Grey and Gray Morality

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Wesley: There is a line, Lilah, black and white, good and evil.

Lilah: Funny thing about black and white. You mix it together and you get grey. And it doesn't matter how much white you try and put back in, you're never gonna get anything but grey.
Angel, "Habeas Corpses"

In an all-grey conflict, neither side is totally good or completely evil. Both sides have a strong, justifiable reason for fighting, and contain a mixture of people of all kinds, from admirable, upstanding individuals to vicious, slimy scumbags.

In most cases, one side has better reasons and more good people than the other. The protagonists usually fight for this better side, and if they don't, they'll switch sides before the end. While the audience roots for the better side, they still have sympathy for the opposition.

The result of such a conflict depends on where the story lies on the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism. At the idealistic end, both sides will eventually realize that fighting is futile and end up putting aside their differences to learn from each other and make a new and better world. At the centre, one side usually ends up crushing the other; this brings about peace, but of a hollow, depressing kind, as a faction with noble ideals has been destroyed. At the cynical end, both sides gradually become less sympathetic and more evil as time goes on until in the end, the more evil, cruel, and vicious side annihilates the other, ushering in an era of harsh rule and oppression or both parties end up fighting to the death.

In some cases, the story will end with both sides teaming up against an unambiguously evil third faction, who may even have been behind the war in the first place. When this villain is defeated, the grey sides almost invariably decide to live in peace (in the harsher version, the casualties from fighting that villain may find that there is actually now enough of whatever they fought over for all the survivors. Ultra-harsh version of this has the realization that the resources have been spent on the war).

A result of the above is that Grey and Grey Morality has one potentially great advantage: It can be easier to maintain suspense regarding the ending. In Black and White Morality situations, the ending is almost always a forgone conclusion; good wins in the end, it's just a matter of how. In a Grey-and-Grey situation, either side might conceivably win, or both, or neither.

Note that the sides often will still be Dress-Coded for Your Convenience.

Contrast with Black and White Morality. Compare Both Sides Have a Point, Black and Grey Morality, White and Grey Morality, Black and Black Morality, Full Spectrum Morality, Order Versus Chaos, and A Lighter Shade of Grey. Feuding Families and Cycle of Revenge stories tend to fall under this, as do many depictions of historical wars. A Mob War may be this, or may fall under Black and Grey Morality.

Any betrayals within a Grey and Grey Morality Universe will, by their very nature, be Hazy Feel Turns.

Examples of Grey and Gray Morality include:


Anime & Manga[edit | hide | hide all]

  • The entire Mahorafest arc of Mahou Sensei Negima fell under this, with the main characters unsure of whether they should allow The Masquerade to be permanently broken. Negi eventually just accepts that he might be the bad guy in this arc and stops the bad guy because she doesn't give him a good reason why he should let her continue.
    • Later events show pretty unambiguously that Chao could have improved on the actual outcome, if allowed to win. The best argument against her is "But she might get corrupted by power". Well, and the fact that even when she explained what was going on, she downplayed it to such a level that it didn't seem worth the risk to let her succeed.
    • Negima loves this trope, as the Big Bad's ultimate goal is to save the world. The only reason Negi opposes him is because said Big Bad is causing massive amounts of collateral damage in the process, and Negi wants to prevent that; they're basically fighting over who can do a better job of saving the world.
  • Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Of all the various factions, the closest any come to being completely "good" or "evil" are the Forest People, who are deeply spiritual nature lovers, but they can also be deeply pragmatic in their attitudes toward other peoples and the greedy, selfish pre-apocalyptic peoples who led the world to destruction and even they did what they thought was the right thing in the end.
  • In Princess Mononoke both Eboshi and the animal spirits only want to protect their people, but both sides are more than willing to kill lots of innocents for that. Even the one character who is closest to being a real villain is a very nice and likable guy.
    • The monkeys are really creepy, but their situation makes it kind of understandable why they would resolve to such drastic measures.
  • Dorohedoro. With all the Villain Episode, you can't help but realize that the setting is filled with Punch Clock Villains and Anti Heroes in a Crapsack World.
  • The third season of Slayers. Slayers TRY, falls under this, especially compared to the other seasons and most media, although it shows shades of A Lighter Shade of Gray at times. This particular plot calls out the Shinzoku as cowards, and the Big Bad and the greater being posessing him seek to rebuild the world by destroying it first, which affects the Mazoku and what they desire.
    • To a lesser extent, the ambitions of the Big Bad in the obscure video game Slayers Wonderful can be interpreted as this, as the scientist Viola (the antagonist) wishes to seal magic in order to stop the warring between humans and those above them. Once again, though, it shows A Lighter Shade of Gray.
  • Gundam has made a point of this trope since the original series. Although the antagonists, Zeon, are generally seen as more evil than the Federation, the reasons that Zeon went to war are understandable and realistic, and the Federation commits its fair share of atrocities across the series as well. In the end, there are good and bad people on both sides of every conflict, and neither side is wholly Evil or Good.
    • Gundam Wing started off with the heroic Colonies rebelling against the evil Alliance and later OZ, but by the end, it was really hard to tell which side we were supposed to be rooting for.
      • This is further illustrated by looking at the Fandom. Fans (and, okay, the creators themselves) consider Treize and Zechs (along with a couple others) to be 'good guys' right along with the Gundam pilots, even though they mostly fought on opposite sides. It's the manipulative bastards like Quinze and Dekim who are considered the 'villains'.
    • Mobile Suit Gundam 00: The protagonists are more or less trying to force the world into peace. Unlike most Gundam series, none of the major nations are really much more corrupt or violent than in real life. However, in the second season, the various sides of the conflict become much more black and white, as the protagonists start acting on free will and the world seemingly unites under the The Federation, which being Deconstructed Trope has suddenly become much more evil, despite containing many of the sympathetic antagonists of the first season.
    • Gundam Seed has a variation of the Enemy Mine situation, where most of the protagonists and antagonists previously seen find out that the sides they work for are not as gray as they thought, so they rebel and join forces to form another group to fight both of them.
    • Gundam AGE starts with an attack by the Unknown Enemy on the long-since peaceful Federation... who abandoned hundreds of Mars colonists to agonizing disease rather than own up to the project being a terrible mistake, and they're still in the habit of rewriting history to be favorable to them. The UE are the descendents of those colonists, who want to return to Earth and get some revenge along the way. By the third generation, Flit Asuno and Lord Ezelcant want to exterminate the other side more than anything else.
  • The entire point of Legend of Galactic Heroes. This quote from Yang Wen-Li sums it up best:

"There are few wars between good and evil; most are between one good and another good."

  • By the end of Martian Successor Nadesico, it has been revealed that Earth was the aggressor in the so-called Jovian war, Nergal was the one who spearheaded and rewrote it, and the Jovian general is just as power-hungry and deceptive as you could ask for. The crew of the Nadesico gets backstabbed until they just don't care anymore, and decide to cut the war short their way.
  • Noir, despite its name, actually isn't Black and Gray Morality; it's fairly dark, but it's more like slate and charcoal than anything else.
  • Darker than Black. Amber's organization, Evening Primrose, wants to seal off Hell's Gate to prevent The Syndicate from destroying it, thereby wiping out every contractor in existence. However, doing so would destroy all of Japan. And our hero is actually working for said syndicate throughout most of the series, as are most of the people who get in his way, since they're keeping the contractors busy fighting each other so that they won't find out their bosses' real goal. Plus everyone's a Punch Clock Villain.
    • In the end, Evening Primrose landed in more white territory - when they found out that there is a third option in which neither Contractors nor Japan are destroyed, they went for it.
  • Simoun, from the beginning. It starts with the POV of someone from one of the peripheral, heavily polluted nations talking about why they are invading Simulacrum, and it has examples throughout of both sides doing good and bad.
  • The battles between the Marines and Pirates in One Piece depends on the person. Both sides have their good, and (VERY) bad members. The Marines believe in two types of justice, moral justice, and Absolute Justice, while pirates can either be in it strictly for the adventure, or are in it for the raping and pillaging. While it still holds true to being good vs. evil, the end of the Impel Down Arc in One Piece shows lights of this with Hannybal. He desperately tries to keep the prisoners from escaping Impel Down because he well understands that most of these people are the scum of the earth and deserve to be here, and letting them out will cause widespread fear to innocent people. In the end, Luffy's intentions are still to undo the evil of the World Government, but this particular arc reminds us that a majority of the pirates in the world are dangerous criminals themselves and that the Straw Hats are a rare group of freedom fighters.
    • It would be a stretch to call the Straw Hats "freedom fighters". Luffy himself has said that he's not a hero and made it clear that he doesn't really care about the government. The crew is mainly motivated by self-interest rather than doing good in any abstract way. Their conflicts with the World Government usually come down to the government doing something to threaten them or their allies.
  • Steamboy explores the relationship between mankind and science, and aside from the O'Hara Foundation proper, none of the sides (Eddie Steam, Lloyd Steam, Scarlett O'Hara and Robert Stephenson) are shown to be entirely right or wrong.
  • Vinland Saga is about vikings. The main character could generously be called a Heroic Sociopath and doesn't actually care what side he's on. The sides in question change, merge, and are destroyed through various slaughters and assassinations. It isn't so much Grey and Gray Morality as Gray Stew.
  • In Elfen Lied the cruel and inhuman treatment of the diclonii makes it easy to root for them and see the scientist who capture and experiment on them as the villains. But given the natural instincts of the mutants and their heartless brutality it's not that easy to say who are the complete monsters.
    • The exceptions on both sides are Kurama and Nana who would rather avoid any more pain and death, but they are about the two most messed up characters in a story where every single person has serious problems with their mental health (and of course, There Are No Therapists).
  • Heroic Age: at first glance appears to have Black and White Morality between the human protagonists and alien antagonists warring against them, but it eventually goes on to show some of the humans Kick the Dog a few times while some of the aliens are portrayed sympathetically and others afraid that humans will kill THEM if they don't Destroy All Humans! first, while both races appear to suffer from Blue and Orange Morality. Eventually, this trope is lampshaded and taken to its logical conclusion when both sides call a truce and eventually end the war.
  • In Neon Genesis Evangelion, opponents NERV/SEELE and the Angels have a common goal: destroy the opponent and initiate Third Impact for their own ends. Eventually, NERV and SEELE oppose each other as well, since they have one slight difference in how they want their orange juice served.
  • Although Nabari no Ou initially appears to be a case of Black and White Morality, it's actually one of the rare cases where both sides are portrayed as more or less equally good—There's an equal number of protagonists and complete monsters on each side, and most of them change sides at least once. In the end, it turns out that Fuuma and Hattori have been working together all along.
  • Naruto, anyone? There are five major Ninja Villages (and a slew of smaller ones), each calling their sides to be the righteous, superior one, only allying when there's a bigger threat. Don't mind the fact that each and every one of them train children into ninjas with techniques capable of leveling cities. Don't mind the fact that the Leaf Village mistreats Naruto out of mindless fear, the villains are Orochimaru (If you Wild Guess, you may think of him as a victim. If the village mistreats Naruto for protecting them, why not the snake-looking kid too?), Pain/Nagato, whose parents, best friend and DOG were killed by Leaf ninjas, Sasuke who isn't wrong for wanting to murder his last family member, (and the Leaf Village elders who ordered him) who massacred his entire clan. And there's Danzo, who is somewhat a prick, willing to destroy all other villages if necessary, even killing any Leaf ninjas whom he sees as defiant. He only does so to try and catch up to his former comrade Sarutobi, and protect the Hidden Leaf to the end. Since everyone is fighting for their own point of view, Good and Evil are pretty much useless.
    • On the other hand, very few will disagree that Tobi is an irredeemable asshole. Even then, his master plan can be viewed as an attempt to end all conflict in the world by using his Sharingan on everyone at once.
  • Revolutionary Girl Utena is a perfect example. The student council are all fighting for their own personal goals (none of which are truly good or bad), and this applies to most every other character. Even Utena herself falls into this through most of the story, fighting because she wants to be a prince, and struggling to find her identity amongst it all rather than out of a sense of justice or love.
  • Mushishi is often built around Grey and Grey Morality: it's irrational to blame an animal for doing what nature made it to do, even if 'what it does' is eating eyes, parasitically living in people's ears or devouring fetuses and taking their place. The mushi are bizarre and sometimes frightful, but mindlessly innocent, and the Mushishi who handle them can come off as Knight Templar or Well Intentioned Extremists for exterminating them.
  • Desert Punk definitely fits this. Initially, it's a case of Punk fighting against people who are not much worse than him (and occasionally are somewhat better), but the ultimate plot about a rebellion falls squarely into this too. The Oasis Government presides over a horribly inequitable system (which is partly Inherent in the System because of the wasteland setting) and is involved in various conspiracies to control Lost Technology and silence those who find out about it. The rebels initially seem to be A Lighter Shade of Gray, especially since sympathetic and idealistic government officials join them, but are made morally ambiguous because of a Utopia Justifies the Means attitude, which includes hiring unpleasant, even villainous characters to help their cause, one of whom has the outlook of an Omnicidal Maniac and is just manipulating them to advance his own goals.
  • Given Real Life history, the Nations of Axis Powers Hetalia are definitely this. As everyone's shown to be good-at-heart in their own ways, not one of them is portrayed as utterly evil, including Ivan/Russia. This doesn't stop Dark Fic writers from making complete Monsters of them, however,
  • Magic Knight Rayearth has each side (or country, in season 2) fighting for what they believe is right. All of them meant well. None of them wanted to deliberately do evil. Yet each one had goals that would have eventually hurt others- even though it may have benefited somebody in the end.
  • Getter Robo villains are at best Anti Villains, at worst Well Intentioned Extremists. The only villains that crossed the Complete Monster line are human, and really, its hard too see how the villains are "evil" especialy in the manga when most of them consist of the villain fighting for the happiness of their people, or trying to SAVE the world, complete with several Heroic Sacrifice to save the world. The only explanation for their status as villains are the fact that they are not human.
  • The feuding ninja clans of Basilisk are equally honorable and treacherous. As are the heirs' nannies who instigated the contests with their own intrigues. The Treacherous Advisor / Big Bad wasn't in support of either side so much as conflict for the sake of pain and misery. In that sense, even though defeated, he won in the end.


Comics[edit | hide]

  • Marvel's Civil War
  • Watchmen. Dr. Manhattan is the larval form of an Eldritch Abomination, both Rorschach and the Comedian are heroic sociopaths , and Ozymandias is an Anti-Villain Well-Intentioned Extremist. None of the main characters is unambiguously villainous, but even Nite Owl and Silk Spectre are antiheroes. To quote Zack Snyder, director of the movie adaptation, "Superman doesn't care about humanity, Batman can't get it up, and the bad guy wants world peace."
  • IDW's Megatron: Origin miniseries shows the series's iconic Evil Overlord's rise to power from a laid-off energon miner through underground gladiator to the leader of a rebellion against a corrupt Cybertronian senate, with the Autobot Security Services presented as an incompetent and in some cases fascistic police force under the control of the aforementioned senate.
    • Before this the Dreamwave comic series revealed that the Autobot ruling council were servants of the Quintessons, the Transformers' entire history was a lie told to keep the Autobots in line and Megatron, having found all this out, forced the Decepticons to try and free his people and to bring order to the universe, albeit through very Knight Templar behavior.
  • World War Hulk: Warbound vs Illuminati. The Illuminati weren't guilty of the crime that Hulk was avenging, but they were the reason he was on Sakaar in the first place.
  • Scalped. Dash is an Anti-Hero at best, and Red Crow has many shades of being an Anti-Villain. He definitely faces enough complete monsters that it's hard to pin him as the worst thing that could happen to the Rez.
  • Superman: Red Son: Superman is a totalitarian dictator, but values human life enough to never kill anybody and - to himself, at least - has humanity's best interests at heart, while Lex Luthor is totally obsessed with bringing Superman down rather than liberating humanity from Superman's yoke.
  • Alien vs. Predator, in both comics and video games, as the Alien is not much sentient, the Predator borders on Blue and Orange Morality, and the humans are most times just doing their jobs. Whoever it's the villain depends on the viewpoint character.


Fanfics[edit | hide]

  • Tiberium Wars portrays both the Global Defense Initiative and the Brotherhood of Nod in sympathetic light, with Nod being presented as desperate and angry and vengeful for the wrongs GDI has perpetuated on them, and GDI being presented as Well Intentioned Extremists who nonetheless are trying to protect the world and defend themselves against Nod aggression.
  • It should come as no surprise, but the crossover fanfic Renegade by the same author does the same thing, with the same factions. In fact, both factions are presented as protagonists, with the Brotherhood of Nod intervening in the slaver raid on Elysium and with Kane himself attempting to negotiate a compromise between GDI and the Citadel. Of course, Nod apparently stole the Tacitus on Eden Prime, which caused said conflict between GDI and the Citadel and allowed Kane to score points by negotiating said compromise, so it might have been part of the plan....
  • Fittingly, considering the canon series' Grey and Gray Morality and Black and Gray Morality tendencies, the Mass Effect fanfic The Council Era is entirely these two. The Villain Protagonist seeks to create a Utopia for the galaxy, and does improve it over time, but he believes that Utopia Justifies the Means and commits seriously heinous acts in order to marginally improve the galaxy. His Worthy Opponent in this Evil Versus Evil plotline merely seeks to create a firm foothold for his newly spacefaring people, the krogans. By exterminating every other species, and turning the krogan into a Master Race.


Film[edit | hide]

  • The Matrix sequels and supplementary materials retconned the human/machine war into this, with the robots repeatedly trying to settle matters diplomatically, and the humans revealed to be lazy, arrogant, and decadent as the result of robot labor relieving much of their previous responsibility.
  • By the end of The Prestige, both lead characters have innocent blood on their hands, whether due to obsession with revenge, or due to single-minded pursuit of their Greatest Magic Trick Ever.
  • Arguably the two leads in the film Changing Lanes.
  • While the Clone Wars saw the Separatists being led by a bunch of corrupt corporate executives and Sith Lords and a homicidal cyborg, a lot of the worlds joining them were only doing so to oppose what they with some justification saw as a corrupt Republic. To grey out the other side further, as Anakin Skywalker observed, even the Jedi Council was feeling compelled to move into a more pragmatic and less moral direction. Ultimately, though, Anakin's protestations about Grey and Gray Morality when he has fallen to the Dark Side are ironically empty, as he has chosen to join with the altogether Black and Grey Morality Big Bad who was behind it all from the start and who makes him eat kittens.
    • The Separatists are still on the darker end, though. Yes, the Republic ended up becoming the Empire, but the conduct of clone troopers before Order 66 was much better than the droids. Also, contrast the Jedi Generals with General Grievous, and consider the fact that many Republic generals and statesmen later became rebels. Furthermore, that corruption in the Republic? It largely originated from those same Corrupt Corporate Executives that led the Separatists. The Republic isn't perfect, but at least they don't have a reputation of wanton brutality.
    • The trope is invoked in the opening of Revenge of the Sith, where the blurb briefly mentions that "there are heroes on both sides." In the films proper, however, there aren't any good Separatists shown on-screen. The Star Wars: The Clone Wars series attempted to rectify this, by actually showcasing some of those heroic Separatists.
  • In the 2007 Chinese film, Warlords, the three main characters are all grey, and so are pretty much all the characters. There are no heroes or outright monsters. This is a film that challenges the viewer to decide which is the more moral choice. Sometimes the moral thing to do results in greater harm or loss of life than the socially reprehensible thing to do.
  • King Kong, especially the Peter Jackson remake. Kong, an aggressive animal who kidnaps a human but wants to protect her as well, fights first a film crew—greedy, but they don't initially want to hurt anyone and only capture him as a last resort, and later the army, who want only to defend their city.
  • The film version of Let the Right One In - the two main characters are a murderous vampire and a kid who has strong and violent revenge fantasies. None of the other characters are more sympathetic than they are.
  • The Chinese/Korean coproduction Musa The Warrior shows both sides of the conflict (exiled Korean soldiers and defeated Mongol horsemen) to be somewhat sympathetic but deeply flawed people bound by both grim necessity and inflexible ethical codes to slaughter each other in a series of running battles which ultimately achieve little but tragic attrition.
  • In Election, Tracy is a sweet but borderline psychotic overachiever who tears down Paul's posters in a fit of rage, Paul is a well-intentioned but fairly clueless guy who's only running because he was told to by his teacher, Tammy is only in the race to get Revenge against Paul and Lisa, and Mr. McAllister cheats on his wife and rigs the ballots to deny Tracy the victory. None of them are particularly "good," but all of them have their reasons for behaving the way that they do.
  • Using fridge logic Inception is a curious example in that it has neither heroes nor villains. Fisher, despite inheriting a major corporation, is an innocent; Saito is a business rival of his; and Cobb and the team are only in it for themselves (Cobb in hopes of getting home to his family, the others for money). The antagonist, Mal, is, in the dreams, a manifestation of Cobb's subconscious.
  • In Air America, there are definitely good guys and bad guys, but none of the good guys are pure white-hats, not even Billy Covington and Corinne Landreaux, who probably come closest, and none of the villains are pure black-hats, not even Major Lemond and General Soong. Yes, granted, Soong, Lemond, and Lemond's assistant Rob Diehl are drug runners, but there is no evidence that Lemond and Diehl are enriching themselves, and even Gene Ryack, who is more or less neutral for most of the film, points out that it is impossible to win a war in Southeast Asia without controlling the opiate trade, so Lemond and Diehl, and even Soong, are just doing what is necessary for the war effort. Ryack himself is a gun runner, and it is made clear that pretty much all the pilots are running illegal scams on the side. Corinne, again, might seem closest to being a pure white-hat, but she's dating Rob, one of the villains. Senator Davenport turns out to be a good guy at the end, but he's willing to look the other way at Gen. Soong's rather dodgy "recruitment" techniques. So all in all, no one in the film really seems all good or all evil.
  • In the Transformers film series, the, errr...heroic Autobots just want to end the tyranny of the Decepticons...by killing every last one of them without mercy. Meanwhile, the Decepticons think they're doing what's best for their own kind. The only major difference is that one side likes humans, while the other doesn't.
    • It's of note that the G1 Decepticons' Catchphrase was "peace through tyranny". In the films, it could very well be the Autobots', seeing as they kill more Decepticons onscreen than the Deceptions do Autobots.


Literature[edit | hide]

  • In Chung Kuo, there is no really good side; both the Han rulers and the European rebels commit atrocities as the story progresses
  • The War between Manticore and Haven in Honor Harrington, with the second Haven revolution in the series resulting in a government led by good people, has become this. Indeed, as this carries on it's lost even much of that, becoming more of a Let's You and Him Fight between good guys.
  • Featured very prominently from the second series onward in Warrior Cats. The authors have even gone back to write sympathetic backstories for most of the villains, the most notable being Scourge. Tigerstar and Hawkfrost are also noteworthy because, although they wanted power and did horrible things to get it, they only wanted power because they believed they could do a better job of running the Clans and help keep the forest peaceful (Although Tigerstar's vision for running the Clans was very racist). The villains of the fourth series also consist almost entirely of cats that have been wronged or forgotten and are rising up for revenge. Then for the heroes, we have Brambleclaw, who had the exact same goals as Hawkfrost, and leaned dangerously close to The Dark Side, making Hawkfrost's status as a Manipulative Bastard pretty much the only difference between them. We also have Leafpool and Squirrelflight with their (spoilerific) lies and betrayal. And then there is Hollyleaf, Lionblaze and Jayfeather, who all seem to be much more dysfunctional than all the other characters.
  • Pretty much everything Guy Gavriel Kay ever wrote falls under this trope.
  • Animorphs falls under this tropes in the later books. At first it's a pretty clear cut case of the bad guys (the Yeerks, taking over the planet parasitically) and the good guys (the Animorphs, and by extension the Andalites, who also hate the Yeerks). As time wears on, however, it's revealed that the Andalites response to the Yeerks infesting the Hork-Bajir homeworld was to release a deadly virus into the atmosphere of the planet, killing nearly all Hork-Bajir on their homeworld. If the Animorphs fail to stop the Yeerk invasion, the Andalites have plans to do exactly the same thing to Earth. As well as that, some of the Yeerks start to be portrayed as actual characters, with individual motivations and emotions, instead of just a pack of slugs. Even the Taxxons, giant centipede-like creatures get some of this; they're revealed to be total slaves to their own hunger, literally unable to stop eating as long as there is food around. And then there are the Animorphs themselves; over the course of the books they morph from idealistic kids doing the best they can to a hardened guerilla force with no qualms about sacrificing the new bunch of idealistic kids in the name of winning the war. This seems to have been the point of the series.
  • Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen has this part of the time, such as in the Malazan/Darujhistan conflict and the Letherii/Tiste Edur Conflict. At other times the series veers into Black and Gray Morality (the Crippled God vs. everyone else) and even Black and White Morality (Anomander Rake vs. Chaos in Toll the Hounds).
  • Philip Pullman, who wrote the His Dark Materials series, is the master of this trope. The story revolves around a mysterious thing called Dust. One side, the adults, believe it is evil and corrupting the innocent children; whereas the children themselves know basically nothing about it but dislike what the adults are doing, so they decide that it's really good. This gets less ambiguous, but it is still possible to read it as the Dust is a Necessary Evil, or an Ultimate Good; and even individual characters are like this. Lyra's mother, for example, is one massive, manipulative bitch who cuts childrens' daemons away from them (which is like splitting your soul in half but, on the other hand, she eventually sacrifices herself with Lord Asriel, Lyra's father, to take down Metatron and "make the world safe for Lyra." Who the ultimate evil—the most evil—is is another good question; whether it's the Authority, the Church, Mrs Coulter, Dust, the people interpreting the Church's positions, the Knife, the Specters, or Father Gomez and his forces. And as if that weren't enough, they're left with a Bittersweet Ending, too.
    • The first book contains the best example of grey and gray morality. Lord Asriel, who is supposed to be an antithesis to the clearly evil Mrs. Coulter who works for the Church, kills Lyra's friend in order to power his machine. This is seemingly ignored in the next two books and Asriel, with his crusade against God, becomes a strictly heroic character.
      • Hardly. Lyra, who is pretty much the author mouthpiece, continues to distrust and dislike Asriel and his methods for the entire series after what happened above. Asriel is depicted as a man who has noble goals, but uses highly questionable methods to reach them, while Mrs. Coultier is a dangerous sociopath with one redeeming quality, namely love for Lyra. They manage to combine their better qualities in a mutual Heroic Sacrifice. The books pretty much revolve around the issue that all people are flawed, and seemingly good people can do very bad things and vice versa.
  • The Chaos Walking trilogy is all about this. While Mayor Prentiss is a darker shade of gray, Mistress Coyle and the Answer's methods of stopping him (no matter what the cost) can be those of a terrorist or a freedom fighter. This is heightened when the heroes are forced upon the two different sides, while being aware of how much rubbish the whole war is. Also the fact that it's practically a gender battle heightens the uncertainty of the war. In the third book they team up in an alliance against the Spackle, even though the Spackle are the ones that were treated so terribly
  • The Iliad, by Homer, and the rest of the Trojan Cycle, making this Older Than Feudalism.
  • The Star Wars Expanded Universe flies up and down the morality scale Depending on the Writer; most of them have pretty clear bad guys, and with Timothy Zahn most of those bad guys aren't so bad, but his book Outbound Flight fits here. There are a lot of major characters, but they end up falling into one of three categories: Jedi and civilians on Outbound Flight, Chiss and captives, and Darth Sidious's agent. None of those are entirely good or evil. Outbound Flight is led by Jorus C'baoth, an arrogant and domineering Master who believes himself to be the ultimate authority, and whom the others are reluctant to contradict. The main Chiss character is Thrawn, who... well, he's at his most heroic here, but he's Thrawn. Sidious's agent is planning to destroy Outbound Flight, but he doesn't exactly cackle and he respects Thrawn. The few unambiguously Good characters have subplots, but in the end all they're able to do is die to save fifty-seven out of the fifty thousand who were on Outbound Flight.
  • On the one hand DORLA in Kit Whitfield's Benighted uses police state tactics and functionally, if not officially, operates on a "guilty until proven innocent" mentality. On the other hand they do a dirty, dangerous and very necessary job and get less than zero appreciation for it from the public.
  • There's an interesting variation on this trope in Jack Campbell's Lost Fleet series: the protagonist wakes up from almost a century in suspended animation, having been "killed" in the first battle of a presumably White on Grey war, to find the same war still raging, but with both sides reduced to the lowest possible moral levels as a result of ridiculously high attrition and a circle of atrocity and counter-atrocity. Being understandably appalled at this, he goes on to teach his fleet about honour and efficiency to move it away from Black on Black to Black and Grey Morality before exploring the mindset of his Syndic enemies (upgrading them from Black to merely ridiculously inefficient dark Grey). And then it turns out that there are ineffable aliens (with their own morality altogether) behind it all. By the end of the story, Geary only manages to deal with the aliens by completely defeating the Syndics first and getting to the other side of their territory.
  • George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, sort of. Every major faction, taken as a whole, has flaws and redeeming qualities; no one is unreasonable. In the end, it's the methods they choose to use that decides whether they are a villain or a protagonist:
    • The Starks are protagonists because they are honourable to a fault and seek out diplomatic solutions before entering combat. Despite this, one of their most useful bannermen is Roose Bolton, who is tolerated as a Token Evil Teammate until he finally does betray them, and testimony from peasants in the wrong place at the wrong time show that lower ranking Stark soldiers Rape, Pillage and Burn just as much as the Lannisters.
    • The Lannisters are antagonists because they hire people like Gregor Clegane, the Bloody Mummers, and House Frey. Despite this, it is mentioned several times that the common people loved Tywin Lannister, because while he might be a bad person, he was an excellent ruler, and he gave Westeros a great deal of peace and prosperity while he was Aerys' Hand of the King.
    • Renly's followers are protagonists because they fight honourably and have several noble warriors on their side, but are fools who still are fighting a bloody war for personal honor and power.
    • Stannis' followers are antagonists because they use incredibly creepy Black Magic and assassinations to accomplish their goals, but they still do the right thing in the end, so they aren't exactly evil. This is finally proved when Stannis, at Davos' insistence, finally realises that if he is a king it is his duty to protect his subjects by temporarily putting his war for the throne on hold and going to the Wall. So far, he is the only ruler in Westeros to actually accept responsibility in this way.
    • Dany is fighting to back her family's throne, despite it being repeatedly drawn to her attention that her father genuinely was a lunatic, and that the people of the Westeros just want to be left out of the power struggles; at first she believes the lies she had been told about how the commoners secretly prayed for the return of Westeros' "true" rulers, but even when she is disabused of this notion, she keeps going to get revenge on the "Usurpers" and reclaim her birthright, rather than worrying whether "her" subjects actually care enough to want another brutal civil war. She has also done a great deal of sacking and pillaging to get where she is now.
    • Generally the medieval fantasy setting and the accompanying Values Dissonance means that any one of the lords seems phenomenally egotistical and self-righteous by today's standards, which is one of the reasons Varys is such an interesting character; he genuinely does seem to care about the realm as a whole more than the pissing contests between the squabbling nobles.
  • Patrick Tilley's Amtrak Wars series, with elements of Order Versus Chaos thrown in.
  • Kevin J. Anderson's Terra Incognita series. Examples ranging the spectrum from the very good to the very evil can be found among both the Aidenists and the Urecari while the Saedrans stay strictly neutral.
  • The Old Man's War series: The Colonial Union really wants to protect and preserve the human race in a universe full of hostile aliens who want to eat them. But they're basically a military junta using some questionable, authoritarian methods: recruiting the majority of their soldiers from a planet (Earth) kept completely in the dark about the rest of the universe, and vat-growing a group of emotionally-stunted, effectively Child Soldiers from the bodies of the dead as Special Forces, restricting civilians from certain technological advances, and engaging in aggressively expansionist wars of colonization, steadily turning the rest of the galaxy against them. On the other side, there actually are many hostile alien races who want to eat humanity, but most end up joining the Conclave out of a desire to use diplomacy to try and minimize aggressive war and further bloodshed.
  • The three empires in the Quintara Marathon series demonstrate this, at least in terms of the humans who are represented in all three. The Exchange is a free-market free-for-all with the most personal freedom, but minimal social safety nets and an underbelly of corruption and unofficial slavery (in the form of genetically engineered intelligent beings considered as property). The Mizlaplan control a rigid theocracy where they are unquestionably the rulers (and effective gods), inquisitors and priest can use whatever methods they feel are necessary, sexual discrimination against women is part of the system, and where brainwashing into absolute obedience is commonly used, but where most people live peaceful, safe lives without concern about going hungry, crime, or actually being personally oppressed. The Mychol Empire is a dog-eat-dog vicious society with oppression, slavery, and a great deal of violence, but where everyone has the opportunity to rise if they are smart enough.
  • In Lonely Werewolf Girl no one is really heroic in this tale, Kalix killed her father, Sarapen is batshit insane, the rest of the werewolves downright callous and manipulative, Moonglow cheats on her boyfriend, Daniel is trying to be a Dogged Nice Guy to Moonglow, Malveria a Retired Monster, and the Avenaris Guild of werewolf hunters are trigger happy sociopaths.
  • The Civil War in Bernard Cornwell's Starbuck Chronicles. This is because rather than deal with the causes of the war he approaches it from the perspective of the individuals on both sides and finds that there are heroes and scoundrels on both sides. Emphasized by making the viewpoint character, Nathaniel Starbuck, a "Copperhead" (a Northerner who sided with the South) and another major character, Adam Falconer, a "Scalawag" (a Southerner who sided with the North).
  • Gone (novel), by Michael Grant. All the characters are kids under the age of 15 who are trapped in a bubble without adults. On their 15th birthdays, they disappear, too. That's called the "Poof". The heroes are trying to figure things out, put things back to normal, learn how to use their new powers, and figure out how to survive their 15th birthdays. The villains have mostly the same motivations, except that their methods are different. The heroes sometimes do bad things, and the villains sometimes do good things. Basically, they all just want to survive. The exception is Drake, who Michael Grant has confirmed is pure evil, no shades of gray.
  • Fugue for a Darkening Island invokes this trope, 70's Britain split into civil war as thousands of African refugees flee into Europe to escape a nuclear war. The refugees are innocent and desperate, but often violent and thuggish. The fascist government is cruel and oppressive, but the only thing preventing the total collapse of the country. The secessionist movement is liberal and free, but weak and elitist.'
  • The Underland Chronicles: The human-rat war is FULL of this.
  • Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl is very dark grey on all sides. The calorie men are out to make profits by whatever means necessary, but they're also trying to stave off unending waves of plagues and blights. The Kingdom of Thailand heroically resists the outsiders who want to plunder it, but it's also deeply corrupt and politically unstable. Hock Seng, who appears ready to do anything to save himself, also has one of the most depressing backstories, and when we last see him, he is risking his own life to save a little girl. A character who looks heroic will turn out to have something very dark in their past (or present), while one who looks villainous may have honorable intentions.
  • David Drake's Hammer's Slammers does a good job of showing how this trope applies in War Is Hell; both the titular mercenaries and their opponents do some pretty despicable things in order to hold their own losses down, like nuking a rebel stronghold because attacking it any other way would result in unacceptable losses for the attackers. When the series deviates from Gray and Gray, it's usually to go to Black and Gray, especially if Major Joachim Steuben is involved.
  • Keys to the Kingdom has a lot of this as well. Dame Primus is quite The Chessmaster, and not in a good way. The only truly good character is Arthur, and he barely has any idea what's going on for a lot of the time.
  • In The Kingdoms of Evil: The main character is put in charge of all the evil in the world. Next up, figure out what the hell evil actually is.
  • Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper. On the one hand, we have a mother who is desperate to save her daughter's life, even if it means subjecting her other daughter to a variety of increasingly invasive medical procedures against her will. On the other hand, we have a girl who doesn't want to undergo dangerous and painful medical procedures anymore and wants to be seen for herself rather than as replacement body parts for her sister, even if it means taking away her sick sister's last chance at survial. Welcome to the world of no right answers, folks.
  • In The 39 Clues book series, even Amy and Dan, who are by far the nicest and most principled clue hunters, will do morally questionable things from time to time.
  • The first book of the Artemis Fowl series has this in spades. Artemis freely admits that he's a greedy, manipulative villain, but he aims to use the gold from his kidnapping/extortion scheme to find his lost father and his mother is millimeters away from a nervous breakdown. The LEP just want their officer back without paying any gold, but they go through some very dark means to get it and even intend to kill Artemis if none of their other plans succeed.
  • The soldiers and rebels in Beachwalker are both portrayed as having sympathetic members, and the book entirely avoids taking sides in their conflict, focusing instead on the specific combatants and civilians in the protagonist's immediate sphere of influence.
  • The Black Company by Glen Cook at best. Most prevalent in the first book, and then appearing here and there throughout the series.
  • The people on either side of the diamond wall in A Dirge for Prester John view themselves as the real Pentexore. Neither side is more valid than the other, just one side has the benefit of the Fountain of Youth.


Live-Action TV[edit | hide]

  • Torchwood has numerous examples of good guys (Jack in particular) being less than good, and 'bad' guys just acting within their nature. Witness the Children of Earth miniseries; the faceless, completely evil aliens are the plot's driving force, but the meat of the story is what the government and what Torchwood are willing to do to deal with it. It's hard to say if anyone wins in the end...
  • Sometimes crops up in Doctor Who.
    • It was common in the show's early historical episodes. The Crusade shows both Richard the Lionheart and Saladdin to be honourable men.
    • Doctor Who and the Silurians is a textbook example as both the humans and the Silurians are shown to be equally aggressive and honourable, with even the Brigadier commiting attrocities to win.
    • The Caves of Androzani depicts a brutal war between the military forces run by a well meaning but ruthless General whose willing to execute civilans when ordered even if he belives they're incocent, and Jerkass Woobie Sharaz Jek, a lechy drug runner whose been driven mad by the treachery of his former partner Morgus and helps the Doctor in the end.
  • The Vorlons and the Shadows in Babylon 5—eventually. The conflict is definitely black-and-white for the first three seasons, but then swerves into grey-and-gray shortly before the war ends.
    • JMS pointed out in first season commentary that he was proud to have pulled this off when the Vorlons were just as prone to blow stuff up with no real justification.
    • JMS also stated that the actors who played Londo and G'Kar were asked to flip a coin to see who would be the "good" one. He was immediately asked: "Who won?"
      • The joke makes a lot of sense in hindsight given that Londo and the Centauri are initially portrayed almost wholly sympathetically, while G'kar and the Narn are portrayed very much as villainous. By the end of the second season, however, both the characters' and audience's sympathies have completely reversed (in part thanks to Londo making a Deal with the Devil). By the end of the fourth season, it's no longer clear who's the hero or the villain in the perpetual conflict - which was almost certainly the intention of Stracyzinski from the very beginning.
  • The English Civil War drama By the Sword Divided. There are some obviously 'good' characters, but none of them are perfect, while no one is shown as an out-and-out villain either.
  • The new Battlestar Galactica Reimagined started off with the Cylons nuking the entire twelve colonies (ostensibly in retribution for the human's mistreatment of them before the first Cylon War) and the surviving Colonials running and trying to find Earth in a rag-tag fleet. However, as the seasons went on, the Colonials were shown more and more as people who could compromise their morality to survive, ultimately culminating in the arrival of the Pegasus and Admiral Cain, who not only allowed torture, but allowed her sole Cylon prisoner to be raped over and over again. Near the end of the second season, the episode "Downloaded" also showed a different side to the Cylons ? some even thought the destruction of humanity had been a bad thing. This eventually resulted in an Enemy Civil War and the end of the fourth season saw an alliance between the Colonial Fleet and the Rebel Cylons.
  • In various seasons of Survivor, the final two (three in more recent seasons) was often seen as this, both (or all three) people pretty much annoyed the Jury and they wound up voting for who they viewed as the lesser evil.
    • Marquesas is perhaps one of the best examples of this trope; Neleh admittedly didn't start playing the game until Day 24 and glided through on other peoples' shoulders, while Vecepia flip-flopped enough times to make everyone question where she stood, and won because everyone was mad at Neleh.
    • Thailand - Brian was a cold emotional sociopath who barely even spoke to the other tribe, and was accused of sexism and backstabbing among all things, while Clay was accused of racism and generally being a lech. Brian won only because he had enough people who respected him on the jury.
    • Samoa is another more recent example of Grey and Gray Morality. Most of the jury was indeed angry at all three, who either rode coattails to the end without contributing much on their own and saying they deserved it in real life, (Mick), rode coattails and played dumb (Natalie), or wantonly bullied their way through the game and bragged about how awesome they were (Russell). Ultimately the vote was overwhelmingly towards Natalie - not for her strategic play or physical prowess, but because the jury thought she was a legitimately nice person.
    • South Pacific - Albert was seen as a sleaze and someone who nobody liked or respected, Sophie was seen as a pretentious and condescending brat, and Coach was accused of using religious hypocrisy and breaking his word several times over despite claiming to play with "honour" and "integrity". Ozzy laid it out in his opening jury speech - the jury did not want to vote for any of them.
  • In Lost, the issues are so complex and the characters so murky that no one seems to be pure good or evil, although there are definite shades of gray (Even Ben is getting into this point). In fact, the only people who are considered pure evil are Anthony Cooper and Martin Keamy.
  • Dollhouse. While what the Dollhouse and the Rossum Corporation do is clearly nightmarish, and Paul Ballard (and earlier, Caroline) must be right to want to bring them down, Ballard is prepared to do very dubious things to do it, while Caroline is irresponsible and quixotic. Meanwhile, the people who work for the Dollhouse seem to really believe that they're doing good by "giving people what they need", and the dolls are all volunteers...
    • DeWitt's house, at least, seems to recruit people in desperate straits and helps them establish new lives after their term is finished. Whether this is rescuing them or preying on those with no options is an exercise for the viewer.
    • The episode where we first see Tudyk's character, Alpha, really shows the G&G. The start of the episode shows Echo saving a young girl from a downward spiral and helping her get over her traumatic past, while Ballard sneaks into the Dollhouse after finding it, accidentally bringing Alpha with him and causing problems while trying to help.
    • For added gray bordering on Fridge Horror, consider Boyd's stated reason for harvesting Echo's spinal fluid. If the antidote he could have synthesized was used properly it could potentially have saved thousands of people from being wiped, imprinted, bodystolen, and killed and may have severly mitigated the eventual downfall of civilization depicted in the season ending episodes.
  • Farscape will be like this when it's not in outright Black and Grey Morality mode.
  • In Merlin, the boy wizard himself and Arthur are definitely good guys. But they support a Knight Templar king who would execute Merlin if he knew the truth, often against designated villains with a legitimate grievance, and Merlin often makes some questionable choices to balance his nature against his support of the king. Why? In Arthur's case, family loyalty; in Merlin's it's just Because Destiny Says So ("destiny" in this case being a dragon with a fairly major grudge against Uther himself). Hence, when Morgana decides to side with Morguase, it's very hard to see it as a Face Heel Turn, and the script doesn't really make much attempt to present it as such.
  • The Wire is one of the finest examples of this trope in any medium. While you may arguably root for the cops to make their case, it's impossible to see even most of the cops as good guys. And the criminals get far too many humanising moments to possibly be considered bad guys. Creator David Simon said he wasn't interested in doing good vs. evil anymore; the results were as far in the opposite direction as can be done. However, if Marlo Stanfield and his crew are involved, the show arguably crosses over into Black and Gray Morality.
  • Dexter, especially when it comes down to Dexter vs. Doakes in season 2. In the words of the man himself:

"Am I evil? Am I good? I'm done asking those questions, I don't have the answers. Does anyone?"

    • He also points out that he essentially does Doakes' job but "at no cost to the taxpayer", and says that Doakes only knew he was a killer because he was one himself.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer often dips into this. Faith, for example, still retained sympathetic traits even after doing a full-fledged Face Heel Turn (she recanted, eventually), and the heroes have shot the dog on occasion, claiming they did what they had to do.
    • In the season eight comics, Buffy's taken to international jewel thievery in order to finance her Slayer army. "The banks are insured! It's a victimless crime!"
  • In stark contrast to other Trek series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is pretty much built on this trope, with the protagonists being A Lighter Shade of Grey. Hell, just watch "In the Pale Moonlight"... or listen to Kira talk about her days in the Resistance.
  • During its first three series, The 4400 featured several distinct factions (NTAC, the 4400 Centre, the people from the future, the Nova Group, Jordan Collier and his followers, Dennis Ryland's company), all of which are shown as in some way sympathetic, with good intentions. It's not until series four that we finally see some unambiguously bad guys (The Marked, who want to stop the 4400 and bring about the apocalypse just to make sure they stay on top of the pile).
  • While Fringe often presents wholly evil villains of the week, the war between parallel universes has oodles of this trope. The person most directly responsible for starting the conflict is Walter, our loveable Mad Scientist good guy, who kidnapped his Alternate Universe counterpart's child: the subsequent actions of Walter, William Bell, Walternate and both Fringe Divisions are attempts to defend their home universes from the other side's "attacks". Neither universe is depicted as "evil" or malicious. Walternate's ruthless, but he's faced with a world that's collapsing due to Walter's actions and believes it's the result of a deliberate attack by "our" universe. Also, Walter conducted experiments on children, a line Walternate was unwilling to cross.
  • La Femme Nikita—the 1997 Canadian series, not the reboot—may not be a great show, but it did a superb job of gray vs. grey, so good that it's worth watching just for this. Everyone is compromised, no one has clean hands, the intertwined layers of greater and lesser evil get extraordinarily complex, and the hero (or anti-hero) manages to embody the trope to near perfection—despite some truly cringworthy writing and character assassination. Even the luminous, golden-haired heroine fits the trope by the middle of the first season. Signaled conveniently by the all-black dress code for most characters.
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine flirts with this at some points. In a fifth-season episode, The Darkness and the Light, someone is targeting members of Kira's former resistance cell. She finally identifies the killer a Cardassian servant disfigured in one of their bombings. He claims, persuasively, that she killed innocent people whereas he never did, such as a bomb she set taking out not only a brutal Cardassian war criminal, but his entire family too, along with anyone in the immediate vicinity, whereas he goes out of his way only to target them, and even spare the life of the unborn child she's carrying. Kira retorts that every Cardassian on Bajor, even if they just folded shirts as a servant shouldn't have been there and were guilty legitimate targets. True, she's talking with a calculating, cold-blooded killer, but it drives home that, yes, Kira was a terrorist, and from his point of view he is the "light" to her "darkness". Kira's only real reply is the old idea that the one cannot exist without the other, or as she says "the light is brightest in the dark."

Music[edit | hide]

But today there is no day or night
Today there is no dark or light
Today there is no black or white
Only shades of grey

  • A Billy Joel song with the same name as the above is about how he goes from the Black and White Morality of youth to this, while simultaneously warning of Black and White Insanity.
    • Or does he?
    • French singer Jean-Jacques Goldman titled one of his songs "Entre gris clair et gris foncé" ("Between Light Gray and Dark Gray"). Specifically, its lyrics are about the increase of ambiguous morality in fiction.

Dulled good guys, troubling bad guys
Devils aren't so black anymore
Nor whites wholly innocent


Mythology and Religion[edit | hide]

  • The Norse view of the world was pretty much entirely founded on this trope. While the Gods weren't all that bad, Odin could be an unreliable Jerkass and tended to decide men's fates on a whim. Similarly, despite their horrific nature, the Gods' enemies could be portrayed as sympathetic, especially in the case of Loki. He constantly broke rules, but on the logic that too much order would stifle creativity. The real conflict is more one of order versus chaos, although it's clear which side the audience was rooting for.
    • Or perhaps it is a case of Blue and Orange Morality to modern Christians. Norse Mythology was about man (the Æsir) and nature (jötnar and everything else). Man comes from nature and cannot exist without it (the Æsir share their origin with jötnar and often marry them), yet he has to struggle against nature if he is to survive, in particular under the harsh conditions of the north.


Tabletop Games[edit | hide]

  • While individual conflicts often have more clearly defined heroes and villains, almost every major faction in the BattleTech universe is ultimately like this, and many characters are simply soldiers and commanders doing their job for their respective cause.
  • Exalted. While the various demons, undead, and The Fair Folk are usually portrayed as antagonistic (and even then, there are exceptions), the various human and Exalted factions all have plenty of good people mixed in with the villains, selfish bastards, and crazies.
    • The only being that, no matter what point of view, is in fact, in the black side of the scale, no matter how you look at him, is the Ebon Dragon, who is pretty much the literal embodiment of dickery, evil, and opposite to all virtues. He created the Unconquered Sun, so he could have something to be the opposite of. He also invented betrayal.
      • Even then, he's still somewhat sympathetic in a pathetic way. He literally can't be anything but The Supreme Dick in all of existence. This of course raises the question of whether anything in this setting (Or even Real Life) can be said to be pure evil if you can't choose to be it, but that raises philosophical questions beyond the scope of this Wiki, so let's just leave it at that.
  • RuneQuest is the epitome of this trope, though evil exists in the form of Wakboth the Devil and its minions.
  • Dungeons & Dragons
    • Planescape. Factions aren't explicitly good or evil, they just have different motivations and can commit a variety of acts.
    • Mystara campaign Wrath of the Immortals: the two principal factions of Immortals (D&D's functional equivalent of AD&D's gods), the Ring of Fire and the Fellowship of the Star, both have good reasons for what they do, and both pursue their objectives by morally questionable means. Rad and his followers in the Fellowship of the Star are just pursuing knowledge, and are studying a magical artifact, the Nucleus of the Spheres, that has incredible powers that are unique in the universe, and might possibly be used to make the world a much better place. The problem is that the Nucleus is draining the magical energy from the world, which would, among other things, exterminate every magical race, including elves, dragons, fairies, etc., meaning several counts of genocide. To say nothing of all the other people who would die as the civilizations, most notably Alphatia, that depend on magic would collapse. So Ixion and his followers in the Ring of Fire have sound reasons to want to destroy Rad and stop anyone from using the Nucleus of the Spheres. As things develop, however, the only way to destroy Rad is to kill all his mortal followers, meaning that Ixion and his allies have to provoke a war by Alphatia against Glantri, a war which drags in Thyatis and the Heldann Freeholds as well, and which ultimately spreads to many other countries, killing millions. But neither is side really wrong. The Brotherhood of Shadow, a third group of Entropic Immortals who are just trying to prolong and exacerbate the conflict are straightforwardly evil, except that their scheming is both pretty ineffective and, even more importantly, enables the heroes to figure out the whole plot and save the world. So the good Immortals unleash a war that kills millions of innocent people, while the evil Immortals are relatively ineffective at making things worse, inadvertently save the world. Go figure.
      • Of course, the Nucleus is a problem for everyone in the first place because someone cursed it so that Sphere of Energy would be punished for using it to cheat and upset balance (the way Rad did), and never mind what happens to everyone else.
    • Jakandor, the mini-setting specifically designed for this. The main theme is conflict of Charonti wizards vs. Knorr barbarians, each having their good points... and very eager to vilify the other. It was cut mid-step, despite one book winning an award, like most things that can't be disguised as a series of 10'x10' rooms with orc and chest - that's Why We Can't Have Nice Things, etc.
  • Lesser Shades of Evil. It's in the title, people.

Theatre[edit | hide]

  • William Shakespeare's historical plays sometimes work this way. In others he rewrites history to upgrade heroes and villains to create a Black and White Morality that appeases the reigning dynasty.
  • Into the Woods uses this in relation to fairy tales; for example, Jack might be the hero, but he still killed someone's son. The point of the musical is to show that people are not good or evil, but just people.

There are rights and wrongs and inbetweens
No-one waits when fortune intervenes

Witches can be right, giants can be good.
You decide what's right, you decide what's good.
Someone is on your side.
Someone else is not.
While we're seeing our side
Maybe we forgot: they are not alone.
No one is alone.


Video Games[edit | hide]

  • Brink: The developers said they wanted to avert both La Résistance vs The Empire, and Hero Cops vs. Evil Terrorists. And Mon Dieu did they do it well! To illustrate, Chen (Resisty leader.) and Mokoena (Security leader.) are both decent people in their own way and dicks in their own way. They both have noble goals: Chen wants to send a scouting party to find land and have equal resources and rights for Guests and Founders, and Mokoena doesn't want the Ark to descend into anarchy and wants them all to work together, and is just trying to keep the ark safe. And its also made clear that the Resistance and Security have their fair share of the "I'm doing what I have to" and "total bastard" mentalities.
  • STALKER: The conflict between Freedom and Duty is this, combined with Order Versus Chaos. Duty are a faction of grizzled ex-military types who believe The Zone is an abomination that threatens the world and should be destroyed. Freedom are a group of anarchists and thrill-seekers that believe The Zone is a miracle that provides beneficial eldritch artifacts and therefore should be freely accessed by the public. Neither is especially nicer than the other, and they both have their share of dicks and nice guys.
  • The Succession Crisis in Dragon Age. The Dwarf origin stories give you some pretty clear reasons for supporting each. Commoners would want to support Bhelen because he fights to end the oppressive caste system and wants to open the country more to the outside. Nobles would want to support Harrowmont because it's their father's wishes and he's more "Traditional". You also have a personal reason for doing so, Harrowmont is a very nice guy and a Reasonable Authority Figure, as he fights hard to make sure the dwarf noble is given a fair trial. Bhelen meanwhile fights hard to get to the throne...to near sociopathic levels, as he's rightfully suspected of killing his older brother and getting his other sibling blamed for it.[1] Oh, and to keep things up, Bhelen, if chosen, becomes a dictator who leads his city into a new era of prosperity. Harrowmont meanwhile dies partly due to the stress of ruling and causes Orzammar to fall into decay while expanding its isolationist practices.
  • Just about all of Dragon Age II which manages to be even grayer than its predecessor. The mages, chantry, and qunari are ready to tear each other apart and all of them have good people and bad people or have different morals all together. All have good reasons to be pissed at the others and all have their own major flaws. It gets very difficult to see anybody as a major villain because there is really no white or black. Though all sides are closer to the black on the gray scale.
  • Daein and Crimea engage in this for most of Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn (taking it so far that you, the player, actually control a party from each country at different points, even when those two parties fight each other) before finally banding together against the unequivocally black morality of Begnion's corrupt senate.
  • The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Although the main quest is pretty much black-and-white, the politics in Vvardenfell are very clearly Gray And Gray. House Hlaalu, for example, is open-minded but corrupted, House Telvanni is honest but elitist, House Redoran is strong but xenophobic, the Empire often ranges from oppressive to a little bit too lax, the Dunmer Temple is kind and charitable but has Knights Templar (the Ordinators) and is to some degree a Corrupt Church, and the three god-kings to which it is devoted are respectively benevolent but pathologically dishonest, egotistically psychotic, and dead.
    • House Dagoth are portrayed as evil, but still remain rather gray. At most the main quest is closer to Black and Gray Morality.
    • The fifth installement, Skyrim, takes place in the middle of a civil war: the Empire, after losing a war against the Aldmeri Dominion, was forced to outlaw the worship of Talos and are generally viewed as cowards who oppress the citizens of Skyrim instead of resisting the Dominion's rule. The Stormcloak Rebellion wants an independent kingdom, but most of them are bigots who want "Skyrim for the Nords" and confine the Argonians, Khajiit and Dark Elves to slums.
      • If you manage to find a hidden report in the Aldmeri Embassy, you find out that used to support the Stormcloaks, having manipulated Ulfric Stormcloak when he was young and thus causing the current conflict. In effect, it's not in their interest for either side to win, but to draw out the civil war as long as possible, weakening the most powerful and stable province left in the Empire to the point where it'll be easy pickings for them to move in and take over. However, Ulfric has cut ties and is classified as rogue, implying that he either used the Thalmor in an attempt to get an independent Skyrim or has grown sympathetic to his own cause.
    • Daggerfall is full of this. About the only morally unambigious choice in the end-game is to aid the Underking, and then only because his goal is to finally die rather than to actually use Numidium. There are several candidates for Complete Monster, and you will aid at least one of them out of your own free will, without being fooled, over the course of the main storyline.
  • Mass Effect doesn't have a lot of easy choices. Except for many pirates and mercenaries who murder indiscriminately for money, most opponents are Well Intentioned Extremists or Obstructive Bureaucrat sorts but not really evil. Starting with Mass Effect 2, this is cranked up considerably and a large number of the team members are both nice to be around and have done lots of questionable things in their past for which they feel no regret at all.
  • When it comes to player races, World of Warcraft is surprisingly nuanced in terms of morality. Neither the Horde nor the Alliance have exclusive claims to goodness or evil, though the tauren and the draenei (one for each side, naturally, although for the tauren this is usually Gameplay and Story Segregation, as the 5% hp buff and their racial stun ability makes them very appealing to people who like PvP, and so tauren players are usually the most vicious of the lot) are both pretty much objectively good. Originally the Horde were very much their namesake trope, while the Alliance were theirs. However, the Horde redeemed itself, but both sides still have problems with each other and thus fighting between them still continues.
  • Battle for Wesnoth has this in the campaign Descent into Darkness. You control a young mage apprentice who takes up dark magic (read: animating corpses) to defend his town, and is exiled. His sister, the town guard, holy knights who show up for no reason but to piss you off in the hardest mission of the campaign all wish to have him killed. He takes revenge on them. In the end, it's mostly black versus black or black versus grey (with you playing the part of a very borderline black) but until they drop an anvil on you and have you fight endlessly repeating (and rather easy) battles against random commanders, you never genuinely know who to root for.
  • This is the theme of the Tales (series) series. Ever since Phantasia, the seemingly vilest of antagonists has at minimum a lofty goal in mind, and the most noble of protagonists is either hiding something, misguided, or aiding and abetting someone who is either hiding something or misguided.
    • Phantasia: Dhaos only wanted to revive his dying world of Derris-Kharlan using the mana seed of Aselia, but his brutal methods and refusal to explain his side until it was too late is the only thing keeping Cless and his allies from becoming Villain Protagonists.
    • Symphonia: Mithos simply wanted to save the world from its own racist self by holding back progress and running "human ranches", and everything else he does is either for this for for Martel's sake. Lloyd's actions lead to much death and destruction as he changes the system, and Mithos's fears of technological abuse is proven right, as the next 4000 years between Symphonia and Phantasia can attest to.
    • Abyss: Van only wanted to Screw Destiny and destroy the Score, the near-mindless obedience of which has caused the destruction of his native Hod. Mohs is determined to follow the Score to the letter, believing it to be the Auldrant's only path to progress. On the heroes' side, Luke is a Jerkass extraordinaire, Tear keeps to herself all the time, Guy trusts Van, Jade was once a morally-ambiguous scientist, Anise is a gold-digger with good reason, and Natalia is revealed to be an adopted commoner. The only thing that kept Luke and company with A Lighter Shade of Gray is their Character Development (especially Luke's traumatic transformation from spoiled brat to a more reasonable guy).
    • Vesperia: Alexei simply wanted to use Zaude to end the world's reliance on blastia which is slowly killing it -- unaware that it is actually the seal to an Eldritch Abomination. Yeager is an amoral mercenary who gives his earnings to an orphanage and has adopted two girls to be his sidecicks. On the heroes' side, Yuri is more than willing to stain his hands with blood in the name of justice, while Flynn believes in the power of law and order to the point of overlooking the basics of morality. As for the overarching plot, it comes down to a debate between preservation of nature at humanity's expense versus alteration of nature to suit human needs at expense of other lifeforms.
  • The war between the Messians and Gaians in Shin Megami Tensei I and Shin Megami Tensei II works a little like this, if you don't see it as Evil: the former are basically a well-meaning, Lawful Good people ruled by a group of genocidal Knights Templar, and the latter are mostly a bunch of Chaotic Evil anarchists ruled over by a few wiser demons that either want to stop the Messians from carrying out their Utopia Justifies the Means plan or wish to achieve true freedom from the oppressive reign of God. The closest thing to a compromise that you can achieve is deciding to destroy both groups.
    • In Devil Survivor, it gets even more complicated. Agree to serve God, and you bring about world peace and freedom from sin by going Knight Templar on humanity and eradicating sin. Become the King of Demons, and you lead demonkind against God, but risk the annihilation of humanity should you be defeated. Or you can give the power of Bel to humanity as a whole, leading the world into a technological revolution powered by enslaved demons, or abandon the throne and return the world to normal. So long as you make a choice and don't shirk your responsibilities, no choice is the wrong one.
  • In the first Deus Ex, while the Big Bad Corrupt Corporate Executive with A God Am I complex Bob Page is definitely evil, the ending has you choose to follow the advice of one of three opposing factions, each insisting that their plan is for the best and that the other plans have major drawbacks. And they're all, to an extent, right.
    • In the sequel, Deus Ex Invisible War, while certain factions may come across as more or less positive, all have philosophies it's possible to sympathize with, while also being somewhat morally dubious. In the end you must pick between them, with no defined "good" or "bad" choice. You can also follow your own path and kill everybody, which backfires horribly (duh).
    • The prequel, Deus Ex Human Revolution continues the tradition by asking you to side with one of three competing viewpoints regarding human augmentation and subsequently nudge the public interest in that direction... But you also get a fourth choice where you can refuse all of them and leave the world's to decide it's own fate (of course being a prequel to the first Deus Ex, the results are pretty much foregone no matter what you decide).
  • The three player factions (Humans, Mutants, and Biomeks) of Auto Assault were set up to be like this, but when you really look into it the Humans turn out to be the biggest bastards of the bunch, even if they were originally doing it to ensure their survival.
  • Command & Conquer started off with GDI as heroic good guys fighting against the evil Nod. However, later games revealed that Nod actually has reasons for fighting, and a number of the higher-ups in GDI are rather dodgy.
    • There's a major What the Hell, Player? moment in C&C 3, as if you're playing as GDI (the "good" guys), on the last mission you can choose to use a bomb that will kill hundreds of millions and destroy all of Europe. For this, the rational General who seemed like a pretty stand-up guy resigns in disgust, and the slimy politician (whose incompetence was all part of Kane's Plan) promotes you.
  • Ace Combat 5 has a war between superpowers Osea and Yuktobania at war with one another...until it becomes known that Belkans had been infiltrating high-ranking positions in the two countries, and essentially setting up the war so they'd destroy each other as vengeance for losing the last one. By the end, both superpowers team up and collectively beat the tar out of the interlopers.
    • For Ace Combat Zero, while the Belkans do not seem to have overt good going for them, Cipher can slide along the scale of greyness depending on how many crippled or civilian targets he goes after. A World With No Boundaries are well intentioned extremists who seek to bring about a One World Order and eliminate the political boundaries that lead to fighting... It's a pity they have to use a nuke to do so.
  • Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri isn't so much about "being neutral" as about "being way too worried about surviving in this Death World of mind raping worms and deadly fungi." However, the playable factions in the game run through the entire gamut of Character Alignment; according to those pages, the dominant alignment is True Neutral (with a total of 4 factions), and frequent references are made to factions being forced to forget morality when it comes to survival, despite the character being a good governor and caring about their people.
    • Attempting to lump any of those factions into anything resembling an alignment has more to do with the player's agreement with that faction's rhetoric than actual in-game observation. Example: Lady Deirdre Sky and the (supposedly) peace-loving tree huggers actually breeding and using said mind-raping worms as a military, or Chairman Yang really just promoting social harmony. Once you've played a game where Brother Lal (leader of the so-called "Pacifist" faction) or Lady Deirdre are that game's evil empire who starts dropping planet busters on you when you start picking apart their faction (a war which almost invariably occurs because -they- declared war on you for not giving in to their extortion demands), you begin to understand that Alpha Centauri truly does live this trope.
  • The Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic games break away from the typical Black and White Morality of the Force, especially in the second game, leading to plenty of Alternate Character Interpretation. On one hand, the Jedi, while trying to do the right thing, have a well-deserved reputation for being manipulative, closed-minded, and paralyzed with indecision in the face of crisis so soon after the previous one where they made a lot of mistakes. On the other, the Sith were led by a man who Jumped At the Call to protect the innocent, then (according to one untrustworthy source) "sacrificed himself" to the Dark Side and launched his own invasion as part of a master plan to provoke the Republic into preparing for some of the really evil things out there.
  • The Fable series plays with this Trope, especially with the character of Therese. Played straight with Lucien in the third game who, like Revan, became a vicious tyrant merely because he wanted to strength his country to fight The Creeper.
  • Depending on how you count, there have been between 7 and 12 playable factions in the five Geneforge games. All except Rawal and the Barzites can make a decent argument for themselves, and all except arguably the Awakened have Kicked The Dog at least once.
  • Xenosaga explicitly invokes this trope. Both The Federation and the Corrupt Church have a significant amount of innocent blood on their hands. Shion and Co. are frankly little different than Margulis' crew, all the Testaments believe they are bringing about a perfect universe for humanity, and the Big Bad Wilhelm manipulates all of history into a Stable Time Loop in order to keep the universe from dissipating entirely.
  • The companies Reliable Excavation and Demolition and Builder's League United in Team Fortress 2 are an interesting case - the motives and morality of both sides are identical. It isn't grey-on-grey, though because the motives and morality of both sides seem to be "World Domination", and "In The Gutter", respectively, making it black-on-black.
    • Considering the Evil Overlady announcer voice is identical for both sides, there is the potential possibility that both teams are working for the same boss. Which really starts messing with your head if you think about it too much.
    • The official tie in comics have confirmed that this is in fact the case.
  • In the Fallout 3 DLC, The Pitt, the two factions the Lone Wanderer encounters fit this trope. Wernher, the leader of the slave rebellion, wants to steal the cure to the mutations that ravage The Pitt to use it as a bargaining chip for the freedom of the slaves. Ashur, the ruler of the Pitt, considers his Raider army and slave-based workforce necessary evils that have given The Pitt safety and industrial power beyond compare; he hopes to use the cure to heal the inhabitants of the Pitt and allow them to have healthy children again, meaning they would no longer need slave labor because they would have a homegrown workforce. The player can side with either faction.
    • The reason for Ashur's taking his sweet time working on the cure? It's his daughter, who was born with a immunity to the radiation.
    • Also the Enclave, who changed a bunch of genocidal Nazis from the old Fallout games into far more well intentioned and far less extremist organization which at worst plans to kill hundreds of super-mutants and raiders by sacrificing a handful of scavengers and, given the amount of in-fighting and opposition to the 'final solution', the members of the Enclave only generally agree that the Wasteland sucks and order ought to be brought back under a unified government.Does the game ever actually explore any of this? Of course not.
      • But the game hints us that only those who grew up in The Vaults and Enclave members are unaffected by the HEV probe, thus innocent and even good hearted ghouls and people who grew up in the Wasteland (who present slight mutations) will be needlessly wiped out. Leaving the Government personnel and the Vault dwellers to rule the wasteland. So, if anything, I'd say the Enclave's actions are of a darker shade of grey. Broken Steel confirms something even worse: anyone who has ever been outside a vault in their life dies from the mutated FEV strain.
    • Also in Fallout: New Vegas the conflict between the New California Republic, Caesar's Legion and Mr.House is promised to be this. The NCR is supposed to be The Federation which is expanding too fast and can't properly feed or protects its country or its inhabitants, Caesar's Legion is a ruthless, but effective organization that provides absolute safety, limiting true freedom to only strong human males, and business tycoon Mr. House fell JUST short of completely protecting the Vegas area before the bombs fell and wants to protect and rebuild Vegas to its former glory, but idealizes a sterile vision of the Old World and demands large amounts of payment. To make it even more grey and gray karma will not be the main change that occurs due to your interactions between the three factions, instead it will be your reputation. Of course, there's also the option of siding with none of the groups...
  • The Suikoden series, most notably Suikoden II is praised for this trope, presenting the characters as humans in a compromising situation, instead of personifications of good or evil. It is very rare to find a hero who is completely morally sound (except possibly the main characters), yet it is also rare to find a villain who is purely and irredeemably evil (...except Luca Blight). While this keeps the stories from becoming too simple or cliche, it also gives an interesting human perspective to the bizarre and often supernatural happenings that occur.
  • In Yggdra Union, every major army is neither perfectly good or perfectly evil—even the bandits are just taking advantage of others to survive, the character who engineered the constant wars is a Well-Intentioned Extremist Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds, and the society that broke him so happens to be a bunch of Knight Templars being manipulated by a Villain with Good Publicity. The Royal Army, despite being the heroes, are not exempt from this—they commit several atrocities over the course of the game, just to hammer home the point that War Is Hell.
  • Sigma Star Saga has this in spades: you, the heroic human character, are ordered to do some pretty horrible things by your superior, while the Krill, supposedly aliens hell-bent on Earth's destruction, are actually pretty decent people (with a few glaring exceptions) who harbor no particular ill will towards Earth at all. Turns out that there's a couple of Government Conspiracies on both sides of the conflict who are the truly evil ones, and the vast majority of both humans and Krill are good.
  • Ar tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica is a great example. Despite the fact that almost every character holds the same moral stance from beginning to end, pretty much every antagonist in the game will be considered a valuable ally at some point and nearly every ally gets a respectable stint as an antagonist. Even The Hero is arguably a Well-Intentioned Extremist, and the closest character to true evil is a foreigner trying to save his homeland.
  • Halo probably qualifies:
    • The UNSC is fundamentally benevolent, but somewhat heavy-handed with its colonies, and willing to resort to questionable methods for survival.
    • The Insurrectionists had legitimate grievances with the UNSC's aforementioned heavy-handedness, but extremist elements pushed them towards terrorism.
    • The Covenant's ruling caste is highly corrupt (and in some cases, possibly borderline insane), and the Brutes are aggressive and violent by nature, but the rest are either misguided by religious fervor, expendable slaves for all intents and purposes, otherwise coerced into serving the Covenant, or simply mercenaries with no real grudge against humans.
    • The Forerunners genuinely wished to protect the galaxy and its inhabitants, but they grew complacent because of their extremely advanced technology, and when the Flood came knocking, they could only fulfill their duty as Guardians of the younger species of the galaxy by taking the Flood with themselves in a desperate last resort plan—which could be interpreted as a Heroic Sacrifice or the cost of their foolishness, depending on how idealistic/cynical one is.
    • The Flood had killed and infected trillions of people, but their leading hive mind, Gravemind, sincerely believes that he simply bring peace and prosperity to a galaxy which simply doesn't understand the Flood due to ignorance and fear.
  • Der Langrisser definitely falls into this trope. No matter what side you choose you'll end up fighting for peace while doing awful things in the way. There's no possible path that spares you the dramatic scene and the guilt of killing someone decent. You kill Vargas, who's just had a little daughter, and get to watch Leon tell his wife the sad news in the Light path, and you slaughter Scott and his father, in a rather cruel fashion in all others.
  • In Dynasty Warriors, Wei might look like the Designated Villain. However, Cao Cao himself is just merely a pragmatist Magnificent Bastard. In the meantime, while Shu Kingdom is the Designated Hero, Liu Bei has personally done some things worth being called out, such as taking over his kingdom from his relative Liu Zhang for 'destiny', and his reckless assault on Yi Ling. The Wu Kingdom themselves can be also seen as an 'opportunist' who takes advantage of the chaos to do as they like. Aside of all those, each kingdoms have their own sympathetic characters. Even Zhang Jiao comes off pretty sympathetic and his ending had him true to his words and made a peaceful nation with his Way Of Peace. Hell, the only Obviously Evil character is just Dong Zhuo.
    • In the fourth game Dong Zhou has his own campaign which shows things from his perspective; he is the legal Emperor and the protagonist factions are merely opportunists looking to snatch up pieces of the crumbling Han Empire.
    • This could almost be a Trope Namer. While there have been numerous changes in the overall tone of the story over the course of the series, one thing has remained constant: NONE of the factions is a whole lot better than ANY of the others. (The only one who's a whole lot worse is Dong Zhuo, and even that doesn't become too blatant until 5.) The Empires games take it a step further; you start out dead-center neutral with whoever you play as, and it's entirely up to you how good or evil your reign is. Of course, part of the reason is that, historically, none of the great powers succeeded in unifying China (that would be some 11th-hour Jin Dynasty opportunist named Sima Yan), so it's impossible to say who the "hero" or "villain" really was. It might be a subversion (or accurate) of how Wei and Shu were portrayed in Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
  • In Samurai Warriors, especially the second title, the focus is about the battle of Sekigahara. Those who side with Ishida Mitsunari will probably see him as a Jerkass who snarks a lot and is being redeemed with the values of friendship and honor; and see Tokugawa Ieyasu as a Fat Bastard who is stealing the throne of Japan while it rightfully belongs to Toyotomi Hideyori. However, those who sides with the Tokugawa know that Ieyasu is instead a 'Fat Gentleman', and he puts a lot of care to his fellow officers and people, condemning the West (especially Mitsunari's ally Kanetsugu) of using pretty words like 'honor and justice' to do underhanded things and robbing the freedom of the people. In fact, Samurai Warriors is much grayer than Dynasty Warriors, the closest we can get of Obviously Evil is Fuuma Kotarou, and even he's still grayer than Dong Zhuo.
  • Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater uses this as its main theme. Naked Snake is fighting in Soviet territory and nobody is really on the side they seem to be on. Betrayals, double-crossing etc. are rife. The Boss explains to Snake that there is no such thing as an absolute enemy. Wars simply happen because of circumstance as leaders and situations change: soldiers are just pawns to this. Then of course Naked Snake becomes Big Boss and forms the La-Li-Lu-Le-Lo and eventually Outer Heaven. His support team, who seem kindly allies end up crooked, with the loquacious Dr. Clark performing sick experiments on Gray Fox and the tea-drinking Brit Major Zero becoming the mastermind of the La-Li-Lu-Le-Lo.
    • MGS4 further drives the point home when one realizes that the Beauty & Beast Corps are war-scarred women outfitted with advanced nanotechnology and Liquid Ocelot is Good All Along (relatively), is actually the Ocelot from MGS3 pretending to have assimilated Liquid Snake's personality, and is stopping the Patriots' plans. On the good guys' side, Roy Campbell's marriage to Raiden's wife Rosemary was a facade meant to protect her and their supposedly-miscarried son Little John from the Patriots while Raiden is out fighting, and Rat Patrol 01 is the Patriots' Unwitting Pawns -- their acronym ("RAT PT 01") can even be rearranged to spell "PATR10T" -- who are meant to eliminate Ocelot before he foils their plans -- they simply never expected Old Snake to destroy more than just Ocelot. It also turns out that the black-morality Solid Snake-era Patriots are nothing more but a faulty AI system developed by Zero long after he lost faith in humanity following Big Boss's departure, which deviated from the vision of Big Boss, Zero, SIGINT, Para-Medic, EVA and Ocelot -- the original Patriots -- and built an economy based on warfare, with Zero blissfully unaware (not to mention conveniently catatonic) of what he had wrought.
  • Ditto for the Legacy of Kain series. By the time Defiance rolls around, you're never really sure who's supposed to be the good guy and who the bad guy.
    • The Hylden have a single redeeming feature? Or are we just talking about freakish abominations not imprisoned in another universe?
      • Easy to believe that they were the victims until you realize that their genocide machine was in development before they got banished.
  • In Way of the Samurai, the player is often offered a spot on each and every side of whatever conflict happens to be occurring in the area he's found him/herself in.
    • In the first game, the choices given are to help the Kurou family, who, while admittedly driving an entire town out of their homes in order to sell the land to the government, are really only doing so to ensure their clan's future stability and who generally care about one another; the Akadama group, who are trying to overthrow the government to restore a caste system they pretty much know nothing about and who have no problem kidnapping and extorting to try and get their way, but who are bound by ties of honor and friendship and really are quite noble; and the remaining townsfolk, who are simply trying to survive, but who are willing to stoop to theft and opposition of government officials to achieve said goal. The only truly evil characters in the game are general Tamagawa, who has Chronic Backstabbing Disorder, and his ninja subordinate Hyuuma, who is pretty much just a jerk because he can be.
    • The second has even more moral ambiguity. We're given the choice between the Aotou Gang, who are run by an Obviously Evil Jerkass but whose rank and file are shown to be likable fellows who are easily swayed; the town magistrates, who act like Knights Templar, but truly love their town; and the town militia, who are the working stiffs just trying to live their lives, but who are also involved with prostitution and minor drug dealing.
      • On the other hand, Kyojiro Kagenuma really IS as insane and just plain evil as she appears to be. That she has her own ending (and it's a major Kick the Dog one) is telltale.
  • Final Fantasy XII. To elaborate, on the villain's side we have the machivellian, Affably Evil Prince who wants to become the emperor and restore order to the empire, the Well-Intentioned Extremist Mad Scientist who's working with his demigod Spirit Advisor to overthrow the Jerkass Gods, the Judges who bar one are well-intentioned tools devoted to protecting to law, and the Emperor himself who is trying to keep the Senate from turning his youngest son into a puppet heir while preventing the empire from collapsing into civil war. On the good guys side we have a vengeful, stubborn princess who will stop at nothing (including genocide) to regain her kingdom and pay back the empire for her dead husband, and who nearly becomes the willing puppet of the aforementioned Jerkass Gods to achieve this, a pair of sky pirates who are just in it for the treasure (and one of them knows exactly what the princess is trying to do and where it would lead), an old soldier who's willing to do anything to protect the princess, and finally two slightly naive teenagers, one of whom is a petty thief. In between this lot we have a Marquis-cum-Resistance leader who plays permanent double agent and who's loyalties depend on who is winning, a Rebel general who's willing to sell out his own princess if it means his country will be restored even if it's in name only, an ex-Judge who destroyed an entire city and now resorts to piracy to make up for his sins, and an imperial prince who is caught between caution and preemptive assault in the protection of his nation. The only good character is really the youngest prince, and he suffers from a bad case of naivety and idealism.
  • The Assassin's Creed series makes this very clear. While the Assassins are made out to be selfless shadow figure heroes of the people and the Templars the evildoers of the world, it would be more accurate to say both parties seek for a world of peace and prosperity, they just apply different methods.
  • City of Heroes new expansion, Going Rogue, runs on this.
    • On one side is Emperor Cole (a.k.a. Tyrant) and his underlings whose philosophy is something like, "Order at any cost." If the player joins the Loyalists, he can then use the power of the Praetorian Empire to either protect its citizens or advance his personal power.
    • On the other side is the underground Resistance whose creed is "Freedom at any cost." If the player joins them, he can either work to free the people of Praetoria or can act as agent of chaos.
  • Infinite Space has several instances of this, although nothing in the game tops the long-running conflict between Kalymnos and Nova Nacio. This is especially apparent during the Irvest Sector War, with the so-called People Committee of Kalymnos attempts to obliterate the residents of an entire planet owned by Nova Nacio by crashing its satellite to win the war, while Nova Nacio has been secretly developing a very powerful weapon on the same planet under the cover of colonization project.
  • Auto Assault had this as it's background: each of the three playable factions has good reasons to be fighting the other two.
  • During the stealth tutorial for Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Sam Fisher lampshades this trope:

Enemy soldiers? They're not my enemy; they're just doing their jobs. Light is the real enemy.

  • Final Fantasy Tactics. In the beginning, two princes are fighting each other for the throne. Since it is basically the War of the Roses in the form of Final Fantasy, neither side is really good. Later in the game it becomes more like Black and Gray Morality once the Church and Delita start playing more significant roles in the war. Delita, while ultimately a hero that saves the kingdom from falling into utter chaos, still uses any and every Machiavellian method available to him in order to accomplish his goals. The Church is basically controlled by Satan. The only white to be found is Ramza and his fate is to become a footnote in history.
  • Used heavily in the Golden Sun games, though it doesn't quite become apparent until The Lost Age, where all the antagonists of The Broken Seal are revealed to have been working for good ends, and trying to defy a system that if left in place will result in the decline and ultimate end of the world of Weyard, but whose supporters (rightly) fear the abuse of Alchemy unleashed.
  • In Rift, you've got the oh-so-devout Guardians versus the innovative and self-reliant Defiants, trying to thwart each other at every turn. Both sides have skeletons in their closets, both sides are ostensibly trying to hold off The End of the World as We Know It, and it's even difficult to point out either side as the darker or lighter gray.
  • Wings portrays the Allied perspective on WW1 if you play as them, or the German perspective if you play as them, but doesn't seem to take sides overall.
  • None of the three main factions in Sins of a Solar Empire can be considered truly good or bad. The Trade Emergency Coalition appear to be just Technical Pacifists trying to fight off the "evil" Vasari and the vengeful Advent, but the reason the Advent are vengeful is because the traders exiled them from their homeworld 1000 years before for having different ideas about social norms. The Advent may have legitimate grievances against the traders, except the ones who actually exiled them died a long time ago, so they're trying to punish people who didn't do anything to them. The Vasari used to be a vast empire and still follow similar policies in terms of enslavement and locking down colonies, but they're just the remains from a single colony that have been fleeing an unknown enemy that has destroyed the rest of the empire for tens of thousands of years and are conquering trader worlds only to get enough resources to be able to continue their flight.
    • All three sides engage in a total war against their enemies, nuking planets from orbit until everyone is dead.
  • All of the major organizations in Lusternia. Despite their underlying themes, they are only as good or evil as the individual characters that dwell there. The city with all the trappings of a Lawful Good federation has zealot Knight Templars galore: the city with all the trappings of a Lawful Evil empire has mutated, undead family men and pacifists among their Nazi-inspired troopers.
  • Might and Magic VIII is full of this: it features a Big Bad whose only reason for being that is that he can't stop once he has started (no matter how much he wants to),[2] a conflict between dragon hunters out for profit and xenophobic dragons that see nothing wrong with eating other sentients, and a war between the Necromancers' Guild of Jadame (who, in the modern day of the game, are a fairly laid-back bunch, mostly wanting to keep to themselves) and the Church of the Sun (who came to Jadame to wage war on Necromancers without provocation, and are somewhat corrupt and self-serving).
  • In Avadon, both Redbeard and the Duke have both positive and negative traits that can make it hard to decide who to side with.
  • In Dark Souls, the central conflict in the game is extremely lacking in details, but what details we do know ultimately make it an example of this.
  • PlanetSide. Three factions endlessly fighting over a tiny ball of rock god-know-where chuck full of alien technology, using respawning technology to keep the war going. The Terran Republic established a thousand years of peace on Earth - while sacrificing freedom. The New Conglomerate rebelled for more personal freedom, but they are backed by by large corporations and mercenaries). The Vanu Sovereignty wants to uplift humanity to the status of the ancient Vanu - but possibly at the cost of your identity and freedom.
  • NieR follows this nicely, with all sides being ruthless but having legitimate reasons for why they do what they do. Nier himself wants to save his daughter but dooms humanity in the process, Devola and Popola want to complete the Gestalt Project and save humanity, and the Shadowlord wants to save his daughter, and his existence was the thing that kept the last remnants of humanity (the Shades) sane.
    • The sequel, NieR: Automata, has also this. Both Androids and Machine Lifeforms are stuck in a war with no end in sight, being manipulated into fighting each other to give them a reason to exist after humanity's extinction. The Machines have been shown to experience emotions and how they live with them, being either completely pacifistic (Pascal and his village) or hostile but with legitimate and borderline tragic motivations (Simone/Beauvoir and Eve). By contrast, the Androids are shown to be incredibly racist towards them and have the same capacity to be antagonistic as the Machines, as evident by 9S's Sanity Slippage. Finally, the final conflict is between the two remaining protagonists, A2 and 9S, who each act out of love and respect for 2B and a desire to end the vicious cycle they're trapped in, with A2 being A Lighter Shade of Grey due to her wanting to protect everyone (including 9S himself) to fulfill 2B's final request; and 9S wanting to destroy everything out of sheer despair over 2B's death and the Awful Truth about their mission.

Web Comics[edit | hide]

  • Last Res0rt, with several condemned criminals in its ranks, usually sits firmly here; while most of the characters involved are criminals (and even some of the volunteers are only a couple notches above 'em), it's only when Arikos, Geisha, or the Celeste get involved that the comic slips into Black and Grey Morality.
  • Angels 2200 does not go into the causes behind the colonies' revolt against earth, and both sides are composed of leaders who use morally dubious tactics in order to win and soldiers who only want to stay alive. Then again, depending on what the true origin of the genetic plague is, one of the sides might count as black.
  • Word of God claims that this is the case in Drowtales, where the story is shown through several viewpoint characters, neither being portrayed as good/evil and with fairly realistic motivations for their actions.
  • In the very Not Safe for Work webcomic Felarya, man - eating monsters are depicted as no worse than the humans they eat.
  • The conflict between Agatha and Klaus in Girl Genius. Klaus has every reason to want to keep Agatha locked up until she's proven trustworthy, and (given recent events) can make a pretty good case for killing her with fire. On the other hand, Agatha really hasn't done much to deserve that (yet), aside from getting the Big Bad stuck in her head, and she's got every right to fight back (particularly when her friends get caught in the crossfire). Not forgetting Othar, who is killing off sparks. He's deluded, but considering some spark's creations he's kinda right.
  • The main conflict in Juathuur is between control and freedom. Both sides have their reasons, and their differences are mainly due to age gaps (as the 'control' side grew up in a world torn by war, and the 'freedom' side did not). See the comic page for details.
  • The main characters of Narbonic are a mad scientist, her henchwoman who loves to destroy things, her henchman with a deep dark secret not even he knows, and a superintelligent gerbil whose efforts to do good often cause more havoc and chaos than some of the evil plans afoot.
  • In Sinfest, this appears, rather more literally, to Seymour's horror.
  • The Kingfisher: Both Theodore and his sworn enemies - the vampire progenitors - are uncanny, manipulative, and monstrous. It's telling that the protagonist has not committed to a side.


Web Original[edit | hide]

  • The online book Imperial Dawn is centered around a war between those who support democracy, and those who are moving towards an arguably better new government system. Neither side is presented as wholly good nor bad.
  • There Will Be Brawl: There is no good or evil. The 'good guys' are drug dealers, strippers, or Fallen Heroes, the 'bad guys' actually have a plan to improve the quality of life in the Mushroom Kingdom, and the cops are corrupt and trying to usurp the throne. The only one with a clear designation is Kirby...who is a psychotic cannibal, a la Hannibal Lecter.
    • There's also Red, the only character who is truely good. Which makes it all the more sad (and fitting) when he dies by Pikmin bomb
  • Red vs. Blue. The default characterization seems to be 'incompetent jerk', with variations lying mostly in the type and degree of incompetence and/or jerkassery.
  • Dark Dream Chronicle. One side has the Laughing Clown and Darkness as two of its primary members. The other is trying to warp humanity for their Cause and are more than willing to use violence to get there. Oh, and it's led by the Slender Man.
  • "Champions of Meridell" in Neopets is the first war between Meridell and the Darigan Citadel, after the greedy king Skarl stole the orb of prosperity from the originally Perfect Pacifist People of Darigan for his own glory and power, causing them much misery and pain and mutating them into vengeful monsters who try to destroy Meridell. There are both good and evil in both sides, with the heroic Jeran serving the villainous Skarl, and the anti-villain Darigan seeking to return the orb to his people.
  • In Pokegirls, humankind survives entirely due to a system of raping and brainwashing the eponymous female subspecies... which are themselves notorious for rape and murder.
  • Equestria Chronicles takes place in a cold civil war setting. Nuff said.
  • While Doug's writings of the anniversaries are a bit blacker, The Nostalgia Critic's show runs on this. Critic's a Psychopathic Manchild but tries to be a decent human being, Sage-as-Satan is much less scary than he is as his normal self in other series, Big Good Santa Christ can hold a mean grudge and even major troll Douchey manages to show a bit of heart when he feels pity for Critic at the end of the third fuck-up list.


Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • Justice League Unlimited: For the Cadmus Story Arc, Cadmus is presented as rather dodgy, but with legitimate fears about the dangers of superheroes. The heroes, meanwhile, had a habit of putting the good of their own members ahead of that of unpowered individuals most at risk of supervillains.
  • Exo Squad. The Neosapiens do perform atrocities and Phaeton is pretty much a Card-Carrying Villain but they are responding to being essentially slaves whose earlier, more moderate attempt to gain civil rights was stomped on. The Space Pirates are more chaotic than evil and are motivated by a combination of survival and having been screwed over themselves in the past.
    • If you like to know the background for the Space Pirates they were a prison labor force that were abandoned once the Neo Sapiens were made and were driven crazy by their secret homeworld Chaos.
  • Tom and Jerry. Though Tom is usually the Designated Villain, you can't overlook the fact that Jerry is extremely sadistic, and sometimes isn't even provoked. But that still doesn't excuse Tom, who often brings his punishment upon himself, and at the beginning of the majority of the episodes is bullying Jerry. At times its hard to tell who the victim is; sometimes its neither of them.
  • The Jet/Zuko conflict in the later half of season 2 of Avatar: The Last Airbender, since both are former villains seemingly on the road to redemption, there's really no way to give one moral superiority. However, since Jet was the aggressor, and the show had spent most of the season building up Zuko's eventual Heel Face Turn, he came off as more in the right.
    • On the other end of the spectrum, the Fire Nation wasn't portrayed as entirely evil. There were plenty of nice people, even many who actively helped out the heroes. Iroh was always shown as benign, and even when Zuko was a villain, he was always very sympathetic. Mei and Ty Lee were only aiding Azula because they feared her, and had some feelings of friendship for her that they eventually realized she wasn't going to return. Even by the end, Ozai was really the only villain to be shown in "black" morality, with Azula clearly having issues and having a mental breakdown by the end.
  • Ed, Edd 'n' Eddy is chock full of this. The kids are cruel with the Eds; but they usually try to scam them for money, so who is the "good" guy or the "bad" guy actually depends on the episode. However, the series change into Black and Gray Morality when Eddy's Brother shows up.
  • Daria: Despite some of the shallow natures and flaws of characters, few characters are truly malicious and at some points prove to be decent people (such as DeMartino and Britney). Daria, while mostly moral, can often become petty and cold towards others.

Real Life[edit | hide]

The concept of portraying evil and then destroying it - I know this is considered mainstream, but I think it is rotten. This idea that whenever something evil happens someone particular can be blamed and punished for it, in life and in politics is hopeless.

    • Though Studio Gibli films usually tend a bit more towards White and Grey Morality, this is generally true. Princess Mononoke is one of the best examples (with the two sides having both good and bad qualities), and Spirited Away protagonist Chiho is prone to the fallibilities of being a child rather than a perfect angel. It's nonetheless worth noting that Miyazaki's earlier films were more Black and White Morality, so retroactively even the writer developed a better understanding of this trope's existence.
  • Pretty much any conflict in reality can be boiled down to this - everyone has their own motivations for their acts. Among the most notable being:
    • The English Civil War. On the one hand you've got the Roundheads, democratic (for the times) Parliamentarians led by elected MPs, who also believed in forcing their own brand of repressive Puritanism down Britain's (or rather England, Scotland, and Ireland's) collective throat; and on the other, the Cavaliers, a group of cheerful, fun-loving, relatively liberal unelected nobles, lead by Charles I, who believed he had a God-given right to randomly declare war on other European nations, and demand massive tax revenues to pay for them, with no legal obstacles whatever. They were both fairly dark shades of grey.
    • The war between the Spanish and Aztecs; both sides had strengths but also had abominable elements. One recurring theme with Native American history is that the natives are always portrayed as peace-loving pacifists who were just fighting back...however, with the war between the Spanish and the Aztec, over twice the army conquering the Aztecs were in fact natives (Especially the Tlxcalans) who sided with the Spanish. The Aztecs weren't exactly popular. Likewise, a moral strength of Spain that tends to get glossed over is the fact that Cortes had wanted to maintain the social structure of the empire, and had he gotten his way, the Aztecs basically would have been Spanish Citizens.
      • Likewise, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan after The Great Politics Mess-Up, which quickly turned ugly for both sides with ethnic massacres all around, and was started thanks to Joseph Stalin some 50 years prior when he gave a mostly Armenian-populated province to the Azerbaijani SSR. The fact that the conflict has been frozen and unsolved since 1994 has just given time for the hatred between the two countries to fester.
    • While the American Civil War is often thought of as a war over slavery, the north's passing laws favoring the industrialized north while harming the agricultural south and how several Union states kept slavery are glossed over in these retellings. President Calvin Coolidge remarked on this at a speech in Arlington, noting the Northerners would never take up arms for the abolition of slavery and the southerners, most of whom did not own slaves, would not have fought in such large numbers to protect the practice saying that "The South stood for the principle of the sovereignty of the States. The North stood for the principle of the supremacy of the Union.".
    • World War I is generally seen as a premiere example of this as in contrast to the sequel 20 years later, which could be considered a case of Black and Gray Morality.


  1. The noble even has a chance to call him out on this, during which he has almost no remorse for it unless you compliment him and say he was better at playing the game
  2. He was programmed that way as a security measure, to keep the Kreegans from subverting him