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A setting where our comfy material world is just the tip of an iceberg, the very top layer of many; our puny human senses are simply not trained to perceive the rest of them. With certain magical rituals, you can move down into deeper layers... but there are things down there you might not wanna meet.
In a Layered World, several dimensions coexist in space and time. When you move onto deeper layers, you are usually capable of limited perception and interaction with the normal world but never vice versa, though magical sight may allow you to look down a layer or two. Also, each new layer often features slightly different laws of physics: you can gain the ability to walk through material walls, a speed boost, and even new powers, though these usually come at a price. Also, events in one world have an effect on attuned events in the other a la Synchronization or Fisher Kingdom.
Possible layers include:
- The Material World (usually on top of the stack)
- A Spirit World
- A Dream World
- A Dark World
- A sufficiently advanced Cyberspace
- Sufficiently large Mental Worlds
The rule of thumb to recognize a Layered World is to look for characters saying things like "This place corresponds to some other place on another layer".
See also Recursive Reality.
Anime and Manga
- It doesn't get touched upon much at all in the anime, but the world and general cosmology of Berserk is something like this. Recent events of the manga have resulted in the supernatural worlds being fused with the normal world, which is seriously bad news for everyone in an already Crapsack World...
- In Mahou Sensei Negima, the Magic World is like this. The Magic World is in Another Dimension that is layered on top of Mars.
- One interpretation of the Black Rock Shooter OAV is that both "normal" story and the Otherworld plot are the same event at the same time. Two friends dealing with loneliness and jealousy in one world are a Magical Girl fighting a possessed Dark Magical Girl in the Other at the same time.
- Far, far more apparent in the Black Rock Shooter TV series.
- The universe of Slayers has an astral plane, in which the spiritual projections of mortals exist. Contrariwise, the (already very powerful) physical manifestations of supernatural creatures like demons can best be described as a mere projection of their astral body. Bundled together, said universe is but one of four parallel “worlds” separated by the golden sea of chaos, A.K.A. The Lord of Nightmares.
- The world of Bobobobo Bobobo is like this, with the material world, along with multiple dark worlds (including one that acts as a Tailor-Made Prison for the emperor's brother, and a Bizarro Universe with an evil Bo-bobo and Beauty) and lots of bizarre, nonsensical mental worlds.
- In Inception, the protagonists use the concept of layers to plant an idea into someone's head. They kidnap him in a dream, rescue him in a Dream Within a Dream, team up with him in a dream within that dream...
- Which is necessary as for the inception to truly work it needs to be planted very deeply in the target's subconscious so that they will believe that it's their own idea.
- Night Watch features the Twilight, a seven-layered reality accessible to sorcerers. Each level makes you incorporeal at higher levels (though you can still see and interact with objects and people in them) and gives you a speed boost, but also continuously absorbs your life energy until you either leave or are dead.
- The Deverry Cycle has an ethereal plane (or astral plane, can't recall the terminology) that works like the D&D one.
- In The Bartimaeus Trilogy, there are several layers of reality, each of them more "real" than the one before. If something is invisible on the first layer, it will become visible eventually once enough layers are peeled off: on the very final layer, everything is shown as it really is. Demons can see all layers by default, while humans are naturally able to only see the first one, although wizards have several magical tools available to see more.
- The Nevernever in The Dresden Files is a reality layer underlying our common reality. Although the laws of common physics don't apply to it, the geography of Faerie (the closest part of Nevernever to real world) is such that you can, for instance, enter it in one place, then exit it in another, bypassing any defenses or traps set in real world. You can also directly affect the real world from the Nevernever (though not the other way around), as an angry ghost in the beginning of Grave Peril demonstrates.
- It's not that people in the real world can't affect the Nevernever, rather that most denizens of reality lack the juice. It takes Faerie Queens, über-ghosts, or a seriously pissed-off wizard to send something through.
- From Beyond by H.P. Lovecraft. The main character's acquaintance invents a machine that makes it possible to see the creatures that lives in the different layers, but unfortunately, it works both ways.
- Shriek: An Afterword features fungoid spectacles that at low settings let the wearer see the marks of the Grey Caps' influence, but at higher settings are implied to peel back everything insufficiently real. Wearing them on such a high setting can make you catatonic for notable periods of time.
- Labyrinths of Echo has the Dark Side, or "backing of the World". Which looks suitably weird - colored winds, glowing cobblestones, transparent trees and so on. It doesn't accept everyone, is subjective enough that visitors may see the sky in diferent colors at the same time and unstable, especially where time intervals in it and "real" world are concerned, but provides nice perks to those who can get there. For one, personalities created in interaction with other people fade out and one's true nature comes to surface, which usually feels good and performs better. More practically, enchantments become obvious: a magicked up area will somehow visibly manifest, and if someone e.g. under a spell forcing to keep a secret is pulled there, it will look like an ugly bug sticking to the victim's neck, which can be simply squashed; in the "mundane" world removing such things usually requires a tricky gamble with countering magic out of sight of the victim, who can messily explode or something at any moment. Conversely, the most efficient way to enchant a large area with effects more interactive than a blanket curse involves creation of a huge web on the Dark Side. Invisible or non-corporeal monsters become more noticeable, palpable and sometimes less deadly. What's even better, instinctive understanding is everything, so whether any phenomenon is benign, malicious, and so on can be rather reliably determined simply by paying attention to how one feels about looking at it.
Role Playing Games
- Dungeons and Dragons cosmology has this with Border Ethereal Planes. A Border Ethereal Plane is an extra plane attached to Prime Material one, from which you can see and interact (via magic, not physically) with the contents of the Prime Material Plane. An object or person in the BEP is not visible or tangible in the PMP, so ethereal traveler can just walk through the normal prime walls. On the downside, ethereal can be seen by some people... including medusae and basilisks -- and prime walls don't block this either.
- In the magical theory of the Forgotten Realms, the Demiplane of Shadows has Shadow Fringe and Deep much like the Ethereal Plane has Border and Deep Ethereal. I.e. the Fringe is linked to every shadow in the given world, but being made of shadows, it's severely distorted. It's used almost exclusively for shadow-walking.
- Dungeons and Dragons Birthright setting had the Shadow World. Halflings originally came from there and could return if necessary.
- The Ravenloft setting's Border Ethereal is more tangible than most, as a phenomenon called "ethereal resonance" allows ambient emotion in the Material plane to impose mood-appropriate motifs upon the Ether. Places where the Ethereal has been permeated by darker emotions can become sinkholes of evil, where malign forces fester and grow even nastier than is usual for the Land of Mists.
- The Old World of Darkness has the Shadowlands and the Umbra, each of which is Another Dimension that overlaps with the "real world." The Shadowlands is where Wraiths typically reside; it looks like the real world, only aging, decayed, and destroyed. Later, after a cataclysmic soul storm, the Shadowlands look more like the real world After the End (and is correspondingly now called "The Wasteland").
- Of the various dimensions that converge on the New World of Darkness, the Shadow, the Spirit World, is the one that best fits this trope, being the spiritual reflection of the material world.
- And now, we have the Underworld, which works a hell of a lot like this. When you first enter, you're in the Autochthonous Depths, the area of the Underworld closest to the surface. After that lie the various Rivers, which take either power or sacrifice to cross, and after each one lie several Dead Dominions which go deeper and deeper into the Underworld.
- GURPS Cabal features a world divided into four layers, based on kabbalistic cosmology: Assiah is the material world, Yetzirah the world of spirits, Briah the world of deities and archetypal entities, and Atziluth is the home of capital-G God.
- The JAGS Wonderland setting uses this. Our reality is just the top level of a set of 8 "chessboards", which get weirder and more dangerous the deeper you go. While "down the rabbit hole," you could meet the Red Queen, the Mad Hatter, and other beings from the Lewis Carroll story.
- Ars Magica has Regio, which are localized versions of this -- alternative layered realities that only exist in one limited area.
- The Mega Man Star Force series has the EM world, which consists of the EM waves of the normal universe. Geo Stelar can see it from the normal world with his special goggles. To get in, he has to find a portal and become Mega Man.
- Silent Hill is a many-layered world, which The Movie is most explicit in showing.
- In Silent Hill the film, there's the real world, where the husband and detective are; there's "ashy" Silent Hill, where Rose and Sybill end up, which is populated by monsters and trapped ghosts of cultists. Then there's the "air raid siren" Dark World, which has more and tougher monsters and is generally nightmarish and near impossible to survive in for long.
- Eversion allows you to "evert" at several points (and forcibly everts you on occasion). Eversion is basically moving up or down a layer, which all have different properties, such as solid clouds, time stop, hazardous plants, etc.
- The PC adventure game Torin's Passage takes place on a layered planet. The protagonist starts out on the surface but must journey through the "lands below", different worlds on different levels below the surface, in order to save his parents from an evil sorceress.
- The World Ends With You's cosmology involves multiple "frequencies." Reapers appear to be able to phase between the Realground and Underground at will. Angels and the Composer naturally live on higher frequencies; coming down appears to limit their powers somewhat.
- Trilby's Notes from the Chzo Mythos does this; it waits for map transition before randomly shifting you to the bad world.
- Mighty Flip Champs for DSiWare (and PSP minis) is all about solving puzzles by flipping from one reality to the next.
- The latest Wolfenstein game introduces The Veil an intermediate realm between this world and that of the Black Sun. Viewing objects through the Veil may be different than viewing it normally, such as brand new fighter planes appearing derelict to the point of crumbling.
- The Spectral Realm in the Legacy of Kain games is a good example of a two-layered world.
- Star Control has Realspace as where we live. "Above" Realspace is Hyperspace, used for interstellar travel, and Quasispace, used for really fast interstellar travel and the place where the human friendly Arilou live. "Below" are... well you don't want to go *below*. The Androsynth appearently looked *below*, and now there are no Androsynth. Only Orz.
- Even the Orz, who are implied to be native to *below*, say that it's a terrible place where they were in constant *pain*. Hence why they like Realspace so much.
- In Time Fcuk, the majority of levels have 2 layers although many user-made levels can have up to 3 which the player interacts with.
- Bayonetta does this, with the character herself in Purgatorio, able to see the (semitransparent) humans in reality.