Perhaps the most obvious thing to say about Rockstar is that their games draw generously from popular culture. Every game has its clear references and antecedents. These references are sometimes indirect, such as Vice City’s “Basically Scarface” storyline, or Red Dead Redemption’s Spaghetti Western influences. Other times Rockstar opts for thuddingly blunt parodies and lampoons that Mad magazine writers might call a little too on-the-nose. Importantly, Rockstar has the budget to make these cultural withdrawals quite directly. One does not need to merely reference Goodfellas; you can hire Ray Liotta to voice your main character. Need some music for your game set in 1992 pseudo-Los Angeles? You can afford to license N.W.A.
We might consider it strange, then, that when Rockstar’s success was impossible to doubt and their coffers surely fat with money-sign cash bags, they released a game of much more modest production.
Bully, released in 2006, lacks the big-budget flair of its siblings. There are no licensed soundtracks or big name actors. The game’s scope, a boarding school set in a northeastern US town, was remarked upon even at the time as unusually small. (Rockstar’s prior San Andreas had modeled a sprawling expanse of a fictionalized California, including three major cities.) And yet Bully is very much a Rockstar game: It follows the same open world formula, has the same focus on hypermasculine bad guys, and has the same characteristically juvenile sense of humor. And Bully is also very much a miserable experience, a nasty, grueling thing so bereft of anything I would call “play” that I hesitate to call it a video game.
The Rockstar formula is familiar to anybody who has played a Rockstar game; or, really, to anybody who has played virtually any video game released since Grand Theft Auto III. Set in a dog-eat-dog boarding school (its motto, translated: “Dog Eat Dog”), the characters of Bully are now actual juveniles inhabiting a Rockstar world. Your typical goal, as you might expect, is to follow a minimap to a mission marker. Start the mission and you have to accomplish some brief Rockstar task: go here, collect this; go here, escape that; go here, attack him; go there, kiss her. (Rockstar’s usual sexual objectives are replaced this time with sloppy teenage makeouts. In other games we would say “fuck.”) You can even incur a “wanted level” from truancy or vandalism; though, as school officials don’t carry guns or ram you with police cars, you can run past them without difficulty.
Rockstar games have rarely been lauded for the depth of their design, preferring instead a barrage of diversions, and Bully is no exception. The game’s combat system is simple button-mashing fisticuffs. Academic classes take the form of featherlight minigames which take a minute or two to complete, barely occupy that brief time, and award you meaningless abilities which you will nonetheless spend a few seconds trying out. You are actually punished with mandatory chores (like snow shoveling) if caught breaking the rules. You can compete in bike races, buy new outfits, visit a carnival, collect hidden trinkets, help classmates with various tasks, and, of course, run around engaging in random violence. None of this is particularly fun or challenging – it’s frequently neither – but there sure is a lot of it.
The cast too comprises the usual melange of hostile young men and the girls at their coattails. While the children of Bully are not murderers or drug dealers, they are still awful little shits. Rockstar seems incapable of writing any character who does not fit into some established cliche and Bully digs so deep that it hits bedrock. The boarding school is a paint-by-numbers portrait of nerds, jocks, preps, and greasers. The jocks are witless thugs, the nerds are nasally cowards, the preps are insecure rich boys, the greasers uncouth auto shop boys. (The girls, regardless of clique, are all clingy, superficial nags, whose presence in the game does not seem to warrant more remark than this parenthetical.) The main character, Jimmy, is a bully himself, the product of a broken home and a cartoonishly uncaring mother and stepfather. Every character in the game is so unpleasant and irredeemable that cutscenes quickly blur into samey, tiresome exchanges of My First Tarantino tough-guy dialogue. Bully lays the formula so vacantly bare that I have to question how much I actually enjoyed Rockstar’s other games.
Because I did enjoy them. I remember having a great time with Vice City and San Andreas. I’ve played Red Dead Redemption multiple times. I own (now with some regret) every single Grand Theft Auto. And I struggle to think of how they are substantially different than Bully. I couldn’t say with a straight face that San Andreas is written any better, with a story that veers off the rails with excursions into Area 51. Grand Theft Auto IV was notorious for tedious in-game relationships, with friends who would call and demand to play darts or go bowling. And all of these games star men whose personalities range from “nameless tough guys willing to do anything for a dollar” to “named tough guys willing to do anything for a dollar.”
Most recently, Grand Theft Auto V came under fire for, among other things, its blatant transphobia, its churlish attitude toward women, its questionable treatment of torture, and a quality of writing so low, obvious, and mean, even by Rockstar standards, that “lowering the bar” does not seem sufficient to describe Sam and Dan Houser’s quest to discover satire’s Death Valley.
The differences between the childhood environment of Bully and the more adult worlds of Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire, Manhunt, or Max Payne are stark. But more stark are the similarities. Bully is unquestionably a Rockstar production, stripped of all budgetary pretensions. There is no filmic veneer inviting comparisons to great works, no expansive soundtrack to distract you from the tedium of traveling from so many points A to so many points B. Bully is just an “open world action game,” doing nothing well, not greater than the sum of its parts because, as you learn in math class, zeroes only add up to zero.
Rockstar has enjoyed a few years of unabashed praise from mainstream outlets after Grand Theft Auto IV. That game’s relatively somber storytelling garnered awestruck acclaim, including one New York Times review calling it a “violent, intelligent, profane, endearing, obnoxious, sly, richly textured and thoroughly compelling work of cultural satire “ Red Dead Redemption’s historical Western setting seemed, at the time, like a sophisticated choice from a studio known for contemporary gangland dramas. And Rockstar also had its finger in the detective fiction pie of L.A. Noire, which had a more ambivalent critical response but was still credited for its writing and production.
If Rockstar has “grown up,” as this Fox News piece asks, then Bully represents where Rockstar came from: small games about mean little men. And though the games get larger, those mean little men have not changed. How much of Rockstar’s success has been directly purchased? Not by the buying of reviews (though, let’s be real), but by the distracting glare of what so many millions of dollars can afford. Bully is the plainest demonstration of what Rockstar does, without ornament, and puts the lie to every positive review they’ve ever received.
Grayson is a writer and editor living in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @vghmag.