Portrait of the Thug as a Young Man
In the opening sequence of Rockstar’s new freeform action game Bully, the game’s lead character, Jimmy Hopkins, lays in the back seat of his mother’s car. Like many 15-year-olds, Jimmy looks disgruntled and irritable. His mother from the front seat says, “Jimmy say something.” Another voice from the front seat—the voice of an older man that we cannot see but is apparently driving the car—prods the sulkily silent boy, “James…” Jimmy replies angrily to the unseen man, asking “Who are you?” before turning his attention to his mother and adding, “Mom, I thought you told me to never talk to strangers.” His mother, in an equally irritated voice, responds “Jimmy, like I told you before, please be nice to your new stepfather.”
So begins this newest satire by the developers of the Grand Theft Auto series. Unlike GTA, this game does not follow the development of a crimelord but instead the maturation of an average 15-year-old American boy. Jimmy’s observation in this early scene of the contradictory messages sent by adults to kids in divorced families—never talk to strangers, despite the fact that a never ending parade of strangers have become all too common as the surrogate authority figure in his family—is both funny and focused in its social commentary, as is most of the dialogue in the game.
If part of the strength of the Grand Theft Auto series has been its ability to retroactively satirize American culture, be it the ridiculous excess of the ‘80s in Vice City or the schizoid sense of cultural diversity of the ‘90s in San Andreas, Rockstar leans, perhaps, even more heavily than ever on parody as the means of evoking the memory of one of the most horrific times in life, the experience of junior high or middle school.
Following the aforementioned introduction to Jimmy Hopkins (the dialogue that I describe serving as, perhaps, all the information needed to understand who this kid is and where he is coming from), Jimmy is dropped unceremoniously on the threshold of Bullworth Academy as his mother and her new husband disappear for a year-long cruise and honeymoon while Jimmy is left isolated at this boarding school. If most American teens are not literal attendees of a private boarding school at this age, nevertheless, Bullworth in the first chapter of the game (whose gates are locked down for this initial chapter, providing no access to the town of Bullworth, which will be revealed in later chapters) becomes a really rather apt metaphor for the sense of isolation from others that frequently accompanies adolescence, and the sense that this is the point when a young person really does need to begin to make it on his own.
Unfortunately, in this period of time when the hormonal changes of puberty and an overly developed self-consciousness largely drive children’s behaviors, making it on your own does feel a bit like being dropped off in the midst of a hostile and angry world. And, indeed, the game immediately represents this notion as the player takes control of Billy and makes his way towards the main building on the Bullworth campus while the flocks of surrounding students begin to challenge and criticize him with cries like “You’re dumb!,” “What the heck are you wearing?,” “I hate you!,” “Stinky breath!,” and “That’s it, you’re dead!”
Wading through this sea of venom and viciousness, I could not help but feel like I was suddenly back in junior high school myself. While the exaggeration and hyperbole present in the verbal assault that I experienced as I first made my way across Bullworth Academy’s campus in the guise of Jimmy is indeed not literally what I experienced at this same age, nevertheless, the comments are what I (and I believe most adolescents) assume are what our peers are thinking about us. Rockstar has allowed the teenage imagination to be verbalized to recreate this awful emotional space. In addition to this psychological torment, the physical brutality and intimidation of those years was also brought to mind as a kid in a white polo shirt slunk up behind my character and attempted to sweep my legs out from behind me. This opening sequence is so immersive because of its hyperbolic authenticity. It is so highly parodic that as to render itself truthful about the experience of a 15 year old boy, or at least the assumptions one has at that age about the motivations of his peers.
This, though, is Rockstar’s gift to gaming—immersion through mood, environment, and parody. It is why Vice City so quickly engaged me through songs of the ‘80s era playing on my car radio and parodic commercials that evoked the sense of the period as well. Bully captures that same feeling of a complete world and era through its attention to detail and environments that respond to your choices as a character. Like San Andreas, bystanders that you pass chat with one another and also react and respond to your character based on clothing and hair choices that you have made. Dressing well improves their responses to you, unless of course you have chosen to dress like a jock and are passing by a nerd or vice versa. In practice, this system works even better than it does in GTA, since you are no longer safely cocooned in a vehicle and thus made mostly immune to constant criticism. There is nowhere to escape the constant judgements made on your character by fellow classmates. Again, this seems an authentic kind of representation of junior high school where judgment and condemnation are the rule.
Bully chronicles the rise, fall, and rise once again of Jimmy in his quest to rule a school described as one whose alumni include “arms dealers, serial killers, and corporate lawyers.” Given the rather vicious nature of the environment, such educational outcomes seem reasonable enough. Jimmy’s own goals are ultimately defined by a desire to “rule the school,” which translates into a desire to ingratiate himself to the four leading cliques of Bullworth—the nerds, the preps, the greasers, and the jocks. In essence, the object of the game, which seems to mirror the object of junior high—again, in some sense—is to get everyone to like you.
Nevertheless, Bullworth seems to be the training ground for the kinds of thugs and gangsters that populate Rockstar’s Mature-rated titles. Jimmy’s means of “ingratiating” himself is to push and shove back at anyone that challenges him, and he seems willing to humiliate and hurt anyone who gets in the way of his being liked. Thus, the arsenal of weaponry at his command: slingshots, fire crackers, and stink bombs as well as the ability to give swirlies, wedgies, and shove other kids into trash cans. All these serve as his weapons to one-up peers that he rightly recognizes as attempting to one-up him.
However, Jimmy seems to follow a code less criminal, perhaps, than simply hardboiled. He says early on in the game that “I only give people what they have coming to them.” At times, however this seemingly more moral code—atypical for a Rockstar-created game—seems to be only tenuously represented, as Jimmy often seems to punish other characters—both deserving and undeserving. And, of course, due to the free form nature of the game, players certainly have the ability to torment and humiliate any character that they like, allowing those players to violate the narrative’s code of conduct.
Nonetheless, it is once again these interesting moral dilemmas that Rockstar seems interested in posing for their players, and in a world like Bullworth that is populated by children as confused as the game’s own main character, moral certainty is often unclear. In part, this is why this particular simulation of childhood works so well as it simulates a time of life when making decisions is frequently confusing, and we often act in the most obvious and instinctive of ways.
As such, this seems to be why the Teen rating on this Rockstar game is so appropriate as it really emphasizes the kinds of decisions and concerns that a teen audience faces. At times, though, as I played through the game, I wondered if a Mature rating would have been more appropriate—not because the content is necessarily too mature for teens but because in some sense the parody may be too mature for this audience. The game’s image of the torture and suffering experienced at this period of time is grossly magnified for the sake of humor as well as retrospection. This exaggeration is suitable for an audience looking back on the uglier years of growing up, but it may be too close to home to evoke a laugh in those experiencing it from day to day.