Anyone who thinks video games are teaching our children how to be vicious, cruel and perhaps even violent has forgotten just how vicious, cruel and perhaps even violent children can be all on their very own.
Especially brutal are those tween years — 12 to 16 — that time when kids are beginning to flex their growing mental and physical muscles and often do so with no real sense of how they're affecting the people around them. Yes, if memory serves, teens don't need a game to show them how to act like a school of piranhas on the hunt for blood. It just comes naturally.
"Adolescence is like being tortured for five years," mutters Jimmy Hopkins, the mischievous protagonist of "Bully," the latest video game to kick up a fuss among anti-gaming groups.
Created by Rockstar Games — the same company that created the controversial "Grand Theft Auto" franchise — "Bully" puts players in control of Jimmy, a young ne'er-do-well who's been dropped off at the world's most dysfunctional prep school — Bullworth Academy.
It's in this setting that the game pokes a bony finger right into the heart of the harrowing teen years. Cliques, cruelty, popularity, humiliation, the awkward onset of sexual maturity. "Bully" turns a mirror on the harsh realities of real-world adolescent life, dials it up a notch, adds a splash of humor, and transforms it all into an action game exclusive to the PS2.
But as parent and school groups are calling for "Bully" to be banned, all that gamers really want to know is: Is it any fun to play?
Like, for real. Are adult gamers really going to spend $39.99 to re-visit some of the most agonizing years of their lives? Do teen gamers really want to spend their free time in a digital world that simulates the sorts of trials and tribulations they already have to put up with on a daily basis?
The answer is…yes. Though "Bully" is not a perfect game, it's certainly a well made and intriguing one that deserves high marks for depth and playability and, I would argue, for concept as well.
"Bully" starts with Jimmy, a 15 year old with a bad attitude and a bad reputation, as he's dropped off at Bullworth by his less-than-stellar parents. What Jimmy quickly discovers is that, at this elite prep school, he's really just a small fish in a big bully pond.
This school is ruled by four cliques, each one pulled straight from any number of teen movie standards – the nerds, the jocks, the preppies and the greasers (though, who knew anyone used the term "greaser" any more?) And from the minute he walks through the front gates, this new kid on the block is a target — a target for tougher students, power-hungry prefects, oblivious adults and anyone else who thinks this boy might be able to do something useful for them.
But as he walks through the compound, he begins hearing snippets of conversation from his fellow students — each of them voicing their own adolescent hopes and fears — and we come to understand that Jimmy's plight is one shared by all.
From here on out, the player must navigate Jimmy through Bullworth's complex social strata. Making friends, fighting enemies, getting to class on time, staying out of trouble (or at least not getting caught while causing trouble) is the order of the day. Meanwhile, figuring out who his real friends and real enemies are is no easy task.
Jimmy can follow the main story line or he can run off on side missions. Running errands for the various cliques and characters, for instance, is a good way for him to improve his standing among the students. And eventually his world expands from the school grounds to the local township beyond the scholastic walls where yet another group — the Townies — must be dealt with.
Though the game is meant to offer the kind of open-world, free-form play popularized by "Grand Theft Auto," here the rigors of a school setting inflict stricter parameters on the play style. For instance, while you'll have your choice of missions and challenges to attempt at your own speed, you still need to have Jimmy attend classes and get into bed at a semi-reasonable time.
Classes such as chemistry, English and photography (which must be attended at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. promptly) offer up a series of mini games that must be beaten in order to gain a passing grade. Skip class and the thuggish prefects will hound you and haul you off to the principal's office. Stay out much past your 11 p.m. curfew and you'll find that Jimmy grows increasingly sluggish and useless. In short, there are consequences for negative behavior.
While "Bully's" critics (most of who starting damning the game before ever playing it) like to raise the sad specter of Columbine, the fact of the matter is "Bully" contains no guns, no blood and no death. For sure, Jimmy will have to engage in no shortage of fisticuffs. (The combat system here — grappling, punching, tackling — is nicely done and easy to use.) Still, his meanest weapons are a sling shot, stink bomb, fire crackers, marbles and itching powder. Oh my.
And although Jimmy is not exactly an angel (witness his Halloween pranksterism), his main missions frequently involve helping out geeks and girls who've been picked on. He's a tough cookie on the outside – one who pushes back when he's pushed — but as the story progresses we start to understand that, as with all children, there are two sides to this trouble maker. Yes, there's a good kid just waiting to do his part to set things right in a world where only the most powerful determine what right is.
As far as playability goes, the game is slow (a bit too slow) getting started with several hours spent getting situated in this new world, learning how to navigate through it and learning how to stick to the clock's requirements…or learn how to break these requirements without getting caught.
As far as the look of "Bully" goes, this is the kind of game that makes me long for the ability to play it on a next-generation system. That is, the graphics are a bit ho-hum and the load times a bit tedious. However, the music here is absolutely brilliant, creating just the right atmosphere at all times.
And perhaps I'm just a 15 year-old boy at heart, but this game's premise and story felt far more relevant and therefore more intriguing to me than the stories offered up by the endless stream of "Grand Theft Auto" titles and copy cats that have hit store shelves of late. I'm tired of playing a gangster and a thug with a proclivity for drugs and hookers. Because that life has nothing to do with my real life, I rarely care much about the characters or stories delivered in those games.
"Bully," on the other hand, offers me a chance to play an active role in something akin to one of my favorite teen films. The characters and their struggles are both hilarious and heartbreaking and the coming-of-age tale is one that most certainly brings back memories as it pulls you along. Ultimately, I actually want to know what becomes of Jimmy and his closest associates as the game progresses.
Though "Bully" has been given a Teen rating — making it allegedly appropriate for children 13 years and older – only parents can decide whether it's something they want their kids to get their hands on. That said, it's probably adults — those of us who've already been there done that when it comes to the adolescent years — who'll appreciate "Bully" the most.
With the distance of time we understand that, as the game points out, growing up is a real bitch. More importantly, we understand that being a teenager, sadly, isn't always that different from being an adult. As they say in the game: "Bullworth is a microcosm for the whole world."
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