At approximately 9:00 a.m. EST on October 16th 2016 Rockstar Games sent a portion of the internet community into a frenzy with a wordless tweet of their company logo bathed in a shade of pure red. Precisely 24 hours later, a second image was tweeted of seven figures on the horizon, silhouetted against a low orange sun and blood-red sky. At the time of the second tweet, the first image had already been re-tweeted and shared over 100,000 times. On the third morning it only took three words and a number to send the gamer community into overdrive: “Red Dead Redemption 2”. Philip J. Fry and his fistful of dollars has seldom, if ever, worked such a concentrated period of social media overtime. Few are the video game franchises that can incite such feverish response and even fewer are the developers who can whip up that level of hype with two tweeted pictures. But that’s Rockstar! As the hype train sped from the station however, there was a smaller but no less devoted group of fans left standing on the platform…and we all had the same question…
“Where is our Bully sequel?!?”
Bully was released for PlayStation 2 exactly 10 years prior to Rockstar’s RDR2 Twitter tease, on October 16th 2006. Developed by Rockstar Vancouver, to date it arguably remains Rockstar Games’ most criminally underappreciated work, selling a respectable 1.5 million copies and charming critics across the board upon release. While that sales number might seem mightily impressive – and it is – compare it to Rockstar’s first Red Dead game, which sold 14 million units, or while you’re at it, compare it to Grand Theft Auto V, which since release in September 2013 has shipped…wait…70 million copies, and you start getting the bigger picture. From a business standpoint, you can see why it’s in Rockstar’s interests to steadily release GTA sequels and to finally revisit their Red Dead franchise, but as a fan of the art itself, it still hurts. Whatever you say about Rockstar’s IPs though, they are not overexposed and that is the reason for their consistent success and quality – the same reason why you’ll never see the community at large excited in the same way for the yearly clockwork releases from other mega franchises like Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty. The same reason we know that when that wait comes to an end, they deliver what they promise.
Prior to and immediately after its initial release, Bully was marred by controversy from the usual misinformed moral crusaders. This should have come as no surprise to anyone when you consider the developer/publisher is Rockstar, who are of course no strangers to such critics. In the UK, M.P. Keith Vaz called for the game to be submitted to the BBFC for changes to be made and for an “18” rating on the grounds that “players use their on-screen persona to kick and punch schoolchildren” and failing the proposed cuts being made, for the government to just ban the game outright. This was all based on nothing more than the title and a single released screenshot. The BBFC responded that “as Keith Vaz knows, all games are submitted for rating prior to UK release”. It was passed with a 15 rating and had to have its name changed (it was released in the UK as “Canis Canem Edit” – Latin for “Dog Eat Dog” and the motto of the game’s Bullworth Academy). Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, part-time lawyer and full-time massive pain in the arse Jack Thompson had dubbed the game a “Columbine simulator”, presumably based on literally nothing more than the fact that the game was set in a school and was being made by the Grand Theft Auto guys. He filed a lawsuit with the intention of seeing the game banned from all retailer shelves in Florida. The judge who requested to view an advance copy on October 12th ruled in favour of shipping the game the very next day. When Mr. Thompson later found out that it was possible during the course of the game for the male protagonist to kiss a boy, he e-mailed the ESRB with his shocking discovery along with “good luck with your proposed “Teen” rating now”. The ESRB responded by simply assuring him that they were well aware of the highlighted content and that it wouldn’t affect the proposed rating at all. Bully was passed with a rating of T for Teen and approved for sale in the US (including Florida – sorry, Jack!).
My favourite story of bizarre moral posturing surrounding Bully is that of DSG International owned UK retailers PC World and Currys who both declared their intentions not to stock the game because “It is not appropriate for Currys’ family friendly image” and “the explicit link between violence and children”. That’s fine of course and it’s their business decision to make, but when you consider that DSG Int. stores had no qualms about stocking both Rockstar’s 18 rated Grand Theft Auto and Manhunt titles then the reasoning becomes a little harder to swallow. One is as famous for its opportunities for gleeful chaotic violence as it is for its mega sales numbers while the other features a face-breaking plastic bag suffocation and a glorious helping of eye-scream featuring a shard of glass inside its first ten minutes of gameplay. But Bully stays off the shelves because of its non-lethal schoolyard scrapping and water balloon terrorism? Hard to decide between mindless moral panic pandering or shameless bullshit hypocrisy.
When Bully was finally put in the hands of players and critics worldwide however, nary had there been such proof of the adage against judging books by their covers; or as it was in this case, video games by their titles. A far cry from the threatened horror stories of classroom gun violence or the ‘Pac-Man Fever’ nonsense of “score points by violently bullying children!”, Bully instead presented players with an engaging story that was equal parts genuinely funny and heartwarming. A wonderful slice of nostalgia inspired by a mixture of pop culture and our own universal memories of high school. In Bully you play a year in the “best” days of protagonist James “Jimmy” Hopkins’ life. Namely the year following his unceremonious dumping at the gates of comically awful shit-hole Bullworth Academy as his mother and her new husband jet off for a 12 month honeymoon. As soon as you set foot on campus you find yourself affronted by kids threatening to kick your ass and it soon becomes apparent that you’re the small fish in this shark tank. You’re not the bully so much as you’re the bullied. You can respond with your fists all day long but that’s not the meat of the game nor the crux of Jimmy’s story. Over the year at Bullworth, you’ll play a series of story missions that will see Jimmy embark upon an epic journey to unite the school and end the senseless violence caused by petty differences between the various cliques.
Like the multi-racial crime organisations of the Grand Theft Auto series, the cliques of Bullworth are painted in very broad strokes. The Bullies are scruffy and violent, easy to beat if you stand up to them, but quick to throw down and constantly terrorising the student body. The Nerds are smart and sneaky schemers where they lack for brawn, one pisses himself a lot and they’re all either under or overweight. They hang out around the library and play Grottos and Gremlins. The Preppies all live in a private dorm house and prefer the structured rules and honourable combat of boxing. They all come from money and from generations of implied inbreeding. They’re also all American but speak with ridiculous English accents. The Greasers control the Auto-Shop class and are like Danny Zuko and his little mates but from a parallel universe where they like BMX instead of cars and violence instead of show-stopping song and dance numbers. Lastly, The Jocks. They’re the hardest to fight and will gleefully surround you and kick fifty shades of shit out of you. They infest the gym and football field, wear mostly letter jackets, and some of them look like huge 30 year olds who are just hanging out at a school for some reason.
Together with his friends, the effeminate Petey and sociopath Gary, Jimmy will navigate this minefield and along the way face trials, triumphs, betrayal, violence and a little love. Of course Jimmy can perpetrate heinous acts of humiliation upon almost all of his peers (wedgies, dead arms, faces full of gob, twisted arms, locker/bin stuffing, swirlies, “stop hitting yourself” – everything but the dreaded “Rear Admiral” makes an appearance) but you can just as easily role play him as the crusader of justice that he is born to become and stand up for the little guys against the kids who so sorely deserve the payback. Sure it feels good to be the hero but I’m not gonna lie and pretend I haven’t been running back from the gym after escaping a battering from the Jocks and taken my anger out on one of the nerds by inserting them arse first into a bin on occasion.
When Jimmy isn’t running around engaging in chaotic hijinks and completing missions, he’s required to attend classes. Completing each class assignment grants you weapon upgrades and special bonuses such as the ability to apologise to authority figures and weasel out of minor infractions or health bonuses acquired from kissing girls (and a few of the boys if you wanna swing Jimmy that way). The lessons themselves are pretty tedious and badly designed button input mini-games and were frequently seen as a cause of criticism in most reviews. That’s fair on the surface but if you really want to peel away the layers and actually consider them from a conceptual point of view, then you realise that they represent high school classes and so are essentially disengaging and annoying distractions that happen every day and get in the way of you having real fun, and while they are (strictly speaking) an ‘optional’ part of gameplay you’ll be hounded and busted by prefects if you’re spotted playing truant. The prefects are the main face of authority in the game and come down hard on you if you’re spotted breaking the rules. Violence towards girls and smaller children are the cardinal infractions and either will earn you a maxed out “trouble meter” and a swift chase and beat down.
The setting of Bully is the open world sandbox of Bullworth Academy and the surrounding town of Bullworth. Much smaller than you’d be used to from Rockstar’s other open world titles, there is a definite less-is-more design philosophy and is no worse for generating a place that genuinely feels alive. The students whom you’ll encounter and interact with all have unique names, looks, cliques and personalities. The halls aren’t just filled with generic copy paste NPCs. One of the best parts of this setting is that unlike other games of its type, it changes as the game goes on. The dying days of summer at the start of term soon give way to the windy days and golden leaf strewn walkways of Autumn. As Halloween approaches the campus gradually fills with Jack-o-Lanterns, decorations and tombstones and the ‘Eve itself sees all the students out in costume for a night of pranks and mischief. Christmas blankets the school and town in a layer of snow and after the main game is over you can play in the Endless Summer to finish up your collectibles and just do what you want in a summer break that never ends. By the time you reached this point you realise just how much more this game was than the picture painted by those earliest detractors based on a title and a single screenshot. “Bully” was never meant to refer to you or any one of the characters in the game. The real Bully in the story is Bullworth Academy itself- a microcosmic snapshot of all the pain, joy, anxiety and hope that comes with a certain time in your life and how weathering that storm can sometimes be a war.
All in all, Bully is a truly indispensable gaming experience that I fear too few gamers actually experienced. Sadly so, since pretty much any fan of Rockstar’s more popular franchises should find a lot to love in its charming story and cynical sideways lens of humour. Bully still stands out there completely on its own, idiosyncratic in everything from its setting to its original score. If you played it the first time around then it’s very much worth going back to Bullworth to revisit Jimmy and the gang. If you never did then you really can’t say you’ve graduated until you complete Classic Games 101 and Bully is definitely on the curriculum. My advice is to pick this up used for PS2 or XBox 360, or if digital is more your thing then you can get it on Steam and PS4’s PlayStation Store.
Best just give them your lunch money. Before someone kicks your ass and takes it anyway.