Anthony's Film Review
(Video Game, 2006)
Rockstar Games explores another controversial premise, while thrilling us with an entertaining game...
With Grand Theft Auto, the highly controversial yet immensely popular street crime video game series, Rockstar Games has a flagship product that could rake in millions of dollars for years to come. Even so, it's possible for game developers to get temporarily bored with making the same product repeatedly and for gamers to play the same game multiple times. That's why it's no surprise that, like any other kind of business, Rockstar took a moment to develop and release something different. Here is a non-GTA game from Rockstar that provides a new adventure while staying true to its brand of games with free-world exploration and controversial themes. Now the company is known not just for controversy related to depicting violent street crime in video games, but also for controversy related to depicting school bullying in a video game.
The outrage is understandable. These days, school bullying includes the physical kind that has occurred for decades as well as the online type where victims are humiliated via social media and text messaging. There have been cases of serious depression and tragic cases of suicide stemming from bullying. So how is it possible to enjoy Rockstar's video game Bully while being aware of the issue in real life? I can make two statements. One, there is a difference between reality and fantasy, even with topics that are surely serious in real life. Just think of action and crime thriller movies, not to mention the Grand Theft Auto games. Two, it is still possible to portray a naturally serious topic with lightheartedness and humor, if done right. The video game Bully does not depict cyber bullying (being that it's presumably set in the 1990s), but rather presents traditional forms of bullying in a visually cartoonish fashion, probably not too different from old comedy movies that depict funny non-explicit scenes of school bullying.
With all of this in mind, Bully takes the player into the world of school bullying while providing an immersive gaming experience, the same way GTA does with street crime. Like GTA, Bully involves a series of mini-game missions that follow a story, plus a variety of side games and the opportunity to cause trouble in case you want to take a break from the story missions (or if you don't want to do the story missions to begin with). It's basically the GTA game formula in a different kind of setting. Instead of a crime-ridden city like Liberty City, the setting is the small New England town of Bullworth, while includes a boarding school called Bullworth Academy. And instead of a street criminal, the main character is mischievous 15-year-old Jimmy Hopkins, whose mother drops him off at Bullworth Academy before taking off with yet another man in her life (yeah, Jimmy definitely comes from a broken home with a dysfunctional family).
When the game begins, Jimmy is on the campus of Bullworth Academy at the start of a school day. As this character, you can go to whatever class is scheduled, which isn't too bad because each class, whether it is biology, chemistry, English, art, or whatever other subject is taught, involves a fairly simple mini-game at five difficulty levels. As you pass classes, you get rewards, like new clothing items to wear and new special abilities. Now, if you decide to skip any class, you can. You just risk getting apprehended for truancy by a campus prefect who will force you to go to class or a police officer off campus who will drop you back to the school grounds. If you truly dread going to classes, keep this in mind. If you pass all five levels of a particular class, that class will become optional, so that if it's occurring at the moment, you won't be seen as a truant.
Of course, this game is not about taking classes, but about dealing with bullies. The story missions that you can do when you're not in class take you along a journey of defending yourself against bullies, helping other kids who are bullied, and ultimately earning the respect of bully cliques so that they stop messing with you. At any time, during a mission or in between missions, bullies who spot you will proceed to attack. You have several options. You can run away or hide somewhere, like in a school locker or trash can. Or you can fight back with punches, kicks, body slams, and other moves. You can also use weapons like slingshots, eggs, stink bombs, marbles, and firecrackers. But beware. If you get caught by an authority figure, you will be punished. (Note: As violent as the fights with bullies appear to be, no character dies in this game.)
So what student cliques are on this campus? First off, you have the physically weak but mentally strong Nerds who hang out at the school library and a comic book shop in town. Then you have five bully cliques. One consists of guys in jeans and white shirts, simply called Bullies. The other four bully cliques have more defining characteristics: the rich well-dressed Preppies, the leather- and motorcycle-loving Greasers, the muscular athletic Jocks, and the Townies (sometimes called Dropouts) comprising teens who hang around the industrial part of town because they got expelled from, dropped out of, or never could get into Bullworth Academy. Each clique also provides unique characters, like the big bully Russell, Argie the Nerd with a weak bladder, Mandy the pretty cheerleader, and Johnny the lovestruck Greaser. And while I'm on the subject of characters, let's not forget the interesting staff at Bullworth Academy, such as Ms. Philips the lovely art teacher, Mr. Galloway the drunken English teacher, Edna the unhygienic cafeteria cook, and Dr. Crabblesnitch the snobby principal.
So what do you get to do over the course of this game? Well, a lot, because it's a paradise for mischievous teenagers. For the story missions, you get to play mean Halloween pranks, recover stolen role-playing game character sheets for a Nerd, vandalize a teacher's backyard (at the request of another teacher), beat up the school mascot, spray graffiti onto the city hall, take a photo of a girl in a shower (don't worry, there's no suggested or graphic nudity), protect a Nerd running for class president, defeat a crowd of Jocks with a Nerd-developed potato cannon, uncover a test cheating scandal, and destroy mailboxes with a baseball bat. There are also multiple little favors, or errands, you fulfill for various characters, like escorting someone from point A to point B, delivering an item or two, or being a menace to someone else. And then you have the many side activities available for extra fun, like carnival games, arcade games, boxing, bike racing, go-kart racing, lawnmowing, newspaper delivery, clothes shopping, hair styling, dodge ball, and photography for the school yearbook. Oh, and don't forget the classes at school as another "side" activity.
If you've played Grand Theft Auto, particularly the later games in the series, you know that the story missions get increasingly harder to the point where the last mission is definitely a survival test. The same is true for Bully, though the difficulty level from beginning to end is still easier overall than in GTA. At least all of the activities in the game are fun to do, and the final mission of the story is one that is exciting and climactic and proves that you can tell a good story centering on school bullies. Besides an interesting plot, the game also benefits from a rocking soundtrack by Shawn Lee. This is one of those games where the music really adds fun to the experience.
If you can put aside the controversy of the game and let yourself sink into it without being crazy enough to emulate the behavior depicted in the game, then you will find that Bully is an entertaining game and a nice addition to Rockstar's line of games. Now, if you still refuse to play the game because of its subject matter, that's OK, too. Speaking of which, I once chatted with a friend about this game, and she brought up an interesting question. Is it possible to make a game that depicts the new era of online bullying? Knowing that a Bully 2 isn't out of the question, I spent some time thinking about it. One could argue that it cannot be pulled off. Then again, if Rockstar managed to do so with this Bully game and with the Grand Theft Auto games, who knows? In any event, Bully is a game that may seem like a guilty pleasure, but it's a fun game like any other.
For more information about Bully, visit the Internet Movie Database and Moby Games.