In the newest installment of the Batman: Arkham series, the Dark Knight has the freedom to explore the entirety of Gotham, swooping between buildings, crossing through the high supports of bridges, and diving down onto thugs in the streets below. But in 2009, our first glimpse of this new version of Batman’s universe was inside the dark confines of Arkham Asylum itself.

Arkham Asylum is a captivating setting, filled with hidden secrets from the past, creepy nods to its many storied inmates, and endless opportunities to engage Batman’s awesome abilities and gear. Drawing inspiration from the detail and ruin evident in Irrational’s city of Rapture in BioShock, Rocksteady’s Arkham Asylum is a masterpiece of environmental storytelling.

Unlike the truly open worlds of the later Arkham games, Arkham Asylum begins with a limited selection of tight corridors and metal-clad rooms to visit. But even in those early scenes, the player doesn’t need any complicated narration to get across the point; something has gone horribly wrong in the asylum. Inmate documentation papers lie strewn around the floors of rooms. Hallways are painted in hastily crafted graffiti. Electricity has been knocked out in numerous areas, leaving areas swathed in shadow as dangerous criminals patrol through the dark. 

Beyond recent and disastrous events, Arkham Asylum also feels like a place suffused with history. Ceilings and walls are worn and rusted, and the offices of asylum officials are cluttered. Search carefully, and hidden audio and written files offer a glimpse into this place’s terrifying past, from the slow corruption of Harley Quinn to details about the Asylum’s founding. 

However, perhaps the most interesting aspect of Arkham Asylum is the way that powerful personalities permeate specific areas. The botanical gardens are a perfect fit for Poison Ivy’s green thumb. The wet sewers beneath the facility offer a frightening and confined space to confront Killer Croc. Joker decorates interior areas in his ludicrous comic style to create strange juxtapositions of bright colors and dark stone. Each new place the player visits offers hints and nods to familiar villains and personalities from the long-running Batman fiction.

Before Batman: Arkham Asylum, few if any licensed games grabbed the attention of the gaming public with such skill and authenticity to the subject matter. While Batman’s wide range of activities and awesome combat abilities are due a large part of the thanks for the game’s success, the setting of Arkham Asylum was no less important. It’s often been said that heroes like Batman are defined by their villains. But, in the case of Arkham Asylum, our hero is equally defined by his environment, and this bleak prison for the insane super-criminals of Gotham City emerges as one of the great game settings of this generation.