In which Bwog shamelessly plugs the November issue of the
Blue and White, beginning with Paul Barndt’s review of a video game several orders of magnitude wimpier than Grand Theft Auto, for all you Election Day shut-ins.


Rockstar Games

Playstation 2


Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto III is the Star Wars (Episode IV) of video games. GTA has spawned numerous sequels and brazen imitators like Saints Row and the forthcoming Crackdown, creating a new genre of “sandbox” games—a name that reflects their strengths and limitations.

The sandboxes contain vast, wide-open landscapes with few constraints, where the kid (or mass murderer) in you can get lost for hours; they are also plagued by choppy graphics and sloppy gameplay. But the style and sophistication of Bully, Rockstar’s latest, proves that it’s possible to think, yes, outside the sandbox.


15-year-old Jimmy Hopkins has been expelled from several schools, his mother just got married for the fifth time, and he has recently been dumped off at the worst prep school in America: Bullworth Academy. Dr. Crabblesnitch, the headmaster, rants and raves about morality but can’t enforce any semblance of order. Mr. Hattrick, an administrator, sells test answers to the rich kids; Mr. Galloway, the English teacher, can’t stay away from the bottle; Mr. Burton, the gym coach, enlists students to collect “dirty laundry” from the girls’ dorm; and Edna, the cafeteria lady, is the stuff of nightmares. The students? Nerds, jocks, preps, greasers, and bullies embroiled in a no-holds-barred teenage total war. As Jimmy, a freckle-faced redhead with a mean stare, your job is to navigate the cliques and stir up much trouble along the way.

Although the world of Bullworth is divided into four or five factions, the characters aren’t recycled archetypes (the bread and butter of GTA)—Rockstar took the time to make each of the 70 or so students unique, or at least, unique within the game’s universe. Among the nerds, there’s Earnest, the clean-cut dork with delusions of grandeur; Fatty, the Dungeons and Dragons nut with a cape on his back and tinfoil on his head; and Algernon, the obese bed-wetter who writes to his mother every day. There are jocks like Ted, the pretty-boy quarterback who hides behind his linemen; Damon, a gigantic, fight-picking monster with his arm in a cast; and Ivan, the foreign exchange bruiser. You’ll get to know them, and, as the game progresses, they’ll get to know you.

The game’s technical framework (controls, interface, menus) is straight GTA, but every action has an appropriate teenage analog. Knocking kids off their bikes has replaced jacking Ferraris at gunpoint, firecrackers in toilets have replaced Molotov cocktails, and making out has replaced soliciting prostitutes—unlike in GTA, both girls and boys are receptive to your advances.

Rockstar didn’t advertise this last feature and it isn’t immediately apparent to the player. Its discovery echoes the “Hot Coffee” scandal, a sex mini-game in GTA: San Andreas that was inaccessible to the average thumb-jockey, but was unearthed by hackers searching through the game’s code. In GTA, Carl “CJ” Johnson can date up to six different women, and if he plays his cards right, the dates will culminate in an invite inside for coffee—read: sex. At this point, the off-the-shelf game gets suggestive; the house’s exterior appears, to the vaguely erotic sounds of muffled voices. By downloading the “Hot Coffee” mod on the PC, or hacking into the console versions, however, the player was able to enter the house and the girlfriend herself: you control an array of actions which cannot be elaborated upon in this forum. If any single event sparked Senator Clinton’s public pledge to protect America’s children from video games, this was it. Its revelation caused a re-rating of GTA, which in turn helped Rockstar’s parent company lose $28.8 million in one fiscal quarter. Naturally, cheeky gamers have dubbed the comparatively minor Bully brouhaha “Iced Latte.”

Naturally, Jack Thompson, a conservative attorney and anti-video game crusader, recently attempted to prohibit the sale of Bully to minors in Florida (incidentally, 15 years ago Thompson asked a judge to declare the entire Florida Bar Association unconstitutional because of a supposed revenge plot it was hatching against him). When the judge ruled that Bully could be sold to minors, Thompson fired back with a petulant, passive-aggressive letter that called the judge a liar; the lawyers at Take-Two Interactive, Rockstar’s parent company, swiftly filed a motion to have Thompson declared in contempt of court, and he now faces jail time (check YouTube for videos of contempt hearing hilarity).

That being said, Bully does allow you to beat an eight-year-old girl over the head with a baseball bat and pelt old ladies with bottle rockets, but, all things considered, it’s more Rebel Without A Cause than Requiem for a Dream. The PG-13 approach works. Bringing crack pipes, handguns, and AIDS into a boarding school fantasy would have killed the mischief-making that makes Bully so much fun.

There wouldn’t be mischief to make without rules, and a choice of whether or not to break them. Jimmy has a curfew, a dress code, and class every day (which take the form of mini-games—English is a word scramble, gym is a dodgeball match, etc.). Wear your khakis and vest, and you won’t get harassed by the prefects, but why not wear the red ninja suit you just bought? Go to shop class, and you’ll earn a better bike, but why not ride the BMX you already have into town and spray “Nerds Suck!” all over the comic store where they congregate?

The action isn’t confined to the school grounds—the sleepy northeastern town of Bullworth is an integral part of the game. Wooden docks line a lake, rich folk nestle in gated mansions at the top of a hill, and industrial wasteland sprawls on the wrong side of the train tracks. It’s not a massive game world, but it is a big and wonderfully detailed one.

A photography class assignment brought me to Old Bullworth Church, where I saw one jock standing over a tombstone, head down. The jocks hate Jimmy, picking fights and chasing him across the quad. But when I approached the jock, he didn’t look up. He kept walking down the lane, head hanging. It was a poignant moment, a rare thing for any video game, let alone one from the company famous for its numerous mass murder simulators.

A game can only cover so much, but Bully hits a sweet spot of virtual reality. More social options would have been nice—instead of joining one clique or another, the player is simply dragged through a preset story arc, which involves the systematic humiliation and physical beatdown of every kid in the school in an attempt to “stop bullying”—but the cozy universe of Bully proves that while big is good, bigger isn’t necessarily better.

—Paul Barndt