Bully: Scholarship Edition is an expanded version of the original title Bully from Rockstar Games. It received release for Wii and Xbox 360, and then later for Windows.
Bully: Scholarship Edition
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Vancouver
, with porting work done by Rockstar New England
and Rockstar Toronto
Genre: Third-person brawler
, GTA-style sandbox
Original: 2006/10/17 Ports: 2008/10/21
Bully was originally released for the PlayStation 2 very late into that system's lifecycle, and at a relatively low price point for the platform. The Scholarship Edition ports are quite similar to the original title but feature some different technology. The original was built off RenderWare, the ports were built off a competing engine called Gamebryo and featured some platform-specific additions. Notably, the Wii version of Scholarship Edition featured some use of the Wiimote in the added game mechanics, while the Xbox 360 version featured Xbox Live achievements.
Bully follows its protagonist, Jimmy Hopkins, through a year enrolled at a fictional New England boarding school called Bullworth Academy. Jimmy arrives in the autumn with the school year already in progress, having been kicked out of a number of other schools previously. It is apparent that Bullworth is something of a last stop for him; Jimmy's absentee parents (mother and stepfather) have dumped him there to go off on an extended honeymoon. The motto of the school is canis canim edit or
dog eat dog and Jimmy rapidly finds himself at odds with the various teenage cliques in Bullworth Academy and the surrounding town of Bullworth: the Bullies, the Nerds, the Preps, the Greasers, the Jocks, and the Townies.
The game's setting is nominally in the same fictional universe as the Grand Theft Auto titles, and features somewhat similar gameplay. Jimmy can walk, run, swim, climb, skateboard, ride bicycles and mopeds, drive go-karts, and fight--either hand-to-hand, or with weapons. The combat is actually more similar to the earlier Rockstar effort The Warriors than it is to GTA, but the appearance and structure of the gameplay is quite similar, with an open-world featuring opportunities to explore, fight with rivals, tangle with authorities, or enter into mission-based objectives that advance a main story. The game has a modest economy, with Jimmy able to earn money and spend it on clothes, games, food, weapons, and bicycles, but as a child in a boarding school, money is treated largely as a secondary concern. The more important statistics are progress in various school subjects, and prestige or infamy with the various cliques.
These cliques essentially function as youth gangs, and the game is divided into several season-based chapters:
- Start of year: Conflict with bullies, alliance with nerds.
- Autumn: Conflict with preps, loose alliance with bullies and nerds.
- Winter: Conflict with greasers, loose alliance with preps, bullies, and nerds.
- Spring: Conflict with jocks, loose alliance with greasers, preps, bullies, and nerds.
- End of year: Conflict with townies.
Each chapter is punctuated by short interludes: Holidays such as Halloween and Christmas, specific events such as a football game or a fire at the school, and so on. Most segments of the game use a day-night system; Jimmy has a class schedule to honor and must deal with both truancy and curfew rules.
As in most Rockstar open-world games, the focus is divided between combat elements, exploration elements, and racing elements. There is no killing in this game, though; the worst Jimmy can do to anyone else is knock them unconscious, and the worst that can happen to Jimmy is a telling-off by authority or a short trip to the infirmary. The game uses a health system quite similar to the GTA titles as well: healing through first-aid kits and medicine get you to 100%, alternative means are needed to get beyond that. In GTA titles this was body armor and sexual contact; in Bully it's certain classroom experiences, and kissing.
Kissing got this game into some trouble with the anti-video-game lobby: Jimmy Hopkins is bisexual, and can kiss something over a dozen different people in the game: one boy from every clique, one girl from every clique except the bullies, and a few other unaffiliated students. This was one of the first portrayals of anything other than strict heterosexuality in any mainstream video game, and as with similar bisexual content in the Mass Effect and Dragon Age titles, various protest groups (including now-disbarred lawyer and famed media whore Jack Thompson) responded predictably.
Other criticisms of the game focused on its portrayal of bullying itself: as a protagonist, Jimmy Hopkins is both a victim of bullying and a bully himself. He and the other students all have access to a variety of mischief items like slingshots, cartons of eggs, stink bombs, itching powder, marbles, bottle rockets, and firecrackers, and are constantly using these to play pranks on one another. Jimmy can give wedgies, swirlies, Charlie horses and similar; he can trash talk, shove people into lockers and garbage cans, spit in faces, pinch bottoms, play the
Why are you hitting yourself? game, knee or kick students in the groin, even make some of the more easily intimidated characters wet themselves. Jimmy can be a victim of many of these same acts of bullying--particularly when he's wearing unflattering clothing--and in his travels through Bullworth Academy and the surrounding environs, he routinely sees this kind of bullying going on around him. The portrayals of bullying won the game bans in certain countries and at certain retailers, in spite of the T for Teen rating from the ESRB and a strong defense of that rating in the press from the ratings board itself.
I played through the PS2 version of the game to 100% completion twice, and the Xbox 360 version once. I was disappointed with the port to the Xbox 360: the new classroom games really felt like they were intended to be played on the Wii, and I had serious problems getting the game to correctly recognize input from the Xbox 360 controller during some of the minigames. There were additional holiday scenes and these did a good job of helping make Jimmy's school life more real, but all told people who played this game on the PS2 didn't necessarily need to buy the game a second time.
That said, the game seemed to perform quite a bit better on the Xbox 360 than it did on the PS2. Whether this was the engine or the hardware isn't fully clear to me, but the original version had occasional pop-in/rendering problems and I noticed much less of that in the Scholarship Edition.
I really took my time playing this game. It's never enormously challenging, but there are a ton of things for Jimmy to do and for the most part the game doesn't get in the way of itself. Even the days I spent just taking Jimmy to class and interacting with other students at Bullworth Academy were a lot of fun. The writing and the voice acting got special attention in this game; every student you encounter is a uniquely-realized character. All of them have their own dialogue and behavior, their own friendships and rivalries. Some of it seems very believable, but a lot of it is just laugh-out-loud funny. Jimmy's life in Bullworth captures a very specific tone regarding teenage rebellion; his rebellion isn't always successful but it's absolutely thorough. Someone inclined to savor the experience can probably take 50 or more hours on the way to 100% completion.
I was impressed by the game's attention to minor details like Jimmy's ability to greet and taunt passersby, and by the way those individuals can all respond uniquely to his conversation. I think that this is something Bully did better than almost any other game I've ever played. Most other games this large shuffle dialogue, faces, and clothing; the people you encounter are mostly anonymous and will never be seen again after they leave your frame of view. The fact that nobody dies in Bully afforded the game designers the opportunity to do something different. The environments of the game feel much more like a small town; this is especially true because of the "yearbook" function of the game where Jimmy is turned loose with a camera and told to collect a picture of every single person at the school. There are some recycled and fairly-generic characters here and there, mostly adults about town and authority figures like prefects and police officers, but these are the exception rather than the rule.
The soundtrack/score is very good. In Grand Theft Auto titles the sounds of the world are mostly environmental, and are punctuated by radio stations in the omnipresent cars that populate the game world. With no opportunity for radio stations, Bully was scored in a much more front-and-center way, and I felt that it turned out quite well.
It's an extremely immersive game, capturing much of the same kind of youth spirit that books like Catcher in the Rye prize so highly. The design strikes a delicate balance; Hopkins is closer to being savage than he is to being rambunctious, but still maintains an adolescent innocence throughout much of the game. For example, at one point in the story Hopkins also attempts to arrange a romantic encounter with his attractive female art teacher; the storyline uses it as a source of comic misunderstanding but I was surprised that the game didn't receive more significant criticism as a result. In keeping with this theme of rebellion without a total lack of innocence, Jimmy is easily manipulated by his adversaries at many points throughout the story. His victories are almost always the result of bravery and perseverance rather than cunning or careful planning.
Bully isn't a perfect game. The commercial intent was clearly to exploit an existing engine and gameplay concept to get a greater return on the underlying technology investment Rockstar had made in the process of building out so many GTA games in the RenderWare era. In fact, many of the gameplay mechanics that were at the forefront in Bully (such as skateboarding and bicycling) had just been introduced in GTA: San Andreas, which had been released a couple of years earlier. Scholarship Edition built on this theme of cashing in on existing technology without extensive follow-on investment; I'm not sure it would have been released at all if it hadn't helped to walk back the poor market timing of the original PS2 version of the title. At any rate, a lot of the ideas that got stuffed into the game feel uninspired and not perfectly fleshed-out; there's a lot in here that doesn't work very well, and a sense that there wasn't enough investment in the parts of the game that worked the best. Many of these criticisms could also be made of another Rockstar title, Red Dead Redemption, but I think you can also praise Bully for many of the same reasons that RDR won so much praise. Jimmy Hopkins is an extremely vivid, well-realized character, and this is a direct result of the variety of experiences available to him across the breadth of the game.
The low-stakes nature of the story and its essential conflict afforded Rockstar the ability to invest much more in the writing and voice acting than they could have done in a title that focused on adults. It's got to be an extremely rare thing for a game to be praised for the voice acting of an ensemble cast, but that's what we got with Bully. I think there's a lot of promise in that kind of design; if the developer produces other games in this mold I hope that they shift from Jimmy forming relationships and reputation with each school clique collectively and instead focus on a protagonist forming those reputations with various individuals in the game world.
This wasn't a technologically ambitious game for Rockstar, but it's a very good game overall, and it's rare to see a game achieve its thematic goals with such a high degree of precision. There's a great deal of craftsmanship on display here. I was glad for the opportunity to play this game so many times and I think I'll always remember this title as a classic.