Bully Review – The Broadest Possible Strokes

To label something as a product of its time can feel like a non-statement, but for both better and worse, that is exactly what Rockstar’s open-world juvenile delinquent simulator Bully (or Canis Canem Edit in PAL territories) is. Released worldwide in 2006, players take control of fifteen-year-old troublemaker, James ‘Jimmy’ Hopkins, as he navigates the cliquey social strata of his new boarding school, Bullworth Academy. This was, at the time of release, something of a departure from the kind of games Rockstar (and its many subsidiary companies) were producing, which skewed towards crime, violence and adult themes. Of course, the main franchise that Bully saw comparison to was Grand Theft Auto, which had redefined open-world sandbox games with its third numbered instalment in 2001. There was controversy surrounding the release of Bully, with publications and political officials believing that the mature content of the GTA series would be superimposed onto a game about children, and that the game itself would both glorify and encourage bullying. Here in the UK, the game was officially rated a 15 certificate (as opposed to the T for Teen rating it received in the US) and some retailers refused to stock the title completely (famously, Labour MP Keith Vaz campaigned for the title to be reclassified as an 18). In retrospect, this is all a little ridiculous. Bully, as an experience, is certainly immature, but far from anything that can be construed as dangerous or damaging. The moniker Grand Theft Auto for teens is a fitting one, not so much through any sort of overtly violent content, but purely through the combination of Rockstar’s signature gameplay systems with a high school setting. Guns are replaced with slingshots, grenades with stink bombs and cars with an array of bikes, go-karts and skateboards. Anything that might be deemed sexual is softened by the harmless, juvenile nature of the game’s cast. The furthest things go is making out with girls; teenage girls, who tower over the short, pudgy protagonist in all his pubescent ungainliness. Drugs and alcohol consumption are almost entirely absent from the experience.

Bully has consistently excellent loading screen art.

In terms of concept and setting, Bully is ingenious. As Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was to the film ScarfaceBully is to 1980’s American boner comedy Revenge of the Nerds (albeit removed from a sex-driven college campus), complete with a vast array of intentional stereotypes. Bullworth Academy is built in the Collegiate Gothic architectural style, which it shares with US universities like Princeton and Yale. The origins of this building style do, however, evoke a British kind of nostalgia as well (despite the game being set in America); a corrupted nostalgia, which calls to mind a bizarro Hogwarts, or a modernised take on Geoffrey Willans’ St. Custards (Molesworth). The game’s personal, evocative open world also sets itself apart from previous Rockstar titles through its considered scope. Bullworth and its surrounding townships are smaller than the vast cityscapes of say, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, but are far more detailed and lived in. The locations in Bully are dense and distinct — a fairground on the edge of town, an asylum tucked behind the hills and a well-off suburban neighbourhood full of preppy rich kids, just to name a few. Taking place over an entire school year means that seasons also pass within the game and Bullworth, in turn, changes to reflect popular holidays. Fake skeletons adorn the trees on campus during Halloween (which culminates, as it should, with a grandiose prank) and the roads are slick with snow and ice during winter. The open-world is memorable, detailed and contained enough to be consistently enjoyable to explore, with plenty of odd little easter eggs hidden around every corner.

The ever-impressive central hub of the game — Bullworth Academy.

There is also an unrestrained and constant juvenile chaos that runs through Bully. As Jimmy completes various tasks for the different cliques and progresses through the story, his reputation with his fellow classmates changes and subsequently alters the play space. Jocks who may have previously beaten up our protagonist on sight, now banter and cheer the player on if they venture into their domain (the gym/sports field). All of the different factions will war with each other openly across the school grounds, usually using the very tools that Jimmy obtains himself (itching powder, marbles and firecrackers) to bully other students into submission. The Bullworth kids also regularly leave banana peels lying around for prefects slip on, pull fire alarms and (in my favourite stand-out moment of organic mischief) threaten old ladies with makeshift bottle rockets. There is something inherently charming about the sheer level of nonsense that takes place across the open world, and it successfully ensures that the player is fully entertained simply walking around it. There is also a focus on personal interaction within Bully, and Jimmy can engage positively or negatively with every NPC in the game. This usually takes the form of targeting any character the player desires and pressing the corresponding button to taunt them or greet them warmly. There are, however, several unique contextual uses of this gameplay system as well. You can sneak up on almost any character and give them a wedgie, for example, or you can flirt with girls, give them flowers and get a kiss in return. You can even grab students and stuff them into lockers, into bins and, if you’re feeling particularly evil, give them swirlies in the nearest open bathroom cubicle. This level of in-game interactivity goes an awful long way in making Bully an immersive experience, and a subtle level of roleplay helps the player to define their own personal version of Jimmy Hopkins. Are you the kind of player who’s likely to graffiti the stairwell, blow up a toilet and then stuff Cornelius in a locker? Or will you use your strength to stop fights and stick up for the weaker kids? Bully fully allows you to do both, whenever and wherever you want.

Billy indulges in bothering the jocks with a slingshot — Dennis the Menace style.

The game’s other great strength is its large selection of varied mini-games, side activities and missions. In amongst Rockstar’s usual offerings of vehicle races and tailing sequences, Bully stands out with unique set-piece events. These range from classic American tropes like (the distinctly dated) panty-raid on the girl’s dorm and ruining the jock’s big (American) football game, all the way to frankly bizarre diversions like rescuing nerds from a nightmarish funhouse and fighting townies in a lethal industrial plant. There is a child-like exuberance to the whole affair, which feels a million miles away from the mean-spirited satire that often perpetuates Rockstar’s work. Along with all of these missions, Jimmy must also attend class, two lessons a day at 9 AM and 1 PM. These usually consist of short mini-games related to the subject in question, like seeing how many words can be created from a string of random letters in English or keeping the beat in a rhythm game-esque sequence for Music. There are twelve different subjects all together (in the expanded Scholarship Edition), each containing five lessons of increasing difficulty. Passing these classes rewards the player with an item of clothing, an increased bonus to one of their skills (better taunts, etc.), or a multitude of other prizes. The classroom element of Bully is not only unique, but surprisingly rewarding and helps to balance the action-packed nature of the main campaign with fun little brainteaser interludes. Of course, if the player fancies playing hooky that day to pursue other activities, they are free to do so, they just have to be careful of prefects and police officers on the lookout for truant students. Players must also be aware of the curfew that is enacted from 11 PM onwards, as well as ensuring that Jimmy is in bed before 2 AM (lest he pass out in some random location). While initially seeming restrictive, the time mechanic in Bully adds a layer of strategy to the game and each day must be planned carefully around what the player hopes to achieve. The game is, simultaneously, goofy, extravagant fun and a semi-realistic boarding school simulator.

Later Geography classes can prove particularly challenging — not so much this one!

Continuing Bully’s design philosophy of creating a smaller yet more detailed world, the combat in the game focuses almost entirely on hand-to-hand encounters. This is, seemingly, to make up for the lack of variety of projectile weapons. In GTA you’d have a large selection of firearms to choose from, in Bully you’re taught different button combination fist fighting moves from attending gym class (and bringing radio parts to a Vietnam-vet hobo living behind the school car park). This results in encounters with enemies and other ne’er-do-wells that have an immediate and visceral punch to them. The combat is more complex than the point and shoot mechanics one might expect from Rockstar, with different moves being used to counter your opponent’s stance. If they are blocking, you can try a combination for a leg sweep attack to bring them to the ground, or you can grapple them up close and throw them to the floor, getting a few cheap hits in on the way. There is an effective schoolyard scrappiness to the whole affair, once again a deliberate mechanical design choice to enhance the game’s potent, considered atmosphere. There are turret-style slingshot sections and, later in the game, a few more ranged weapons that Jimmy can obtain, but these regularly take a backseat to the in-your-face confrontations. A lot of the available weaponry is used for more general chaos and player experimentation, like egging cars and tripping up your pursuers Hannah-Barbera style.

Combat occasionally features quick time events.

While I have lavished praise on Bully for its detail and variety of mechanics, the actual content of the story is relatively poor. While initially humorous, the game doesn’t do much to expand on its concept of GTA with teenage boys. Jimmy Hopkins, as an analogue to a GTA protagonist, is the everyman caught up in a world of warring factions. He does everyone’s dirty work, doesn’t seem like the sharpest tool in the shed, but comes out on top (purely, it seems, because he is the main character). There is an admirable morality to most of what he does (which is the game’s greatest testament to the fact it is anti-bullying), but that does little to help him stand out as a person. It is funny to see kids play-acting at gang warfare, but the actual characters are classic Rockstar archetypes stretched paper-thin — pictures painted with the broadest possible strokes. The only other real main players apart from Jimmy are sidekick, Petey, and antagonist, Gary. Petey is the quiet, good-natured boy who, simply because he is nice, is the punch bag who constantly has his sexuality questioned. Gary, as the central rival for Jimmy and mastermind behind the game’s plot, is an unabashedly narcissistic, evil ham, who seems to have all too little screentime despite his importance in the story. There are no real central female characters, and those who do have important, voiced roles, are usually stuck-up, insane, or manipulative. Indeed, each faction’s single female representative is simply a prize for Jimmy to obtain, a new girl to kiss (and, if the player has been attending Art class, an added health bonus for doing so). This incredibly male-centric gameplay gimmick isn’t extreme enough to be offensive (every character is pretty much a two-dimensional stereotype) but is certainly a level of 2006 video game sexist that would make any female player wince. The closest the game gets to removing itself from a straight white teenage boy fantasy is the hidden mechanic that allows Jimmy to kiss some of his male classmates. While this isn’t played for laughs (as some of the other gay representation in the game is), it is nevertheless treated as an oddity, an easter egg. It seems like we were still, at this point in time, one Rockstar game away from a story which deftly combined satire, comedy and a compelling narrative.

Jimmy Hopkins engages with a female student (or, in this case, walking gameplay mechanic).

Despite its dated and anaemic plotting, Bully is still a triumphant piece of video game history, one that exists outside of the industry push for huge, empty open worlds, instead favouring a smaller, detailed map with a ton of personality. The game constantly and consistently provides a variety of unique gameplay experiences, all wrapped up in a loop that encourages roleplay and experimentation. The central mechanics are, for lack of a more appropriate term, simply fun, buoyed by a confidence and charisma that most games do not possess. For myself, Bully marks the moment that Rockstar switched from making good games to truly great games.

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