“You got Canis Canem Edit in the USA? Bully for you, son.” So goes the most painful joke I’ve ever written in order to crowbar both titles of this game into the opening line of this review in order to maximize the search engine potential. And people call me a hack! Nevertheless, Bully is a 2006 open-world action adventure game published by Rockstar, and specifically developed by their Vancouver branch.
Initially, the premise sounds rightfully troublesome. Grand Theft Auto had traditionally revelled in its decadent approach to glamorising violence and other meanie-bo-beanie behaviour. Apply that philosophy to a game starkly titled Bully, and you can imagine just how erect the tabloid press was about to get, ready to start scribbling dirges about “normalising bullying” (the absolute irony and cheek of tabloids to say that), especially after Rockstar were hampered with the grim, po-faced Manhunt and the Hot Coffee controversy. Yet just as one braces themselves for a fart and instead gets a sweet summer breeze, Bully subverts all expectations delightfully. The game is set in a New England-esque high school town but built on the same framework as their wildly successful Grand Theft Auto series. Focusing on the eminently relatable Jimmy Hopkins, we play as a 15-year old boy who has been dumped off by his mother and step-father to attend the worst private school in the country, Bullworth Academy, which quickly ensnares the cynical, snarking teenager as he gets involved with the sociopathic Gary Smith, finding himself at odds with nearly every clique in school who want his blood. What quickly ensues is Jimmy finagling and fighting his way through the school in order to make life tolerable, get the cliques off his back, and end up ruling the school.
That could have potentially been stark and gritty, but Bully wears its tongue in its cheek and its heart in the right place, as the tone is largely light-hearted and comedic. Not silly by any means as it still exposes what an awful place high school can be, but the setting, teachers, and cliques are presented with enough of the trademark Rockstar satirical winkings that it comes off as a very sweet-hearted game. Most of the teachers are presented as ineffectual, disgusting, or just general terrible failures, but those who actually care come out unscathed – such as the brilliant art teacher and the genial English professor, Mr Galloway, who succumbs to alcoholism, but tries to keep it together anyway. The cliques get held up for mockery too, such as the bullies who are hyper-aggressive and primitive, and the preppie types who openly divulge their incestuous desires, but the game is surprisingly nice to the nerds, who make up a lot of the backbone of Bully as its supporting cast, acting as the impetus for our protagonist Jimmy to grow. Hopkins starts as hard-nosed, sardonic, violent, and childish, but begins to grow up as he makes friends with the nerds, and begins to use his aptitude for fighting into protecting his new pals, which helps the already likable Jimmy grow into a winner and probably the best protagonist Rockstar has ever written, in terms of morality.
However, what really helps the game is how funny it is. Supporting characters are full of funny quips, and the surprisingly-intelligent Jimmy responds to the weird world around him with a sardonic barb and a smile…right before he caves its face in. All the cliques are stretched into bizarre and entertaining caricatures, too; the Bullies represented by Russell, a knuckle-dragging simpleton, and the Nerds by Algie, a rotund redhead who frequently pisses his pants. That’s not to say the game is merciless in its treatment of these groups – Jimmy himself is no true hero and could easily be reduced to violent slacker with a mouth – but Bully is, by every means, a funny game, and it’s better for it – trying to wade through a game like this if it were played entirely straight, no jokes, would be hell.
The elephant in the room here is the contentious title, and what that entails. Can you engage in bully behaviour in this game? Yep, without mercy. However, the game never encourages or forces you to pick on random people, and the only storyline bullying actions that happen are against antagonists that truly deserve it. Players will be heavily penalised if they try to assault or tamper with adults, authority, and especially girls, which is this game’s equivalent to getting a six-star rating, so Bully sets the correct tone and ultimately doesn’t glorify actual bullying, which is a plus – there’s a gleeful, primal urge to start running people down in GTA, but it becomes extremely uncomfortable when the tone changes and it becomes a case of torture. Bully deftly sidesteps this, choosing the comedic relief of a swift slap to the balls over cutting them off entirely.
The crowning jewel of this game is the original music, which is an area we know that Rockstar can excel in, they just choose not to – and considering they could buy up a smorgasbord of 80s and 90s hits for their Grand Theft Auto games, why wouldn’t you? Bully doesn’t quite operate like that, though. Shawn Lee composed the soundtrack here, and there really is no more succinct way to put this than that he is an aural wizard, and that Bully’s soundtrack may be the most satisfying and complete that you’ll have seen in years. From the twinkling and electric sounds of the overworld theme which suggest peace (but that war could also break out at any minute), as well as the uptempo (and in its own right, frightening) Jock theme, Lee captures every part of the high school experience perfectly, three minutes at a time. It is absolute magic, and for however amazingly that the likes of Vice City and San Andreas has well-curated soundtracks, Bully, I daresay, embarrasses them completely.
As much as I want to gush and call this game perfect (it is in many places), I can’t do that in all good conscience. What holds this game back from pure 10/10 heaven are the classes that Jimmy must attend to better himself. Some are fun, such as the English class, where you’re tasked with solving anagrams, some are sterile, such as the Art class, where you play a recreation of an arcade game that feels vaguely familiar in order to reveal a picture, and then the rest are just broken, such as the Shop class, where you have to make nanosecond-accurate inputs in order to fix a bike, which essentially takes the worst from San Andreas’ lowrider minigame and makes it even more excruciating, if that were possible. Fun or not, though, all of these games are lazy and, with a more modern eye, have no more substance than free games on the Apple App Store.
This would not be that big a deal if these games didn’t form such a big part of Bully at large, and if they weren’t getting utterly outshined by the actual minigames on offer, such as lawnmowing and playable arcade cabinet games such as Consumo. In all, it’s a disappointment, and a black mark on a glowing permanent record.
Bully tries its best which is eminently clear while playing the game, but while it nearly touches the grade boundaries of an A+, it’ll have to settle for an A instead. Really, a fantastic experience, and one of the best Rockstar’s ever put out, but sadly it can’t help but trip over itself and drop its tray in the cafeteria in minute but upsetting ways. Still, though. It’s fabulous. Bully for you, Rockstar.
Verdict: It’s going to Princeton instead of Yale, but let’s be real: Princeton’s still brilliant.