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Layered World

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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 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 and World Tree. For the physical, non-dimension-spanning variant, see Hollow World. For the video game gameplay subtrope see Dual-World Gameplay. Super-Trope of Circles of Hell and Heavenly Concentric Circles, when heavenly planes or beings are depicted as concentric circles in the sky.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Berserk: It doesn't get touched upon much at all in the anime, but the world and general cosmology is made of several layers. Most humans live in the Mortal World, and most demons and other supernatural beings live in the Astral World, with Guts and Casca existing in the Interstice between the worlds because of the Brands of Sacrifice they bear. The God Hand and other sufficiently powerful supernatural beings reside in the Vortex of Souls, which is halfway between the Astral World and the Ideal World, where all souls eventually go and where the Idea of Evil resides. At some point, certain events result in the supernatural worlds being fused with the normal world, which is seriously bad news for everyone in an already Crapsack World...
  • Black★Rock Shooter: One interpretation of the 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.
  • Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo: The world 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.
  • Day Break Illusion: Fights take place in a weird approximation of what's going on in the real world. For the most part, this means that the Daemonia take the form of whatever they're manipulating, so the heroes can prevent more damage by blocking it's strikes, binding it, etc.
  • Digimon: The various works in the franchise have at minimum the mundane world and cyberspace in the form of the Digital World. Digimon Adventure and Digimon Universe: App Monsters both have the Internet as a separate cyberspace dimension in itself, distinct from the Digital World and connecting it to the material world. Many Digimon settings also have various other dimensions and in-between worlds with varying degrees of association with the local cyberspace such as the Dark Ocean, the DigiQuartz, and the AR-Fields. When Dimensions Collide is one of many consequences of these wildly different places coexisting.
  • Negima! Magister Negi Magi: There's Earth and the Magic World, with both worlds being connected through portals. The Magic World is in Another Dimension that is layered on top of Mars.

    Films — Animation 
  • Sonic the Hedgehog: The Movie: Planet Freedom consists of two concentric layers. The Land of the Sky is a shell of lush Floating Continents where most of the planet's natives live. Beneath it is the surface of the planet proper, which is permanently shrouded in gloom by the floating islands above it and is thus called the Land of Darkness.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 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.
  • Silent Hill: 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; and 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.

  • Ambergris: 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.
  • The Bartimaeus Trilogy: The rules are never fully laid out and are sometimes inconsistent (one description in Amulet of Samarkand suggests physical objects are present on all layers, but in The Golem’s Eye a skeleton is explicitly not visible on any layer other than the 1st; Bartimaeus cannot change his true form on the 7th layer yet shrinks himself to avoid being crushed by a magical cage present on all layers). There are 7 layers of reality (though a theoretical 8th one is mentioned). Every spirit and spell is truly “on” one of the layers, and in case of spirits extends down to the first, although they can change their form on the lower layers; they can also perceive the layers they are on, with the exception of observer imps, who are on the 2nd layer yet see all of them. Humans and other living creatures are visible on all layers but can perceive only the first, although magical lenses show up to the 3rd layer clearly and 4th vaguely, and cats can perceive the 2nd. Ability to see higher layers seems affected by distance as in Bartimaeus comments at one point his disguise should hold up on all layers from far enough away.
  • A Certain Magical Index:
    • According to Tsuchimikado Motoharu, Heaven and Hell both exist in the exact same location as the physical plane, only at "different wavelengths", with Heaven being a higher frequency, and Hell a lower frequency. Humans of the world can detect neither, just as the otherworldly denizens cannot detect the opposite realm and its inhabitants. Only when angels and demons go into the realm in between, the physical world of the living, that the denizens can detect each other.
    • The Imaginary Number District functions in a similar manner: Another Dimension formed from the combined AIM of every esper in Academy City, it exists in the same location as the city, can be trasversed, and even brought forth into the real world.
    • Later, it is revealed that the series' world/universe/reality itself as it is normally perceived has various layers, known as Phases, over it acting like "filters" and affecting how it appears. The origin of this phenomenon is the various mythologies and religions throughout human history, through an unknown process, having had the effect of creating layers over the world: Heaven and Hell, The Underworld, the Land of Faerie, Mount Olympus, Asgard, etc. And beneath them all is apparently a "Pure World", called such because it is a world of science untouched and unaffected by religion. And Aleister is trying to reach it...
  • The Dresden Files: The Nevernever 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 (although the other way around requires a lot of magical power), 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.
  • "From Beyond": The main character's acquaintance invents a machine that makes it possible to see the creatures that live in the different layers, but unfortunately, it works both ways. Given that this is a cosmic horror story, this is a very bad thing.
  • Ghost Roads: Besides the daylight (living world), there's the twilight, midnight and the starlight, the first is the afterlife but you tend to get more abstract and mythological as you go deeper. Human ghosts don't tend to stray from the twilight, and for good reason. Some among the living, like routewitches and Bobby Cross, can travel through the twilight without dying.
  • Insomnia: Ralph Roberts is afflicted with the eponymous disorder, and as time goes by, he becomes able to use a wide variety of abilities. He is able to see the life auras of the people in his town, as well as differentiate sick and well people. He is also able to absorb these auras from people to replenish his own. He also becomes able to see little bald doctors who represent the Purpose(ful) and Random deaths of people. In time, he and his companion are able to rise high into the layers of the world, becoming invisible to people in the process. The downsides are that the higher they go, the faster time passes, and that there are things of a malevolent nature in the layers. Like the Crimson King, for example.
  • Nation of the Third Eye: There are seven different dimensions. Some of these are physical, while others are astral. Those in the higher dimensions can see everything in the lower dimensions, but not the other way around.
  • Night Watch (Series) 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.
  • Slayers: The universe 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.
  • Titan's Forest: The setting's trees are large enough that the layers of the forest's growth serve rather comfortably as this, each possessing a very distinct character from the others and being large enough to house entire cultures within itself. At the top are the emergent trees, where the gods make their homes. Beneath these is the Canopy, a sunlit realm where the bulk of civilization exists. Next down is the Understory, a gloom-shrouded world separated from the canopy by a magical barrier and inhabited by monsters and scattered tribes. At the very bottom is the swampy, lightless Floor.
  • World of Tiers: The titular world takes the form of a world-sized tower of Babel, with continent-sized layers (tiers) that are much wider than they are tall, each existing as a self-contained microcosmos populated by cultures extracted from specific times and places on Earth. The bottommost layer, Okeanos, is a paradisiacal landscape of small islands and shallow seas home to soldiers from the Trojan War; Amerind, above it, is covered by vast plains home to nomadic Plains Nations tribes, centaurs, and deadly predators; Dracheland is a two-level tier, the bottom half consisting of thick jungles home to Southeast Asian cultures and the top being a temperate landscape of displaced medieval knights; Atlantis, further up, was once a thriving civilization, but is now only jungle-covered ruins. The top layer has the palace of the world's Lord of Creation on it.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Ars Magica has Regio, which are localized versions of this — alternative layered realities that only exist in one limited area.
  • Dead Inside: The "real world" is just the outer shell of reality, wrapped around the Spirit World, which is itself wrapped around the Source. These layers of reality act as buffers protecting the Source from the Void outside reality. It's possible for characters to become living (or technically, undying) cracks in the shell of reality by losing every last scrap of their souls and becoming a channel for the Void.
  • Dungeons & 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.
    • Birthright has the Shadow World. Halflings originally came from there and can return if necessary.
    • Forgotten Realms: In the magical theory, the Demiplane of Shadows has Shadow Fringe and Deep much like the Ethereal Plane has Border and Deep Ethereal. 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.
    • Ravenloft: The 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.
  • 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.
  • JAGS Wonderland: Our reality is just the top level of a set of eight "chessboards", which get weirder and more dangerous the deeper you go. While "down the rabbit hole", you can meet the Red Queen, the Mad Hatter, and other beings from the Lewis Carroll story.
  • Night Bane: The world has multiple layers to it. One in the form of the Nightlands. The Nightlands are a reflection of the real world, and is overall ruled over by the Night Lords. There is also the Astral Plane, which itself has three levels. The first is endless mists that is considered the surface, the second level where one can find the denizens, various realms, and cities made of spirit energy, and the last level known as the the Void which is home to Demon Locusts that want to consume...everything, as well as various mysteries such as Void Ships and powerful artifacts. Then you have the Dream Stream, which is...strange to put it mildly. Being the realm of dreams and nightmares, one can run into all kinds of things in it. In addition, because of the way the realm works, what happens in it can/will affect you and people in the real world who are asleep.
  • The World of Darkness:
    • Old World of Darkness has the Shadowlands and the Umbra (which also just means "shadow"), each of which is Another Dimension that overlaps with the "real world", representing the dead and living spirit of the world respectively. 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"). The Umbra is the world of living spirits, where metaphysics sets the rules and the inner nature of things from the physical plane is reflected. The Umbra itself contains multiple layers and even sub-realms, but the further one goes from the Penumbra (the first layer which reflects the physical world most closely) the harder it is to get back, the more dangerous the residents become, and the weirder things get.
    • New World of Darkness: The Underworld works much 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.

    Video Games 
  • Bayonetta does this, with the character herself in Purgatorio, able to see the (semitransparent) humans in reality.
  • Dragon Quest III: Once you are able to access the Great Pit of Giaga, you drop down to the World of Darkness below. However, conversations with characters in this world, and your journey into the cave to get the Hero's Shield, reveal that Zoma crawled out from somewhere BELOW that world. And this may have been doing occurring for several additional cycles ("This world, too, will be covered in darkness..").
  • 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. There are eight layers to this world, and only the top three layers are "friendly". As you evert further and further, the world gets darker and darker until it resembles something rather hellish.
  • Fate/stay night: There exists the Reverse Side of The World, a realm that exists above and below the physical world and the home of Phantasmal Beasts after the decline of Age of Gods. It is devoid of humans although one can reach it after death with very small odds. It is also where the realm of Avalon is located. It is separated from the physical world by the pillar of light which is the true nature of the Holy Spear Rhongomyniad. Several lines indicate there are other layers of existence beneath even the Reverse Side. The crux of Fate/Grand Order's second storyline is that an extraterrestrial God is attempting to "stitch" a new realm of reality over the current world using a similar process in order to be able to exist on it without issue, with the cost being humanity itself as we know it.
  • Ghostbusters: The Video Game kind of touches upon this, especially in the Public Library section, whose second half takes place in the library's Gozerian configuration (one of millions of theoretical configurations). The game doesn't really go far enough, but then again, your job as the Recruit is to keep the dimensions separate.
  • The Legend of Zelda games often feature the Dark World, which reflects the regular world in various ways; and in some games, you can affect one by acting in the other. The Dark World was originally a Spirit World that was corrupted by evil. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess also introduces the Twilight World, which may be part of the Dark World or a different plane entirely.
  • Mega Man Star Force 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.
  • Mighty Flip Champs! for DSiWare (and PSP minis) is all about solving puzzles by flipping from one reality to the next.
  • Persona: Most demons and other such beings are located within the Collective Unconscious and the Sea of Souls, which are visited by the protagonists of the games in various forms.
  • 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.
  • Submachine, especially The Plan and to a lesser extent The Temple (other games mention the layers, but these two are the only ones where the player travels between them — unless that's what's happening in The Loop.) The Exit reveals that there are an infinite number of sublayers, which is why you can see evidence of other explorers, but never actually meet them.
  • Time Fcuk: The majority of levels have two layers, although user-made levels can have up to three which the player interacts with.
  • 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.
  • Wolfenstein (2009) 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 World Ends with You: The setting's cosmology involves multiple "frequencies." The game takes place in the Underground, which is a slightly higher frequency than the Realground (the frequency everyday life takes place in), and as a result the Realground can be seen (and to some extent interacted with) from the Underground, but the Underground isn't visible from the Realground. Reapers are able to change their frequency to move between the Realground and Underground at will, but cannot use their powers in the Realground. Angels and the Composer naturally live on higher frequencies; coming down appears to limit their powers somewhat. The Noise are a rather strange case; they exist on their own frequency that's both on and in between the Underground and Realground, which also exists in two separate spaces. And then there's also the imaginary number plane you come across in Pork City, which is described as "a parallel plane a fraction away from the world Noise inhabit" and has no further explanation.
  • World of Warcraft: There exist several dimensions in addition to the main one. The most well known of these is the Emerald Dream which is the spiritual blueprint to how Azeroth would have looked like without mortal interference and is where druids go to train their abilities. The next four planes of existence are the Elemental Planes which were created to imprison Azeroth's powerful elementals from wreaking havoc on the planet's surface. Azeroth seems to have several versions of the afterlife; there is the normal afterlife which known simply as the Shadowlands where souls can be easily ressurected, the Halls of Valor where vykrul warriors go after they die in battle, its polar opposite the Maw of Souls, and a black void where the most damned spirits go after they die.

  • Awful Hospital: This is more or less the nature of the zones. Rather than traveling to an Alternate Universe in The Multiverse, zone travel consists of branching out and perceiving different aspects of existence, all of which are capable of impacting one another. For example, the Hospital zone is basically the personification of medicine. What humans perceive as hospitals on Earth are basically the Hospital zone's concept leaking into their home zone. Likewise, the zone known as the Hand Factory manufactures hands, and if one fails to be completed, someone in a different zone will be born missing a hand.

    Web Original 
  • The Well of Worlds describes a mistaken impression of the Planescape multiverse as perceived by a native of Ravenloft, a demiplane from which it's very difficult to contact the rest of the multiverse. The in-universe scholar assumes that the various worlds of creation like in a sort of cosmic "well", stacked on top of each other. Movement up and down this well is compared to regular vertical movement under gravity; movement downward is natural and easy while movement upward difficult and forced, and one needs to be metaphysically "light" to travel upwards. The mortal world is at the bottom, covered by the vault of the heavens; the "heaviest" souls, weighed down by their attachments, linger here as spirits. Above the heavens are the Worlds Materiel, composed of pure elemental substances, from which detritus gradually trickles down to build the material world below. Above them are the Baser Regions, where sinful souls cease their ascent and where demons and evil gods lurk. Further up are the Ascendant Levels, home to the lightest, virtuous souls and to benevolent spirits and gods. The distance from these areas to the mortal world, combined with the evil and jealous creatures between them, is used to explain why Raveloft is a Crapsack World largely ruled by evil beings. If anything exists further up, it's completely unknown to mortals whose gaze can't reach such lofty perches; if anything lies below the mortal world, it's further hidden from sight and whatever lives there cannot reach this far up.
  • Whateley Universe:
    • There's the Astral, which is a Spirit World and a Dream Land that have locations which basically correspond to locations in the Material World.
    • There's also a Cyberspace connecting all connected technology, although, airgapped technology may not be accessible.