Sliding Scale of Continuity YKTTW Discussion

Sliding Scale of Continuity
(permanent link) added: 2011-01-30 07:11:51 sponsor: antialiasis edited by: MorningStar1337 (last reply: 2013-06-03 19:55:44)

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(Definitely Needs More Examples; this is just whatever first popped into my head for each one.)

Continuity is handled very differently between different works. Some writers take it very seriously, others really, really don't; some works need you to have been watching from the beginning while others just let you hop in and enjoy an individual story at any point in the series. Realizing where a work falls on the Sliding Scale of Continuity is often essential to being able to enjoy a series for what it is.

What this scale measures is: if you knew nothing of the series but the very basic premise and then happened to catch some random episodes in arbitrary order, how difficult is it going to be to understand and follow what's going on, compared to if you watched it in order from the beginning?

The answer doesn't have to be static within a series. When a work starts low on the scale and progresses upwards over time, that's Continuity Creep. Then, in many shows, especially those with a Half-Arc Season, the answer is different depending on which episode you're watching. If the shift is very pronounced, you can list it under both levels; otherwise, just put it where most episodes go and note the variance.

See also Season Fluidity.

Level 0: Non-Linear Installments

The different installments of the series are only nominally the same work; every new installment concerns different characters, or possibly the 'same' characters but in an Alternate Universe, such that the stories are explicitly disconnected and obviously not meant to be part of a continuity of any sort. Within any given installment, it can be assumed that every other installment either never happened or is at least completely irrelevant to the current one. What they share to make them a series is usually thematic, world or (for video games) gameplay elements, with possible minor recurring creatures, objects, etc.


  • The Final Fantasy series. A couple of games had sequels or spin-offs; the others are each their own reality with their own characters, their own plot, their own setting... However, they share various nods to one another such as similar monsters, summons, chocobos, and characters named Cid.
  • Genre Anthology shows:
  • The seasons of Blackadder in relation to each other are this, the only similarities being the basic premise of "Blackadder surrounded by idiots" (and not even that considering the first season). However, the episodes within a season can be from Levels 1-2.
  • Neptunia: The second game Takes place in an Alternate Universe from the first and Victory involves the protagonist and her sister from the second game Trapped In Another Alternate Universe. Despite having the same characters, the games taking place in AU versions of the same world and with AU versions of the cast make this a level 0.
  • Each entry in the Escape Velocity series takes place in a completely different continuity from the others. EV Classic and EV Nova are tangentially connected because a Negative Space Wedgie kicked two Atinoda Kestrels from the Classic universe into Nova, but it's more of an Easter Egg than anything else and doesn't affect the plot.

Level 1: Negative Continuity

Continuity? What's that?

Sure, the episodes are clearly related, sharing characters and a basic setup... but ultimately, watching it out of order makes more sense than in order if anything. The show may cheerfully contradict itself and if something seems to have changed by the end of the episode, you can bet the next one pretended it never happened anyway, so it's hardly a loss if that's not the next one you watch. Usually done in comedy. When there actually is continuity of some sort, that very fact is probably a gag in itself.


Level 2: Status Quo

Here Status Quo Is God. While there is an established canon and different episodes or installments will usually try not to contradict one another, there will be no, or next to no, changes in the setting that aren't reset before the end of the episode. There may be Continuity Nods, but if you haven't seen what is being referenced, they might as well just be Noodle Incidents. The basic situation at the beginning of an episode in season seven will probably be exactly (or almost exactly) the same as the situation at the beginning of an episode in season two, so that it makes little difference in what order you watch them.


  • The main series Pokémon games mix this with level 0. There is continuity in the world, with references to events from previous games and some recurring characters, but every new game starts with you being a new rookie trainer in a new region fighting a new evil team, and knowing where the recurring characters came from is more a bonus than anything else.
  • Many Sitcoms:
    • The Simpsons: they're always the same family with kids of the same ages that have the same neighbors, etc. Lisa did permanently become a vegetarian, though, and some such minor happenings.
    • As it says on that page, Saved by the Bell was the king of the Status Quo Is God trope.
  • Star Trek: The Original Series adhered to this level of continuity well enough that with a scant few exceptions you can watch the series in any order and it generally makes perfect sense.
  • Most Kid Coms (iCarly, Hannah Montana, etc.) are level two.

Level 3: Subtle Continuity

There may be developing minor subplots or Character Arcs, the status quo may gradually change over time, and prior events may be casually referenced, but major changes generally don't happen. If you watch a season two episode and then a season five one, you may think, "Wait, when did they get together?" or "Whoa, Alice and Bob moved?", but chances are if you then watch a later season five episode you'd never know you skipped seven episodes in between, and the plots of the individual episodes you watch will always be resolved by the end.


  • Sitcoms that aren't level 2 tend to be this, e.g. How I Met Your Mother and Friends.
  • Forensic Dramas, Monster of the Week shows and other basically episodic, plot-based genres with no Myth Arcs also usually fall here.
  • The first three Harry Potter books' storylines don't directly depend on the stories of the previous books; they each explain basic premises like the wizarding world, Voldemort, Harry's backstory, etc., Harry continues to live at the Dursleys', go to Hogwarts every year, have friends named Ron and Hermione, etc., and the actual events of the first two books don't matter by the third. The rest of the series, well...
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events is much the same as Harry Potter, with the first four books or so being mostly independent, starting off with the Baudelaires being adopted by a new guardian and carefully explaining who the characters are to potential new readers, but later on the continuity creeps and the reader starts to need to have read the previous books to make sense of all this stuff about VFD and Beatrice and so on.
  • The Ace Attorney games have a stronger (level 4) continuity between cases within each game, but are this with respect to one another, featuring the same characters (bar Apollo Justice) and explaining things like spirit mediums at the beginning of each game but otherwise having independent stories and not depending on the player knowing the previous games.
  • Firefly's episodes can pretty much stand on their own in a mostly arbitrary order, though this may largely be because it never got the chance to go anywhere with the hinted Myth Arc.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation generally operated at this level.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is a level 3, there are Continuity Nods and Call Backs to previous episodes but with the exception of certain two-part episodes All the episodes are stand-alone.
  • Left 4 Dead is level 0 without DLC, but jumps to level 3 with it. Left 4 Dead 2 is pretty firmly level 3.
  • Superman is a Level 3 in at least The Silver Age of Comic Books -- while Mort Weisinger was the editor, his supporting cast, Rogues Gallery, and mythology were slowly built upon, without readers requiring to have read any previous stories most of the time.
  • South Park is normally Level 3 but occasionally goes into Level 4, especially when a major event happens or characters go through major Character Development.
  • The Legend of Zelda. The games tend to be stand alone but there are three timelines that diverge at ''Ocarina of Time. Yet the games only get a Continuity Nod or Mythology Gag at best and can be played with any knowledge of the other games.

Level 4: Arc-Based Episodic

These works do divide into episodes or installments with each (usually) introducing and resolving its own mini-plot, but there is a continuous ongoing storyline going on in the background. While most episodes may be enjoyed individually, any watching out of order will probably leave you wondering where characters who died three seasons ago are, or why they're suddenly having dinner with the guy they had sworn to defeat in the last episode you watched, or who the hell this new villain they're talking about is, even if you can follow the actual plot of the episode. Shows often try to combat the resulting Continuity Lockout - with varying degrees of success - with Previously On recap openings.


  • Most of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though it started to edge towards level 5 as the series went on.
  • The Dresden Files slides quickly from level 3 to here as the books become less 'investigating a case' and more 'investigating something deeply connected to just about everything else while dozens of old characters reappear and stuff that happened five books ago suddenly turns out to be vitally important', though there is still a plot with its own resolution in each book.
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender is mostly like this - while the Gaang is always traveling the world to find bending masters to teach Aang and there are plenty of Fillers that belong on level 3, there are pretty steady continuous developments on the villainous side that would be very jarring to anyone who just watched individual episodes here and there.
  • Fringe.
  • Doctor Who.
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and the series that followed it, Voyager and Enterprise, wavered between this and level 3, but their use of longer-running arcs (compared to previous series) bumps them up the scale.
  • Glee is level four.
  • One interesting example is Stand Alone Complex, which explicitly identifies each episode as either "Stand Alone" (episodic) or "Complex" (part of the series arc). The episodic ones rarely contain any reference to other episodes.
  • Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis follow this model. Each show has multi-season Myth Arcs but the individual episodes are pretty self-contained, and they usually have a Previously On segment in the continuity-heavy episodes.
  • Most of the Discworld books are Level 4.

Level 5: Full Lockout

If you haven't seen the whole series so far, or at least the entirety of the current season, you're screwed. Each installment expects you to have seen every previous installment; though it may make some effort to try to clue you in if you haven't, you will probably be thoroughly confused, and there is no guarantee there will be any sort of resolution to anything by the episode's end - in fact, it's quite likely to end with a Cliffhanger. Often Better on DVD.


  • ReGenesis, through all its interwoven multiple-episode story and character arcs, is probably impossible to understand episodically despite the lengthy Previously On recaps.
  • Each season of 24 is a continuous real-time story arc.
  • A lot of Anime, e.g. Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, especially as it goes on (though the Parallel Works are level 0).
  • Lost is a frequently cited example of Continuity Lockout because of this.
  • Homestuck.
  • Babylon 5.
  • The King of Fighters currently has four arcs: The Rugal Saga (the first title, '94), The Orochi Saga ('95-'98), The NESTS Chronicles ('99-2002), and The Tales of Ash (the present-day saga, having started in 2003). While it's not too bad with The NESTS Chronicles (as the protagonist of those titles, K', distances himself from previous hero Kyo despite being genetically-engineered with his DNA), The Tales of Ash almost requires that you played the first four games. This is made worse if you look past the main plot and focus on the supporting cast, as you then have to deal with allusions and plot points carried over from Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, Ikari Warriors, Athena/Psycho Soldier, The Last Blade, Savage Reign/Kizuna Encounter, Buriki One, etc. While it's Continuity Porn and Fanservice for those who have followed SNK Playmore since its heyday, it's borderline-Continuity Lockout for anyone else. Remember that this series originally existed as a storyless gathering of fighters.
  • The re-imagined Battlestar Galactica
  • Kingdom Hearts. From the second game onward the games head straight into Kudzu Plot with any detail potentially Foreshadowing future games (Xigbar's cryptic lines in II being an example). Dream Drop Distance has "memoirs" thought that record the plots of the preceeding games and unlocks them when a Continuity Nod/Call Back to the respective game first occurs. Making the games a Level 4 at least. (though without that game it still remains at 5)
  • Both Higurashi and Unineko When They Cry count. Ye gads, get out of order or miss a segment or two in either, and you can end up so lost. And, this is the same, whichever medium you're playing/ watching/ reading them in.
  • Damages is level 5, due to the Anachronic Order and following the case instead of a Monster of the Week format.
  • Stargate Universe was heavily arc-based, which had the misfortune to occur at the same time Syfy changed its scheduling strategy to where it would air part of a season, then replace it with another show, then bring the first show back, and so on. The SGU showrunners partly blame the series' cancellation on the resulting confusion driving away viewers.
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