Bully came out during my freshman year of high school. I didn’t bother playing it at the time, since I was way too cool for products aimed at my age group. Playing through it recently, after countless recommendations and a well-timed Steam sale, however, I tried to keep my freshman self in mind, wondering how Bully would have resonated with me then versus now.
It didn’t click. Time-worn gameplay and technical hiccups aside, my biggest issue with Bully was that the template it was working from felt dated. Jokes about nerds being socially awkward (a fat kid with their shorts zipper undone peeing themselves? Really?) and jocks being too stupid to know when they’re being insulted don’t even work ironically anymore, much less played straight. The most current clique are the Townies, which seem reminiscent of 90s-era latchkey kids. The game looks squarely in the past for inspiration, but while the classic atmosphere is likely what Rockstar was going for, placing its relevance in a time current high schoolers didn’t go through is an alienating way to set up a game that was pitched as a softer version of Grand Theft Auto.
I appreciate the choice, but this combination of factors makes the school environment unnecessary.
The other big issue I had with Bully was its time table. Because of its accelerated clock and option to skip school entirely, the environment the game takes place in seems incidental to the main plot. For one, the missing time frame for when central plot points happen relative to the character’s regular lives (is Jimmy’s assault on the nerd clique’s hideout taking place between classes? Before school?) makes the experience harder to map out mentally.
Skipping classes might go hand-in-hand with lead character Jimmy Hopkins’ attitude, but it separates him from the average high-schooler since the consequence for skipping as often as my rendition of Jimmy did is about the same as a one-star wanted level in Grand Theft Auto. I appreciate the choice, but this combination of factors makes the school environment unnecessary. Most kids have to go to school, so as a videogame without real consequences for skipping, Bully is more aspirational fantasy than statement.
By comparison, Persona 3, a Japanese RPG that came out a year later, gets right what Bully gets wrong: the dreadful repetitiveness of school. For most videogame players living outside Japan, the Persona series acts a form of cultural tourism, showing them how a different school system works (supernatural happenings notwithstanding) through a hybrid of high school simulation and RPG gameplay. There’s school on Saturday, students are heavily pressured to join clubs, and there’s no three-month break. Persona is supposed to show the American crowd a different view of the world, and yet despite the cultural differences, Persona easily hits nerve with most people still in high school, because it reminds them that school is incredibly boring.
In Persona 3, school is a mandatory part of the game; players are asked questions on short lectures, take finals, and can even fall asleep mid-class. Though its relevancy on actual gameplay is far outweighed by dungeon-crawling and building relationships with people at school and around town, the rote school schedule establishes the game’s core. Within the narrative of Persona‘s universe, the main plot, side quests, and other diversions are essentially extracurricular activities. This immediately makes the experience more relatable than Bully‘s, since saving the world – as herculean a task as it may be – is what the player does after school. This makes it easier to establish a time frame for anything else that might happen.
Bully, with its focus on one-off, larger-than-life setpieces, makes it seem like our teenage years could be a non-stop deluge of interesting events. The game doesn’t leave classes out entirely, and you can make Jimmy as academically successful at school as you want him to be, even if the story doesn’t acknowledge it. But while many of our most memorable experiences as teenagers happen outside the school system, some of the most important experiences take place inside a classroom, whether it’s a love note you got in Geography, realizing what you want to do with your life has nothing to do with schooling, or finding that you have a passion for physics. Both Bully and Persona ignore this, but Persona at least makes the effort to frame its story sequences during classes.
Not that Persona is The Catcher in the Rye, either. As much as the series avoids archetypes, Persona‘s characters suffer an irritating trait native to most teenagers – they’re all a bunch of whiners. At some point or another, every character will spill their sob story, and when you as the player are surrounded by people unloading their burdens on you (since the player character seems to have no issues of their own), it starts to wear on your sympathy. In the face of the main plot’s melodramatic countdown to the end of the world, you have to wonder why Yukari’s mommy issues are so pertinent.
Each student of Gekkoukan High School thinks their problems are idiosyncratic and insurmountable, and they mope about them constantly.
It’s an issue of tone many videogames face, but this annoyance highlights another way Persona gets its characters right: Each student of Gekkoukan High School thinks their problems are idiosyncratic and insurmountable, and they mope about them constantly. You’d never mistake most of them for real people, but you never get the impression that a character is there to fill in an archetype or requirement, either.
Bully‘s characters are just as egocentric, but their troubles are either relegated to throwaway gags or otherwise marginalized. This is likely to keep a consistent tone, since it’d be jarring to see someone suddenly having to deal with their parent’s alcoholism right after Jimmy helps the nerd clique sabotage a football game. Rockstar had a chance to tackle several modern issues teenagers face today (suicide and the treatment of GBLT teens, for example) without giving losing the game its Teen rating, but instead played it too safe.
Which isn’t to say Bully lacks merit. Once you accept that it’s using school as a backdrop instead of its center, the main plot packs a surprisingly insightful punch in the way it portrays teachers as people with various and conflicting motivations instead of a united front, and how the students they’re teaching can outsmart and manipulate them. But as someone who only recently left high school, I’m at odds with it. While I don’t expect a game to hit every point of my own high school career or address all of the specific problems I had, I did expected to find a few moments where I’d be able to experience something and say “Yeah, that also happened to me.” If Bully‘s goal was to find common ground with the audience its Teen rating seems to suggested it was at least partially directed at, I don’t think it accomplished its goal.
But maybe that wasn’t its goal. Bully may not relate with modern teens, but it likely hits a nerve with people for whom high school has been reduced to a few distant memories. Most people wouldn’t describe Bully as cheerful, but if you think about it, the worst thing that happens in it is a small-scale riot within the school. Besides a teacher’s alcoholism (played for laughs) and a coach’s panty fetish, the kids of Bullworth Academy mainly deal with pranks and hijinks.
The game’s more preposterous events make more sense when you view them as products of memory – we remember most the craziest things we did at school, not the notes we wrote or the tests we took. Similarly, its characters are simplistic because that’s how we remember people we used to go to high school with; as the most superficial traits of theirs we can recall. The Teen rating may be a result of not delving too deep into memories it’d rather not go back to.
Ironic, then, that a game that was presumably meant to appeal to a younger crowd ends up appealing most to an older generation who will catch the game’s references to 80s movies and embrace its a narrative of mostly highs and lows. Meanwhile, a game that captures the essence of another culture manages to resonate more with current students.
Bully‘s relatively carefree attitude, however well-formed, is skewed by nostalgia; It presents the high school lifestyle as an older generation remembers it, as seen on TV and film. This hindsight view is a way for older gamers to remember their younger days, while current teenagers, with their emotional baggage and self-important attitudes, look to the melodrama of a series like Persona to help them make sense of their problems. And if I’m right, maybe I’ll go back to Bully years from now and fall in love with it, when I’m more concerned with reliving my best moments than how I’m going pass my chemistry final.
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who almost got in fight with bunch of metalheads at his high school over an issue he doesn’t remember. You can contact him at surielvazquez(at)gmail(dot)com.