In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. Today, Samuel goes back to school in Rockstar's Bully.
This article was originally published in January 2016. We're republishing to today to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Bully's release.
Rockstar’s Bully is set in a fictional, terrible school in a small town in New England. You go through an entire school year, from October to summertime, as Jimmy Hopkins, a relatively normal kid with a dreadful mother who has to navigate Bullworth Academy’s complicated social infrastructure.
The open world is a lot smaller than those in GTAs III, Vice City and San Andreas, comprising of just the school grounds and the surrounding Bullworth town, but it’s just as successful in creating a sense of place. It feels oddly real compared to GTA’s expansive backdrops as it’s deliberately normal and very detailed—there’s a rougher industrial district, an area full of posh houses, a park, a town hall and a pier. It’s deliberately grounded. Bullworth is divided into exaggerated subcultures like jocks, nerds and greasers, but on some level I think the game’s success comes down to its ability to reflect what it’s like to live through school in your teenage years.
Unlike other Rockstar open worlds, Bullworth changes over the course of the year to reflect the passage of time. At Halloween, the school grounds are full of pumpkins, jack o’ lanterns and gravestones, and Jimmy’s schoolmates are in fancy dress (Gary, Bully’s sociopathic antagonist, is aptly dressed as a Nazi officer for the occasion). At Christmas, the town is covered in snow, while the NPCs are dressed for winter. A host of missions dials in on the festive theme, the most memorable of which involves helping out the town’s unfortunate drunk, Rudy, as he plays a not-entirely-convincing Santa Claus for the town’s kids. Jimmy even gets sent a terrible festive jumper by his mum. Eventually the snow passes, and the skies clear for spring time. And the game's post-credits 'Endless Summer' is just that: a school holiday that goes on forever, which is what it feels like for a kid when the year’s finally over.
A school year is a real journey when you’re 15 or 16, and Bully is very successful at capturing that. I remember it in much the same way, always having my eye on the next holiday or event, while the actual education part was largely irrelevant. It was the moments in between school that made it what it was for all of us, and that’s what Bully is about—Jimmy’s interactions with other kids, the other kids’ relationships with each other. Nonsensical rivalries, awkward romances, class struggles, bike races, football, paper rounds, the funfair, throwing firecrackers at prefects. It’s like school life without the shit bits.
And you, as Jimmy Hopkins, are there to right the school’s wrongs. Jimmy goes from being a slightly alienated outsider to the champion of the school, and his motivation isn’t much more than sticking it to people who deserve it (while making a few bucks on the side), whether that’s other students or even the school’s teachers. In real life, I find that bullies tend to get their just desserts after school has ended, when the real world finally gets them—Jimmy makes sure karma catches up with them much sooner than that.
That’s why he’s one of Rockstar’s most likeable protagonists, I think, and it's among the reasons players might feel more of a personal affinity with Bully than they do to Rockstar’s other games. It’s a fantastical, pop culture-inspired version of what school is really like—the characters are universal in a way that Niko Bellic or Trevor deliberately aren’t. It’s a fun interpretation of school life with just enough truth in it to mean something to the player.
Friendly tip: If you’re thinking about playing Bully: Scholarship Edition on PC, my advice is to save at every opportunity. On Windows 10, it seemed to crash every hour or so when I started playing it again in December, though the further I got into the game, the less frequently this seemed to occur.