What You Are in the Dark

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Sometimes you surprise yourself.

Character is what you are in the dark.

—Attributed to Dwight L. Moody (American Evangelist, 1837-1899)

The Hero is alone, except, perhaps, for the villain. No one whose opinion he cares about—possibly no one at all—will ever know what he does next, and he knows it. And there is perhaps a useful but corrupt act that he could commit, reaping the benefit without anyone ever knowing. If he does not do it, the consequences can be severe, even deadly. If the villain is there, he is urging the hero to do it, which possibly involves cleaning up any possible witnesses. Very likely, he is at his Darkest Hour, even on the verge of the Despair Event Horizon.

The Stock Phrase is "No one will ever know." It can taunt him with the futility of his heroism (perhaps even telling him that he will die alone, unmourned, with no one attending his funeral, unremembered), or tempt him with the rewards of villainy, even telling him that the heroic act will be interpreted as villainy, and vice versa. A more foolish and friendly villain may urge it's Not Cheating Unless You Get Caught.

What happens next?

Well, the audience finds out whether he really is The Hero.

Usually he is, because doing the right thing in the face of great temptation is a mark of great heroism, whereas doing the wrong is not a mark of great villainy. On the contrary—see Kick the Dog. When the wrong path is taken, this is usually the Start of Darkness, to lead to more impressively villainous acts. Occasionally, it is to prove Can't Get Away with Nuthin': a character loots a corpse, only to discover it can be identified.

Particularly hard for the Glory Seeker. May prove to be a Secret Test of Character. May also prove a great shock to a villain who was convinced she was a Slave to PR and Not So Different.

If a Villain is urging that no one will ever know, three responses are possible, depending on the hero's character:

  1. "I'll know." (The hero can't live with himself if he fails this test)
  2. "God/Heaven/the gods/[my dead parent/friend/mentor] will know." (The hero doesn't feel he's really in the dark.)
  3. "You'll know." (Vaguely anti-heroic: the hero can't live with the thought of his enemy winning in any way.)

This can apply in cases where the credit will quickly be misappropriated, as when working for the Glory Hound, or when a Fake Ultimate Hero is present.

The usual Aesop of this trope revolves around the idea that anyone can do the right thing when all the attention is placed on them and there's nothing to lose, but it takes real strength of character—and heroism—to do the heroic thing when no one is watching and it is inconvenient to do so.

Super-Trope of Silent Scapegoat. Antonym of Photo Op with the Dog. Compare Dude, Where's My Reward?, In Vino Veritas, Strike Me Down with All of Your Hatred. See also The Greatest Story Never Told and Zero-Approval Gambit. See Shoot the Dog for when there are arguments for the morality of both actions. See Jerkass Facade for when a Jerkass turns out to be a nice person on the inside. May involve The Corrupter. This test of character always reveals what is Beneath the Mask. Contrast with Not Cheating Unless You Get Caught.

If you are looking for the blog by the same title that is part of The Slender Man Mythos, go here.

Examples of What You Are in the Dark include:

Anime and Manga

  • Used during the collective Mind Rape scene in the Cyborg 009 2001 series.
  • Angel Beats!: Yuri in the computer room, when she finds out that she can become 'God', denies the power. Made all the more powerful when you remember that her objective all along was to find 'God' to defeat him.
  • Everyone knows that Zoro from One Piece is one of the main good guys and despite him not showing it as often, he does look after the crew. The end of Thriller Park shows exactly what kind of lengths he would go for them, as he fully intended to sacrifice himself as part of the deal to Kuma to spare the others.
    • Usopp's fights also tend to be examples of this. Especially his first real battle of the series. His opponent Choo is his physical superior in every conceivable way, and Usopp survives his first encounter by playing dead. As he starts covering himself in dirt to make his excuse for letting Choo leave more believable, he realizes he doesn't want to be a coward and a liar, stands up to Choo while scared to death, and actually comes out on top and wins.
  • In Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Batou corners a serial killer he had been chasing in order to exact revenge on him for slaughtering a village full of innocent people. He has the opportunity to kill him without anybody asking questions (in fact, the CIA agents working with him were banking on this to happen). However, Batou reminds the killer (and himself) that that's no longer his job and promptly arrests him.
  • Arguably the defining moment of End of Evangelion: Shinji Ikari has the choice of returning to life (and allowing others to do the same) or dooming humanity to an eternity as a single non-sentient organism. Nobody would EVER know if he chose to die. Nobody would judge him for it. The decision was his and his alone. He proved, for possibly the only time in the series, that he truly was the hero by deciding to return to life, even though it would be painful and lonely. Granted, there's no "villain" urging him to let humanity die, but it's his internal conflict.
  • In Planetes, Tonabe is on the moon with no air left in her suit, and an unconscious terrorist with a full tank of oxygen at her feet. She is tempted to let the terrorist die and steal the air for herself. But in the end she realizes she can't, and lets herself begin to choke to death.

Comic Books

  • In 52, Renee Montoya employs a literal version of this trope when she finds herself listless and unguided after the death of the Question. She undergoes a ritualistic trial while sealed within a cave, trapped in total blackness for days, confronting who she is and what she wants out of life, until she finally lights a single match and gazes at her true reflection. What does she see? Good question.
  • In Sonic the Comic Tails was given a chance to shoot Robotnik from a building, looking down on Robotnik's parade. The unicorn who gives him this chance tempts him by saying that Mobius will be free if Tails pulls the trigger. Of course, he doesn't go through with it. Turns out the whole thing was an illusion set up by the unicorn as a Secret Test of Character.
  • This happens in Superman/Batman of all places, with Batman as the tempter. When both heroes confront then-president of the United States, Lex Luthor, over a bounty he placed on Superman's head, blaming Luthor for an incoming meteor about to hit the earth, and the beating he just gave to their respective proteges, Superman has been pushed so far he is ready to fry Luthor, who actually dares him to do it since he doesn't believe he will go that far. That is, until Batman shows up and quite calmly tells Superman he [Batman] won't stop him, and that they can just make it look like an accident or "better yet, as if he'd vanished without a trace." It is at this point that Luthor starts sweating cold. Needless to say, Superman doesn't kill him and settles for throwing him against the wall before leaving to stop the meteor. Which was what Batman probably knew would happen all along. Probably.
    • A similar moment happens in a DCAU finale. After Flash defeats Lexiac and vanishes into the speed force, Luthor taunts the heroes that he did kill him after all. Superman picks him up by the neck and readies the laser vision. Wonder Woman starts to rush forward, but Batman holds her off.

Superman: I'm not the man who killed President Luthor. Right now I wish to Heaven that I was, but I'm not.

    • That was definitely a Batman Gambit. Superman had been struggling throughout the arc with the actions of his alternate universe counterpart. Batman wanted to give Superman the chance to affirm his character. With the opportunity, Supes shows just how strong he truly is.
  • In one of the Batman: The Animated Series based comics (during the The New Adventures period), a multi-millionaire philanthropist places a million dollar bounty for the Joker's head (dead or alive, but preferably dead), in order to have justice for the Joker driving his son insane. He does so via live broadcast, including the Times-Square-esque television screens in Gotham Uptown. The whole city goes berserk as everybody tries to capture and or kill the Joker. Finally, Batman kidnaps the millionaire, brings him to a dark corner of Gotham where the Joker is tied to a chair in a cone of light. Batman says that he will not allow the man to buy himself a murder; if he wants Joker dead, he is going to have to kill him himself. Before disappearing into the dark though, Batman asks the businessman if this is really what he wants, and if it is really worth it. The man, alone with Joker, begins to lunge at the clown to strangle him, but stops himself, unable to go against his humanitarian nature. The next day, he withdraws the bounty, instead using it to start a support organization for the families of victims of violent crime. Just like Batman expected he would.
  • A Secret Six chapter contains a chilling inversion of this and other similar situations. The titular group of Villain Protagonists is hired to snatch a pedophile serial killer from police, by the father of one of the said killer's victims, who intends to avenge his daughter personally. However, when Catman and Deadshot deliver the safely bound killer into an isolated storehouse, where no one will hear any screams, he starts backing down, clearly unprepared to take another's life and saying he doesn't think he can do that. Catman coldly responds with "Yes, you can", and a short but detailed instruction about the most painful ways to flense a human. Judging by the man's immediate reaction, he takes this advice to heart.
  • Current Trope Illustrator: in Chapter 7 of Don Rosa's The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, "Dreamtime Duck of the Never-Never", Scrooge (decades before becoming wealthy) chooses to return a huge opal that had been stolen to its rightful place in a sacred Aboriginal cave, rather than take it for himself and make a fortune selling it.
  • The same four-issue arc of the Star Wars Rogue Squadron comic that introduces Baron Soontir Fel, Ace Pilot of the Empire, shows us that he's not that bad a guy by including a scene where his superior, a corrupt admiral tasked with protecting a planet, tells him to relax and enjoy the planet's luxuries, which includes a scantily-clad local girl named "Grania". Fel says that his wife wouldn't approve. The admiral tells him that his wife wouldn't either, but no one needed to know. Fel uses the stock answer of "I'll know."
    • Star Wars Invasion #3: Finn has the opportunity to kill a trapped Yuuzhan Vong warrior, but instead he frees him, instructing him to "learn." Luke Skywalker was covertly watching this Secret Test of Character, however.

True natures are revealed at times like this. [...] No mercy could be expected -- but some individuals exceed expectations.

"I am Princess of Alderaan, Luke. Fate has cast me as a leader of the Rebellion. For better or worse, whatever the outcome... I'll play that role to the finish."

  • Batman ends up in this position with the Joker in The Dark Knight Returns. They're in an abandoned carnival ride, the Joker has just killed dozens of people after Batman's return has driven him out of a decades-long coma, and Batman has sworn that he'll never let the Joker take another life and is prepared to kill him. In the end, Batman can't do it and paralyses the Joker by nearly breaking his neck. Laughing at Batman's lack of guts and knowing that no one else in the world will know he didn't do it, Joker finishes the job for him and kills himself.
  • In the second Booster Gold series, Booster intends to become a serious, hard-working superhero in tribute to Blue Beetle. Then Rip Hunter offers him a chance to protect the time continuum—by maintaining his reputation as a fool, which will protect him from time-traveling enemies. Booster struggles but accepts. (Although, in this case, Rip can offer that he will know that Booster is a great hero, and later Batman becomes Booster's Secret Keeper.)
  • Played heartbreakingly straight by a doomed Buffy body double in one of the Buffy Season 8 Comics. "I tried to feel it. I tried to face the darkness like a woman and I don't need any more than that. You don't have to remember me. You don't even have to know who I am. But I do." Made all the more powerful because we never learn the girl's name.
  • Wedge Antilles earned one in a Rogue Squadron comic set shortly after the destruction of the Second Death Star. Corellia's capital city is attacked by an Imperial madman desperate to show that the Empire had not yet been defeated. After several days of intense fighting, they cornered him and forced him to flee in a TIE Interceptor, with Wedge chasing after him in another. Wedge manages to shoot him down and lands to find the man crawling out of the wreckage. After giving him one strong punch in the face, Wedge binds his hands, saying that no one would question him if he decided to execute the Imperial right there, but then all of the man's victims would never see justice.
  • The ending of the original Doom Patrol series had their nemeses take a small fishing village hostage, demanding the Patrol's deaths in exchange. The Doom Patrol accepted the deal, and died as obscurely as they lived. Until the inevitable Retcon, anyway.
    • The corresponding episode in "Batman: The Brave and the Bold" called "The Last Patrol!" had the Patrol do the same thing, their deaths broadcast all over the world by General Zahl. However, he finds the people end up ADMIRING the Patrol for their sacrifice. The General realizes that even in Death, the Doom Patrol defeated him. In memoriam, the island village of fourteen the Patrol died for is renamed "Four Heroes."
  • Arguably the entire impetus of Empowered in later chapters, with the titular character proving her heroism in ways that will never garner acclaim or repair her tarnished public image because, quote, "THIS. IS. WHO. I. AM." Compounded by the most jerky of her Jerkass teammates actively blaming her for the incidents she resolved.

Fan Works

  • The My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fanfic The Best Night Ever has Prince Blueblood, stuck in a Groundhog Day Loop on the day of the Grand Galloping Gala, work very hard at shedding his Prince Charmless qualities and go full-out to make the Gala as good as it can be in order to escape. It fails because he's trying too hard, and all of it comes across as artificial. When the loop starts again, he goes out into the palace sculpture garden, stands at the foot of Discord's statue, and seriously considers setting him free. After a long moment of contemplation, Blueblood finally decides he can't do it, and walks away to try one more time.


  • In Clerks, Dante leaves a relatively unsupervised pile of money on the counter in the store for change and payment of goods, with a sign next to it that encourages the customers to "...leave money on the counter. Take change when applicable. Be honest." Dante is actually on the floor behind the counter with his girlfriend, inattentive of his job. She asks how he knows that they are taking the right amount of change or are even paying for what they are taking and he responds with something like "Theoretically, people see money on the counter and no one around, they think they're being watched."
  • This is pretty much the whole premise of The Dark Knight
  • In Rush Hour 2 , Jackie Chan's character Lee has the Big Bad against the wall all alone and at gunpoint, and given what the Big Bad has done and the effect it had on Lee's life, none would blame him for shooting the guy where he stood. Chris Tucker's character James Carter enters this scene as the angel to the Big Bad's devil, telling Lee to not go too far. He then subverts his role after the Big Bad insults the memory of Lee's father, and tells Lee to shoot the guy. Lee still doesn't do it.
  • In Pitch Black, Riddick tells Johns to kill him in cold blood ("That's what I'd do to you."). An interesting case because the villain is effectively trying to commit suicide-by-hero. Subverted because Johns only ignores him because Riddick's bounty is worth double if he's alive, and it's strongly implied Riddick knew how he'd react.
    • Later in that film, Riddick does the same thing with Fry. "Nobody will blame you. Save yourself, Carolyn."
  • In Lord of War, Jack Valentine keeps Yuri Orlov from being killed after being almost busted for gun running to Africa by citing this trope to his partner (who was suggesting they just kill Orlov).

"Look at where we are! Who will know?"
"We will."

Hannibal: Hey Cordell! Why don't you push him in? You can always say it was me.

    • The physician does. This must be one of the only times in the history of fiction that killing somebody who is pretty much helpless in your care and then setting free a killer like Hannibal Lecter is actually the heroic choice.
  • Villainous version: Sebastian Caine in Hollow Man has quite a bit of unspoken Inner Monologue about this trope and concludes that "It's amazing what you can do...when you don't have to look at yourself in the mirror any more."
  • In the 1965 comedy How to Murder Your Wife, Jack Lemmon is on trial for murdering his wife. When the trial appears to be headed for a conviction, he takes up his own defense and pleads justifiable homicide, appealing to the all-male jury's frustrations regarding their own wives. He offers a witness (and thus the jury) the idea that if they could press a magic button and their wives would disappear and no one would know, would they do it?
  • In Saving Private Ryan, Miller's squad comes across a German machine gun nest set up to ambush any approaching American soldiers. His squadmates point out that they can easily bypass the Germans, but Miller decides to take it out to prevent any more Americans from being ambushed. They also capture a German soldier and could easily execute him on the spot, but decide to take mercy and let him go, though they'll regret it later. Finally, half the plot hinges on Miller and his squad's willingness to pursue what by all rights is a suicide mission. They could have easily just scrubbed the mission and say they couldn't find Ryan, but they ultimately decide to see it through to the end.
  • Tom Hanks' character plays this off ingeniously in Road to Perdition, covering his getaway from a heist by convincing the bank manager to take some of the loot from the bank robbery for himself. "You can always tell Chicago (Al Capone) that I took it."
  • In Animal House, Pinto is the only character to resist temptation of any kind—and what he resists is particularly tempting. Further, he resists without knowing at the time that his intended is not exactly in his own age demographic. Of course his resistance only lasts so long....
  • This trope is discussed in City Slickers. To paraphrase the conversation: "Okay, you're married, but suppose a gorgeous woman came from a spaceship and wanted to have sex with you and leave without anyone knowing. Would you do it?" "No." "Why not?" "Because that happened to my cousin, and the women at the hairdresser's shop found out about it because they know everything!"
  • In Donnie Darko, Donnie goes back in time and lets himself die so that everyone else can live.
  • From Sholay: it's shown in a flashback that the notorious outlaws Jai and Veeru, when bandits attacked the train they were being translated under arrest and custody by then active policeman Thakur Baldev Singh, decided to help the policeman to defend the train instead of using the chaos to escape. This act impress Thakur so much he decides to hire them to deal with infamous bandit Gabbar Sigh, not just because of their fighting prowess but for they having something resembling morality, meaning that he can count on them to defend his town of the Complete Monster Gabbar is.


Nineteenth [Platoon] lasted seventeen minutes from the time the gates closed. They accounted for one-hundred and eighty nine enemy casualties. No one witnessed their heroism.

  • In Piers Anthony's On A Pale Horse, Luna is illegally destined by Satan to premature death on a certain day, at a time when her soul is weighted with so much evil that she's doomed to Hell upon her death. Nonetheless, knowing her fate, she goes to put her death to the best use she can find, making a Heroic Sacrifice to trade places with a virgin scheduled to be sacrificed to an endangered dragon, then allowing herself to die rather than damage the dragon's egg to save herself. The thing is, all this good pushes her soul into neutral, which means that Death is called to judge her soul personally, which he refuses to do, for various reasons up to and including having fallen in love with her. All of which is exactly as Fate planned.
  • In The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks, the protagonist master game-player is pressed into a multi-year epic journey across the galaxy that is instrumental in the downfall of an entire empire, ultimately because he accepted a drone's help to cheat in a meaningless exhibition match. And it was not even in order to win, but just to convert a certain victory into a record-breaking one.
    • It is later revealed that the protagonist ultimately didn't have a choice The drone who offered him the temptation to cheat was an agent of Special Circumstances—the same people who the protagonist had refused an earlier invitation to come work for. So they sent someone to help him cheat, then record him cheating, and then blackmail him...not into coming to work for Special Circumtances, but into doing the drone a favor that he could only accomplish by first going back and accepting SC's recruitment offer, which was "conveniently" still open. Gurgeh, until the end of his life, never figures out that the two events were related.
      • He did have a choice. He could have chosen not to cheat. The plan was a very expertly tailored temptation, but he still had to make the decision of his own free will to succumb to temptation.
  • In Lois McMaster Bujold's Memory, Miles Vorkosigan is asked why he did not accept a bribe, and part of the question is that it was almost certain that no one would have realized it. Miles modestly disclaims it on the grounds three would have known: him, the man who offered it, and the man he would have sacrificed by taking it. Only when it is pointed out that he would have outlived them does he admit that accepting the offer would have changed him irrevocably.

Miles: "The one thing you can't trade for your heart's desire is your heart."

    • Later, in A Civil Campaign, Miles' father tells him the difference between reputation and honour: "Reputation is what other people know about you. Honour is what you know about yourself."
  • In C. S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew, when Jadis tries to lure Digory into stealing an apple to help his ailing mother, she points out that he could ensure no one would know by leaving Polly behind. This shocks Digory right out of any temptation to do as Jadis says, as it would never even have occurred to him to abandon Polly.
    • There's also the fact that Polly had a magic ring of her own and could get home perfectly well without Digory. The Witch doesn't know that, but Digory does and it's that slip-up which makes him realize how "false and hollow" everything Jadis said was.
  • In Graham McNeill's Warhammer 40,000 Ultramarines novel Dead Sky Black Sun, Pasanius and Uriel are in the Eye of Terror, and Pasanius suggests that not stealing a treasure from a daemon lord might be better. Uriel cites a philosopher who asked whether, if a stalagmite fell with no one to hear, it would make a sound, and says he understands it now: they will do the honorable thing, knowing that no one is likely to ever know.
  • In Michael A. Stackpole's I, Jedi, Corran Horn gives a whole litany of examples from his past, while trying to convince Luke that rather than being totally ignorant of temptation he does, in fact, know the lure of the dark side. Two of them are cases when he could have shot someone and had it explained as "resisting arrest", one of those being when he caught the one responsible for killing his father. One example:

Corran: "I've walked into a warehouse and arrested a spicelord in his office. He opened a case and it had over a million credits in it. A million -- more money than I'll ever see in my lifetime. It was mine, he said, if I'd just take it and walk away. No one would ever know. But I‍'‍d know, and I didn't do it."

    • Later in the novel, though, Corran faces a form of Scarpia Ultimatum, realizes that his pride has pushed him to the point that he "doesn't recognize himself in the mirror anymore," and has to trace back and find himself again...
  • This is the whole point, even the unspoken Aesop, of Les Misérables.
  • In J. R. R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo is tempted to run away and leave Sam, Pippin, and Merry to die at the hands of the barrowwights because he could get away alive. He does not reflect on how no one else would know; then, he doesn't leave, either.
    • Sam could have left Frodo to die and kept it for himself. Instead he is only person to ever give up the ring willingly.
  • In a tale of Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser, the Anti-heroic duo briefly go into semi-retirement. Fafhrd the Barbarian becomes the acolyte of the Church of Issek of the Jug, a faith that had one priest, no other followers, and was maybe two days away from failing entirely. Fafhrd's reason? He saw the priest pat a deaf-blind-and-dumb child on the head while (as far as the priest knew) no one was looking. The priest's action is described as possibly being unique in that world's history.
  • The Firm by John Grisham does this in a more conventional way, with the main character tempted to adultery. Unusually, he gives in, but doing so turns out to be a very bad idea.
  • Terry Pratchett has used this (of course):
    • Small Gods:
      • When Brutha leads Vorbis through the labyrinth, he contemplates leading him into a trap. He thinks: "who would ever know? I would" and doesn't do it.
    • Commander Sam Vimes of the Watch, as a Deconstruction of the Cowboy Cop, has a couple of examples of this. This is a good part of the plot in Thud! where we see that Vimes has an "internal watchman" that stops him from becoming the authoritarian figure he hates so much and to respond the Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? question. Another notable example, at the end of Night Watch where he is facing Carcer in the graveyard and no one would have known (or cared) if he had killed him instead of trying to arrest him.
      • Vetinari almost certainly would have known. (Although Vimes is quite aware of Vetinari's near-omniscient knowledge of what happens in Ankh-Morpork, it's not the reason he stops himself.)
      • This comes up again in Snuff. Willikins tells someone that Vimes would uphold the law even if it killed him inside to do it. Willikins adds that he, unlike Vimes, is a killer, and perfectly willing to murder Stratford for his crimes rather than chance the man's escaping and harming anyone again. And does so.
    • Esmerelda Weatherwax. She's not "gone to the bad" only because she has Esmerelda Weatherwax watching over her shoulder the whole time.
    • And, in another sense, Carrot. He has a couple moments when he is exposed to a choice like this, most notably at the end of Men at Arms, and he always makes the good choice. Because he truly is a hero.
  • In Tom Holt's Ye Gods!, when Jason meets the old woman, she insists on their going through the whole spiel. When he says no one would know if they didn't, she says, "I will."
  • In The Door into Sunset, the last volume of Diane Duane's The Tale of Five series, the main character Freelorn is confronted with Cillmod, his half-brother and the man who usurped his throne (and this is a Fisher King scenario, so that's doubly bad). They are in an absolutely dark, isolated place. Cillmod has just attacked him. 'Lorn could kill him, and no one would ever, ever know. And even if they did, who's going to argue with the king about it afterward? In a remarkably astute move, Freelorn spares Cillmod's life and puts him in a position of high authority in his kingdom (as the latter wasn't actually evil at all, just manipulated. Cillmod legitimately wanted to try and rule as a good king, but that whole aforementioned Fisher King thing was pretty set in stone, and he didn't have a strong enough bloodline).
  • In the first book of Harry Turtledove's Alternate History Colonization series, a sequel to the earlier Worldwar series, Vyacheslav Molotov, General Secretary of the Communist Party, is kidnapped and sent to the gulag by Lavrentiy Beria, chief of the NKVD, as part of Beria's attempted coup to seize control of the Soviet Union. Molotov is rescued by Georgy Zhukov, Beria's rival and commander of the Red Army, after Zhukov survived his own attempted assassination and thwarted the coup. In the aftermath, with Beria already having delivered false announcements that Molotov had voluntarily retired and with many senior communist officials already dead, Molotov is worried that Zhukov could easily just execute him and seize power for himself now that Beria had been dealt with. Zhukov seems to consider this for a moment, but in the end, apparently surprising even himself, he allows Molotov to remain as General Secretary and head of the Soviet Union. Of course, Zhukov is not above extorting more funding for the Red Army afterward and "suggesting" the course of political actions, but he remains loyal to Molotov for the duration of his rule. This is likely a reference to the Real Life Zhukov's admission that he was much better dealing with military matters than with politics.
  • In The Belgariad, Durnik's influence on the growing Garion is exemplified by his explaining that he is making a small piece to be used on the bottom of a cart as good as it can be made—because he will see the cart every day and be reminded how good or poor a job he did.
  • The Dresden Files: Harry Dresden has had his fair share of these moments, usually when faced with Black Magic.
    • It's a recurring theme in the Changes, with several characters, even Mac, warning Harry that the latest crisis will show Harry who he really is. It showed that Harry is capable of being a true monster, if the stakes are high enough.
      • Including when Harry is given the choice to kill a man and gain the power to save his daughter... and goes through with it.
    • It should be noted that the next book shows Harry does feel remorse when he realises the true consequences of his actions. Of course it turns out he was manipulated by something into making the choice but the realisation, along with Mab's speech about how she now controls him, almost convinces him that he'll stay a monster forever. Then Uriel uses his seven whispered words.
  • Jane Eyre refuses to live with her lover outside the bonds on matrimony though nobody would know, or care if they did, because she would know and she cares for her personal integrity even if nobody else does.
  • In the Dale Brown novel Fatal Terrain, Patrick McLanahan warns his group that due to the classified nature of their mission, even if they succeed no one will congratulate them, and at worst they will be condemned by their own side. On the other hand, if they choose to back down and face trial in a federal court, it is likely that they will come out in a position to maintain Sky Masters, inc. None of his group flinch from it.
  • In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain has to deal with this twice, once when the wife of Sir Bercilak de Haudesert is trying to seduce him and again when a servant who takes him to the home of the titular Green Knight offers to keep silent if Gawain runs away from his almost certain death.
  • In John C. Wright's Fugitives of Chaos, Amelia weeps over a Western movie (High Noon by the description) and tells Vanity that she wants to be like the marshall, doing what is right regardless.
  • Judas in The Bible if you believe some Alternate Character Interpretation
  • Selia of The Goose Girl offer's Ani/ Isi a very tempting offer: admit that she "lied", tell the king that Selia really is the Princess Anidori, and no one will ever have to know. Ani/ Isi can even go back to her goose herd, rather than face death. This would lead, of course, to Ani/ Isi's entire homeland being killed in ambush. Ani/Isi knows that she can't convince anyone of the truth, knows that she will die unless she sacrifices her people. No one would know but Ani/Isi, Selia, and Selia's guards... and the Prince and his guard, who are listening in a hidden passageway. Ani/Isi doesn't know that, though, but declares she won't lie anyway. Cue Big Damn Heroes.
  • This is one of the major themes of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Imperialists in Africa know that no other Europeans can see them, so they feel they are free to do whatever they want. Only Marlow, it seems, manages to retain his humanity—and even he admits that he can feel himself becoming "scientifically interesting."
  • Happens twice in In the Keep of Time, from different points of view among the children. When Andrew goes back to get the key from the door, while the others are waiting in Anna's cottage, he is strongly tempted to escape back to the present—and the key even starts to turn in the door, before he wrenches it free and hides it instead. This act, he thinks, "took more courage than all the adventures and battles which were to follow". Later, when he finally returns from the Battle of Roxburgh, ready to go home, he cannot find the key, Elinor, or Ian and assumes they left without him. When he is reunited with them again, he learns they were indeed tempted to do so, but couldn't find the key either. Whether they too could have resisted if they had found it will never be known.
  • Subverted, hard, in Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night. The moral of the story can be summed up as: you are who you pretend to be. At one point a Nazi informs the main character, who was working as a propagandist but was secretly passing information back to the Allies, that the Nazi knew the hero was a spy all along. The Nazi didn't care, though, because the hero's words were the only things that convinced him that the Nazis were right, and his country hadn't gone insane. Even if the hero was helping the allies, he'd helped the Nazis far more than he had ever helped them.
  • In one of the Star Wars New Jedi Order books, Wedge Antilles leaves the command station where he'd been directing a crucial battle, only to find that his shuttle had been destroyed. The only craft available is an X-Wing with damaged comms and no astromech. After taking off in it, he finds a civilian transport under attack by an enemy squadron, and bravely annihilates them by himself, but loses his shields in the process. When a second squadron heads towards them, he has a choice: if he stays to fight the squadron, he will almost certainly die, and, as he is in an extra fighter that was assigned to no one and he can't comm anyone to tell them where he is, his family and friends will never learn what became of him. He will die alone and unnamed. Or, he could abandon the transport, having already fought valiantly to save him. No one could blame him for retreating in the face of certain death after having already given his all. Wedge turns to face the approaching squadron head on.
    • Played with in the Star Wars: X-Wing series. When Wedge and Wraith Squadron capture a band of pirates, he asks them about their affiliation with Warlord Zsinj. The pirates refuse to talk, claiming that they're settlers in an unclaimed system, so there are no laws to govern their actions. Wedge counters by pointing out that if there really weren't any laws, then he and his men could easily murder all of the pirates and nobody would ever now. Suffice to say, the pirates decide to talk.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: YMMV, but Jaime Lannister fills this trope, particularly due to being vilified afterwards.
  • In the Honor Harrington novel In Enemy Hands, Honor struggles with the desire to give in to despair during her captivity in State Sec hands, but manages to convince herself to refuse, believing that it is her duty to herself.
  • One part in The Name of the Wind has Kvothe and his almost love interest Denna alone, at night, curled up to each other for warmth. Denna had eaten some denner resin (a rather potent drug) and Kvothe knew she wouldn't remember a thing that had happened while she was high on it in the morning. He was tempted, once or twice, to sleep with her, but resisted, because he would know, even if she wouldn't.
  • Agent Pendergast finds the formula for an immortality elixir in The Cabinet of Curiosities. During the story, he agonizes over what to do with it when he finds it. Keep it to himself? Destroy it? Share it with humanity? In the end he realizes that no good could come of it's existence and he burns it. However, in the unofficial epilogue, he's memorized the formula before doing so and goes to pick up the ingredients afterward.
  • Young Sandry in Daja's Book is so considerate and scrupulous that when she accidentally burns an odd pattern into someone's jacket while he's out, she stays around until he comes back to point out the damage, take responsibility, and offer to replace it despite the difficulty. All the while, one of her friends is urgently insisting that she go take a message somewhere, and another is thinking she's daft and should just leave the jacket so she won't get in trouble.

Live-Action TV

  • An episode of The Outer Limits, where two astronauts are landing from space. Eventually one finds out his partner is an alien. The alien tells him if he shuts up, no one will know, he'll disappear. The astronaut alters the trajectory so they blow up. The ending narration is almost verbatim the title of this trope.
  • In the Babylon 5 episode "Comes the Inqusitor", the Threshold Guardian tests Delenn and Sheridan to see if they're able to live up to this trope. They ultimately pass.

Sebastian: How do you know the chosen ones? No greater love hath a man, than he lay down his life for his brother. Not for millions, not for glory, not for fame -- for one person. In the dark. Where no one will ever know, or see.

  • In Farscape, John has traveled to an unstable alternate universe along with Scorpius, and needs to kill an innocent to find vital information (it's complicated). Thing is, this innocent just happens to look like a cross between Aeryn and Chiana. He can't bring himself to shoot her. Scorpius can.
  • Done by a villain in Being Human (UK). George tries to convince Herrick to let the main characters go far away and never return, leaving Herrick to claim that he's killed them. George says that nobody would know, and Herrick responds that he will know that he allowed himself to show mercy to those he considers below him, and he specifically uses the words "I'll know".
  • Firefly: If Simon had abandoned River no one would have paid attention and even River would not have remembered it. Once in a while there is no middle ground between being great and being loathsome and as it happens he chose to be great. He did the impossible and that made him mighty.
    • Which is why he can wear as many fancy vests as he wants.
    • From "Jaynestown":

Kaylee: What's so damn important about bein' proper? It don't mean nothin' out here in the black.
Simon: It means more out here. It's all I have.

  • A mild example from The Wire: Detectives Herc and Carver have a moment where they could pocket some money from a drugs bust, but realize they would get caught, and leave it. Then some of the money goes missing anyway, and the very angry Daniels wants it back. It turns out that the money had somehow gotten buried in the spare tire well of their patrol car's trunk. They admit that Daniels doesn't have any reason to believe them, as they couldn't even trust each other.
    • Later, they're confronted with a similar situation, except with no possibility of discovery. They look at each other, nod, and start stuffing cash under their Kevlar vests.
      • Later still, Carver refers back to this—and to other, worse moral lapses—when he sadly tells Herc that "It all matters. Everything we do." (Herc doesn't seem to get the point.)
  • Burn Notice runs with this a lot. It's usually a situation where Michael has to choose between getting his life back and helping his friends.
    • In probably the definitive example of the series, in Season 3, Michael is told that he's about to be unburned, he'll be accepted back by his government, he'll get everything he ever wanted. All he had to do was accept, and oh, by the way, Fiona's in trouble, but don't worry about that, she's his past, and he needs to look towards his future.

Michael: Fiona is not my past!

  • Doctor Who:
    • Subverted in the episode "Midnight". Faced with the Ultimate Evil Monster of the Week that has possessed someone, some of the passengers propose throwing her out into the deadly light. The Doctor asks if they're willing to go through with it, and for a moment it looks like they won't... until they say, yes, they won't shy from it. This becomes a problem when the beastie tricks them into thinking the Doctor is possessed. The Doctor narrowly avoids death as a result. But it's also why they, with the exception of one person, survive.
    • The Tenth Doctor faced this in "The End of Time". After disaster has been averted, he realizes that Wilfred is sealed in a death trap, and the only way to save him is for someone else to take his place. Nobody would have ever known that Wilfred could have been saved, and he was an old man, who told the Doctor to just walk away and let him die. Yet despite this and his near-crippling fear of death, the Doctor chose to save Wilfred at the cost of one of his own lives.
  • The West Wing has a version of this: Toby and the President are able to secretly bring together a Republican and Democratic senator to create a bipartisan fix to the Social Security system, but they can't claim any credit for it, or the two senators won't propose the plan. They decide to let the senators claim they came up with the idea by themselves
    • Ronald Reagan was fond of saying "there is no limit to what a man can achieve if he doesn't care who gets the credit."
  • When offered a bribe on Family Matters, policeman Carl Winslow rephrased response #1 as "I can't shave with my eyes closed." He then explains it means he wouldn't be able to look at himself in the mirror.
  • In Andromeda Captain Dylan Hunt is given the chance to frame his former friend Telemachus in order to restore the Commonwealth, a case of Utopia Justifies the Means. He chooses not to, but not without some reservations.
  • Janeway of Star Trek: Voyager insists that it's all the more important to uphold Federation values when they are so far from home. Unfortunately, due her Depending on the Writer status, and the sometimes questionable outcomes of the Prime Directive, this comes across poorly most of the time.
    • A better example comes in the case of an early astronaut, who stumbles across some Negative Space Wedgie and ends up in the Delta Quadrant. Though he realizes his chances of rescue are non-existent, he continues to do his work, dutifully recording and exploring. He eventually spots a piece of alien hull, and realizes that it was worth their effort, and his sacrifice to explore the galaxy.
  • Played subtly straight and strongly backwards in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "The Zeppo", while the rest of the Scooby Gang is busy taking care of a huge, horrific, wide-scale, apocalyptic, personally heartwrenching catastrophe, an undead delinquent jock who runs into Xander decides to blow up the high school for kicks. This would kill the Scooby Gang, and leave the Hellmouth open ending the world. Xander, not wanting to risk getting the world destroyed by distracting his more powerful friends from their own disaster, decides to take care of the problem instead, singlehandedly chases down and corners the jock; and by refusing to be swayed in the face of near-certain death, intimidates him into backing down. Afterwards, despite the fact that most of the episode revolved around Xander's feelings of inferiority, he feels no need to mention the escapade to his friends to prove his badassery, as it's enough that he knows what he did.
    • In Season 7's episode "Potential", Xander gives a speech to Dawn basically all about this:

Xander: They'll never know how tough it is, Dawnie, to be the one who isn't chosen. To live so near to the spotlight and never step in it. But I know.

  • Played with in an episode of of Community—Pierce, who has everyone convinced that he is on his deathbed, gives Britta a blank check for a large sum of money to be donated to the charity of her choice but offhandedly suggests that she could spend it on herself and no one would know. As it happens, Abed is making a documentary of the events of the episode, and Britta, in an odd cross between responses one and two, donates the money to the Red Cross and, without prompting, tearfully admits that she would've kept the money if she wasn't being filmed and that she's very ashamed of herself.
  • In Frasier, an episode dealing with Niles and Maris' divorce finds Frasier faced with a dilemma to either lie at a legal deposition during Niles and Maris' divorce hearing and say he has no knowledge of Niles' feelings towards Daphne; on one hand, he either lies and commits perjury, or he tells the truth and ruins his brother. This prompts Frasier into a moral dilemma in which he explicitly points out to Martin, who is encouraging him to just lie about it, that he feels that "ethics are what we do when no one is looking!" The episode never actually reveals whether Frasier managed to resolve his dilemma, as the matter is ultimately resolved without him having to testify.
  • Chase spent most of the first two seasons of House being a near-amoral Doctor Jerk-in-training, charming patients with lies and treating them like experiments while doing whatever he can to advance his career. Then comes the episode where House orders him to perform a biopsy on the body of a baby that died in his care. Alone in the morgue, Chase prays for the baby's soul before cutting up its body.
    • He also kills a despot under his care, aware that he is disobeying all the oaths he took, risking losing his career and getting jail time, and even risking his marriage. Just because he considers it the right thing to do to save thousands.
  • In a relatively non-controversial episode of The Moment Of Truth, contestant Ray Hernandez declared that he would never cheat on his wife even if he could be guaranteed than she would never find out - and the lie detector confirmed it.
  • Subverted in Victorious, where Robbie has nightmares about a giant evil Rex, but rather than discover this is what he may be, he sees Rex as a seperate person and not an extension of himself.
  • In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Looking for Par'Mach in all the Wrong Places", Keiko trusts O'Brian absolutely as a husband, and Kira as a friend. And it is easy to find a place on Bajor in complete solitude. They know perfectly well that they can get away with infidelity and no one would know but them. But that is the point.
  • In an episode of ALF, Alf is falsely accused by the Tanners of finally giving in to temptation and eating Lucky; naturally, when Lucky is found alive and well (after Alf runs away to find him), they have a lot of apologizing to do. In The Stinger, Alf feeds Lucky and pretty much describes this Trope while talking to him:

Alf: Never thought I'd see the day when they'd let me feed you. They actually trust me! You know, I could go to the refrigerator right now and make myself a BLT, a bacon-Lucky-and-tomato sandwich! (Laughs) But I won't... Cause they trust me... (Beat, looks at Lucky) But don't get too comfortable!


  • Hadestown has a few songs about this, but "Hey Little Songbird" and "When The Chips Are Down" probably fit the trope best.

See, people get mean when the chips are down...

  • Referenced in Within Temptation's Utopia, suggesting a less favourable view of humanity;

Why does it rain, rain, rain down on Utopia?
And when the lights die down, telling us who we are.

Oral Tradition, Folklore, Myths and Legends

  • The Bible. Satan tempted Jesus three times, and each time the reward would be greater. He could use his power to turn rock into bread, bow to Satan to get a city, or test God by jumping off a cliff. Naturally, Jesus declines all three.
    • It's not just bow down to Satan and get a city, it's "Bow down to Satan and get the entire world back from Satan." No one would've ever known (apart from God and Satan), and Jesus wouldn't have to go through what he did. However, it would've been against God's plan, meaning it would've been a sin, meaning that Jesus was no longer perfect, meaning that it would've been pointless to get the world, as it would've saved no one. Jesus knows all this.
    • Since Jesus could create food or jump safely under his own power (and did them at other times), and already had a better claim to the world than Satan did, he would frankly have had to have been pretty stupid to agree.
      • At the time Jesus was weak from fasting and was purposefully denying himself from doing these things even though he could.
  • A corrupt official in ancient China once went to a more scrupulous one to talk him into something unethical. "Nobody will ever know!" says the corrupt one. The scrupulous one disagrees: "Heaven knows. Earth knows. You know. I know."
  • The entire point of Plato's story about the Ring of Gyges.
  • A man wants to steal some wheat from his neighbors, so he goes out one night, taking his young daughter with him to keep a lookout. He goes around from field to field, cutting a little here and a little there, and now and then his daughter calls out, "Father, someone sees you!"—but each time when he looks up, they're alone. Finally he asks why she keeps saying that, and she replies, "Someone sees you from above."
    • There's a joke like this about a robber breaking into a house when someone says: "Stop it! I'm warning you: Jesus is watching you!". Turns out it's the family parrot. It introduces itself—it has a cutesy, stupid name which makes the robber laugh and wonder, "What kind of idiots would call a parrot like that?" "The same people who call a rottweiler 'Jesus'," answers the parrot.

Tabletop Games

  • Paranoia has taken to specifically encouraging the GM to have the lights go out at some point during the mission (easily justified due to Alpha Complex's perennial state of disrepair), preferably after the PCs have had time to build up grudges and conflicting goals.


  • Wicked: The Wizard gives Elphaba a choice: live comfortably and as a celebrated hero, what she had dreamed of since she was a girl... or work to help the Animals. Cue "Defying Gravity", her "I Am Becoming" Song. She gets this twice, and considers it the second time until Dr. Dillamond shows up.
  • In William Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, there's a scene where Hector kills someone for his armor; it's that kind of play, even Hector is good only when people are watching.
  • The song "Who Am I?" from Les Misérables is basically this. Valjean could easily let another man hang in his place, freeing him from worry about Javert forever and no one would ever know. But he'll know, and God will know, so he stops the execution and reveals himself, forcing him to disrupt his now peaceful and productive life to go back on the run from the law.

Video Games

  • The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess takes a sort of literal twist on this with Link. When Link is exposed to dark (but not necessarily evil) magic, he takes the form of large, black-and-white wolf (referred to as the "sacred beast" or "blue-eyed beast) with strange markings.
    • A Link to The Past also does this, except its "Link" is briefly transformed into a pink bunny wearing his clothes.
  • In Grandia II, Ryudo is sent to prove his worth to become the next super-powered-being to defeat the 'evil Valmar'. Along the road he is questioned and every answer he gives is twisted to be perceived as a selfish desire. The next shot has him in darkness transformed into a demon with a voice telling him to embrace it. However thanks to the The Power of Friendship he's freed and ends up with the sword to defeat evil.
  • The canonical Player Character in Neverwinter Nights fought hard to prevent Aribeth's execution, despite the fact that the entire leadership of the city was arrayed against him and Aribeth's state of mind made her believe she deserved it.
  • In Betrayal at Krondor, the dark elf Gorath's initial act of joining the humans to prevent the war his people are planning against them qualifies. He knows in advance that it will strip him of his rank as chieftain, that his own people and what remains of his friends and family won't consider him anything more than a traitor and a coward for thinking of cooperating with humans, and the humans themselves will at best distrust him and at worst have him deliver his message on a rack. He goes anyway.
  • Persona 3, The protagonist is all alone with Ryoji, and he tells the protagonist he can kill him (everyone else has decided to face Nyx). He insists that they would be happier forgetting about this happening and living in peace until the fall. Choosing to kill him results in the bad ending.
  • In Persona 4, this is one of the bases for the Bad End, caused by the main character either failing to stop or joining in on his friends committing a murder.
  • In Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Sam Fisher is tasked with destroying the wreckage of a downed US plane by calling in an air strike in order to prevent sensitive information from falling into enemy hands. He has the choice whether to spend precious time carrying the two unconscious pilots to a safe distance first or not, and doing so causes a new guard to spawn and happen upon him at a very inopportune moment (as when carrying a person Fisher cannot use any of his weapons). However, if he chooses to do so anyway he is confronted with this trope by his superior.

Lambert: You don't even exist Fisher, you can't get a medal for this.
Fisher: Medals don't help me sleep at night.

  • In Thief 3, at the end of one level, you find a secret stash of gold left by late Captain Moira for his wife. It's a pretty penny and you don't get any penalties later in the game for taking it. In fact, your only deterrent is a brief popup message "Mrs. Moira needs that money to survive" but logic tells you that she probably won't find the stash in her current condition anyway (you meet her earlier in the level: she is utterly broken by grief). So, that's the point where you learn what you are in the dark. Garrett doesn't make any comments either way.
    • Sadly the loot requirement on the highest difficulty level makes completing the mission impossible without taking the gold.
    • There is a minor deterrent to taking the loot: The following night, a thug loyal to the widow can be found skulking in front of the door to Garrett's apartment building, looking to avenge the theft. He's just another Mook, however, and not much of a threat.
  • This is a big part of the Quest for Glory series of games, especially if you play as a paladin.

And they ask, What is a Hero?
though the answer is very clear,
He is the one who faces danger
when the darkness hovers near.

He will face the fiercest foe
when another needs his aid.
He will dare to defy Death
even though he is afraid.
He works not just for glory,
and he does it not for gain.
But because he knows that others
will be spared a greater pain.

    • In fact, the second game was the part of the series where the designers introduced the tests of character. While some actions are obvious (don't kill the guy you're fighting just to get approval from the Eternal Order of Fighters), some are very much less so (while racing to save the world from the destructive power about to be unleashed and you successfully disarm the Dragon blocking your path, you can kill him and no one will ever know, and in fact will probably praise you for going as fast as possible...but you'll know that you killed an unarmed, helpless man). Later games made the choices a bit more obvious, but there are some surprisingly ambiguous decisions.
  • Happens quite a lot in Dragon Age Origins—and in true keeping with this trope, there's basically never any real reward for being 'good' about it. Meanwhile, the reward for being evil is sometimes impressive...so, just how 'Grey' ARE you, Warden?
    • The best example is arguably the Desire Demon possessing Connor. The wholly right and moral decision is to refuse any deal and fight the demon/scare it into leaving for good. The only reward is some experience and whatever loot it drops. What do you get for agreeing to the deal? The only chance to unlock Blood Magic. And the only ones who would know either way are you and the demon.
    • Of course, there's also the game's most pivotal moment. You find out that the Grey Warden who kills the Archdemon must die with it, but Morrigan privately offers a way out through Deus Sex Machina, and absorbing the Archdemon's soul into the baby conceived. However, she refuses to tell you what she plans on doing with the child afterwards.
  • Mega Man 7- Rock has beaten Dr. Wily again and Wily starts to beg like normal. Rock then charges his buster and says he's going to do what he should have done years ago. Wily points out that robots can't harm a human being. While the US version has Rock declare he's more than a robot and looks like he'll do it until the fortress self destructs, the Japanese version has Rock pause long enough for the fortress to collapse.
  • In Dissidia 012 Final Fantasy, Kain Highwind is a morally ambiguous Anti-Hero who has spent the story up to the final tale killing off his allies (or as the game says, "puts them to sleep") so that they'll be safe when the cycle of war begins again, rather than risk them fighting and dying against the new threat of the Manikins. Needless to say, no one is very pleased with him over this and several don't trust him even as he accompanies them to the portal the Manikins are coming from to help them close it. Along the way they're stopped by Exdeath and a group of Manikins and Kain stays behind to hold them off while the group continues on. In a bonus scene, Golbez approaches Kain afterwards and tells him that if he goes to join his friends in their Last Stand, he'll die and no one will remember his bravery. Or he can stay behind now and live to the next cycle, and again no one will know. Kain goes to help them.
    • Bear in mind, Kain says "put them to sleep" because once everyone on one side dies, all deceased fighters are resurrected and the fight starts over. Unless you die fighting Manikins.
  • In Knights Of The Old Republic II, the Tomb of Ludo Kressh on Korriban is this for the Jedi Exile. She goes in there alone to face the demons from her past and relive the decisions she made during the Mandalorian Wars. She's also given a test: join her party members in killing her Evil Mentor, or try to save that mentor from the dark side. If she chooses not to interfere, they all turn on her.
  • Mass Effect gives this to the last survivors of its Precursors, the Protheans. The last dozen or so sapients in the entire galaxy work feverishly for decades to reprogram the Keepers, seemingly benevolent drones who are critical to the Reapers' cycle of galactic extermination. Then they take a one-way trip to the Citadel, the key in the Reapers' trap and the center of galactic civilization. Without food, water, any ability to sustain a breeding population, or anyone to judge them, they faced a grim death from starvation so future generations of sapients could avert the disaster that destroyed their civilization.
    • And the Council denies their existence.
      • But Shepard will kick ass, take names, go to hell and back and shake hands with the Devil the Illusive Man himself to make sure it was not in vain.
    • The whole of Mass Effect 2 is like this, since 99.9% of the galaxy thinks Shepard is dead. Happens to Shepard him/herself in the Arrival DLC. You have a choice to warn the batarian colonists that they have to evacuate, or just contact the Normandy. The choice itself has no real consequences, but at the time, Shepard could conceivably be sacrificing him/herself for three hundred thousand civilians.
    • Jacob lampshades this trope when telling Shepard about his proudest career moment, which the Alliance covered up for the sake of not inducing a panic. He's comfortable with it, though.

Good deed's like pissing yourself in dark pants. Warm feeling, but no one notices.

    • Speaking of Jacob, his father faced a situation ten years before the game that occurred in relative "dark". The ship he was serving on crashed into an unknown planet in the ass end of the galaxy, killing the Captain. Being the First Mate, Jacob's father took over, with the help of other officers of the ship. The short version is, it did not end well.
  • The first Space Quest has this. Upon encountering the Sarien ship that massacred the Arcada's crew and has the Artifact of Doom that they are going to inflict on the galaxy. It's a massive ship full of hostile aliens, against one not-so-Almighty Janitor. The pilot droid wisely suggests hauling tail. It's Nonstandard Game Over if you take him up on it.
  • In The Very Definitely Final Dungeon of Planescape: Torment the party gets separated by the Big Bad. He then approaches your companions, one by one in total darkness, and invites them to flee and leave you there to die and lose your memory again. None of them stand a fighting chance against him. None of them budge. None of them live. Except Morte, who hides from him.
    • Note that the companions' reply depends on their Relationship Values with The Nameless One. Running through their dialogue and sidequests, and being a generally decent person will win you their support, but they will take that chance to go turncoat if you've been neglectful or a total jerk.
  • Pablo tries this on whoever attacks him during his optional boss appearance in Chapter 13 of Eirika's route in Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones.

Pablo: I've got more money than you've ever seen! What say you? Join me, and take a seat of power at my side.

  • Occurs in the flashbacks of L.A. Noire. After returning home from Okinawa, several Marines were upset when they saw stories that Phelps was the LAPD's Golden Boy, and resolved that since they had been denied fame and fortune, they would take it by stealing the supplies on the boat they were returning on. One character notes that they can get away with it and do good, but another character (who they all respect) tells them that he will not stop them, but if they actually do it, they are dead to him. They fail the test.
  • Touhou: Reimu Hakurei has to take this in stride. Solving more prominent incidents like the Scarlet Mist (Embodiment of Scarlet Devil), evil-spirit geysers (Subterranean Animism), and the earthquakes (Scarlet Weather Rhapsody) are things she can probably make realistic claims about; but, in general, no one really knows about most of Reimu's efforts to keep the peace in Gensokyo and one of the two (known) reporters in Gensokyo tells her to her face that she has no concrete proof of any of her glories. Hakurei Shrine getting no visiting worshipers is canon.
    • In a tongue-in-check sort of way, the fan-made list of Touhou games described as atrocities caused by Reimu lampshades this problem.
  • The Bard's Tale has this for the ending, where the Evil ending where he sides with the Demon Queen to enslave the world is the Bard's personal happy ending while the Good ending has him save the world but starting back where he was at the beginning as a poor conman. Alternatively, he can just walk away and party with the zombies.
  • Star Trek Online has the mission "Operation Gamma", where your player captain is abandoned to die by a Ferengi captain who was supposed to guide you to the Dominion, only for her to end up fleeing right into the arms of a Dominion force. When your ship arrives, the Vorta in charge of that force declares that by their logic they should kill you both for trespassing, but since you'd actually been looking for them in the first place, he offers to help you -- if you kill her. The mission progresses either way with only a slight difference in NPC dialogue, but if you kill her, the Vorta declares, "Now I see what kind of officer you are..."

Web Comics

  • In The Whiteboard, "Rainman" turns himself in when he gets marked during a tourney, thinking Integrity means doing what's right, even if nobody is looking.
  • A truly bizarre example appeared in an arc in Fans, in which Jesse was revealed to be Jesspin, secretly loyal to the time-traveling conqueror General Maximiliana. But "Jesse" is still his core personality, and while Jesspin is imprisoned by AEGIS, "Jesse" is secretly using Jesspin's mind and body to further Rikk Oberf's plans for the future. When Jesspin tells "Jesse" that no one will know he isn't a traitor, "Jesse" smiles and says, "That's what will make this fun. I do my best work in the dark."
  • Belkar of The Order of the Stick sort of has one of these here. He saved Hinjo in the end, but only because he might not be able to kill people later otherwise. Of course, this nets him good karma as he soon gets a horde of goblins to murdalize.
    • Also, when Vaarsuvius accepts a Deal with the Devil, the devils in question state that there might some alignment-related feedback (in other words, making the character more evil than otherwise would be normal. It turns out that the devils lied, and that all of the actions taken were all naturally thought of and committed by the character.
  • Sluggy Freelance.

Web Original

  • I'm a Marvel... and I'm a DC has Superman go through this in "After Hours". Either he can do nothing to stop Lex, resulting in a world with no major competing comics, or he can stay trapped in a pocket dimension forever. Anybody remotely familiar with Superman knows what he picks. Thankfully, his choice's results...
  • In Anachronauts, a genie tempts each of the members of the titular team with just such a temptation, as one might expect.
  • In the final episode of Shephard's Mind, Shephard admits to himself that he'll most likely never escape Black Mesa, and nobody would ever know what he did, much less be aware he even existed. But despite that, he's going to take as many aliens down with him as possible.
  • This is one of the themes of the song "Fear" from the soundtrack of Volume 7 of RWBY. Its chorus all but uses the trope name:

Who will you see
There in the darkness
When no one is watching?
Who will you be
When you're afraid
And everything changes?
Will you see a stranger?
Feel proud or betrayed?

Western Animation

  • The Rescuers has Bernard singing the RAS anthem by himself just outside the meeting hall. When Bianca sees him doing that, that is enough proof for her of how deeply he values the organization's ideals.
    • It's important to note that Bernard was merely the janitor at the time, and the other representatives/agents who were in the meeting hall were being far less reverent of the anthem.
  • Archer has a parody of this, when Pam is desperately trying to get someone (anyone) in the office to have sex with her. She actually uses the words "Nobody will know", even if she's got a dolphin puppet on her hand while saying it. Needless to say, Brett, the man she propositions, turns her down (he uses the "I'll know" response.) Even more ironic considering in the same episode, he paid Lana $600 simply to brag about having sex with her, not actually doing the deed.
  • Parodied in The Dover Boys, with Dan Backslide's quote.

Dan Backslide: A runabout! I'll steal it! And no one will EVER KNOW!

  • In The Spectacular Spider-Man, Flash Tompson learns that during a football tournament his team won one of the players was taking a performance-enhancing drug. He's told that by that very player, in a one-on-one conversation, and he knows, that should the word get out, their championship (that he ruined his leg achieving) would be disqualified. The word still gets out... from Flash himself, because to him an unfair victory isn't worth much.
  • Disney's Tarzan has Clayton give Tarzan the choice of shooting him with his own doublebarreled shotgun with no one else around: "Go ahead, shoot me, be a man". Tarzan's reply? mimicing the sound of the gun being shot to put some fear into Clayton before smashing said shotgun in front of him. "Not a man like you."


Real Life

  • The Internet. Is there a finer test for this principle than the ability to interact with all kinds of people from all over the world, under a veil of anonymity? Judging by the existence of the GIFT, many online users fail this test hard.
    • This goes both ways: with modern technology, it's hard to be sure that nobody will ever know. And, by the nature of the Internet, any attempts to hide what happens in the dark stand a good chance of backfiring.
    • Considering GIFT though, it seems most think of themselves already well hidden.
    • Those who don't take advantage of their relative anonymity risk public embarrassment and online harassment whenever they do something they'll regret later.
    • On the other hand, you have websites like TV Tropes, The Other Wiki, and others that would be totally unusable if the vast majority of their users weren't constructive or at least benign.
  • Fanfiction.net. It's all what you are in the dark...
    • Are you man enough to log in to leave your constructive but scathing review? A derogatory one? Heck, even an outright defamatory one? Or will you do it Anonymously?
    • Will you demand to know who leaves you reviews, or do you have the guts to allow Anonymous reviews?
    • Will you demand only positive reviews, or have you the gall to leave up every review you get, regardless of their opinion?
    • Will you accept even negative reviews, or track that person down and bash their fiction mercilessly?
  • One Paul Feldman sold bagels by leaving them in offices with a box to take the money. Between 1984 and 2006 he delivered 8400 bagels a week to 140 office buildings in Washington, while keeping careful statistics. It turns out even at the worst of times people are at least 87% good/at most 13% evil. In the top floors where the wealthiest and most powerful bosses work. Around high stress holidays. In Washington. Also relevant: if the poster explaining the sale depicted eyes, people were more honest than if it had a floral motif or the like.
  • A rule of politics: The (attempted) cover-up is worse than whatever you were trying to cover up.
    • Truth in Television, mind. The original actions tend to be spontaneous and with few people involved. The cover-up tends to take on more people, and requires planning and a more long-term effort. Thus, anything worth covering up implies that those doing it know that what happened was wrong, yet condone it anyway.
      • This could easily be said of Watergate which, compared to other political scandals of the day...heck, compared to the other dealing of the Nixon Administration, many of which were well known, and popularly approved...was pretty tame. Without the attempted cover-up, it is unlikely Watergate would have destroyed the Nixon Presidency.
    • This has probably more to do with the simple fact that you only hear about failed cover-ups. Successful cover-ups stay in the dark by definition.
  • Literal real life example: people are more likely to be dishonest/commit moral transgressions in a dark environment. This might explain Evil Is Not Well Lit...
  • Happens to many, many soldiers who fight in war. One example, recently recounted in the HBO series The Pacific, involved the US Marines who fought in Guadalcanal. After fighting for many months in a deadly jungle against thousands of Japanese troops, the Marines were finally relieved by Army reinforcements and put on a troopship that would take them home. Since they had not heard any news since arriving on Guadalcanal, one of them asked a mess cook if anyone had even heard of the place. The cook would respond:

Everyone knows about Guadalcanal and the First Marines. You're on the front page of every newspaper back home. You guys are heroes.

    • The same scene is recounted in the book 1942, which goes on to say that "The Marines immediately made excuses, left the room, and went separate ways. They did not want the others to see the tears in their eyes."
    • On a less inspirational note, soldiers who fail this test are all too common. My Lai is a very famous example of US soldiers who, after fighting for many months in a deadly jungle against thousands of North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong, went on to torture and slaughter civilians for little reason aside frustration. If it weren't for the timely intervention of a helicopter and its crew, it's hard to tell if this particular venture would have ever gotten out of the proverbial dark. The only thing that keeps the whole episode from being an irredeemable blot on the US Army's honor is the heroism of the US helicopter crew commanded by Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr, who saw the insanity taking place and immediately moved in to stop it, including threatening to fire on the errant soldiers if they didn't (something that almost got him court-martialed).
      • On a...more positive note (if that can be said about My Lai), Hugh Thompson managed to not only avoid getting court-martialed, but remains the only soldier in the American army who received medals for threatening to fire on his own side. He, at least, passed the test with flying colours.
        • Thompson eventually retired in 1983 as a major, after receiving a direct commission to officer rank (not at all common for aviation warrants), when the vast majority of Vietnam-era aviation warrant officers without college degrees were separated during the reduction-in-force[1] after the war was over and they didn't need that many helicopter pilots. The Army clearly approved of his actions to the highest degree possible.
          • Of particular note is that without a college degree, he could not hold officer rank at all without either a) the wartime temporary lapse in that restriction or b) a specific waiver from very high echelons. That he went all the way to 1983 as a major would have required a personal nod from the Vice of Chief of Staff (Personnel)[2] or one of his immediate subordinates.
      • Also, the Army court-martialed Lt. Calley for his crimes and sentenced him to life imprisonment without parole. The only reason he walked free is because he was pardoned by President Nixon, but that's hardly the Army's fault.
  • Phillip Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment is a combination of this and Bavarian Fire Drill. Within a day, the "prisoners" were regularly berated and even beaten by the "guards", and even the "wardens" (the overseers who weren't technically a part of the experiment) did nothing to stop them. This is a big reason why the experiment was cut short.
    • Perhaps a little too much is made of the Stanford Prison Experiment. Consider this little discussion of some of the less well known facts about the experiment.
    • Note that the guards, in the official documentary, took it upon themselves to discipline the prisoners. It was okay for the first day, with the prisoners immediately acting up and the guards attempting to stop it. This did not end well. Also note that, on the one hand the fact that ALL participants knew it was an experiment and were probably counting, consciously or unconsciously, on being reined in if they went too far. On the other hand, this prompts the question of why real prisons wouldn't have as much "reining in" as a fake one.
    • Along the same lines, Stanley Milgram's experiments on obedience dealt 100% with each person's response when being freed from responsibility. The test dealt with their willingness to administer shocks up to lethal levels, simply given the order by someone they believed was in authority. The Other Wiki mentions that several participants indicated concern after a while, but that many of them returned to the experiment when assured that they would not be held responsible. This and the Stanford Prison Experiment were both large factors in reworking ethical standards in studies. The Milgram experiments also shed a stark light on Nazi activities, as participants were willing to seriously injure under orders, believing themselves free of blame. Several lower ranked Nazi soldiers gave their defense based on the idea that they were Just Following Orders. The experiments were meant to debunk their claims, but instead ended up affirming them. This study is particularly disturbing as it shows humankind just what they are in the dark.
  • Nobel Peace Prize winner and Chinese political prisoner Liu Xiaobo probably never knew just what his work against the PRC's government had accomplished ... although his being told by his wife that he'd won the Nobel Peace Prize let him know that he'd accomplished something.
  • Cracked.com gives us a list of Seven Ruthless Criminals Who Turned Good When Nobody Was Looking
  • One popular story is when some car thieves accidentally stole Mr. Rogers' car. When they realized what they had done, the thieves immediately returned the car, leaving a note apologizing to Mr. Rogers.
  1. Military-ese for "laid off".
  2. 3-star general, one of the deputies directly underneath the Army Chief of Staff, or the highest-ranking officer in the US Army. IOW, the top.