With many at the time calling it “the most controversial game ever made,” the odds of Bully succeeding either critically or financially seemed small. But coming from Rockstar Games – the studio behind the other games usually held up as evidence in every argument on violence in video games – many thought it might still have a chance.
As Grand Theft Auto V smashes sales records despite despicable protagonists and a lust for crime, it seems stranger than ever to think of why Bully never actually made the cut. Luckily, Rockstar’s co-founder helps give some insight into the failure of one of his personal favorites, and whether Bully 2 is still on the minds of those in charge.
Sadly, Bully’s open world blend of schoolyards, a small town and city was so saddled with negativity that even many Grand Theft Auto fans have yet to experience it. But Rockstar Vancouver couldn’t have been surprised to see the uproar over their game, could they? After all, the tale of Jimmy Hopkins, a troubled youth sent to boarding school to unleash terror as a bully is the kind of game that does more harm than good.
There was just one catch: Jimmy wasn’t the bully (spoiler alert). Although the name of the game itself was designed to attract at least some controversy, the critics and detractors made their judgements before actually ever asking what message the game was trying to send. In an interview with Polygon, Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser explains how Bully remains one of his favorite games to date, and why he feels it was so misunderstood:
“I thought, we thought that the word’s strong… It’s a strong word, an emotive word. Maybe too emotive in some ways, but we were confident we were not making a game which you were a bully. You were equally not lily white of course, but you were not a bully. You were sort of standing up to a culture that encouraged bullying by being this tough kid that wasn’t sucked into that kind of world and was friends with some of the weaker kids, but by no means a saint… It was a response, a strong response, to that kind of institutionalized categorization of people.”
“How we saw it, we were sort of being accused of training kids how to kill each other…I thought, ‘This is absurd.’ And that was obviously our reputation then and potentially still is, but it sort of proceeded us then.”
With many deciding what a Bully game bearing the same company logo as the GTA developers must be, Houser claims, the studio was forced to counter attacks instead of market their story. The team ultimately wound up explaining that “it’s not that, it’s not that, it’s not that… But we never got a chance to say what it was.” And in the process, Rockstar’s most morally upright protagonist was branded a hooligan.
In reality, players stepping into Jimmy’s shoes actively sought out ways to sabotage the likes of the ‘preppies’ and ‘jocks’ who harassed the ‘nerds’ of Bullworth Academy. Keep in mind: this was before the days of complex ‘morality’ choices and branching story paths – players couldn’t make Jimmy a bully even if they’d wanted to.
Regardless of the popular opinion of Bully (retaining an 87 on Metacritic), Houser confirms that he still wants to revisit the series. For their part, Take-Two Interactive has implied that it’s still a possiblity, but with Jimmy’s troubled upbringing, and his distrust of authority… could a promotion to the GTA series be feasible? Houser doesn’t think so:
“I never saw him as being that level of degenerate… I saw him as a bad teen, because he comes from a tough home, who could go either direction. He’s not going to be a carjacker. He’s too white collar for that already. He’s at a shit private school, but he’s going to end up being really happy because he’s at the worst bit of his life, or being a sort of messed up white collar doofus.
“He was an unpleasant soul, but he had a heart. To some extent you could say the same was true of [Grand Theft Auto 4's] Niko in a bizarre way. But [Jimmy's] not trying to burn down the school, he’s more trying to stand up to injustice.”
For now, the irony isn’t lost on us: the harshest and loudest critics of bullying – the act of unfairly categorizing and harassing – made up their minds about Rockstar Games a long time ago. They are bad, corrupt, immoral developers who can’t be trusted to send any worthwhile message, and they must be stopped and attacked whenever possible. Because they’re bullies.
What do you think of the original Bully? Is it ripe for a sequel, or is the public atmosphere around bullying too charged to let Rockstar offer any commentary, even a helpful one? Sound off in the comments.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.