Bully, Rockstar’s great send-up of social elitism and teen media, turns 10 years old this year and last night the new mobile version Bully Anniversary Edition went live on both Apple's App Store and Google Play. If you played it when it came out, it probably stokes memories of running late for class, tripping disciplinary hall monitors with marbles and the surprisingly long, effective narrative that carries through its 20 hour running time. What you might not remember is how before release, Bully represented the absolute end of civil society for a petrified community of parents.
In 2006, Rockstar was the most dangerous video game company in the world. It had grown from a scrappy upstart making tastefully ignored top-down action games and Game Boy Austin Powers properties to the public face of the moral crisis gripping the industry. Grand Theft Auto 3 was technically spectacular and spectacularly nihilist. It seems trite that congressional activists used to rail against Doom in the mid '90s, as if blasting the faces off Cacodemons was the tipping point for the youth's malfeasance. When Grand Theft Auto took over the world, their worst dreams came true. Here was a game where you could choose to be cruel on purpose, and wreak havoc on a world that looks just like ours. It was dubbed a murder-simulator, and a debauchery-simulator, and it preyed directly on a mainstream media that hadn't yet developed the reasonable language to talk about interactive entertainment like, well, entertainment.
Following the "Hot Coffee" controversy – where some intrepid modders exposed a hidden sex scene in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas – the media perception of Rockstar Games was that it was a duplicitous organization peddling perversion to kids. Rockstar's next move would carry worldwide scrutiny, and they responded with a table tennis game and a varsity-jacket sized version of Grand Theft Auto called Bully.
In retrospect, you have to think that Rockstar was enjoying the hysteria. It takes a certain amount of fearlessness to release a game set in a prep school starring a sour-faced punk with a shaved head, untucked shirt, and a trusty slingshot, especially when the name of the franchise is Bully. But that’s exactly what they did. Rockstar adopted their open-world formula to the sleepy blue-blood suburb of Bullworth. Instead of rocket launchers and submachine guns, young Jimmy Hopkins is outfitted with firecrackers, eggs, stink bombs, and bottle rockets. The missions you took weren’t offered by smugglers or drug dealers, they came from faction leaders representing the jocks, nerds, greasers, preppies, bullies and dropouts who controlled the hallways.
Bully was hilarious, tongue-in-cheek, and freewheeling, but it had an undeniably inclusive message at its core
You also didn’t play as a bully. Much of Bully’s story centered on Hopkins uniting the underdog cliques around the school to topple an exclusive class of jocks and snobs. Bullworth Academy was a dystopia, and for the first time Rockstar cast the player as someone who wanted to change the world for the better. Bully was hilarious, tongue-in-cheek, and freewheeling, but it had an undeniably inclusive message at its core. In one memorable scene, you found yourself in a ridiculous underground cage fight with a massive, degenerate prep who had spent the entire game tormenting your new friends. "I want you to stop bullying weak kids," Hopkins yelled, after you win, "because there's a lot of kids around this place that need a beating, and you’re picking on the few that don't."
Of course that message was lost on the politicians, lawyers, and media who were trying to make a name for themselves after the "Hot Coffee" controversy. Before release, attorney and noted anti-game mouthpiece Jack Thompson famously called Bully a "Columbine simulator," blasting the ESRB’s "T for Teen" rating, saying "you punch people, you hit them with sling shots, you dunk their heads in dirty toilets. There's white-on-black crime in the game. You bludgeon teachers and classmates with bats. It's absolutely nuts." He moved to get the game banned in Florida, and filed lawsuits against Target, Best Buy, and Circuit City to try and prohibit release. It was the ultimate bait-and-switch. Bully was promoted with images of Hopkins giving swirlies and punching bystanders. Without context, it represented GTA's sadism coming home to roost on the American schoolyard. But instead you got Rockstar’s Sixteen Candles. You have to imagine they enjoyed how much they fooled everyone.
In the decade since Bully arrived on Playstation 2, Rockstar has become a vastly different company. They have released exactly two games in the past four years - Grand Theft Auto V, and the belabored noir shooter Max Payne 3. GTA V is a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut having now sold more than 65 million copies. Its online component GTA Online continues to make the company a boatload of money, affording it the luxury of skirting the expected release cycles of the past. If things go right with next year’s Red Dead Redemption 2, it seems likely that that game's multiplayer will subsist in the same way. Rockstar is still one of the greatest creative forces in the business. Everything they've touched in the past 10 years, from post-war Los Angeles, to the wild west, to the freaking Warriors, has been definitive, but Bully was arguably its most unexpected success. A game about teenagers, class, and life, released in a time when people were comparing its art to historic school shootings. Thank God it was in Rockstar’s hands, because it would’ve been a disaster anywhere else.