incinerator, the galaxy under control of Daala, and the galaxy wrecked by yet another pointless war.
  • Malazan Book of the Fallen doesn't always do this, but it did creep up during Midnight Tides. That novel depicts a war between the Tiste Edur (a nation that keeps humans as slaves and is ruled by an insane emperor who works for an Eldritch Abomination) and Letharas (a brutal, expansionist empire that takes the flaws of capitalism as far as it can without being Played for Laughs). You can't even blame one side for being the ones to initiate the war, since they're both pretty eager for it even before the first blow is struck. Sure, individual characters on both sides of the conflict can be quite sympathetic, but the outcome of the war isn't that suspenseful, 'cause you know you're gonna wind up with a regime of violent, oppressive conquerors either way.
  • Both 'sides' in Left Behind have exactly the same goals and use pretty much the same methods, everything that happens is part of God's plan and, as such, the characters have no free will and nothing they do at any point in the series makes any difference whatsoever, so it's really rather difficult to root for them.
  • The Mayor Of Casterbridge. Everyone is, without exception, demonically evil or flat.
  • Donna Tartt's The Secret History sometimes inspires this - it's not uncommon for readers to respond to the revelation that one of these unsympathetic characters will be murdered by thinking "Only one?"
  • Dubliners by James Joyce is a book of short stories where every single one is about a disappointing, half-lived life that will probably end in isolation and ignominy. Hope spots are few and far between, and usually swiftly replaced by misery.


Live Action TV[edit | hide]

  • This could very well be a reason Damages never got a wide audience. The main character often seems to lack a conscience, as do her competition.
    • Pretty much the case for most FX Network shows: they mostly feature awful people doing awful things to each other. Nip Tuck was especially guilty of this, with the added bonus of graphic plastic surgery sequences.
  • Soap Operas and Teen Dramas often fall into a variant of the trope. Instead of all sides of the conflict being evil, Rule of Drama destroys all chance of lasting happiness. Thus, there is no point in rooting for a character you know is going to end up suffering. In soap operas, both sides of the conflict can end up being completely unsympathetic despite not being evil. The heroes are usually Too Dumb to Live purity sues. The villains, while sometimes interesting, pick up the Idiot Ball a lot and have inconsistent motives.
  • The 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica slid into this trope as the series went on. Helo is the only character who doesn't at least skid on the edge of the Moral Event Horizon at one point or another. (Well, Kacey, Nikky,and Hera never did anything reprehensible. They were also all under 5 years old.)
  • And speaking of the 2004 Battlestar Galactica, this trope is probably one of the biggest reasons for ratings failure and Cancellation of its spin-off, Caprica. It's really hard to find someone to root for in its main cast.
  • Ditto for Stargate Universe, which was canceled soon after Caprica.
  • By the end of The Sopranos, pretty much every character with dialogue has proven themselves to be pretty hideous excuses for human beings.
    • HBO is famous for this, actually - Rome is full of ambitious, petty, and murderous "heroes"; Six Feet Under features characters who are not exactly evil, but tend to be so weak, neurotic, or just apathetic that the events of their lives are at least as doomed as anything in a Soap Opera.
    • Let's just say most hour-long TV dramas, period. They pretty much all boil down to corrupt, self-absorbed people stabbing one another in the back in between bouts of emotionally-void promiscuity. It really says a lot about the subgenre that one of the most sympathetic characters in such a show moonlights as a serial killer.
  • Nice in-universe subversion in Babylon 5. In the beginning (no word play intended) the protagonists are very much on the side of (in the pocket of?) the Vorlons in their war against the Shadows, but in the course of the show it becomes clear to them that both sides are equally bad decide that the best way to deal with them is simply to not go along with either of them any more.
    • Can potentially occur early on with the Centauri and the Narns. On one side you have a bunch of pompous drunkards with a declining empire filled with scheming lordlings with a severe manifest destiny mindset, on the other side you have a bunch of ill-tempered religious fundamentalists who seem to mostly be incredibly proud of just how proud they are and seem obsessed with settling old scores even to their own detriment. Ultimately though after the shit really hits the fan it becomes very involving as certain people learn something from the whole sad mess and others fail to.
  • Joss Whedon's shows are sometimes in danger of falling into this, due to his happy people = boring television Signature Style.
  • The Shadow Line has this problem as even likable characters are hugely flawed and Anyone Can Die.
  • The Practice. At the beginning of the series, the attorneys are bright, fresh-faced and idealistic. By the end, they've completely sold out their standards and principles, end up representing drug dealers and undeniably guilty clients with money to keep the firm running, hire an anti-trust attorney who was fired from his previous job for embezzling money, and rely upon several questionable defenses (patriotism, doubt) in order to bolster their cases.
  • Mad Men can get like this for some viewers. There's hardly a single character that isn't basically a selfish asshole.
  • Ringer is full of awful people. Bridget is the protagonist simply because she's the one telling the story. The most likable character is a former drug addict who is aiding and abetting a fugitive, accepted a bribe, and is covering up murders, while everybody else is having affairs, lying and manipulating people, pretending to be somebody they're not, running a Ponzi scheme, murdering people (or at least hiring hitmen to do their dirty work), falsely accusing a teacher of rape just so they can turn around and sue for defamation of character and split the settlement, faking deaths, etc. Everybody is corrupt in one way or another. The situation is interesting enough, but it's hard to care what happens to any of the characters. It's fun to see how they make things worse for themselves by continuing to be such terrible people.
  • One of the reasons British historical dramas of the 1980s (like The Borgias and The Cleopatras) flopped so badly was because they were trying to reproduce the success of I, Claudius. But whereas I, Claudius had evil characters who were partly sympathetic and always entertaining to watch, the shows that came after it featured much weaker, less sympathetic villains. The Cleopatras was especially bad in this regard, as it was essentially a drama about horrible rulers murdering their equally horrible family members. If a character started out decent, there was a good chance he/she would be forcing their subjects into costly wars for their own selfish benefit and dismembering several of their own children by the time their story arc was over.
  • One of the problems with the Gormenghast miniseries was that the most sympathetic, proactive character (Titus) didn't appear until well after it was underway. Those unfamiliar with the books might have been turned off by the endless, unsavory antics of a weird, menacing royal family and the Affably Evil man who was trying to exploit them. Only when Titus appeared did the audience really have someone to root for.


Professional Wrestling[edit | hide]

  • Ignoring the insanity of Vince Russo's endless use of the Shocking Swerve, this trope was one of the main causes of WCW's decline. While the nWo were cool for a while, they were the heels, which meant that they ultimately needed to lose, and lose completely. This, however, was a fact seemingly lost on everyone there (especially those members of the nWo who were involved in booking the stories - funny that). After years and years of watching the villains run roughshod over absolutely everyone, gloating and laughing, the whole thing just became pointless and depressing - they were never going to be defeated, and that was that. So people just changed the channel.
  • Triple H has been responsible for this at times, most tellingly during 2002 - 2004, when he basically made a career of burying faces so completely that even today (coupled, it has to be said, with WWE's almost decade-long refusal to properly build new stars), WWE has an extremely small amount of top card faces, as there are so few people left for fans to take as credible threats. Granted, the Heel Face Revolving Door makes it possible to turn a top heel into a top face at the drop of a storyline, but the top heels tend to spend most of their careers as heels for a reason: they're better at it.
  • This trope is why Heel vs. heel match-ups are typically undesirable from a booker's point of view: the audience would have no one to cheer.


Tabletop Games[edit | hide]

  • Warhammer 40,000 gets away with this because it is a game where you build your personal army however you want, meaning your experience is exactly as dark as you want it to be. But the novels, good lord THE NOVELS, which have to have actual drama to be good, tend to paint their viewpoint faction as some shade of gray (The Grey Knights notwithstanding) and the opposition as much, much blacker.
    • Generally averted with the Imperial Guard, easy to identify with as it consists entirely of ordinary people attempting to battle the worst monsters in the galaxy. And occasionally winning. Also averted with certain Space Marine chapters, such as the Ultramarines or Salamanders.
    • Especially averted with Ciaphas Cain, (HERO OF THE IMPERIUM!,) an Imperial Guard Commissar. Despite being a (self-declared) utterly selfish abject coward, he comes across as a pretty good guy, managing to survive and succeed in the Grimdark galaxy though a mix of quick thinking, good luck, and good friends.
  • The World of Darkness games can suffer from this. It would take a long time to explain all the details, but suffice it to say when the only sure way to paint the player's monster race and their factions in any sort of positive light is by fighting Complete Monsters, it can become easy to disconnect emotionally from the drama. The game mechanics themselves, especially for vampires, usually ensure that player characters will either become evil or die in short order. This can be used for its intended purpose of inspiring drama and pathos, if the Storyteller draws this process out over the course of a whole campaign and avoids Railroading, but more often it makes the players lose interest.
    • Which may explain Changeling: The Lost's unexpected popularity—the characters are still primarily human, they still have human emotions and human wonder at what's going on, and they still react to things in human ways—and they're all working together against The Fair Folk, apart from the occasional political divide and occasional madman.
      • And then you remember that Changelings are the larval form of The Fair Folk, and that their only two choices are to die as... sorta kinda maybe heroes... or live long enough to become the villains, and at this point some of us stop caring all over again.
    • Promethean: The Created is also sometimes called the most optimistic line for averting this, as the player characters and race are desperately trying To Become Human. Or, depending on how you view it, playing a Promethean can be seen as the worst of all supernatural beings. Getting rid of a curse that makes reality itself abhor you involves creating more of your kind. So the only way out of a situation that is presented very clearly as unspeakably evil and unnatural has an absolute requirement of bringing another such abomination into the world, dooming it to repeat one's own wicked existence or to live a cursed parody of life. This can be as good a source of Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy as any other World of Darkness game, if not moreso—other supernaturals at last have the option to stay in the shadows and remain uninvolved, Prometheans have to work for their goal or risk their very existence raping the world.
    • The Old World of Darkness gives players some leeway with this. For example, the tribes of Werewolf: The Apocalypse encompass wide variety of moral views and philosophies, leaving room for both Nineties Anti-Hero (who would fit well with Shadow Lords) and Incorruptible Pure Pureness (who would have a place with Children of Gaia). Similarly other gamelines allow creating and playing idealistic, noble characters. Even Vampire: The Masquerade has Salubri, peaceful, although persecuted and rare healers and Golconda, a state of enlightenment for vampire characters.
      • Mage: The Ascension was at its heart about the clash between Romanticism Versus Enlightenment where the player characters are more or less forced to avert this trope even in their Crapsack World. As awakened souls, Mages must care about something enough to be able to rework reality, and those who stop caring usually can make no further progress.
      • Changeling: The Dreaming likewise measures a character's Banality, and gaining Banality eventually erases a character entirely. One of the fastest ways to pile Banality on is to be a nihilist who doesn't care.
  • GURPS is too diverse a system to fall into this generally, but several of its Alternate Universe Earth settings fell into this for gamers; most notably, Reich-5 was retooled into a new villain for crosstime campaigns because your options there consisted of "Nazis, Nazified Americans, Imperial Japanese, and the inevitably doomed resistance". Reich-2 was this in-story for Americans after the British signed a truce with the Nazis—no one much cared whether Hitler or Stalin won the war.
  • From some perspectives, most notably that of Holden Shearer (who's in many ways the public face of the current Exalted development team), the early years of 2e Exalted fell into this.

Holden: Not the soaring, operatic darkness of the 40K universe, but a setting so relentlessly shitty and miserable and hopeless that it becomes impossible to emotionally invest in it or care what happens to it.

    • Of course, the released spoilers for 3rd edition Exalted, which Holden Shearer is writing, aren't any better. Four words: Realm institutionalized rape culture.
  • With the recent revelations in the last two Horizon adventure packs that the only four major factions (The Draco Foundation, the Great Dragon Hestaby, Buttercup, and Horizon) that could still be said to be in any way 'good' (or even anti-heroic) are really as expedient and guilty of atrocity and terror as the rest, and only differ in the nature and scope of their self-rationalizations but are as mired in the basest of motivations as every other setting villain, some fans believe that the Shadowrun universe has finally hit this threshold.
    • The part where several of the writers openly expressed scorn on forums at the idea of shadowrunners having any kind of ethics (even antiheroic ones) instead of just being people who gladly do horrible things for money, and the recent promotion in storylines and flavor text of several NPC shadowrunners who exemplified that utterly amoral attitude from "the runners even other shadowrunners look down on" to "well-respected and widely admired figures of their professional community" isn't helping much either. One of them (Haze) is canonically a serial rapist who uses drugs to incapacitate his victims. Another (Clockwork) is a Fantastic Racist who makes money selling fellow runners with technomancer powers to megacorporate vivisection labs, and openly admits to anyone who asks that he'd cheerfully sell out anyone, including other team members, to the authorities in return for money (something that's normally considered an unforgivable sin among even the most depraved criminal community, and yet is entirely ignored in-setting). Another (Kane) has been the reigning world champion of excess collateral damage and carelessness with the lives of innocent bystanders for two editions. All of these characters have been promoted to signature NPC status, instead of their prior canonical treatment as cautionary tales/shadowrunner antagonists.
      • In addition, former signature NPCs have routinely been made darker and more banal, when they haven't just been killed off. Things such as the Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass decker Slamm-0! being turned into all moron and not much badass, or former lovable Woobie Netcat becoming a generic amoral mercenary runner (and for extra bonus points, her and Slamm-0's touching and amusing Slap Slap Kiss romance being turned into a loveless trailer-park-stereotype common-law marriage that continues to exist only because he got her pregnant) are a standout in this regard. The "retirement" of FastJack, the #1 iconic NPC of the entire game line since 1st edition, and not in a "died saving the world" fashion like his former partner Captain Chaos but instead just being made the first of many victims of the latest techno ubervirus threat thingy, is another one. But perhaps the crowning example of the writing staff's apparent urge to drive everyone possible into saying the Eight Deadly Words is the promotion of Clockwork, the aforementioned vivisectionist, traitor, and advocate of ethnic cleansing, from "the guy everybody hates and nobody will work with because he is treacherous and vile, and in fact people were standing in line for chances to punch him" to "the guy who, despite not liking him, everybody respects as the savior of JackPoint, and is one of the commonest NPC voices used in the supplements".
      • 5e continues to double down! Now there's a brain-eating nanite plague striking worldwide, the city of Boston is basically undergoing a Zombie Apocalypse, the cost of living has canonically increased ("Chrome Flesh" sourcebook) to where by a strict application of the rules everybody at Squatter lifestyle or below should now be dying of starvation and/or participating in worldwide food riots, the global datanet essential to maintaining civilization's infrastructure is either undergoing a slow takeoff Singularity in the anti-humanity direction or else becoming infested with Eldritch Abominations, the balance of power that maintains the peace between the ruling megacorporations is visibly starting to fracture hardcore, and the surviving readership is honestly wondering how human civilization is going to go another two years without global collapse.

Video Games[edit | hide]

  • In God of War it sometimes becomes hard to say why you should care whether Kratos kills that god/saves himself/kills that other god and all the rest too. It's not as though Kratos being in charge would be an improvement given how he acts. As it turns out, the game does manage to make them all lose, leaving the victimized humans as the ones left. Thankfully, Kratos did release Hope into the world, and it's implied the world can start getting back on his feet.
  • Kane and Lynch: Dead Men was this for quite a few people. On one hand, Kane's trying to save his family. On the other hand, he's a bastard who betrays people, takes people hostage, and does generally bad things to accomplish his goals. In fact, the only reason that the bad guys captured his family was because he betrayed them and they wanted revenge. And let's not even get started on that crazy bastard Lynch...
  • Every faction in Geneforge, with the possible exception of the Barzites, has some supporters who'll argue in favor of it on the Internet. Every faction also has some haters who argue that the misdeeds it commits render it unworthy of power. But given that the only one that doesn't cross the Moral Event Horizon at least once is the faction of Wide Eyed Idealists who canonically get massacred by the fourth game, this trope probably sums up the setting best.
  • In Prototype, the "hero" is a sociopathic, people-eating, viral monstrosity driven by little more than a desire for revenge on those he thinks made him into a monster. The only possibly redeeming feature he has is his desire to protect his little sister. His enemies are a military splinter cell comprised entirely of sociopaths and an even more destructive viral monstrosity. None of the above are all that concerned about the civilians or sane military personnel caught in the crossfire. And then you find out that the real Alex Mercer was a Complete Monster so bad that even his viral doppelganger is disgusted with him. But, note that this is entirely up to the player via Story and Gameplay Segregation. Canonically, Alex is much more redeemable; he's not specifically shown killing any innocent bystanders in the story, including there being an achievement for going throughout the game without doing so (the eating innocents part is entirely up to the player). Not to mention he's shown to be very caring over New York, as shown by the final missing where Mercer ends up performing a Heroic Sacrifice (but he survives) to stop a nuke from destroying the city.
    • The sequel takes this to its logical conclusion, with Alex Mercer as the villain. The new protagonist isn't any better as far as the Gameplay and Story Segregation means he'll still eat half the population of New York before games end, but the plot tries to hamstring a sympathetic backstory for him to show Even Evil Has Loved Ones to paint him as the lesser evil out of the five or so evils running around in total. How well it works is a matter of personal taste, but since some see him as a Replacement Scrappy on top of everything else, one wonders why these games don't go full on Refuge in Audacity and have the player character deliberately be the most evil person in the conflict of all and go balls out crazy.
  • Many players and critics felt this way about Deus Ex: Invisible War (and almost certainly about the original game as well, considering two of the options are largely the same as in the first game, and one of the two remainders goes along the same lines). All the factions have questionable goals and are willing to kick a few dogs to achieve them. It's telling that you're given the option to Kill Them All and let God sort them out. Which backfires dramatically.
  • Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords veers into this: There's a rising theme of nihilism and futility throughout the game (in a total reversal of the original) - no matter what you do, you cannot save any of the main NPCs, or redeem any of the Sith-aligned villains. Then, in the final battle, the Big Bad reveals that there was no evil plan to begin with - the whole game was just her fucking with you, none of it would have happened if you didn't exist, and if she wins, she'll commit suicide. You beat her, saving nobody but your own party, and she makes a bunch of dull prophecies about how nothing means anything, and then the (uninhabited) planet explodes with a massive (and never picked up, due to killing the franchise) Sequel Hook. Whee.
    • A light-side Exile can still do a lot of good and help a lot of people on the way, even if your Trickster Mentor gives you hell for it. Kreia has no evil plan towards the PC because it isn't about you; she wanted to build you up as a hero to prove a philosophical point to the remaining Jedi and provide Revan with a worthy ally in his battle against the True Sith.
  • The lore of EVE Online can be summed up with: "Everything sucks." It's so bad that the writers have to tell the readers when the ending is not a bad ending. The second book especially is a perfect example of this trope. Gameplay-wise? A perpetual Hopeless War for territory between pilots who can never die eventually becomes hard to tell apart from a Perpetually Static galaxy.
  • On one side of the central conflict in Dragon Age II, we have Knight Templars led by an iron-fisted extremist, and Blood Mages and demon consorters on the other, a lot of players have ultimately found it difficult to find much reason to support either.
    • The sequel essentially concedes the point to the audience and opens by nuking both sides. You can pick whether to recruit Remnant Mages or Remnant Templars as allies for your own quest to stop the latest supervillain (who is entirely unrelated to the Mage/Templar war save in the sense that he may have had an indirect hand in making it worse so that everybody would be distracted from his plots and then dropped the nuke when he didn't need it any longer), but outside of a choice of sidequests it makes no difference to the story arc.
  • Fallout: New Vegas can suffer from this. Mr House is very efficient and competent, but only cares about Vegas. Caesar's Legion are an expansionist, imperialistic, brutal slave army that treats women as property. The NCR means well, but it's hamstrung by bloated bureaucracy and doesn't really get how the Mojave works. You could go Wild Card, but can you forge a Vegas that's any better than what was there before?
  • Taro Yoko's games are often criticized for this, though in an odd twist, it's the sheer bleakness and darkness that make them popular with the audience:
    • Drakengard. Dear God, Drakengard. Between the incredibly bleak world and characters who have few, if any redeeming characteristics, it's practically impossible to find hope or optimism in it. Thank God for Drakengard 3 to partially undo the downers.
    • NieR also fits, though to a lesser extent due to the characters being considered much more sympathetic (if still flawed) and many more heartwarming moments, making players more invested.
    • As for its sequel, Nier Automata, the player has the opportunity to defy the heck out of this trope with its Ending E, but it's played straight with the sidequests. Since all of them end depressingly, the only reason to care about them is the rewards they give.
  • Shin Megami Tensei invariably invokes and subverts this whenever you encounter the Law and Chaos factions. The Chaos faction is full of demons and 'evil' spirits, led by Lucifer, personifies Jerkass, and seeks a world where Might Makes Right. The Law faction is led by YHVH, populated by Stepford Smiler angels, and regularly employs Mind Rape and Colony Drop. (And it's goals? Despotism Justifies the Means at best, and Assimilation Plot or World of Silence at worst.) This is subverted because you're usually allowed to Take a Third Option and choose Omnicidal Neutral instead.


Web Comic[edit | hide]

  • The so-called protagonists are unrepentant and hypocritical murderers, there's no point in the people who die learning last-minute lessons and everyone else is apparently never put two and two together to figure out the protagonists commit such horrible acts and so they are never stopped. Congratulations, you just read everything wrong with Suicide for Hire.
  • Prequel's Katia just keeps losing everything, leading to many readers quitting the strip after Sigrid takes almost everything she has.


Web Original[edit | hide]


Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • The South Park episode "Douche and Turd" involves Stan suffering a case of this, refusing to vote in a school mascot election owing to the fact that one is (quite literally) a giant douche and the other is a turd sandwich.
  • The Critic. Reviewers wondered if the audience would have any sympathy for Jay Sherman. The second season made him more of a Woobie and gave him a sweet girlfriend with an adorable daughter.
  • Depending on who you ask, this trope may be happening to Family Guy recently since pretty much every single character has become a massive Jerkass with little to no redeeming qualities. There are episodes that make us sympathize with the characters... though other episodes give us reasons to hate them.
  • In Beast Machines, the planet is essentially already dead and taken over before the first episode and the protagonists are so flawed that watching them tends to provoke nihilism rather than attachment.
  • Drawn Together play this for laughs amongst Refuge in Audacity, but you can still grow to feel bad for the characters.
  • Some episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants tend to float around this trope, mostly after Seasonal Rot started taking affect.
  • This trope led to Allen Gregory getting cancelled. Everyone was an asshole.