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Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy

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"Ruined World + cast of Jerk = I don't care what happens to these guys"

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

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Meaningful conflict is the soul of drama. 'Cuz Tropes Are Tools.

Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy occurs when a conflict exists that simply lacks any reason for the audience to care about how it is resolved. This crops up where the setting is extremely but meaninglessly Darker and Edgier, or all sides are Evil vs. Evil, or at least, far enough gone that any difference is a Distinction Without a Difference.

In other words, there is nothing really at stake. It might seem like there is, but ultimately if you're presented with a choice between supporting one of two equally horrible groups or hoping for one of two equally despairing outcomes, that's not really a choice at all. The outcome's going to be awful either way, so who cares who wins?

When applying to individuals, this is one of the reasons why the "Wangst" trope happens. This results in readers saying the Eight Deadly Words, or concluding that the plot boils down to a wangst-fest.

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Compare Angst Dissonance, Audience-Alienating Premise and Only the Author Can Save Them Now.

Contrast Tastes Like Diabetes, this trope's polar opposite, and also Rooting for the Empire, but only when all sides involved are evil and yet the audience still likes them. Compare and contrast Glurge, which is what happens when you combine the sickeningly sweet and the depressingly dark.

See also Too Happy to Live and True Love Is Boring.


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Examples:

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

    Music 
  • Iron Maiden:
    • The album The X Factor is widely disliked, largely because it is relentlessly dark and slow in tempo from "Fortunes Of War" onwards. Virtual XI gets this a bit too, though is balanced out a bit with the unnaturally happy sounding track "The Angel And The Gambler" (which is basically the "Can I Play With Madness" or "Holy Smoke" of this album, but fans saw it quite differently due to it running close to 10 minutes and the chorus being repeated 22 times).
    • Many fans feel this way about A Matter Of Life And Death, as well. With the exception of "Different World", the album is all about the horrors of war, and represents this in long dirges like "These Colours Don't Run" and "Brighter Than A Thousand Suns". As older fans have pointed out, this is quite similar to The X Factor, but has received far better reviews due to Bruce Dickinson singing. Newer fans, and music journalists, regard it as one of the band's best albums, mostly because it virtually lacks the pop sensibilities that are on the band's other albums and thus fits in better with the modern image of metal as being dark and serious.
  • Joy Division. Ian Curtis' lyrics and low-key vocals make his self-inflicted death of little surprise. Martin Hannett's spartan production adds to the effect; even Bernard Sumner says in the "Joy Division" docu-film that Unknown Pleasures is almost too dark, and he prefers the more varied arrangements of Closer.
    • On a lesser note, The Smiths and The Cure, while happier than Joy Division, also have no dearth of depressing songs that depend on equal mood to properly enjoy (8-Bit Theater even joked: "Look at those Cure albums. No emotionally balanced, healthy person would listen to that. This is obviously our perp.").
  • George Michael 's album "Older", written after his boyfriend's death, is widely regarded as being extremely dark and slow and a pretty difficult listen. It and its singles were very successful at the time (helped largely due to a four year gap since his last single), but tastes changed and it is very commonly found in charity shops in the UK.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • Peanuts: Though the comic did generally achieve an agreeable balance between the light-hearted charm of the other characters and the morose nature of Charlie Brown, the strip did always have its critics who found it too downcast overall. The infamous "Lucy and the football" running gag is particularly polarizing; some found the joke increasingly sadistic as the years (and decades) went on. The animated cartoons generally received harsher criticism for being "too mean," with It's Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown actually having some scenes softened for syndication.
  • Funky Winkerbean: Very little goes right for the characters, jokes about death are frequent and everyone is just generally depressed from a melancholy in the air. Lisa's death by cancer is a good spot to mark when the strip moved into its darkness setting.
    • Crankshaft, from the same creator, has this to a lesser degree. It's not as perpetually glum, but the main character is very hard to like as a person and the occasional death joke pops up now and then.
  • This has happened with a lot of politically-oriented Mexican comics, like El Santos and Los Miserables: After suffering decades of government censorship, the political comic industry experienced a resurgence during The '90s with its gritty stories and Deadpan Snarker Anti-Hero characters being praised as a welcome reality-grounded change from the rosy picture readers were being fed before; however, more than 20 years later, the Black and Gray Morality themes were turned Up to Eleven, and several of their readers got tired of the Crapsack World themes, crude humor, irredeemable Jerkass protagonists and the overall message of This Loser Is You.

     Role Playing 
  • Survival of the Fittest can either avoid this one or play it straight, depending on the character and scene. The setting essentially means that most of the cast will die in some way or another, occasionally in horrific ways and often at the hands of each other. While with a bit of skill handlers do avert this one entirely, there still have been moments where it feels like this trope in practice. Fortunately, there have been a fair amount of avoidance with specific examples.
  • Disney World Of War has this problem at times. With the setting being a Darker and Edgier version of the traditional Disney universe. Added to this problem is the Black and Gray Morality which is exhibited by all three sides in the war, including the "Heroes" who are not above brutal means to win the war, makes it hard to really root for any of them because they are so willing to throw ethics out the window at times. There is also the problem of so many characters, particularly child characters, dying or traditional "good guys" being turned to the dark side because of either trauma or the realisation that The Dark Side Will Make You Forget means even rooting for Disney protagonists is hard. Fortunately, however, the personalities of the Disney characters saves this somewhat as they still can be the characters everyone knows and loves in the brief moments of levity.

    Tabletop Games 
  • BattleTech can reach this level if you care to check its backstory. The clash of multiple Deadly Decadent Courts (a clash which did not even so much as slow down when the Clans invaded) and continuous wars (against the Clans, against the Word of Blake, against each other, etc) that have constantly knocked down the whole Inner Sphere can make the fluff feel to some like A Song of Ice and Fire IN SPACE with Humongous Mecha. There are plenty of sympathetic characters on the canon, but in the end the Inner Sphere is just not going to ever change from being a war-wreaked Crapsack Galaxy, no matter their efforts, so why bother about seeing their success if you know in the long run it will all go to hell again?
    • This was especially bad in the early days of the Mechwarrior: Dark Age series, which bumped everything ahead by about half a century—not only did this mean that most of the characters that fans had come to know and love were dead (often Killed Offscreen), but the setting had reduced the availability of 'Mechs and made them frustratingly expensive to field, which, while somewhat realistic, is also anathema to pushing the setting's unique selling point, as a Humongous Mecha Space Opera. It did not help that the powers that be set up some thirty-odd preset characters to try and give a sense of stability to the setting (and continuity with the fan-preferred Classic Battletech) and then proceeded to kill off or write out approximately a third of them within six months, including most of the major Clan characters introduced to set up that portion of the universe. As a result, many long-time fans ended up uninvested in the new Dark Age setting, declaring it a Dork Age.
  • Dead of Winter can fall under this, depending how bad the secret objectives are. You could use that medicine to save your friend's survivor, who could really help the community... but if your secret objective requires that you keep the medicine...
  • In the view of some of the current authors, large chunks of second edition Exalted fell into "shitdark", defined by Holden Shearer as "a setting so relentlessly shitty and miserable and hopeless that it becomes impossible to emotionally invest in it or care what happens to it."
  • GURPS is too diverse a system to fall into this generally, but several of its Alternate Universe Earth settings fell into this for gamers; most notably, Reich-5 was retooled into a new villain for crosstime campaigns because your options there consisted of "Nazis, Nazified Americans, Imperial Japanese, and the inevitably doomed resistance". Reich-2 was this in-story for Americans after the British signed a truce with the Nazis—no one much cared whether Hitler or Stalin won the war.
  • While Wraith is the worst in this regard, the Old World of Darkness as a whole tended to fall in this trap. Throughout each game, the main villains tended to be vast unknowable forces that could never be truly defeated: ancient conspiracies, corrupt corporations, secret government organizations, the spiritual force of evil itself, etc. And they're winning. Regardless of the player characters' victories in a campaign, you're unlikely to have any effect on the large-scale machinations at work. A recurring theme throughout each game is that the heroes are fighting a losing battle against the end of the world. Have fun.
    • In Werewolf: The Apocalypse, the world is threatened by the Weaver (the cosmic force of order who seeks to lock the cosmos into unchanging stasis) and the Wyrm (the cosmic force of destruction and renewal who has gone insane after being imprisoned in the Weaver's "web" of reality). In best case scenarios, these forces can be restored to sanity and balance, at the cost of billions of human and non-human lives. In worst case scenarios, one of these beings emerges triumphant over the cosmos and proceeds to either destroy it or render it a horrible crapsack world. Meanwhile, their minions are inflicting untold suffering on the world. The Gaia-aligned factions trying to stop the Weaver and Wyrm are often depicted as short-sighted, bigoted, bloodthirsty, and in the case of the Ananasi, outright sociopathic, making it difficult at times to root for them.
    • Wraith: The Oblivion is a game where upon death your soul incarnates in H. R. Giger's worst BDSM nightmare, is taken in by a society whose repressiveness would embarrass a fascist, finds that there is no happy afterlife for him, and then must struggle to survive as a mad force of Eldritch Abominations and their howling-mad servants of Oblivion seek to unmake the world. One source book went so far as to deal with the ghosts born of the Holocaust. The bleakness drove it straight into Audience-Alienating Premise and it was definitely one of the less popular games. This is the game where your character's sweater is made out of the soul of another person who is experiencing And I Must Scream.
    • Hunter: The Reckoning had this problem at release. It was advertised as a World of Darkness game in which the characters would play regular people attempting to take back their streets from the assorted vampires, werewolves, mages etc. that populate the setting. When the book was actually released, though, it was revealed that Hunters themselves also had supernatural powers granted to them by an unknown entity.. and since every powerful unknown force in the setting up to that point was a Big Bad, and "I'm a monster but I have to be to defend you against the other worse monster" a central theme of all the games, Hunters appeared no longer to be the champions of regular humanity but just another type of supernatural creature.
  • With the revelations in the last two Horizon adventure packs that the only four major factions (The Draco Foundation, the Great Dragon Hestaby, Buttercup, and Horizon) that could still be said to be in any way 'good' (or even anti-heroic) are really as expedient and guilty of atrocity and terror as the rest, and only differ in the nature and scope of their self-rationalizations but are as mired in the basest of motivations as every other setting villain, some fans believe that the Shadowrun universe has finally hit this threshold.
    • The part where several of the writers openly expressed scorn on forums at the idea of shadowrunners having any kind of ethics (even antiheroic ones) instead of just being people who gladly do horrible things for money, and the promotion in storylines and flavor text of several NPC shadowrunners who exemplified that utterly amoral attitude from 'the runners even other shadowrunners look down on' to 'well-respected and widely admired figures of their professional community' isn't helping much either. One of them (Haze) is canonically a serial rapist who uses drugs to incapacitate his victims. Another (Clockwork) is a Fantastic Racist who makes money selling fellow runners with technomancer powers to megacorporate vivisection labs, and openly admits to anyone who asks that he'd cheerfully sell out anyone, including other team members, to the authorities in return for money (something that's normally considered an unforgivable sin among even the most depraved criminal community, and yet is entirely ignored in-setting). Another (Kane) has been the reigning world champion of excess collateral damage and carelessness with the lives of innocent bystanders for two editions. All of these characters have been promoted to signature NPC status, instead of their prior canonical treatment as cautionary tales/shadowrunner antagonists.
    • The most recent Edition zig-zags with this. On the one hand, the writers have tried to showcase shadowrunners as more morally varied and some things to suck less... on the other hand, it's starting to become a full-on Lovecraft-style Cosmic Horror Story.
  • Unhallowed Metropolis takes this trope to an extreme. It is set in a world where a Zombie Apocalypse has warped most of the earth, resulting in barely-surviving societies which are surrounded by blighted, polluted, unholy hellscapes. The default setting, Victorian-esque England, takes inequality to such extremes that for every stuffy noble using the blood of the poor to stay young while enjoying macabre orgies, there are thousands who die for want of a gas mask. Speaking of gas masks, the air is so polluted that one is essential for survival. What few leaders remain are all invariably corrupt and decadent to a level that cannot be exaggerated, while bomb-throwing anarchists and worse are ready to dismantle the system. Of course, anarchy would only lead to a failure of the few systems stopping the ghouls, vampires, mad-scientists, and other evils from visiting horrors on the populous. Nation states have fallen - there is no world system, and all the people of this new society know of other peoples is that France is even worse off. Even the heroes are inherently corrupt, and draw power by accepting further corruption. Finally, all the undeath of this setting is hinted to be a symptom of the world being fundamentally wrong on a far, far more terrible level, as observed through the unspeakable behavior of its human inhabitants.
  • Warhammer 40,000:
    • The universe skirts this, as a setting based on unending war and horror that runs on Black and Black Morality (well, maybe Black and Very Dark Grey Morality). However, most fans accept it as part of the basic premise of the setting, and most stories are told from a smaller scale perspective where there is good and evil, and good can indeed triumph despite the bleakness of the setting as a whole. Other bits of source material and licensed novels turn things up to 11 and use the bleakness as a source of black comedy (which is what 40k started before becoming more serious). There may not be any heroic or even mostly good factions, but Chaos influence, cultists, civilian victims, and planets ensure that they will always, always be the most evil faction in any conflict they appear in.
    • Horus Heresy novels in particular can fall into this range after enough Doomed by Canon, unpleasant people on both sides, obligatory war crimes scenes, and downer endings.
    • The Gaunt's Ghosts series avoids this by presenting the 40k universe through the lens of the eponymous regiment, detailing how ordinary human soldiers deal with the horrors of the setting and yet still managing to triumph via ingenuity and sheer determination (and a bit of luck), though not without loss.
    • Ciaphas Cain outright defies the grimdark setting by pointing out a lot of the grimdark depictions - such as Commissars who execute willy-nilly and use Imperial Guard as little more than fodder - tend to get fragged, and depicts the Imperium as willing to negotiate with the Tau over an unimportant planet that's already been half-swayed to the Tau cause (because realpolitik means their military resources are better employed against the tyranids and necrons), something that wouldn't fly in stereotypical WH40k. The series also avoids the A Million Is a Statistic treatment of warfare common in the setting by humanizing it, such as in the sequence in Death or Glory where Cain enters a town orks have passed through and imagines the orks' treatment of the populace.
    • The fans also coined the term Grimderp, which is a variation on this: An event or setting so dark and horrible it becomes Narmtastic, often throwing away logic for the sake of being grittier. Something has entered Grimderp territory whenever it gets too stupidly dark to take seriously anymore (such as the much-reviled 5th edition Grey Knights codex, featuring the Knights slaughtering a Sororitas convent to use their blood as holy protection... which canonically they wouldn't even have needed to begin with because they are already the Antimagical Faction).

    Theater 
  • The big plot twists of Act 2 of Ebenezer are so dark and cynical it can be hard to care about anything that happens before or afterward, even A Christmas Carol itself. Jacob Marley was in love with Scrooge's mother, swore vengeance on the family when she died in childbirth, impregnated and killed Scrooge's sister Fran, concocted a plot to make Scrooge think Emily was cheating on him, and upon purported proof, foreclosed her orphanage, killing everyone there. It's then revealed Scrooge knew about it all from the start and didn't care, even though he himself attacked Emily viciously and ordered Marley to foreclose her orphanage beforehand. Scrooge's speech detailing this revelation hammers it home.
    Scrooge: You must think me a simpleton, sir. Don't you think I've known about everything from the start? Don't you think I've known about Marley's motives all along?
    Dickens: Then why stay here?
    Scrooge: Because I learned a long time ago that there is no goodness in this world—and whatever goodness there is is extinguished like a sputtering candle.
  • Repo! The Genetic Opera in both a musical and the film of the musical. The basic premise is that a company controls the supply of organs needed to live, and they remove them by force if you are late making payments. The characters include an heiress addicted to drugs and surgery, a mass-murdering heir, a man who wears the removed faces of women, a Corrupt Corporate Executive who sends hitmen out to remove the organs of those who fail to pay him, and the titular Repo Man. There's only three characters with a shred of decency - the tragic opera singer, the Incorruptible Pure Pureness Ill Girl, and the grave-robbing, drug-dealing Greek Chorus. It just keeps getting worse.
  • Sweeney Todd pits a barber who murders innocent men and sends them to his Psycho Supporter to be baked into pies, against a corrupt judge who drugged and raped a woman and then holds her daughter hostage with the intent to marry the girl he brought up. There's a Token Romance (or Romantic Plot Tumor) between a couple of flat characters, but other than that it's a revenge story between a mass murderer and the monster who wronged him.
  • Titus Andronicus: The protagonist is a horrible person, the antagonist is a horrible person, the side characters are horrible people, there's overreactions galore, rape, cannibalism, murder, torture, insanity, but it's so over the top and over done it just ends up unpopular and buried in the back folder of Full Annotated works of Shakespeare.
    • Though it was probably meant to be a parody of similar Revenge Dramas that were very popular at the time by going completely over the top. Also, there are a some likeable characters (such as Titus' brother Marcus), and the ambiguity in some areas (such as Aaron's baby), allows some characters to be more likable.

    Visual Novels 
  • Corpse Party, even in its first incarnation, was pretty bleak, featuring a setting where ordinary high school students are pulled into an alternate version of their school, featuring a Stringy-Haired Ghost Girl and other ghosts that all want them dead, along with the Darkening, which turns them into undead monsters if they lose all hope. Even then, the protagonists usually solved the mystery and escaped relatively intact in the first few incarnations of the story. Later adaptions, however, go straight for the Kill 'em All route. Even the OVA adaptation of the first story kills all but two of the protagonists, one of whom ends up sitting in a rocking chair for the rest of her life, too traumatized to even speak.
  • The Danganronpa games. The premise for them is already dark, in that the protagonists are all stuck in a school or on an island and the sadistic Monokuma tells them that, in order to be free, they need to kill each other and get away with it. With that as your beginning aspect, there's not much else one can do to make it even darker, but the game does, by including the revelation that The End of the World as We Know It has occurred outside of the school and the air is tainted, food is scarce and what little of 'society' remains is filled with violence. And the Gaiden Game Absolute Despair Girls flips things around and shows how bad things are outside in the world. For a game that started with simply killing students and solving murders, this got dark so fast, it's in absolute darkness.
    • In Absolute Despair Girls it actually seems to be playing with your apathy by shocking you back into being horrified again and again. What is worse than senseless murder? Senseless murder committed by children. Worse than that? Those children being abused. Near the end the main character temporarily falls into a state of this because she is shown something so horrifying to her that she stops caring about the decision she was supposed to be making, but recovers before the final boss battle soon afterwards.
    • This reaches new depths in New Danganronpa V3. The events of the first four installments of the series were apparently works of fiction in this universe, and the events of V3 are actually the 53rd season of a reality show spinoff. The students were brainwashed into "real fictional characters" for the show and have no way of reclaiming their original identities. On top of that, only three students survive the game (compared to six in the first game and five in the second), and now have to somehow reintegrate into a world that was enthralled with 53 iterations of a killing game between teenagers. On top of that, all that might not even be true—one of the game's central themes is the power of lies, which mainly manifests as the villainous characters lying so much that the ambiguity is just irritating.
  • This is a problem a lot of people outside of people with ravishment fetishes have with Diabolik Lovers and the main reason the franchise is mostly despised outside Japan. The female lead/player character is trapped in terrible situations without any ways out (and develops Stockholm Syndrome), the romantic options are horrible people with little to no redeeming qualities, there's lots of gross and squicky elements, and most of the game's Multiple Endings are overly cruel or esoterically happy.
  • Katawa Shoujo's creators discussed this trope and their efforts to avoid it on their blog. Originally the game included many more alternate bad endings ranging from depressing to absolutely soul-crushingly depressing, but they eventually decided that the game's very premise - a Romance Game where all the character have disabilities - was sad enough as it is, and decided to cut the bad endings down to just one for each route(two for Hanako and Rin). Among the endings cut included several where Hisao dies, ones where Hanako and Misha commit suicide, and even an option to rape Hanako.

    Web Comics 
  • Ever since the December arc, Bittersweet Candy Bowl has become solely about grinding the characters (Especially Lucy and Mike) into the dirt. Friendships are destroyed, characters are given bleak, depressing backstories, every storyline since December has ended in tragedy, and any happy moments the characters experience are quickly and cruelly shattered.
  • Almost certainly one of the reasons Chainmail Bikini didn't work out as opposed to DM of the Rings is that, separated from the connection to Lord of the Rings with its characters and story people were familiar with, the gaming group came off less as a parody/commentary on gaming tropes and bad gaming and more just a group of people being complete dicks to each other.
  • Draconia Chronicles is about a genocidal war between two races, Dragons and Tigers, which are full of horrible, horrible people ranging from genocidal madwomen, racist jerks, and just plain incompetent fools. Many of the participants of the war are involved for purely selfish reasons. The madwomen, jerks and fools are constantly rewarded and have good things happen to them, while the few characters who are in any way decent either get broken, die, or get broken then die.
  • Nothing has gone right for any of the good guys since day one of Ghosts of the Future. The comic even starts with the main heroes of the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise dying. The Scourge arc, in particular, is one long sequence of "one step forward, two steps back." The author has lampshaded this, saying "I show my feelings of admiration through doing horrible, horrible things to the characters I like."
  • Goblins: Every time something happens in the comic, more tragedy will result than happiness. The author himself seems to have noticed this, since he's started killing off characters less often, though some may still be turned off regardless.
    • The Brassmoon arc kicked off because a party member got imprisoned there, through his own idealism no less, and ended with the party recovering him in a catatonic state after he'd been tortured by the sadistic Big Bad. And one of them got half their soul destroyed during the events.
    • The Well of Darkness arc started because the characters involved were enslaved and forced to enter a dungeon and retrieve a magical item for the Big Bad. In the aftermath, two are dead, two characters are forced to cut a limb off, and a new terrifying monster has been created.
    • Perhaps the grandest example of all in the comic; the romance built up between Minmax and Kin over a long period is absolutely destroyed in two pages.
  • Nineteen-Ninety-Something: A lot of the stories are really bleak and cynical and most of the characters range from jerks to just straight-up horrible people. It got so bad that the author himself started noticing this and set out to try and make the stories more uplifting and the characters more likable (Keyword being "try" as this has had varying degrees of success).
  • Prequel's Katia just keeps losing everything, leading to many readers quitting the strip after Sigrid takes almost everything she has.
  • The protagonists are unrepentant and hypocritical murderers, there's no point in the people who die learning last-minute lessons (or die for not learning them), and everyone else is apparently so stupid they never put two and two together to figure out the protagonists commit such horrible acts, and so they are never stopped. Congratulations, you just read everything wrong with Suicide for Hire. The only thing it has left is the Black Comedy.
  • Survivor: Fan Characters:
  • Nearly all the characters in 8-Bit Theater are either complete sociopaths or borderline mentally challenged, and near the end of the comic, the "heroes" aren't even trying to save the world anymore. This can make the comic feel very bleak at times, especially when the few actually sympathetic characters are around, but of course, it is a very dark comedy.
  • Las Lindas is an inversion of Prequel, but in this case, the main character having everything good happen to her happens to be a major bitch who barely got any better at all, and pretty much spits in Karma's face. Considering that she's pretty much reaching God-Mode Sue territory currently, and the Protagonist-Centered Morality is in full swing, it can be very, very difficult to get invested in what happens.
  • Sonic the Comic – Online! has this badly. When a bad Smear Campaign ruins Sonic's reputation (who here is a Bitch in Sheep's Clothing), the entire planet of Mobius, even Sonic's old friends within the Freedom Fighters, turn against him. The only one who doesn't turn against him is Tails, who is now christened Mobius' Ultimate Hero. Sonic is attempting to pull a Clear My Name by Walking the Earth in search of a way to prove he's a hero, but with his main source having pulled a Karma Houdini by escaping to another dimension, he has his work cut out for him. Making this worse is that the title suffers from an irregular schedule, so this particular plotline has dragged on for years.

    Web Original 

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