Released in 2006 to high praise and much controversy, Rockstar Game's Bully was a video game well ahead of its time both in the mechanics of play and the deft way in which it treated a serious topic.
On one side you had lawmakers and anti-video game rabble rousers decrying the game's examination of and ability to bully. On the other you had freedom of speech defenders likening the game to such works as Judy Blume's Blubber. Caught in the middle: A video game consuming public that was coming into its own as a mainstream force and as a group expecting more serious, more adult topics in their entertainment.
While the game was banned in Brazil and pulled from some stores in the U.K (and had to undergo a pre-release examination by a judge in Florida), the sensationalism that surrounded the game's release quickly subsided to be replaced by high praise.
Earlier this month I had a chance to speak with Rockstar's Dan Houser bout the impending release of Grand Theft Auto 5 and, as things wrapped up, I couldn't help but bring up Bully, a personal favorite of mine.
It turns out the game is a personal favorite of Houser's too.
I mentioned to Houser that the game's take on bullying was so ahead of its time that even today it feels like a meaningful examination of a topic that continues to grow in relevancy.
Where in 2006 bullying was a concern that involved children and parents and the occasional teacher, today it can involve police and certainly isn't confined to what happens in schools.
Houser said they knew going into the game's creation that the topic, even the word, was a powerful one.
"I thought, we thought that the word's strong," he said. "It's a strong word, an emotive word. Maybe too emotive in some ways, but we were confident we were not making a game which you were a bully. You were equally not lilly white of course, but you were not a bully. You were sort of standing up to a culture that encouraged bullying by being this tough kid that wasn't sucked into that kind of world and was friends with some of the weaker kids, but by no means a saint.
"It's a strong word, an emotive word. Maybe too emotive in some ways."
"It was a response, a strong response, to that kind of institutionalized categorization of people."
That initial backlash that hit Rockstar, a company used to weathering storms of controversy, surprised even them, Houser said.
"How we saw it, we were sort of being accused of training kids how to kill each other," Houser said. "I thought, ‘This is absurd.' And that was obviously our reputation then and potentially still is, but it sort of proceeded us then."
The end result, Houser said, was a marketing campaign that was frustrated by pre-conceived notions and that forced the developer and the publisher to defensively market the title.
"It's not that, it's not that, it's not that," he said. "But we never got a chance to say what it was."
As the industry has grown up a bit more and the world seems more adjusted to the idea of thoughtful, morally challenging games, perhaps it's time for a sequel to Bully.
"I know I want to," Houser said. "Well, hopefully, you never know. There's a lot of directions I could go with that one, it's funny."
One idea that some people have suggested to Houser is that Rockstar makes a game about Bully protagonist Jimmy Hopkins as an adult, and that the game be a Grand Theft Auto title.
Houser says, that likely won't happen.
"I never saw him as being that level of degenerate," he said. "I saw him as a bad teen, because he comes from a tough home, who could go either direction. He's not going to be a carjacker. He's too white collar for that already. He's at a shit private school, but he's going to end up being really happy because he's at the worst bit of his life, or being a sort of messed up white collar doofus.
"He was an unpleasant soul, but he had a heart. To some extent you could say the same was true of [Grand Theft Auto 4's] Niko in a bizarre way. But [Jimmy's] not trying to burn down the school, he's more trying to stand up to injustice."
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