He's so beautiful, and he's a wise man
He brings the change - angel in human shape
He's the solitary angel
And he's not from heaven sent
He tries to bring the peace to the world
He brings salvation and he brings love
The art of playing mutually exclusive tropes at the same time, by making the situation itself ambiguous
so the viewers/readers can't know for sure what's going on. While this trope can come into play unintentionally, for example as a side effect of Faux Symbolism
, it's normally intentionally played by the authors. This can be done to make the story more interesting in general, as a way of Getting Crap Past the Radar
, or simply to appeal to several audiences at the same time - each of them likely to interpret the situation in whatever way they are most familiar with.
A trope is being played. But what
trope, that depends on a premise that we cannot know for sure: Either some vital piece of information is missing, or we are left with contradicting information and no definite verification about what is correct and what is not. Take for example the page quote above, quoted from a song about an unidentified character. This song could be one of several different tropes, depending on who he
When played straight
, the characters probably (but not necessarily) know what they are talking about, but they're not giving the audience all the information needed to know the situation for sure. (Again with the song, the singer's character surely know who he's talking about, but he sticks to calling him "he" plus various honorifics, never telling the audience what kind of character he's really talking about.)
, the characters themselves ponder the nature of the situation they are in. This only applies to cases where they don't know that the trope is - say for example that they are having a strong emotional reaction and are pondering whether it's The Power of Love
or The Power of Friendship
. In a detective story, the detectives might be unsure or disagreeing - not merely about whether or not a certain suspect is guilty or not as a simple "who did this" level, but about the the basic nature of the situation they are investigating. Note that examples only count if the uncertainty is left unresolved: Brief uncertainties stop being this trope when they get a definite answer.
When adding examples, list the alternatives - both what the unknown factor is, and what tropes the different alternatives result in.
Only add examples where the alternatives are reasonable. If needed, make an argument for why it's a viable interpretation. Also, don't add situations that are only temporarily ambiguous: If the situation is clarified after a little while then it is not an example.
Please note that pretty much ANY situation in fiction can theoretically be Sarcasm Mode
or Unreliable Narrator
. So only add such examples if you have a good argument for why the option is relevant.
Supertrope to Ambiguously Gay
and Ambiguously Evil
. If the ambiguity concerns whether a character lived or died, you're probably looking at Uncertain Doom
or one of its subtropes. Compare Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane
and Alternate Character Interpretation
for other kinds of uncertainty. Contrast Epileptic Trees
, which are conclusions that viewers draw when they don't limit themselves to information objectively present within the work. Also see Cryptic Conversation
, Implied Trope
, Through the Eyes of Madness
: Here be spoilers. Unmarked spoilers, since they are often vital parts of the analysis.
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- Neon Genesis Evangelion has quite a bit of this, partly resulting from that Rule of Symbolism mentioned in the trope description. The most notable example would be the final scene of End of Evangelion, where the true meaning of Asuka's words remains up to viewer interpretation.
- Haruhi Suzumiya
- At the end of the first season (which in chronological order would be the sixth episode), it is left very vague as to whether Haruhi recreated the world or not. Kyon and Koizumi don't know either. There is really no way to know for sure, only that the events surrounding the moment when it would have occurred, if it did, really did happen.
- Multiple explanations for various happenings are also presented. For example, Koizumi claims that Haruhi created the espers and either attracted time travelers and aliens or created them, while Mikuru says that Koizumi is lying and that the residents of the future have their own goals. Nagato refuses to say what the IDTE thinks because neither she nor the previous two have the slightest bit of proof that they can show to Kyon and any of the three could easily lie to him. And, of course, any of the three could just be wrong.
- Another big ambiguity that is touched on occasionally but never truly addressed is whether Haruhi is a god or not. It's one of the early theories that Koizumi presented, and a large number of fans assume it to be the case, but even Koizumi himself doesn't know if it's true or not. He says it's just the worst case scenario that his Organization is acting on. Or at least that he claims it is acting on.
- The situation between just what Shizuru did with Natsuki while the latter was recovering under her care is never fully resolved in Mai-HiME. Besides Shizuru herself (who never brings it up) we only see Natsuki's imagining a scene of them silhouetted through a rice-paper screen door where Shizuru disrobes and then lies down, and the scene is flipped from what it was in reality, adding to the ambiguity about whether Natsuki is remembering it or imagining it based on what she hears Haruka and Yukino saying. All we know for certain is that Shizuru did kiss the sleeping Natsuki, but beyond that there are several possibilities. Whether or not Shizuru was wearing any underwear beneath her kimono, whether or not she lay down on the same futon or one adjacent, and whether it even really happened are left ambiguous, so it's impossible to see what happens next and means that Yukino and Haruka's assumptions might not be accurate.
- One of the continuing points of crisis between Ian and Jeremy in A Cruel God Reigns is whether or not the car crash that killed their father and mother (step parents respectively) was caused by an error in Greg's driving, a faulty car attribute, or Jeremy's tampering. Because it is never solved and could have been any of the three reasons, heavy strain is placed on Ian's willingness to try to forgive his stepbrother and later on his budding romantic feelings for him. Even more strain is placed on Jeremy because he can't be sure whether or not he accidentally killed his mother, and therefore he can't put the guilt behind him or forget about what Greg did to him to make him sabotage the car in the first place.
- In the ending of InuYasha, it's left uncertain whether or not the gateway between the present day and the Feudal Era in the Bone Eater's Well is sealed up for good after Kagome returns there permanently, or if Kagome really is Trapped in the Past for good this time. Either way, she's chosen to stay in the past.
- Watchmen has an open-ended ending where Rorschach's journal is seen lying in a pile of papers and reports in the New Frontiersman, and a hand is seen reaching for the pile. The significance of the journal is that Rorschach uses it to expose Ozymandias for the murders of The Comedian and Moloch, which could potentially lead to an investigation that would expose him. However, the journal only exposes the murders of The Comedian and Moloch, and does not actually expose the squid monster ending, as Rorschach was not aware of the squid monster when he submitted the journal. And an underground newspaper may find it hard to expose a man as rich and powerful as Ozymandias.
- Death Of The Family: Does Joker really know the Batfamily's identities or is he just bluffing? So far, convincing arguments can be made for both possibilities.
- By the end, it's heavily implied that he does know who they are, but doesn't even care. He is simply incapable of seeing them underneath their masks, especially Batman.
- Inception ends with an Esoteric Happy Ending where Cobb is so happy to see his children again that he forgets to check if his totem stops spinning or not - which is his way of seeing the difference between reality and dreamworlds! Will it stop spinning shortly after the scene? If so, the ending is Earn Your Happy Ending, with an implied Happily Ever After. Or will it not? If so, it's kinda a Lotus-Eater Machine.
- Also invoked (earlier in the film) by Mal and Cobb, who keep taking opposing standpoints on This Is Reality versus All Just a Dream.
- Also invoked by one of the sedative makers who treats a group of people who are so dependent on the sedatives that its the only way they can dream anymore. Cobb notes that they come to him to dream; he counters "No, they come to wake up".
- Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides with the fate of Philip. Syrena pulls him into the water, but we never find out what happened to him, though it was hinted earlier in the film that the kiss of a mermaid grants you immunity to drowning.
- Source Code ends with Colter going back into the titular program and completely averts the destruction of the train using everything he had learned from his previous attempts. Then we see Goodwyn receiving a text message he had sent from within the program, and acting surprised when she hears that the bombing had been prevented, so did Colter actually change the past, or is he now in an alternate timeline within the program?
- Angels with Dirty Faces ends with a confident gangster whimpering and begging to live as he dies in the electric chair, even though he had arrogantly ignored the prospect of his death up until that moment. A friend of his had told him to stop the proud and confident act so that the kids who knew him would stop viewing him as a role model. Did he take the advice and fake the whole thing to discourage the kids who looked up to the gangster lifestyle, or did he really just lose it?
- In The Matrix, Neo has superpowers because he is in a computer simulation. In the sequel, he is revealed to have superpowers in the real world as well. Does this make him a Super Hero kind of Messianic Archetype? Or does it simply man that the "reality" is actually a computer-generated Dream Within a Dream? Or he has wi-fi?
- The 2008 movie Doubt invokes this. You're left never really knowing if the priest is actually guilty of the allegations.
- In fact, the writer/director has only ever revealed the answer to this to the actors who played the priest, showing that a) there was a very definite answer intended and b) we're not supposed to know for sure... but Father Flynn sure does.
- In La Moustache Marc shaves off his moustache and possibly enters a world where he never had one and slowly other things start changing as well (e.g. Angès having not been married a first time). It's completely ambiguous as to what the real situation is: is Marc going insane? Does Angès have some form of mental disorder and is planning this around Marc? Are the events in the film symbolic or literal? For the ending scenes: Is Marc imagining/dreaming of them? Are they idealised versions of other events? If they really happened, is he back in the "original" world or is Angès (once again) planning this around him?
- Changeling: By the end, Walter is not returned to Christine... but in the epilogue, one of Northcott's escaped victims has been found. He says that both he and Walter escaped from their prison, but were separated in the dark. Maybe Walter was recaptured by Northcott, maybe he got away.
- In Attenberg, the relationship between Marina and Bella... is it Friendly War, With Friends Like These... or even Belligerent Sexual Tension? Maybe all three at once!
- The movie Cloverfield is an interesting example of this. The film acts as a deconstruction of giant monster movies, showing what it would be like to be a civilian in a giant monster attack. As such the monster's origin is left almost completely ambiguous because the characters themselves have no idea where it came from. The only thing that comes close to giving an idea about where the monster comes from is the ending which shows a large object falling from the sky into the ocean far off in the background. The fans and theorists are torn as to whether the object is the monster falling from space (meaning the creature would be an alien) or a piece of space junk, like a satellite, falling into the ocean and waking up the monster (which means the creature is an at least partially natural creature). Both explanations just raise more questions.
- John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) is almost literally one situation after another full of plot threads that are never fully resolved and left to the viewer's interpretation. Who got to the blood? What happened to Fuchs and Nauls, when were Palmer, Norris, and Blair infected? Are Mac and Childs infected or are they still human? To this day fans still debate on these questions and more.
- K-PAX is all about this: prot may either be an actual alien visitor, or a man suffering from delusions as a result of his wife's murder.
- In CSA The Confederate States Of America, a mockumentary about an America in which the south won the The American Civil War, one of the subplots concerns a politician who is rumored to have a slave as an ancestor, an accusation that could ruin him. Eventually the man commits suicide, and after his death the DNA tests are revealed to have "come back negative", without elaboration.
- The whole point of Eve's Bayou. Did Cisely kiss her dad or did he abuse her? Conflicting accounts of the incident are given by the perpetrators and the question is never really answered in the film itself. In the director's cut, there is one person other than Cisely and Louis who knows what happened but he is unable to speak.
- Is the main relationship in the novel The Story of O simply Casual Kink and Property of Love, or is it Destructive Romance/Romanticized Abuse? The novel exists in two versions. These versions have very different endings, casting the rest of the story in very different light. In the most popular version (which most adaptations are built on), the first option might be the most likely. In the alternative version, the second option is far more likely. That version of the novel ends with the protagonist and her boyfriend agreeing that she should commit suicide... and she does.
- The Lady or the Tiger, by Frank R. Stockton is an example of Morton's Fork where the final decision and its result is never revealed. The tendency of people to bug the author to tell them which was the real ending prompted its sequel The Discourager of Hesitancy in which a group of characters who ask are told that they shall find out the answer once they can answer an equally ambiguously ended story.
- From a Buick 8 has multiple examples because the story is based around the idea that you'll never have all the answers. Is the Buick alive? Intelligent? Did it kill Curtis and more.
- In A Passage to India what really happens to Adela is never explained, the reader is left to draw their own conclusion. We'll never know what the author intended becuase Forster refused to say during his life
- Leviathan has one of these concerning the Goliath. Is it a fake, a delusion, or does it call down Nickel-Iron asteroids through magnetic force? Since it's totally destroyed, there is no clear answer.
- In the short story Mariam, an elderly woman named Mariam happens to meet a Creepy Child who is also named Mariam. What, exactly, the younger Mariam is is never explained. She is able to coerce the older Mariam into giving over a prized brooch and adopting her, but never actually does anything threatening or forceful to get those things. When the older Mariam goes to get her neighbors to help her get the kid out of her apartment, they can't find her. And the last line ("Hello," said Mariam) doesn't specify if it's the elderly Mariam speaking, or if the younger Mariam has returned.
- Horatio Hornblower Lieutenant Hornblower is the only book of the Hornblower series written from the POV of a character other than Hornblower (in this case, newly-assigned Lieutenant Bush). The (quite unstable and paranoid) Captain falls down a hatchway and is put in a coma. Through the course of the book, it's unclear if he fell on accident or if he was pushed by either a much-abused midshipman or Hornblower himself. Things are not made more clear by Hornblower appointing himself head of the investigation in the confusion caused by the power vacuum, nor by his insistence that they press on a planned attack on a Spanish fort, keeping everyone too occupied to look into things too closely. By the end of the book, the Captain is killed in a Spanish attack on the ship, and the Midshipman is mentioned in the denouement as being lost in a storm a few months later during the Peace of Amiens, meaning only Hornblower may know the truth, and is keeping it to himself.
- Pavlovs Dogs has a major character killed on screen, but is seemingly resurrected. The characters are caught between the belief it's an imposter, the actual person, and even mental instability setting in.
Live Action TV
- The sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has an episode called "Normal Again", which follows the Cuckoo Nest trope: Buffy is injected with a poison that make her hallucinate... Or is it the other way around? According to a psychiatrist, who may or may not be a real person, she is in fact getting better: She has been sick all along, and now she's finally waking up from years of catatonic schizophrenia. So, the whole series is either This Is Reality or a mad All Just a Dream with a dash of The Schizophrenia Conspiracy. In the end, Buffy chooses her life in Sunnydale over her life in the mental institution, but the ending leaves it ambiguous whether or not the world she settled for is the real one.
- Law & Order: SVU loves to leave stuff unresolved for the audience to ponder. Usually, it's on the simple level whether the guy is guilty or not (such as in the episode "Doubt"), but sometimes they take it to a much deeper level. The detectives just keep spawning new theories, and none of them either gets verified. For example, the episode "Slaves" features a husband, his wife, and their nanny/girlfriend/Sex Slave Elena. They keep the relationship hidden...
- Either because Elena is in the country illegally, and also because her conservative aunt and other relatives would not approve of her living in a polyamorous relationship,
- Or because they have kidnapped Elena and held her against her will until Stockholm Syndrome set in.
- So, it's pretty much Safe, Sane and Consensual, polyamory and Casual Kink versus monster and A Match Made in Stockholm. The husband claims the first option, but that might just be From a Certain Point of View or even Blatant Lies. As for Elena, she never gets a voice in the matter. The kindnapping theory is implied to be the correct one, but if it's actually verified then that happens after the episode is over.
- The only outright verification given for the monster viewpoint comes from the wife, and only AFTER she has been...
- A. proven guilty of murdering Elena's aunt without her husband's knowledge or consent.
- B. force-fed "oh, go ahead and blame it on your husband anyway" by the detectives as a "Get Out of Jail Free" Card.
- Much of Life On Mars, British version, was highly unclear as to what was reality.
- Person of Interest episode 4, "Cura Te Ipsum": We never find out if Reese kills the serial rapist or lets him go.
- Later heavily hinted (if not outright stated) that he just has him locked up in a Mexican Prison for the rest of his life with a few other individuals he has gotten rid of.
- LOST. True to its gnostic roots, it eschews answers about the nature of the universe in favor of personal revelation according to the perspectives of the characters (and the viewers). A close-up of eyes is a recurring visual motif, characters making a decision based on incomplete or outright fraudulent information pops up repeatedly, and questions like "Is the Light spiritual or scientific in nature?" "Is Jacob a god, a superpowerful conman, or a scientist who sets an experiment in motion and watches the results?" or "Do the Numbers really mean anything, or is Hurley mistaking coincidence for fate?" are never clarified, to the dismay of some fans.
- In the second installment of Horatio Hornblower miniseries (parts "Mutiny" and "Retribution"), it's never fully resolved what happened when the Captain Sawyer fell in the hatchway. It's possible that Lieutenant Hornblower, Lieutenant Kennedy, or Midshipman Wellard pushed him, or that the disoriented and paranoid Captain simply tripped and fell on his own. The scene is shot so as to be intentionally vague, and by the end of the miniseries, Kennedy, Wellard, and Sawyer are all dead. For his part, Hornblower doesn't talk about it. The book that these films were based on, Lieutenant Hornblower, was written from Lieutenant Bush's point of view and was similarly unclear.
- Blutengel's song Solitary Angel (see page quote) is about a saviour who is "not from heaven sent" - which means it could be a secular force or a spiritual force other than the God of Christianity. This character could be a powerful human, since "angel" is a common metaphor for generic benevolence. The character could also be a powerful vampire, since most of the songs from the same band are about vampires and they routinely use "angel" as a euphemism for "vampire" or "lover". And of course, it could also be referring to an angel in the literal religious sense - either one that simply works on it's own accord, or a fallen one. So, what trope or tropes is this?
- Invoked in Miley Cyrus' song Who Owns My Heart: the protagonist is having a strong emotional reaction. But she doesn't know if it's caused by The Power of Love or by Crowning Music of Awesome.
- Is Lola glad the protagonist of the song is a man, or, well...
Role Playing Games
- Dino Attack RPG: When Trigger was killed, Atton Rand took the opportunity to write a parody of a Deus ex Machina from the RPG's Spiritual Predecessor, when it turned out the mysterious voice that called to people upon death was a somewhat perverted man with blue hair and no pants who runs a hotel occupied by dead people. However, due to PeabodySam's reluctance to explore themes of the afterlife, the nature of this character was left open to interpretation. Is he some sort of deity? King of All Cosmos? Some form of strange equivalent to the Grim Reaper or other personification of death? A looney who just happens to run a hotel in a separate dimension? A figment of Trigger's imagination?
- Johnny Byron, the main character of Jerusalem, is a former daredevil and fantastic Munchausen who claims to have met the ninety-foot giant who built stonehenge. In the second act, Byron shows the local teens a drum that he claims was the giant's earring, saying that the giant told him to bang on it if ever he needed the help of the giants. In the final moments of the play, when Byron stands alone, bloodied and beaten, his land in the woods about to be invaded by a bulldozer and a dozen local constables, he beats the drum and calls upon the mythological figures of England. At this point, the text of the play says "Blackout", but the original production from the Royal Court Theatre that has since moved to Broadway ends with the rumble of enormous footsteps in the distance.
- Dark Souls has plenty of this. According to the director, Hidetaka Miyazaki, he based it and Demon's Souls on his experiences reading badly translated Western fantasy and piecing together ideas about what it could mean. Specific examples include the parenthood of Priscilla (who is a dragon crossbreed), the nature of the undead, and the ultimate effect of the final choice made by the player.
- In Shadow of the Colossus, the only clear part of the plot is that Wander is trying to revive Mono by unsealing Dormin, and Lord Emon wants to stop this. This leaves us with a whole boatload of varying interpretations - for a small sample, is Wander a Villain Protagonist or a Woobie? Is Dormin displaying Dark Is Evil or Dark Is Not Evil? Is Emon a Hero Antagonist or a Knight Templar? Indeed, director Fumito Ueda is on the record as wanting each player to form their own story, and boy has the fandom taken him up on that.
- Used to skirt around the issues of violence, death and sexuality in Rule of Rose, where most characters are young children. Especially whether Mr. Hoffman sexually abused Clara and Diana. An infamous scenario features Hoffman summoning sad, reluctant Clara to his room, and you can witness through a keyhole how he...makes her scrub the floor, though in a very innuendo-laden position.
- Silent Hill: Shattered Memories actually builds the entire crux of the plot around this, with the nature, outcome and even symbolism of the plot dependent on both the player's actions and interpretations.
- Dead or Alive: The two most recent games in the series, Dimensions and DOA5, leave it up to the air as to whether or not Kasumi will ever be able to return to the Mugen Tenshin village.
- Modern Warfare: Both the villains, Khalid al-Asad and Imran Zakhaev, blame the west for their two countries' problems. While their actions are morally reprehensible, whether they're power-mad dictators America is trying to save the world from or Knight Templars doing what they genuinely think they have to do to stop American imperialism is open to interpretation. Very much Truth in Television. The ambiguity even extends to the nuclear detonation — it's never confirmed in the first game who set it off: Zakhaev, al-Asad, a suicidal Mook, the NEST team trying to diffuse it....
- Much to the fandom's chagrin, Mass Effect 3 ended with this trope. Beyond the presence of a Gainax Ending, there is the apparent explosion of the mass relays in every ending except Control, which would doom the entire galaxy, given that an exploding mass relay has shown to release energy on the scale of supernova, in addition to the enormous amount of Fridge Horror in the endings (see Inferred Holocaust). In fact, even in the control ending, the Catalyst's dialogue seems to imply that controlling the reapers will eventually lead to And Then John Was a Zombie, causing the reapers to return to destroy the galaxy and renew the cycle. Apparently, this was the desired effect of the endings, as the lead writer Mac Walters (allegedly) wrote, in ALL CAPS on a piece of note paper regarding the endings "LOTS OF SPECULATION FROM EVERYONE." Clarified a bit in the DLC endings, which are far less ambiguous.
- Fans of The Slender Man Mythos can easily figure out what vaguely happened in the game it inspired, Slender, but the details are unknown, and if you aren't familiar with the mythos, you really have no idea.
- Gunnerkrigg Court:
- In an early chapter, Reynardine apparently attempts to possess Antimony, which would have killed her. Much later, Coyote insists that trying to kill Annie would have been out of character for Rey, leading many readers to reinterpret the earlier scene as an elaborate attempt on Rey's part to fake his own death and go into hiding, rather than a genuine possession attempt. Tom Siddell has confirmed that he deliberately set up the scene so the fanbase would be divided on the issue. Later, in a What You Are in the Dark moment, he reveals he really was going to kill her due to being pushed to the Despair Event Horizon, and it is his greatest regret in life.
- There is also the matter of Ysengrin. At one point, Annie sees him out of his magical wooden "Powered Armor", without which he is skeletally thin and visibly weak. Shortly afterwards, she sees his etheric self, which she describes as "beautiful". Coyote tells her she has now seen how Ysengrin sees himself, how others see him, and how he really is. But he intentionally leaves it vague as to which is which.
- Homestuck. The short version: A character who has the explicit ability to return from any death, except one that is either heroic (Heroic Sacrifice) or just (die for their crimes), dies and does not return. Hardly any readers think this is a heroic death, but there's ambiguous evidence suggesting that it's not a just death either, and that the real reason the character doesn't return is because of a cosmic accident cheating them out of their revival. note Word of Hussie has outright stated that he intended for this to be ambiguous and divisive.
- Invoked in this episode of Zinnia Jones, about how different Christians interpret The Bible differently.
- The denouement of "Hard Times in the Big Easy", set in the Global Guardians universe, involved the death of the Big Bad, a Criminal Mastermind called Baron Samedi. The story began with the villain being thrown off the roof of his own building... and ended with at least three of the heroes being implicated in the crime. But who actually threw Samedi off the roof, and under what circumstances, was never revealed.
- It's never addressed whether Donnie from Demo Reel is lying about having a big "not allowed to see family" pre-nup to cover up his mom being dead, or whether his life just blows that much.
- My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: Ever since the season 2 finale aired, it has been a major point of argument among fans as to whether or not Chrysalis and/or her army survived being catapulted out of Canterlot, as it wasn't made clear in the episode itself. In the comic, we find out that yes, she did survive.
- The episode "Flight to the Finish" confirms that Scootaloo is behind most pegasi kids when it comes to flying. The question of whether or not Scootaloo ever will fly is raised, but left unanswered as Scootaloo is given a Be Yourself aesop to put her mind at ease.
- In Avatar: The Last Airbender , events surrounding Azulon's death are extremely murky. The main question is whether he was really going to have Ozai kill Zuko as a punishment for Ozai's attempt to usurp Iroh's position as heir. The only two people who know for sure are both known liars and only discuss the incident while trying to manipulate others. One popular fan theory is that Azulon intended to make Zuko Iroh's heir to remove Ozai from the succession, which does fit the very little we see of the scene in question, but is mainly rooted in a literal interpretation of Azula's version of the story which, as noted above, could be all lies in the first place.