by Kirk Battle (L.B. Jeffries)
When Rockstar Vancouver released Bully in 2006, they did so with an acute understanding of the inherent appeal of their Grand Theft Auto games: it’s fun to break the rules. By creating a vast open world the player has a chance to study their environment and the rules that govern it. Who inhibits my character’s freedom? Why? What if I drive a car off a bridge? What if I do a jump into a skyscraper? By setting that world in a New England Boarding School, Bully introduces a more finite and restrictive environment than their previous games. Focusing on the experiences of a teenager learning to cope with adults and peers, the game creates a distilled and purified version of the American teenage experience. It does this by creating a world where that acknowledges the necessity of authority in one’s life and establishing your own relationship with it.
It’s important to note before starting that a lot of my experience with this game comes from the fact that I went to a New England boarding school. I managed to have a good time while I was there but I don’t recommend the experience for everyone. There’s a lot of great camaraderie and intense academic discipline to be gained, but a lot of friends suffer under the pressure and structure as well. There are the classes until afternoon, mandatory sports, evening chapel services, study hall, and the inevitable ‘lights out’ that comes at 10 p.m. At an age where people are beginning to explore their freedom, boarding school takes it away. Depending on where you attend, you may even be forced to work alongside day students who don’t have to endure the same schedule as you. Nor is money much of a factor at a boarding school beyond the expensive tuition. Everyone wears a uniform, most of your time is spent studying, and anything you “own” generally gets loaned out to the entire community. Still, there are no parents to hassle you and no home life to disrupt your day. So there is still a great deal of personal freedom found in breaking away from the nest, but it comes at an ironic cost. In a life of mandatory conduct and zero home life, there is precious little to form an identity around for a teenager.
Which is why placing Bully in a boarding school as opposed to a regular high school is such a good idea. Unlike a game about being a criminal, where the average player has little personal experience, we all went to school and were teenagers at some point. There are just too many variable issues in the regular home setting. We all come from vastly different parents, houses, and income backgrounds. At a boarding school all of those issues are removed. You can be just as much a blank slate in boarding school as you can a criminal whose just moved to a new city.
It also allows the theme of authority and one’s relationship with it to be more fully explored. In a game like Earthbound, your character Ness’s relationship with his parents is generically positive and passive. As you go about saving the planet, they never make you do anything and never enforce discipline on your character, outside the occasional reminder to go outside and play. How would one even react to a video game parent doing anything disciplinary? Do I argue with my virtual Dad? Throw things at my digital Mom? Bully’s setting is clever because all of these issues are circumvented. There is only the headmaster, the teachers, and your peers to contend with. These aren’t people whom your character is related to or even obliged to care about, they’re adults paid to babysit him. Few players are going to worry about shoving some jerk prefect whose hassling them about the rules. The player is much less constrained to worry about resistance than they would be having us fight with a father or mother. None of the familial stigmas are present for the typical teenage challenging of authority, so the player won’t be inhibited by any issues they themselves may bring to the table.
The game is set in a small New England city and boarding school which are different from each other in several ways. The gender based dorms, gymnasium, cafeteria and main building all draw on elements of gothic architecture so as to look like the stereotypical boarding school. As with any of the GTA titles, a long list of activities you’ve always wanted to do are immediately provided. The fire extinguisher, long the temptation of many a student, is completely usable. The fire alarm can also be yanked to send students running around screaming. The town is designed in contrast to this, composed of a white collar neighborhood, an industrial area, and various shops. You can ride your bike around town, buy things from shops, and knock civilians over if you want. The aesthetic difference, modern buildings as opposed to stone structures, mirrors the difference in game design between the two areas. In Bullworth Academy you must worry about prefects and class along with several rules of conduct, but as soon as you go back into town the old rules of Grand Theft Auto take over. In town you are free to run around wherever you like, cause any kind of trouble you want, and need only worry about the cops if you step out of line. Get caught at Bullworth and you’ll be sent to class or have to do chores, get caught in town and you’re just deposited at the front of the school.
The prefects and class structure are another element of the game design that enhances the setting and feel of the game’s experience. It’s logical to expect there to be classes if a game is about being in school, but it’s the options presented about whether one wishes to even attend that make it interesting. If you go to class, you’ll play a mini-game that involves the subject matter in some way. Rewards are linked to the theme of the class, with English improving your communication skills while Geography gives you the location of collectable items on the map. Yet should you choose to skip, the prefects will be harassing you until class is over. Punishment for being caught by them is either being sent to class or the headmaster. This broad system is how the entire rule structure of Bully works for the player: these are the things you’re not allowed to do, these are the things you’re supposed to do, and if you’re caught not obeying you get in trouble. It’s different from GTA because typically all of the activities in those games are illegal or unrelated to any larger authority. In Bully, there’s an actual way to submit and obey the rules. There’s a way to behave in this game and even be rewarded for it. This game design shift changes the experience because the player now has a relationship with rules besides just breaking them. True, the plot still drags Jimmy into all kinds of misbehavior, but the theme of authority and learning to submit are reflected in the free roaming portions of the game design as well as the narrative.
The game design also captures some of the more intense elements of being a teenager. At no point are you ever allowed to drive a car. Instead, bikes are the best mode of transportation in the game. Yet there are still cars driving around the city of Bullworth, moving around much more quickly and easily than you can. What better way to capture the longing for autonomy than to incorporate wanting a car within the game design? It’s a symbol of the adult world and the power they have that the students do not. Many times in the game you’ll be forced to walk back to school while cars drive by you on the road, further reminding you of your role as a teenager in the game’s setting. The game design isn’t just creating a rule structure that resembles being in a boarding school, it’s making a system that also induces the longings and desires of being in one. You wish there weren’t so many stupid rules, you wish you had a car, you wish you didn’t have to go to class, and you wish people would stop telling you what to do. In this way the game design creates the perfect setting for a story about being a teenager and coming to grips with authority in your life.
The game’s popularity system is much more linear but this is in and of itself a commentary on being a teenager. It sharply portrays the realm of teenage politics by making the system totally arbitrary. One mission will put you in a group’s favor one minute, only to have your score drop for an unrelated activity further down the road. For a game about becoming popular, having the metric by which this is gauged be utter nonsense is fairly witty. Popularity contests have always been inane, but in a boarding school where people have no other identity but the one they create it’s making a joke of the entire idea of being ‘King of the School’. Popularity and accumulating it is an illusion in the game, just as it is in highschool, because the student’s adoration is fickle. Any accumulation of popularity can be taken away through no fault of your own in the blink of an eye and the linear plot missions reflects this.
Before we get into the actual plot, it’s important to remember how a sandbox game’s story works. The characters must typically be much broader and stereotypical than a traditional linear story. You have to account for the fact that a variety of players are going to be coming at it from a variety of angles and moods. Put another way, It’s tough to have a sad or tragic moment when the player could potentially have been kicking dogs and blowing up mailboxes for three hours beforehand. The game design has to deliver the story in small chunks as well, since the whole point of an open environment is that you can dash off to do whatever you want. Missions then act like small vignettes, with a short cutscene delivering the characterization and plot, followed by a mission that in some way represents the greater narrative action. These are activated voluntarily by the player, so that again you have the issue of a player who might not have engaged with the linear story for hours. Since you can’t rely on the player remembering everyone and everything that’s going on, the writer instead has to make a story that can be picked up or forgotten at any moment and still work.
As a consequence, the game relies heavily on stereotypes and dress codes for the various factions in the game. Nerds all dress one way, jocks dress another. The writing also mirrors this by having each person be an incredible exaggeration of their real world counterparts. The nerds are all insecure, wet their pants, speak in awkward squeaky voices, and loudly broadcast their role in the game. The Preps are all elitist pricks who reference their Dads, dress in nice clothes, and typify their image. This is true for all the cliques. This reinforces the boarding school setting because as noted previously, one often has to struggle to find identity there. The solution many kids adopted when I went was to fixate and “become” something. A lot of teenagers do this in mild ways, such as being a fanboy, but in boarding school you really see some extreme manifestations of it. For example, I knew a kid who for a year of their life would only listen to one musician and talk about them incessantly. The extreme personalities also add another aspect of boarding school: you become acutely aware of everyone around you. Keep in mind that the character you play lives at Bullworth and is around these people every day. In order to deliver that near nauseating degree of closeness with other people, you have to make their personalities and actions broadcast that much more loudly. You have make them that much more outrageous to be around in order to get the full boarding school experience.
So, this is the structure that the game design delivers the plot in and how the constraints support that structure. What kind of protagonist do you then place in this setting? Jimmy Hopkins is a child without a moral compass. The opening sequence of the game reveals he is without a father and is abandoned by his mother while she pursues another man. When the new step-father tries to force him to speak up Hopkins replies, “What? Who are you? Mom, I thought you told me never to talk to strangers.” It establishes the entire relationship Hopkins, and the player, will have with authority for the rest of the game. The dilemma, as Hopkins bluntly explains to the fat, balding man whose “twice as old as his grandfather”, is that Hopkins knows too much. He knows that the adults who order him around are morally flawed people and thus sees no reason to listen to them. This also makes him connect with the player, who is equally uninterested in being told what to do by the video game. The fact that Hopkins’s Mom opts to abandon him to the authority of a boarding school gives the player the experience, alongside Hopkins, of being thrust into a new social order.
The arrival of the secretary, Ms. Danvers, marks this shift as she announces her worship and devotion to Dr. Crabblesnitch (as opposed to caring about you). Here is another false mother to Hopkins, sarcastically handled by him in his typical subversive manner by trying to walk in the opposite direction from the boarding school. The name Danvers is a reference to the Alfred Hitchcock film Rebecca, which is about a crazily devoted maid whose refusal to accept the new wife of her employer leads to a bizarre psychological duel between the two women. In a twisted bit of satire, it is now two men that Danvers is confronted with and she is quick to make feel Hopkins inferior in every way. The walk to the Headmaster’s office is equally belittling. The game design allows for random bullies to taunt you, shove you, and call you any manner of names. Since your popularity score starts out at zero with all of the factions, no one will speak to you or do anything except hurl insults in these opening moments. The player has his inferior status paraded around him for the opening moments of the game.
Yet Crabblesnitch demonstrates himself to be a capable Headmaster because he immediately greets Hopkins’ dry sarcasm with his own. Unlike the mumbling and threats of violence that his step-father attempts at Jimmy, the Headmaster meets Hopkins on his own turf. After reading the unspeakably bad record of your character he taunts, “I’ve never met a boy like you Hopkins. Whatever am I going to do?” Pushing the issue even further, he forces Jimmy to make the same observation the player himself is wondering as they play as Jimmy. “Why should I help you?” asks Crabblesnitch. Hopkins doesn’t have an answer for either of us. Crabblensitch explains that he’s helping Jimmy because it is his calling, a higher purpose that demands he convert Jimmy into an upstanding citizen. Like the player, Crabblesnitch announces that he is here to help Jimmy through control.
This authority figure’s supremacy is further enforced as Danvers comes in, meek and subservient to his orders. As soon as she is put in charge of Jimmy, however, she is crude and bossy again. It’s all handled humorously, but the opening exchange of the game establishes the motifs for the rest of the experience. Hopkins must prove himself in a new order and he is now at the bottom. Hopkins, renewed with a social order and the moral compass of climbing to the top, bluntly narrates, “That old creep thinks he can tame me? We shall see my friend. I only give people what they have coming to them.” Naturally, within minutes of this declaration, Hopkins is attacked by bullies and must be saved by a teacher. The fact that the player must endure losing in a fight in this moment means that they too are dragged into the humiliation of depending on this new authority.
What kind of options does the game design give me when I want to play as Hopkins? He’s not the biggest person in the game by any means. He’s neither tall nor bulky, making many of the other bullies and opponents in the game physically intimidating. Rather than the typical masculine fantasy of playing a hulking space marine, Hopkins visually represents the insecurity and inferiority that the game makes you feel in the beginning. But from the very first fight, it’s clear the animators wanted to create a character that looks like he can handle himself. His arms pop into a boxer’s pose as soon as you press the button and the game starts you off with several mean combos. The little guy you play as can kick some ass if he gets shoved around. A mean jab, the ability to tackle an opponent, and a nasty knee kick are all options for the player. Indeed, your ability to fight becomes the principle foundation of your authority in the plot and the game design reflects this. With the exception of boss fights or when your opponents are using weapons, Hopkins is always the superior fighter in the game world. The game cleverly allows the player to assert this superiority by creating finishing moves that taunt the person you’ve just beaten.
The first student you associate with is Gary and he quickly presents himself as a mirror to Hopkins. He is as morally ambiguous as your character, operating on a code of conduct as amorphous as Jimmy’s desire to give people what they have coming. When asked what pisses him off so much he rattles off a list of sources that sound remarkably similar to Jimmy’s: ADD, parents, school, and any other number of ultimately irrelevant causes. What he wants, as he bluntly explains several times, is to be King of the School. With loose threats and ominous warnings of the difficulties of not being friends with him, Gary quickly becomes the embodiment of someone who abuses the authority they accumulate. Echoing the statements of Crabblesnitch, Gary mimics Hopkins, “Yeah, I’ve been expelled from anywhere halfway decent cause I’m really bad. Give up the tough guy act, pal.” While both boys want to climb up the social order of the school, it is clear that Gary expects Hopkins to give in to his orders.
Whereas the game design quickly establishes that Hopkins is physically quite able, you can’t really communicate with people through the game design. Your ability to apologize, flirt with girls, or make insults must be established in English class or unlocked. In this way the game design enforces Gary’s advantage over Jimmy: he’s more clever. Although cruel, he makes witty jokes and uses words that Hopkins doesn’t follow. It’s an edge that’s established from the beginning and often pushed in various cutscenes. Gary never fails to insult Hopkins intelligence and thus the player’s inability to communicate as well as he does, a literal limitation of the game design fleshed out by the story.
Pete is the weak character in the game. He lacks Hopkins’ physical prowess or Gary’s wit. From the beginning, it is clear that Gary has already dominated and subjugated this character into putting up with his insults. Yet Hopkins’s method for handling Pete is humorously similar to Gary’s. Both ignore his feelings and although Hopkins doesn’t ever directly insult Pete he is also oblivious to his insecurities. Since he can physically take him without question, there really isn’t much need for him to tune into Pete’s weaknesses. Pete is the lowest person on the social ladder. Even Algie, one of the geeks who habitually wets himself, takes the time to mock him. He harshly explains to Pete, “I may be a loser, but I’ve still got loser friends to hang out with. We wouldn’t let you into our gang, Pete. Because you’re weird.” It could be a throwback to the game’s nasty satirical humor but there is never any moment where Pete redeems himself from that verdict. This highlights an interesting facet of his relationship with Hopkins because he’s never competing for attention with him. Instead, he offers hints about how to control the other gangs or advice in the cutscenes. He may still be a weakling with Jimmy, but at least he isn’t treated as cruelly.
In addition to the countless minor film references throughout the game, it is important to note that the writers are very conscious of their boarding school setting and reference this setting from other bits of pop culture. Specifically, the film Dead Poet’s Society has numerous references and is spoofed across the game. The movie was filmed at the school I attended so I’ve seen it way too many times and immediately recognized the jokes swiped at it. Gary is a visual recreation of Robert Sean Leonard, who plays tortured wannabe actor Neil Perry in the film. Yet in parody, Gary does not resist authority by taking up acting. He just abuses others and uses his mental abilities to torture those around him. Pete’s relationship with Gary is an equally sinister take on the relationship between Neil Perry and his roommate Todd Anderson (played by Ethan Hawke). Rather than being supportive and trying to make him feel welcome as Perry does in the film, Gary instead mocks his weakness and questions his manhood.
Which brings us to the actual groups themselves, starting with the nerds. This is the first faction you ever encounter and the relationship starts off deceptively clear-cut. Escorting Algernon to the bathroom, saving Bucky from Greasers, or recovering Beatrice’s lab notes and diary are some of the opening encounters with them. With the exception of Gary and Pete, whom the nerds mostly ignore or torment, they are the lowest group in the Bullworth social ladder.
It can seem a bit pandering for a video game to be so supportive of its core consumers, but the nerds probably receive the harshest satirizing of anyone in the game. Although the player helps them numerous times, they will still refuse to help you when you ask for anything in return. Algernon, possibly the most ridiculous character because of his open fly and nickname Pee Stain, is also one of the cruelest. After brutally insulting Pete in the mission ‘Stronghold Assault’, he is equally disgusted with Hopkins when given half a chance. When Hopkins asks him for help against the group that always pick on him Algernon whines, “You’re like a bouncer. We’re a bit above helping people like you.” It’s a character trait of the abused that the game explores and jokes about with all the nerds. As the most abused faction in the game world, they in turn don’t trust anyone and lash out at any opportunity. Earnest complains after you beat him into listening, “You’re just like everyone else, picking on the little man!” To get their help, the player has to literally assault a nerd stronghold complete with rapid-fire potato gun and electronic gates. The mission design nicely parodies the idea that these nerds are so caught up in being defensive towards others that they don’t trust anyone but themselves.
Yet for all their victimization and the sympathy the game engenders towards them, once Hopkins provides them with the means to fight back their cruelty quickly comes to the forefront. An ominous warning can be seen in the Schwastika-like flag in the nerd observatory and this theme quickly becomes apparent as Earnest starts assigning missions. The first involves taking naked pictures of the Head Cheerleader and posting them all over campus. Later you break up the football team’s visit to a funhouse, protect the nerd fort from a jock raid, and eventually help ambush them with fireworks. All of this culminates in ruining the Big Game for the football team, an echo of the earlier mission where you help Earnest win the class presidency. The player has to bully the mascot, disrupt practice, and eventually charges the field in front of the whole school. The mission design demonstrates the shift from defending nerds to attacking their enemies, which resonates with the nerd’s overall hypocrisy during these missions. The abused has become the abuser and they now do to the jocks what was once done to them. There’s no moralistic tone to this in the game except what the player brings and the overall theme that becomes apparent with all these groups: the lack of gratitude. Algernon nicely encapsulates this when he yells at Jimmy for not following one of his briefings, “You simple-minded, noble foot soldier!” The nerds are quick to grab at power when Hopkins offers, thankless to the Player who provides it, and just as willing to use it to harm others.
This theme of the various factions being forced into accepting Hopkins and yet never truly acquiescing to his presence is carried with all the other groups. The preps are hilariously parodied and mocked for their dependency on wealth and their mimicry of authority figures. When they accuse Hopkins of stealing their trophies one declares, “Don’t play innocent with us! I tried that when father caught me with Nanny. He gave me a good thrashing and I’ve got half a mind to give one to you!” Hopkins is quick to fire back that they’re nothing but a bunch of rich assholes, but their response is hilariously appropriate: “No duh”. The greasers are a bit out of place since they come across as a throwback to the 80’s but maybe the game wanted to avoid referencing them as emo kids. Like the preps, Hopkins beats them into accepting his authority and confronts the leader with his own insecurities about his girlfriend. Missions revolve around collecting evidence that she’s cheating, winning her affection in a bike race, and then participating in the final brawl over her love. Finally, it is perhaps the jocks who make the most profound comment on Hopkins method of winning friends. One acidly yells back at Jimmy, “What are you gonna do? Beat us all into submission, psycho?” Which is precisely what Hopkins does, until he discovers that being in charge is not necessarily the fun job he thought it would be.
What all of these groups serve to illustrate to both Hopkins and thus the player vicariously is that gaining authority over people is one thing, it’s taking responsibility and governing them that’s tricky. Nowhere is this point more deeply illustrated than the game’s portrayal of the faculty at Bullworth. Your English teacher, Mr. Galloway, has a drinking problem. His rival, Mr. Hattrick, is determined to get him fired for it. Galloway is something of another parody from ‘Dead Poet’s Society’ in that he puts a much more realistic spin on Robin Williams’ character Mr. Keating. Yes, most English teachers are way cooler than others. No, this is not because they inspire us to stand on our desks. Instead, they’re just a lot more relaxed and willing to let things slide, which the game acidly attributes to alcoholism. Out of all the class mini-games his is the most divorced from its subject: English is taught by going through a word jumble. That’s a constraint of not wanting the player to write English papers but even Galloway lamely admits during class that it’s a cop out. Missions with Galloway include finding all of his hidden liquor bottles, helping him go on a date with Ms. Philips, and eventually rescuing him from the Insane Asylum. Beyond their humor, what makes these missions interesting is that they all closely mirror the drama between the students themselves. The adults, despite their older appearance and rephrased problems, pretty much behave exactly like the kids do. When Phillips tries to explain that sometimes for grown-ups little problems become big ones Jimmy responds, “Miss, I’m not five. My Mom’s been married five times and I’ve been expelled from seven schools.” Hopkins already knew that adults could be flawed but seeing this played out by people who aren’t his parents brings something interesting from Jimmy that his parents can’t: sympathy. Hopkins worries about his English Teacher and helps him.
By about the fiftieth or so mission, Hopkins will have achieved a point where your popularity score with every clique in the game is peaked. He basks in their praise and gets to enjoy their competing for his attention. But the prank they cook up, to prove that Hopkins is King even of the town itself, proves to be an act of hubris. While he’s away from the school the townies, in retribution for having their turf marked, play pranks on everyone. Since Jimmy is now the ‘King of the School’ they blame it all on him. Jimmy’s goal of becoming the top of the school leads him to realizing that when you take power over someone, you also take responsibility for them. This goes back to the popularity score being totally arbitrary because through no fault of your own, Hopkins suddenly finds himself unpopular. It’s a profound moment in gaming because even as you run around trying to solve everyone’s problems, it becomes increasingly frustrating how much these attempts go ignored. Being in charge is a thankless job and the game makes you realize that by having your popularity score drop through no fault of your own.
The townies themselves receive the same stereotyping and satirical treatment as the other cliques in the game. Their attacks on the different groups at the school may have been launched by Hopkins spray painting his name onto town hall, but the underlying motivation is still envy. After pummeling their leader Edgar he confesses, “I hate that school. My parents couldn’t afford to send me there and now I’m stuck in this dump of a town.” It’s a sentiment that Gary preyed upon and that Hopkins is forced to overcome in order to win their respect.
All of this climaxes in Hopkins being expelled. Crabblesnitch explains that since Hopkins is both the most reviled boy in the school and he defaced the Town Hall, he can no longer attend Bullworth. For as much as Jimmy might have a point about his good intentions and trying to stop the bullying at the school, the Headmaster is apt in pointing out that he’s still guilty of doing it by breaking the rules himself. Proving that the school administration is hypocritical and the Headmaster is clueless doesn’t change that fact. Only Pete, still loyal because he’s as friendless as ever, helps you. Hopkins laments, “I tried to do the right thing, make people happy, stop all the fighting, make everyone calm down, now everyone laughs at me. People used to be scared of me and now I’m a joke.” The irony of considering fear a good thing is lost on Jimmy but not Pete, who encourages him to not let Gary get away with this. Hopkins is still the best fighter in the school and one minor setback isn’t going to keep him down.
There is something of an element of Greek hubris in the final moments of the game and that’s appropriate. Again, due to the way the sandbox game is structured the developers can’t rely on the player remembering or even connecting these plot themes. They may not have even played the final mission until several hours of last minute item collecting has gone by. So it’s crucial that the developers use the greek ethic of adaptation as opposed to the Christian ideal of transformation. Jimmy maintains the exact same tone, touch of sarcasm, and remains the slightly aggressive person that he was in the beginning of the game. But he does learn to adapt and conform to the world around him. This holds with the Greek ideal of “knowing thyself” and learning to adapt to it. In The Odyssey, the greatest flaw of Odysseus is that he doesn’t trust anyone. He refuses to tell anyone his plans or what is going on, leading to them bungling things due to ignorance such as eating the sacred cows of Apollo. Just as Odysseus eventually learns to trust Telemachos, his servants, and his wife when he returns to Ithaca, Hopkins learns that being in charge isn’t really fun. It’s a kind of adaptation as opposed to rebirth and one that works well for a video game where the design allows immense freedom. When Hopkins finds out who convinced the townies to attack Bullworth he says, “Gary? That backstabbing, two-faced sociopath put you up to this? I bet he said the two of you would take over the school or some crap. He told me the same garbage. It didn’t do me any good either.” His realization at how nonsensical Gary’s goal of being king of any group is simple enough, but his use of the word sociopath marks a distinct change for him. Whenever anyone else uses big words around Jimmy in the game he can’t follow them. Yet here we have him echoing back the same critique that Algernon used of Gary. It shows that, in this moment, Hopkins is learning.
The final missions are a tour of the various themes and jokes of each clique as Jimmy runs around Bullworth beating them into behaving again. He again uses his physical superiority to make everyone behave. When he finally confronts Gary Jimmy can’t help but ask why he did all of this. “Because I can. Because making little people like you and the morons who run this place eat out of the palm of my hand feels great! Face it! I’m smarter than you!” Gary shouts. Hopkins, sick of the game of seeing whose superior and trying to bully people into obeying him, quickly acquiesces. “Congratulations, you’re smarter than me. You hate everyone and everyone hates you. Genius.” Hopkins knows what he now realizes Gary doesn’t care about, being in charge and people liking you isn’t the same thing. This new respect for authority and appreciation finally manifests in the manner that the final boss fight is kicked off: Gary insults Jimmy’s Mom. The woman whom Jimmy openly resents and complains about constantly, the one who abandoned him at the start of the game, has her good name defended by her redeemed son. The last fight with Gary is fairly easy and an appropriate tweaking of the game difficulty in conformity with the story. Gary is, after all, a “little bitch”. When they crash into the Headmaster’s office all of the signs of Jimmy’s adaptation are present. He refers to Crabblesnitch as sir, politely asks for him to help his friends, and finally remembers to give Pete a little help as well. As the only person whose source of authority comes from a “higher calling”, the Headmaster is perhaps the one person worth trusting. He certainly isn’t in charge for personal rewards.
None of these elements or themes are necessarily going to be apparent to someone who isn’t searching for them with a close critical eye. The story is primarily a good satire and the moral is distinctly woven amongst excellent humor, fun gameplay, and a fascinating world to explore. Yet just as the game design gives the player the opportunity to bully and force everyone to obey you, the story speaks back about the flaws to such an approach. When one of the townies bluntly asks Jimmy why he always thinks beating people up is going to solve their problems he replies, “It’s America! We go in there with threats and bribes until we get what we want. If all else fails, we beat the crap out of everyone.” This is what makes the huge outcry and criticism of the game when released both unfair and somewhat hypocritical. Yes, you can do all the typical wild and crazy things that a free-roaming game can do. But when you explore what kind of effects those activities have in the world of Bully, it makes no qualms about depicting the reaction people would have to being beaten into submission. For all the people who claimed that the game taught children to be violent, perhaps what most irked them was that the game was honest about the fact that being a bully comes with a variety of guilty pleasures and irreverent consequences.
The degree to which a video game is art mostly depends on what the player puts into their experience. If they engage with the subject matter and make connections between their actions and what they imply, then there is as rich an artistic experience as speaking with a friend about an idea or reminiscing on the past. Looking back on my boarding school days, I think the thing that resonated with me and this game was re-experiencing the pains of adapting to a new social order. It was the first time as a kid that I found myself living with an authority figure that gave me no special treatment. I wasn’t allowed to go out at night like I did at home because none of the kids were allowed to go out. When I broke the rules, I couldn’t play on my parent’s sympathies or their leniency. I was just another kid that had to be treated like everyone else. Yet watching Hopkins resist being told what to do or say by a bunch of strangers reminded me of my own distaste for authority back then and even now. Whether it was coming from an adult or some bully, the moment where you must live under the rules of someone other than your parents is both inevitable and jarring. And just as the game predicts, back then my immediate reaction was to fight and bicker. But my eventual epiphany was something similar to the one Bully advises. One does not have to change themselves to live in an impartial world, but neither can you change that world without being a part of it.