From Outcast to Idol in Rockstar’s Bully
Sometime a game built upon what appears to be divisive subject matter can surprise us. When it comes to the taboo, there’s always people ready to jump the gun if something looks even slightly foul. Moreover, if anyone has ever earned a reputation for getting the attention of everyone with divisive and taboo material, it’s Rockstar Studios. So when Rockstar says they’re going to make a game about school bullies, it undoubtedly raises the attention of any group against the idea. That said, when Bully came out today in 2006, it surprised players with its over-the-top tale of a protagonist rising from a rock-bottom background to do away with the scumbags that would terrorize his new school and become the hero of his classmates.
Bully was announced in May of 2005 and immediately Rockstar seemed to want to set it apart from its previous games. Games like Grand Theft Auto and Manhunt pushed the journeys of criminals or crime in different aspects, but with Bully, Rockstar wanted to explore adolescence and make an entertaining product around exploring the social interactions therein. It was also ambitious in that though faceless and repeated models filling the citizenry of cities outside of main characters in previous Rockstar games, the studio opted to create unique appearances, habits and personalities for each student in Bully.
The story follows the journey of 15 year-old James “Jimmy” Hopkins as he arrives at the Bullworth Academy private boarding school in New England, having been expelled form seven previous schools already. Jimmy quickly gets scouted by the principal, Mr. Crabblesnitch, who threatens him to stay in line, as well as senior Gary Smith, who spots Jimmy as useful ally and quickly begins to introduce him to the various cliques that run the school’s student body. They start to dig into cliques in hopes of gaining dominant popularity in the school, but it isn’t long before Gary betrays Jimmy and leaves him on his own. From that moment forward, Jimmy works his own way through the school cliques, working, fighting and forcing them to respect him, cease their picking on other students and end bullying in Bullworth.
The player starts in Bullworth Academy with Jimmy, taking up missions and progressing the game to take over and challenge each clique little bits at a time. Meanwhile, Jimmy is expected to follow the rules and take part in the day to day activity of the academy’s expectation of him as a student. This includes attending class. Players are incentivized to attend classes by gaining bonuses such as the ability to eventually build fireworks from attending chemistry, whereas missing classes or breaking the rules lead to authority figures chasing after Jimmy to try to discipline him. Meanwhile, as cliques are overcome and Jimmy becomes more popular, new areas are opened for him to explore.
Bully’s title and concept brought immediate negative attention to it from parents and authority figures that were familiar with Rockstar’s previous offerings and many attempted to have the game banned. Activist Jack Thompson even went as far as to call the game a “Columbine simulator” in his crusade to keep the game away from store shelves in Florida. Brazil would outright ban import and sale of the game in the country. That said, though the game’s lengthy story does include violence between children, many would be surprised the focus of the game is more towards putting a stop to bullying than encouraging it.
In the end, despite negative speculation about what Bully would be, the game ended up as a surprisingly wholesome outing for Rockstar given their reputation. Rather than revel in crime, murder and other wholly misanthropic practices, Bully challenged players to take Jimmy from a regularly bad kid to a defender for those who couldn’t do it themselves. Not only did Bully tackle its subject in an unexpected way, but it invited players into an enjoyable lampoon of adolescent society and mischief, making it one of the more unique and entertaining Rockstar narratives to date.