Sliding Scale of Continuity
is handled very differently between different works: some of them 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, that will usually be contained within a single installment
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. In many cases, series on the lower side of the continuity scale often rely on a recurring structure
or at least a consistent tone and mood - when deciding whether or not to watch an episode, a viewer will have some idea of what to expect beforehand. High-continuity series are usually expected to offer the viewer a sense of change or progress between installments, in terms of both characters
. This allows for more complex and detailed storytelling, spanning multiple chapters, at the cost of requiring more involved viewing. A lot of popular works attempt to combine the best of both worlds: offering self-contained episodes with something extra
for those who take the time to watch all of it
, or offering "progress" between seasons.
From the production side of things, works closer to the episodic end of the scale are also much easier to coordinate between writers, and handle a change in episode count or order
better. In television, their appeal to networks is that can attract casual viewership, and easily increase viewership at any point along the series' run. On the other hand, works leaning towards continuity may find it easier to maintain a more devoted viewership once they catch on.
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, and how much will you miss, 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
The Sliding Scale of Continuity is as follows:
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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. Non-Linear Sequel
is the specific trope for this. If done to an entire series you've got a Thematic Series
. In some cases, the rights-holders use the already-popular name that they own for marketing reasons,
regardless of whether or not an installment fits in with previous ones in the series.
Anime & Manga
- Ghost in the Shell is split up into multiple alternate and equally separate continuities. The original manga, by which all the animated versions are based around; the Mamoru Oshii movies, which are condensed retellings of the manga with a bit of artistic license thrown in; Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, the TV series that only loosely recreates and references scenes from the manga while telling a story all it's own; and finally Ghost In The Shell Arise, which serves as a prequel of sorts to the whole franchise- even to the original manga- but still remains as a completely disconnected continuity in itself. Each version all contain the same characters and their own interpretations of them there-in.
- 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.
- Genre Anthology shows:
- 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.
- 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
. See the Negative Continuity
- Flight of the Conchords' second season had several episodes end with the guys having, say, lost all their furniture, or fallen below zero on Murray's friendship graph, with the next merrily restoring the status quo without so much as a mention. The first season, however, is level 2-3, making it an example of inverted Continuity Creep.
- Saturday Night Live alternates between level 0 and level 1, with some recurring sketches and characters.
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 Sherlock Holmes stories can be read in any order (with a very few notable exceptions like The Final Problem and The Empty House). And after the first few stories, they aren't all set in the order they were written in, anyway. Conan Doyle deliberately wrote them like this so that readers would not quit following the series just because they had missed a story or two.
- As it says on that page, Saved by the Bell was the king of the Status Quo Is God trope.
- Most KidComs, in general, are at this level. While they might occasionally have a brief story arc (and by "brief" I mean "the occasional two-parter"), they usually depict the exact same characters in the exact same situations from season to season. TGIF sitcoms are at the high end of this level, since they at least chronicle their main characters growing up and make whatever adjustments are necessary to the status quo to reflect this.
- Seinfeld is a good example of a grown-up sitcom that's at this level.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Anime & Manga
- The second season of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex diverges from the Type 4 setting that the first season fell into. Episodes are split up into "Individual", "Dividual", and "Dual" episodes. While the first two may seem like completely stand-alone episodes that have nothing to do with anything in particular, each episode focuses on at least some minor detail that will build up to a more important role later on as the story unfolds. Individual episodes focus on the rising tensions with the Asian refugees in Japan practically being treated as 2nd class citizens. Dual episodes focus on the Government's involvement with the refugee situation (and the Big Bad's manipulation of everything behind the scenes), and Dividual episodes focus on the members of Section 9 and how they get involved in all of it.
- 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.
- 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.
- Left 4 Dead is level 0 without DLC. Each level is completely stand alone as far as the game leads you to believe. With the release of the DLC, it jumps to level 3 as we find out that the survivors ended up transitioning from one area to the next. Left 4 Dead 2 is pretty firmly level 3, with the start of the next area being a direct result of what happened at the end of the last. For example: fueling up a race car to escape from a zombie infested mall only results in them abandoning the car when they reach blocked traffic, thus having to travel through a dilapidated carnival on foot.
- The Legend of Zelda. The games tend to be standalone 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. See also Story Arc
Anime And Manga
- One interesting example is Ghost in the Shell: 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.
- 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.
- Most of the Discworld books are level 4.
- The Ciaphas Cain novels are a fusion of this and Anachronic Order, numbered thematically rather than chronologically. The first trilogy tells the story of how Cain became attached to the Valhallan 597th Regiment and their early campaigns. The second covers much more ground time-wise but is tangentially related to the shadowlight, a mysterious pre-humanity artifact discovered on Perlia. "Echoes of the Tomb" and The Emperor's Finest cover his time as Imperial Guard liaison to the Reclaimers chapter of the Adeptus Astartes, and shed light on a Noodle Incident repeatedly alluded to in previous books and why Cain is so terrified of necrons.
- Most of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though it started to edge towards level 5 as the series went on.
- Supernatural tends to do this in later seasons, as compared to the level 3 of the earlier ones. As it recaps all plot points relevant to the episode right before the episode, it's in no real danger of becoming level 5.
- Doctor Who post-2005. Pre-2005 DW is more a hybrid of level 4 and level 3, with 4-6 episode story arcs that have a strict continuity in themselves but overall have virtually no connection to each other. The only difference a casual viewer would notice between a season 10 story and a season 20 story is the new lead actor.
- 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.
- 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.
- USA Network's summer series are noted for this:
- Burn Notice: With the arc being the titular burn notice and Michel Westen's attempts to get back into proper intelligence work. It gets much more arc-heavy starting in Season 5.
- Royal Pains: With the arc being Hank working out his family issues and growing his business.
- Suits: With the arcs being Mike Ross' dubious past in the legal profession coming back to bite him, and the constant intrigue among partners (and Louis Litt) at Pearson Hardman.
- 'Allo 'Allo! is a rare sitcom to reach this level; each episode began with the lead character summarising the ongoing events of the miniarc so far and the background arc of the painting(s) and British airmen ran through the whole series.
- The West Wing has two or three major arcs per season, but segments of the arc are usually wrapped up within episodes with some exceptions. Being as it's a show about politics, things from the past often affect the present. Each episode starts with a Previously On.
- The Dragon Age series is notably more lax about its continuity than its sister series Mass Effect: while there are definitely several enduring Myth Arcs, each installment so far (including supplemental novels and comic mini-series) is a largely self-contained story that happens to push one or more overarching plots along. This is helped by the fact that individual installments usually focus on different (albeit often overlapping) main characters and are set in different parts of the world at different times; also, an occasional retcon by the writers prevents the established canon from being too reliable.
- 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.
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
. The specific trope here is Continuity Lockout
Anime And Manga
- Extremely common in this medium, e.g. Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, especially as it goes on (though the Parallel Works are level 0).
- 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.
- LOST is a frequently cited example of Continuity Lockout because of this.
- Babylon 5 later on, though the first season or so was more level 4.
- 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.
- Most of the various AMC dramas:
- Mad Men: The ongoing story of Don Draper and the firm of Sterling Cooper.
- Breaking Bad: Or, Two Years In The Life of Walter White. And boy, is it an eventful one.
- HBO does this too.
- Raumschiff GameStar: The series swung between level 5 (Full Lockout) in seasons 1, 2, and 4 and level 4 (Arc-based Episodic) in seasons 3 and 5, occasionally tapping into level 3 (Subtle Continuity) at some points in the third and fourth seasons.
- 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.
- 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 Umineko: 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.
- The original Mass Effect trilogy is probably the most continuity-restrictive series BioWare has ever produced. Thanks to the ability to carry over the main character (and thus most of the plot) across all three installments, Mass Effect 2 and particularly Mass Effect 3 depend on the previous installments to such degree that it is literally impossible to get some of the best outcomes in the third game (such as the peace between quarians and the geth) without having completed the previous ones.
- Sluggy Freelance creator Pete Abrams recently acknowledged the phenomenon at this stage of the comic's lifespan and narrative density. He still tries to link back to details in previous strips, but now that it's become necessary even in filler arcs, it's extremely daunting to new readers.