Arcadia Demade
designer commentary

NOTE: Consider yourself warned, this document has several BioShock spoilers. Also, you really should play the demake level first.

This may get a bit rambly.

Original History

God did not plant the seeds of this Arcadia. I did.
-- Andrew Ryan

From its earliest days as the "Hydroponics Deck" of the facility that would eventually be named Rapture, Arcadia was intended to be a visual change of pace with an organic theme. The fiction of the place followed from "where did Rapture get its food and oxygen?", and the player's objective there revolved around using the game's crafting system to concoct a plant restorative. The very earliest version of the quest involved creating a defoliant rather than counteracting one, to clear out the organic gunk that was keeping the player from proceeding. System Shock 2 fans will recognize that as being quite similar to the quest of its Hydroponics Deck, which was no accident - in those days BioShock was still very much "the spiritual sequel to Shock2". It was with this basic brief that I began building the level's BSP (rough geometry) layout in early March of 2006.

A few weeks into this, I began collaborating with level artist and current 2K Marin compatriot, Hogarth de la Plante. Up until this point, the level building process at Irrational had mostly been about designers creating rough geometry and handing it off to artists for decoration. In practice this resulted in levels that were maze-like, architecturally arbitrary and difficult to reconcile with Rapture's newly-chosen art deco aesthetic. In the process of feeling out a new process with a stronger emphasis on art-design collaboration, Hoagy and I produced the first space in the game that the entire team was truly satisfied with. Hoagy and I gave a talk on this process at Microsoft Gamefest in July 2008.

Over the summer of 2006 the level was rebuilt piece by piece, mostly by the 2K Australia art team - Jay Kyburz, Andrew James and Christian Martinez, primarily - to organize the space better and meet the visual quality bar. The layout shifted a good deal during this time and by the end of that summer it was largely in the shape that shipped. The central hallway called "Arcadia Glens" was added to unify the disparate spaces. The Farmer's Market was originally about twice as large with two somewhat symmetrical halves, one of which was cut for production as well as navigability reasons. I recall the Silverwing Apiary came into being around this time as well, partly as a way to justify the "enzyme samples" the player needed to collect for the Lazarus Vector, and partly because we'd just cooked up the plasmid that would become Insect Swarm.

Another constant throughout Arcadia's development was that it was twisty and hard to navigate - if you get lost playing the original or the demake, go ahead and blame me! When I started building it, I was coming off a long phase of multiplayer level design and my layouts tended to be obsessively interconnected and fairly abstract. Between this and the level's unconventional fiction/metaphor - nobody had an underwater nature park to compare it to! - the level is still a strange and difficult beast after many iterations. As lead level designer on Bio2 I strove to ensure none of its levels were as confusing to navigate as Arcadia.

One thing that definitely helped us answer design questions was to decide on fictional roles for every sub-area early on. Even if "Tea Garden" or "Waterfall Grotto" were arbitrarily chosen, it helped clarify what the place should look like, how it could be decorated, what sort of things had happened there in the environmental storytelling scenes ("mise-en-scene", as the Bio1 and Bio2 teams called it).

The character of Langford came about during the story development process with the reasoning that the otherwise dry collection quest could use a human face. NeƩ Holden Langford, Ken Levine decided shortly before final VO recording that the game needed more female characters and changed Holden into Julie. Arcadia doesn't come close to the character-driven drama of Fort Frolic's quest, but Langford's presence definitely adds something, and I'm quite proud of how her death scene turned out. The "writing numbers on window" effect was a clever use of a traveling mask channel by the brilliant Stephen Alexander - Irrational's FX artist, for whom Bio2's Gil Alexander was named.

The Saturnine were a fairly late addition, and their main value was to enrich the area's backstory. However because they were added late they weren't integrated very deeply into the conceptual fabric of the level, and they're mentioned only a few times in splicer VO and an audio diary from Langford. I always did want to do something more with the weird symbols they left around. The never-actualized idea behind the Saturnine was that they were NOT in fact a group of mysterious sages, but a bunch of business elites or a college fraternity who'd gone feral, reveled in pagan imagery cribbed from pop culture and started taking weird plasmids. As shipped, they're just weirdly dressed Houdinis. The stick-and-straw masks were a fantastic touch though.

The most difficult thing about Arcadia technically was the level-wide die-off that happens when Andrew Ryan pumps defoliant into the area to suffocate Jack. While the player only gets one good look at it in the final game, earlier versions had Ryan killing the forest off in stages as the player reached each new area, so we felt we needed a tech solution to help make it a memorable and convincing environmental state change. Australia's engine team created a special plant shader that used a masking effect similar to Stephen's window code drawing fx to make leaves whither before the player's eyes. The same effect is used to make the plants grow back over the windows of Langford's office when the player finally deploys the Vector. Aside from that, the die-off was just a huge amount of lighting, fog, ambient and FX changes, orchestrated by our custom scripting system (a descendant of the system used to script Tribes: Vengeance). The dead/living state of the level is tracked globally, so if you bother to go back to the Farmer's Market after reviving the forest, it will be green and vibrant as expected.

Arcadia's name was decided in its earliest days, taken from "Et in Arcadia ego" - a Latin phrase, whose implied speaker is Death himself, for "even here, I exist." In Renaissance and 19th century Romantic poetry and art, Arcadia was the paradise garden of antiquity, so the line is a memento mori: even in paradise, Death is present. References to the line are sprinkled throughout neoclassical art and now pop culture, first appearing in Nicolas Poussin's painting Les Bergers d'Arcadie.

For a long time this was intended to be the phrase uttered by Ryan just before he released the herbicide, a cryptic and intellectual bit of mustache twirling - uniquely BioShock. Like many things in BioShock, the line was cut at some point, but the name stuck.


As BioShock 2 was wrapping up, I suddenly had a bit of free time. Months before I'd experimented with a modern Doom level editor called SLADE and found it very fun to use. One of my test levels involved using monster teleport triggers, and memories of the old Houdini splicer intro came back to me. As I picked up the level again last November, I realized with each new room I built that I could "demake" my work on Bio1. I found myself loving the obscure symbolism of something like an armor bonus representing a Saturnine mask, and the challenge of twisting Doom's often goofy demonic imagery into something recognizably Arcadia-like. Around Thanksgiving holiday I started building out the level in earnest with a mind to finish and release it.

One constraint I set for myself early on was to avoid creating any new art assets - anything not included in the vanilla Doom 2 content. I enjoy painting textures but I'm quite out of practice and this level would have taken me many more months to complete. The one exception is the sky art, which I created in Deluxe Paint IIe (running in DOSBox) with the original art as reference. Amusingly, the original source image from the BioShock content package is twice as large as the demake WAD itself: level data, sky image, music and all!

I also created an alternate palette with more blues and greens to help the underwater ambiance, using an old Doom utility called Inkworks plus some custom software of my own invention to manipulate palette data.

Area Breakdown

Tea Garden

The very first version of Arcadia had the player entering through a bathysphere station, but early on we decided the player would be traveling into Arcadia from the smugglers' caves, and had the idea to truly shock the player with the strange sight of an underwater forest by coming into it unanticipated.

While Hoagy and I were decorating the very first version of this space, we put down a gravestone simply liking its incongruity, but this soon grew into the idea that Arcadia actually had a small funeral plot for certain well-to-do families. Hence, the player enters the level via a smuggler passage disguised as a mausoleum.

The torch-lighting secret area was my addition. Someone suggested a simple one-off puzzle that involved a player tool. It's a much more Zelda-esque touch than BioShock usually goes for, but works as a retro nod. In the demake, it's a shootable wall trigger hidden behind a lit torch.

The Houdini splicer intro concept was always the same, but went through many iterations for clarity and effect. The scripting behind it is fairly complex; the AI itself has zero concept of "teasing", so there are multiple instances of the splicer that get destroyed and respawned at different places. Field-of-view-based triggers know whether or not the player has seen a given part of the tease, and I had to do special handling of the player researching this splicer - before I did, you could almost max out Houdini research on this first encounter!

In the demake, I use monster teleport triggers to fake the appearance of a single AI.

Demake: a invisibility powerup stands in for the "Who is Atlas?" poster in a crawlspace. Why not?

Arcadia Glens

This is the name of the central hallway that connects the rest of Arcadia's sub-areas. It was a great addition that improved the level's spatial hierarchy. At the far end of it, there's a cave-in that used to offer another way to get to the labs. I've unblocked it in the demake because it's useful connectivity.

Tree Farm

This was the very first room in Arcadia to be decorated, as an art test space by Irrational art director Scott Sinclair, for whom Bio2's Augustus Sinclair was named. The color palette he set down in that space became a guiding focus for the level's art.

There is a secret in the demake that takes you up the rocky face of one side of this area, which is a nod to all the little climby spots in the real Arcadia that take you up to various caches of goodies. I tend to enjoy finding these in games with rich worlds, and thus I enjoy setting them up. Sorry if any of the jumps are too fiddly.

Waterfall Grotto

In early versions this area was much more of a rocky natural cave, and some natural passageways that led underground to the Rolling Hills. My theory was that when some sections of Rapture were built, especially places like Arcadia, they would have considered it equally feasible to tunnel into the rock of the ocean floor or undersea mountains (using whatever super-science Rapture had clearly developed!) than to build free-standing structures like you see in most of Rapture. You can see this reflected in some of the large rock formations visible in the ocean exteriors - it's just easier to explain the construction of some of the game's environments like this.

The large pile of red skull keys here stands in for the rosebush the player collects a sample from to appease Langford in the real Arcadia.

Langford's Lab

Doom's tech base textures are fairly scifi themed, so it was difficult finding stuff to properly represent the old-timey science feel of Langford's labs. Plant incubators become mainframe computer blocks, Erlenmeyer flasks become health potions.

Langford's tragic death is represented by an impaled body on a stake rising out of the ground. Once again, grabbing at whatever scraps of meaning I could bring out of Doom's wacky techno-demonic decor set.

Park Entrance

This is the big area with the gates and "Arcadia" signage. It was always intended that Arcadia was built to be a pay-to-enter park, this being Rapture of course, but until the Australian art team built this area out, that function was sorely lacking. Definitely one of the most iconic sights of the level. The beautiful "A Place to Get Away" ad signage is represented in the demake by big demon face carvings, sadly the closest thing Doom has to signage.

Farmer's Market

In January of 2007 we were very busy building out all the game's scripted moments. Arcadia had a ton of space to keep me busy, so our lead designer Paul Hellquist took over the Market level for about a month. Several touches and good fights are thanks to him, including an intense Houdini / Big Daddy battle and the crawlspace secret nooks. The dead bodies hanging in the crawlspace behind one stall were his idea; I vaguely remember it suggesting that there was a serial killer loose around the time Rapture fell, but nothing ever came of it. In the demake, I have a hanging Commander Keen here.

As I recall Market is the only map in the game to feature the "pigskin" splicer visual type, ie the crazy football players. They were in other levels in earlier versions of the game, but other level designers complained that they didn't fit the theme of their levels, and Market was where they ended up. In the demake, I use demons ("pinky") where possible to represent these guys.

One of my biggest regrets about Market is that I had the memory to spare (on consoles, where memory is usually quite tight) for an "Epstein the Swami" coin-op fortune telling machine, but I didn't get around to putting one in before. To restore my karma in this matter, I made sure that Ryan Amusements in Bio2 had one in its gift shop.


BEE-eff-gee. Get it? Mnyeah.

I take full responsibility for the annoyance of anyone who had trouble smoking the bees and dealing with the splicer ambushes that come when you search the hive-boxes. I would definitely tone that down if given the chance today.

The demake uses damage sectors plus some of Doom's organic HR Giger-ish textures here to signify an organic invasion of some sort. Better than a lava area, right?

For a long stretch of BioShock's earlier development, the apiary was where the "Bioweapon" was set to be introduced, a weapon that looked like a DDT sprayer and fired exotic ammunitions that would enrage enemies, repel them and send swarms of bees after them. It was cut mainly because it was too redundant with plasmids. The bee swarms were its only unique feature, and after it was cut the Insect Swarm plasmid came about to provide that functionality.

The bees in BioShock are amusingly divisive. To some people they're a science-fictiony bridge too far, too silly to take seriously. To others, they're one of those uniquely weird BioShocky touches, erupting from your hand in a thoroughly gross way... somehow.

Personally, I love bees.

Worley Winery

Yes, I'm the wiseacre who put Pac-Man into BioShock. It appeared first as a happy accident of physics in the aftermath of a Big Daddy fight, and I liked it so much I added it to the level's decor. Late in the project it had to be cleared with 2K's legal department, and I still don't know how much of the company's money was spent getting my silly little easter egg okay to ship.

In the demake, the secret teleporter near the blue key that takes you halfway across the level is an askance nod to the fact that the Market level once had two entrances and exits, one at the bulkhead and one in the cellar that popped you back out into the Rolling Hills. The latter was cut mainly because it made the mission scripting more complicated.

The grisly shotgun suicide is an homage to one of the body scenes in System Shock 2.

Vector Ambush

The final onslaught of splicers that occurs in Langford's labs after the player starts circulating the Vector was our answer to the fact that the level didn't have a more character-focused resolution like Medical Pavilion or Fort Frolic. The scripting for this ambush went through many iterations, and I completely reimplemented it fairly late in development after a flash of inspiration as to how I could generalize the system to more easily tune the numbers and pacing. This approach to more data-driven ambush design became the genesis for BioShock 2's gather ambush system, programmed by David Pittman and shepherded by Kent Hudson and our excellent AI team.

This sequence was also the demo we showed to the press for the last few months before release. I could probably play it blindfolded at this point.

Bathysphere Station

Entering this area in the demake, you might catch a brief glimpse of a familiar face.

In the first few versions of Arcadia, the bathysphere station to Fort Frolic (or "Recreation Deck" as it was called in those days) was off the southeast corner of the Farmer's Market, where there's now a nook with a Vita-Chamber in it. It became clear that a trek back across most of the map after you'd healed the forest was boring and redundant, and once we knew the single big die-off event had to happen in the Rolling Hills near Langford's lab.


Well, that's about all I can scrape out of my head about Arcadia for the moment. I hope this has been illuminating or amusing to at least a few folks out there.

Plus I sincerely hope it's better than those DVD commentaries where the actors just go "Uh-huh. Oh yeah, this scene. This was great. That guy, he was great to work with. Just great. Uh-huh."