Continuity Needs Consistency

It’s my birthday next week and it’s got me thinking about time lapses in our favorite media. As I’ve referenced before, I believe that worldbuilding is very important to story maintenance. Continuity supports this, especially when managing time. Proper care of the chronology of a series can have a heavy effect on the viewer’s perception and that consistency is important when dealing with it.


Often, time consideration for continuity is used in two major ways: maintained for plot-based effects, or disregarded for comedic effect, sometimes with crossover between these two.

A show like Adventure Time goes for plot-based effects and has two things driving its time-based continuity. First, its obvious story-driven nature. The creators are telling stories with implicit rather than explicit arcs. I would cite Flame Princess and Finn’s relationship as an arc that wasn’t always an explicit arc. While it was obvious that they were together and some episodes focused on that dynamic, there were also episodes that only referenced them being together but focused on other things. For example, while Finn and Jake may be on their own adventure, they may comment about Flame Princess; their relationship isn’t only a plot device when it’s convenient. Second, the younger voice actors are aging. The creators had a choice: either replace the voice actors, or age up the characters. In choosing the latter (it has been stated that Finn is aging with the series, according to one of the writer’s pages), time is naturally flowing in the Adventure Time universe. With Finn aging, he has a definite past, present, and future, so his decisions matter. Therefore, the audience can care about events that are meant to carry weight.

Some things come to a definite end

Some things come to a definite end.

The other side of the spectrum is a show that doesn’t have a focus on continuity. One example that comes to mind is with shows like The Powerpuff Girls. The girls or villains can (inadvertently) destroy the town or have the bad guys in jail by the end of an episode, but when the next episode begins, things are reset and the story can begin anew. This gives the writers freedom to make epic plotlines without worrying about long lasting dramatic tension. The lack of any strong continuity itself is consistent; sure, there are recurring characters, but it’s not like certain plotlines carry more weight than others. In this way, the audience can rest easy and enjoy the jokes, humor and action for what they are rather than having to keep up with the show’s history. Someone can jump in and become a fan at any time and not be caught off guard.

This really isn't that bad

This really isn’t that bad.

Both of these shows take a different approach to continuity, but they both work, since they are consistent within themselves. This even bleeds into video game storytelling. Fans of Kingdom Hearts, for instance, are invested in the characters and story. Many of the events have weight on the total story, and the plot is carried on from game to game. The more games in the series that come out within the plot, the more fans tend to care about the characters’ choices. This was also apparent with the Mass Effect series, when fans of the trilogy felt ripped off when they felt that their choices didn’t matter in the final moments of the final game. When decisions carry weight in the story, we want them to actually matter.

On the flip side, we have games like the Mario series, which doesn’t seem to have any plot points carry from game to game. In fact, the heroes even have parties and play sports with the villains! Again, this gives us the sense that everything is for fun, and reminds us not to get bogged down with dramatic tension.

Not everyone came to play though

Not everyone came to play, though.

However, problems arise when time considerations for continuity cross over with no specific reason, and the show’s consistency is ruined. For example, the Sonic the Hedgehog series …sort of has continuity. In most games, Sonic meets a new animal buddy who then shows up in the subsequent games. Many of Dr. Eggman’s failures are referenced in later installments as well. His Death Egg crashes at the end of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and is resurrected in the middle of Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Tails uses a Chaos Emerald in Sonic Adventure 2 that he was given because he defeated Eggman in Sonic Adventure. The list of series continuity can go on and on. However, in the infamous Sonic the Hedgehog (2006), time travel is a plot point. It is revealed that the princess from the game has had a Chaos Emerald for the majority of her life. Estimating her to be around sixteen, this means she’s had it for roughly ten years, which would have made any previous game in the series that used all seven Emeralds impossible. (Luckily this game pulled a reset button at the end, but that wouldn’t necessarily retcon her having the Emerald.) This is very jarring, as the game isn’t meant to be a reboot and many pre-existing characters are present with no introduction. Since the continuity doesn’t match the rest of the series, it would have been hard to follow what actually mattered. A similar discrepancy arises in many games when characters don’t have abilities in later games that they had in previous ones. It simply raises the question: why did some transfer, but others didn’t? It breaks the player’s full immersion in the game.

"Homage" to the Death Star

“Homage” to the Death Star

I bring this all up, and referenced my birthday, to point out the issue of time flow. The birthday episode is often a favorite in cartoons and other medium, but a viewer must worry if this is a serious plot point or a cash in. As with many things in popular media, we relate this to our own lives. Since every year we grow a bit older and our decisions matter more, we like to see this reflected in characters we relate to. In contrast, when characters’ actions don’t matter at all when there is a lack of continuity, we can live vicariously in a fantasy world without repercussions. It’s wish fulfillment. When only the best, or most interesting decisions matter, it becomes weird to fully invest in characters and stories. I can only hope to see characters with a clear divide in one direction or another.