It’s difficult for me to maintain interest in many games long enough to finish them. It’s difficult for me to maintain interest in many games to take them beyond the point of having bought them, honestly. Yet some games, they unlock a power within me. A power I bring upon myself: the power of the masochist.
Bully is one such game – even though it got marvellous reviews when it came out, to me it was Grand Theft Auto without most of the fun, style or coherence.
I played the “Scholarship Edition” for 360, which is probably the first time anyone in Australia bothered to play it because when it came out as Canis Canem Edit for PS2, noone knew what it was and it was almost immediately discounted. Even as a 360 game it was released at cut price, and I got it for $40. Does that make it eight times better than Condemned? Heck no.
Jimmy Hopkins is a punk kid who’s been kicked out of more schools than anyone should ever be (I’m going to be controversial and suggest that the number of schools one should be expelled from in one’s lifetime should be equal to zero). His mother, on her way to her fifth honeymoon, drops him off at Bullworth Academy.
Naturally, Jimmy wants to become King of the school. Naturally, this involves him … doing errands … for everyone else in the school … yeah. It makes no sense. It’s a game where you are ostensibly stopping people from being bullied, but you’re being a bully in the process – and, of course, you take orders from whoever you think you should be taking orders from. The number of times that Jimmy does anything on his own initiative is slim, but not nil: on at least one occasion someone came up to him and said “Jimmy! All Heck is breaking loose!” and Jimmy said “You girly loser girl! I’ll think of something!”, then he kissed one of six boys to show that his sandbox and his narrative don’t quite gel all the time.
Basically, a large part of my problem with Bully is that its setting is too vaguely realistic, unlike the more fantastic world of Grand Theft Auto. Shamus described the game as less “repulsive” in its actions, but there was not a single character in the game that I liked or an action that I approved of. I can kill whomever in GTA IV without blinking, but in the context of Bullworth Academy I found myself thinking “why should I have to commit such a pointless act of petty vandalism?” It’s not actually realistic at all, but it has the pretension of normality and that grates. It means that nothing in the game is really worth attempting.
Bully attempts to have an overarcing storyline, but it’s really clumsy about it. In the first chapter you become the “friend” of Gary Smith, an overly dramatic and, frankly, a little camp (albeit homophobic), chump who manipulates you to his will so that he can make you unpopular. When you – or more accurately Jimmy, who has considerably fewer brain cells than most players – realise that he’s chumpetising you, you break off from him and take on all of the cliques in the game. Apparently Gary is taking command of things behind the scenes and telling transparent lies about you to your enemies, but you only hear this as second hand scuttlebutt. For someone
hellheck-bent on taking over the school, Gary is a shadow master and is all the more boring for it. On the other hand, you don’t have to see his stupid face, so that’s a bonus.
On another, hithertofore undiscovered third hand, you have to look at Jimmy’s face. Kid don’t even have charm or the smarts to make up for his ugly mug: this game thinks that it is funny but it really isn’t. That’s a concept that’s difficult to explain, because it’s not in the same “use the word bitch for laffs” school as Saint’s Row but the game is ridiculously po-faced.
This is likely because every single character is terrible and operates not on logic but on some sort of internal logarithm that periodically causes them to freak out and demand something of Jimmy. If I was going to this damned school with these people I’d just attend classes (honestly, they’d take two and a half minutes out of my day) and then lock myself in a room. You Americans and your cliques. Can’t you all just either get along or casually ignore each other?
It’s still written by Dan Houser, who is behind the other GTA games, but different tones are struck. The problem is not so much that it’s not funny but that it makes no sense. I’ll give an example of a late stage mission:
Derby, leader of the preps: Some insipid fool has pilfered our trophies! Was it you, Jimmy?
Jimmy: No way. I’ll go check out the Greasers.
So Jimmy takes his bike across town to see the Greasers. For whatever reason, the path to get from the second island to the third is really convoluted. Jimmy pulls up in front of the Greasers (this is, of course, assuming that you’re riding your bike: the game would be pretty painful without it).
Greaser: Johnny says you ain’t welcome ’round these parts no more!
Jimmy: Whatever. Any of you guys seen the Preps’ trophies?
Greaser: The townies probably have them down the warehouse …
uh … loser.
So you ride on down to the Industrial Park where the townies hang out – and where, coincidentally, the game’s topography simply becomes confusing – and, upon entering the warehouse, you get an objective prompt:
Take a photo of the Townies stuffing rats into crates.
What does achieving this have to do with finding the trophies? I’ve got no idea. I had to do some intense research to remember that only a couple of missions before I had to fight a rat infestation in the library, but that had nothing to do with the task in hand: that is, an inane fetch quest for people I don’t give a damn about. Taking photos of the stuffing leads the townies to say “now let’s go see the trophy burning by the docks!”, so at least you can go there.
Taking photos of the townies burning the trophies allows you to go back to the Preppies.
Jimmy: Yo, the townies took your trophies and burned them.
Derby: A likely story.
Jimmy: I have photographic evidence.
Derby: I don’t want to see it. Come along, chaps, let’s leave this pond-scum to his own devices.
Mission complete! Why did I do it again? There’s a firmly established clique respect system in the game that suddenly disappears as you go along: one mission simply starts with the nerds hating you after cooperating with you for the whole game. I had been disliking the experience up until then, but that mission likely tipped me over the edge. Everything is so damned bland while masquerading as edgy, and then they don’t even bother to maintain internal consistency. Gary’s final plan is so intensely moronic and impractical (he ties up the Principal and expects to remain the school’s golden child?) that my brain fairly well exploded upon the tower where he tried to pull it off.
It’s also pretty limited for a sandbox game: there are some awful mini-games, which you have to complete to progress, which is representative of the idea that “variety” in video games can be equated to inane and glitchy tasks of necessity. In order to earn the Nerd safehouse, you have to play a game that involves a sumo eating stuff and exceeding a certain weight. Not only did the scoring system make no sense, but I played through to near completion and the game froze on me – boring busy work was on the cards for me again. With the normal gameplay, which almost always involves going somewhere and either punching someone or vandalising something (or both!), as boring as it is, it’s amazing that all of the sidelines are somehow worse. Awful classes, albeit with good bonuses for completion, terrible arcade games, and an overgame that involves repetitive missions and melée combat with no charm to back it up means that there’s little – or nothing – to recommend Bully to anyone.
I realise that if I didn’t like it, I shouldn’t really have played it to completion, but it has a certain compulsiveness about it. I think it took eighteen hours, but it felt like forever. I think I stretched those eighteen hours over six weeks or more, so that explains part of it, but overall … it seemed like an endless descent into the abyss, then at the end I got kissed by a girl with weird sleeves.
Maybe I’m just a curmudgeon who doesn’t know how to have fun.