Batman: Arkham Knight is in the running for the most disturbing Batman story ever told. But it doesn't get there without referencing, repurposing and leaning on a bunch of other Dark Knight storylines that preceded it.
Rocksteady has done a few things very well in the Batman games that they have made. The British studio created a great combat system that makes the Dark Knight feel like a martial arts master, and turned his relationship with technology into a fun set of tools to use. They have also nailed stealth gameplay that illustrates how Batman can be so scary. But one of the more impressive feats that Rocksteady's managed to pull off is sifting through more than 75 years' worth of Bat-media to use as foundation and references inside their games.
Comics, cartoons, tv shows, movies... nods to Bat-tales from all those mediums have appeared in previous Arkham games. Arkham Knight is no exception, and it draws on some of the bleakest sagas in Bruce Wayne's history for certain parts of its plot. What follows is a recommended reading list of some of the Batman stories that get the heaviest nods in the latest Dark Knight video game.
WARNING: Huge story spoilers follow for many plot points in Batman: Arkham Knight, including the ending.
Nothing to Fear
More than anything, Arkham Knight is about the Scarecrow and his ability to get inside Batman's head. Originally aired in 1992, this episode of Batman: The Animated Series pits the crimefighter against Jonathan Crane's evil alter ego, ending with a showdown where he utters a line of dialogue that's used dramatically in Arkham Knight.
Barbara Gordon has only been seen as Oracle in the Arkham games and never in her crimefighting identity as Batgirl. (That will change with next week's upcoming DLC.) Arkham Knight depicts the horrific encounter with the Joker that left her paralysed, which is very closely modelled after scenes from the 1988 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. Aside from showing a more sadistic Joker than ever seen prior to its publication, The Killing Joke was also notable for an ambiguous ending that showed Batman laughing with his mortal enemy. Comics legend Grant Morrison thinks that Batman broke his personal code on its last page.
The identity of the antagonist character in Arkham Knight's title is kept secret for most of the game, and is eventually revealed to be a character that Batman fans themselves killed more than 25 years ago. The man under the villainous cowl is Jason Todd, the second person to adopt the Robin persona as Batman's sidekick. In the 1980s storyline by Jim Starlin, Jim Aparo and others, Jason died at the hands of the Joker after disobeying Batman's orders not to pursue the villain. That death happened at the behest of fans, who called into two separate phone lines where they voted on an ending where Jason lived or died. The version of Jason Todd's violent run-in with the Joker in Arkham Knight changes a few key elements from the source material, the character's actual, secret survival chief amongst them. In later comics, Jason's resurrection is shown to be a side effect of a big multiverse-changing crossover.
Under the Red Hood
After coming back to life, Jason Todd adopted the persona of the Red Hood, a vigilante perfectly willing to use lethal force on Gotham's streets. In a 2005 comics storyline by Judd Winick, Doug Mahnke, Eric Battle and others, he came to blows with his former mentor. Jason later captured the Joker, intending exact revenge for the beating he received. The character's been mostly portrayed as a gun-wielding anti-hero and Jason appears briefly in this guise at the end of Arkham Knight. The story arc was adapted into an animated movie in 2010, which is a leaner and superior version of the same source material.
Set not long after after Jason Todd's death, this story by Marv Wolfman, Jim Aparo and others showed Batman dealing poorly with the loss. Bruce Wayne is uncharacteristically reckless as Batman, getting hurt more often and inflicting more serious injuries against the petty criminals he was apprehending. A Lonely Place of Dying ushered Tim Drake into the role of Robin, with the character arguing that Batman needed him by his side. Drake, of course, is the Robin who helps Batman in Arkham Knight.
Over the Edge
In Arkham Knight, Batman and Commissioner Gordon have a dramatic falling out because Gordon's daughter faces life-threatening danger from one of the Dark Knight's foes. Those plot points strongly echo a 1998 episode of The New Batman Adventures, where Batgirl dies suddenly in front of her father. Gordon turns the full attention of the GCPD to arresting Batman and the police commissioner eventually uncovers the Caped Crusader's secret identity. Like Nothing to Fear, Over the Edge is a Scarecrow-centric story and its spotlight on that character causing a breach of trust between Batman and Gordon was almost certainly a primary influence on Arkham Knight.
At the end of Arkham Knight's main story — after Batman's secret identity is revealed to the world at large — the Dark Knight tells Alfred to activate the Knightfall Protocol. That contingency gets its name from a set of storylines from different creators that first saw Batman get worn down to exhaustion by a coalition of villains formed by then-new nemesis Bane. Bane then broke Batman's back, which led to Bruce passing his mantle onto Jean-Paul Valley, a.k.a costumed vigilante Azrael. There's an Arkham Knight side mission focused on a different version of Azrael which references this plot point, where the character talks with Batman about whether Azrael can be his successor.
Written by Jim Starlin and drawn by Bernie Wrightson, this 1989 series had Batman kidnapped, drugged and brainwashed by a shaman named Deacon Blackfire. The Cult showed a City on the brink of societal collapse after a siege by Blackfire's Underworlder army — made up of people from the fringes of society — met armed response from the National Guard. The idea of Gotham as a military battleground also shows up in Arkham Knight's take on the city. The Cult also featured the Jason Todd Robin and a version of the Batmobile that was like a hybrid between a monster truck and a tank. Blackfire appears in one of Arkham Knight's side missions, too.
And there you have 'em: The comics and cartoons that help inform the backstory of Arkham Knight. Mention any Batman stories that you think I missed in the comments below.