Bully vs. Harry Potter

BullyA while ago I was talking to Director of Design Richard Rouse along with some of the other Midway studio creative directors about our experiences with Bully. In my case, I really wanted to like it, but only played a few hours before giving up. Since it was blessed with many high reviews (the Gamerankings score settled at around 87%), I was left wondering… “What am I missing?” While we’re always in favor of immersing ourselves in new experiences and gameplay, there’s something about it that wasn’t clicking:

  • Boarding school culture: While the setting may be attractive to 30-something English males (as Simon Woodroffe of Midway Newcastle and Creative Director of Wheelman) pointed out with mentions of Billy Bunter, Jennings, and Ripping Yarns), as Americans we don’t really share the familiarity (hell, I’d never heard of any of those). Not only is the setting something we can’t identify with, it feels more like the world is a conservative culture reminiscent of the 1950’s, but with none of the music or nostalgia to go with it.
  • Class attendence: For me, what gave me the most negative reaction in Bully is the requirement of attending class. Racing to get to class on time is something I didn’t particularly enjoy 20 years ago, so I don’t particularly want to do in a game. If the class activities were more integrated with the regular gameplay, it might have been a bit better, but what bothered me was being forced into a schedule. Constantly being hounded to get to class or that told that I’m violating curfew (and having to avoid the “enforcers” as a result) distracted me from the simple pleasures of exploration (a critical component for open-world games). Since running across campus took nearly the entire couple of “hours” you had between classes, I always felt under the gun. In fact, it reminded me of GUN in a way, which kept pushing me to finish the story rather than have my own fun. A batter choice would have been to drop the player off at the school a week before classes began, to remove some of the schedule and population density while you get your feet wet.
  • BuffyUnattractive lifestyle: While it was generally done for laughs, the characters you deal with early on are all complete losers… You have to help the nerd to the bathroom so that he doesn’t wet himself, you date the ugliest girl in school… your only “friend” is a totally unappealing jerk. In the end, this was enough of a turnoff that I just stopped playing. From trailers and the like it seemed apparent that there was “better stuff” to build up to, but the game did not taunt me with them at all… I never met any cool people, and even attractive women weren’t anywhere to be seen. Bullworth Academy just didn’t position itself to be a place that I wanted to become the king of.

 Harvey Smith of Midway Austin (and Creative Director of Area 51: Blacksite) rightfully pointed out that high school has been a successful setting of great things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Ultimate Spiderman comics. Richard noted that the high school of Buffy was populated by attractive, always-witty teenagers that killed freakin’ vampires. Those California high schools you see in TV and movies are probably some of the most idealized environments you’ll ever see.

Harry PotterThe comparison was also drawn with Harry Potter, which also depicted a “traditional” English boarding school. However, to me the appeal of Harry Potter in its earliest installments (in particular The Sorceror’s/Philosopher’s Stone) was the fact that while Harry was placed in a traditional kid’s horror scenario (first day in a new, unfamiliar school) he succeeds in ways that kids could only dream of:

  • The Center of Attention: Harry was unique and special, and everyone knew it. Kids admired him, and most teachers liked him too. People knew who he was, which paved the way for his ongoing special treatment.
  • A Low level of Conflict and Tension: In the early stories, any negative situation didn’t last long. While most tales in a school setting end the second act with a moment where the main character is suddenly taken out of his or her comfort zone (oh no, the bully has the upper hand, the cute girl is laughing at him/her), in Harry Potter, there is no extended moment of tension. Even the clear antagonists don’t get the upper hand for very long.
  • Frequent Success: Harry is a natural champion at sports, and manages to succeed in class without really “trying”… either through luck or magical destiny, his success is fated to be. He even has the best “car” in the form of his pimped-out witches’ broom.

I certainly can’t discount the fact that Harry Potter has very clever writing and appeals to a wide age group, but when you compare school tales like Bully to those of Harry Potter, you can see that there is a lot that makes kids love those stories.

9 thoughts on “Bully vs. Harry Potter”

  1. For some examples of High School movies or series that use the setting to good effect, I’d suggest:

    Better Luck Tommorow – over-achieving kids who deal with the pressures of school by living a double life. One of the better high school crime movies.

    High School Gals – girls at an all-girls school plot to get a boyfriend, but shows them acting in ways that you normally don’t see girls depicted, somewhat gross and slovenly.

    My So-Called Life – old MTV series with Claire Danes.

    October Sky – geeks at a rural high school build rockets.

    Is it just me, or is there a British tendency to make characters uglier, stupider, and nastier than real life, to make them feel better about themselves? I’ve never seen a British cartoon that didn’t have ugly characters.

  2. I just noticed that this article popped up on Slashdot… that’s cool, welcome to those that might be new to our little corner of the net, but there are a couple comments noting that “I apparently played the game no more than an hour”… Indeed, I only played a couple of hours, and readily admit that up front.

    The game idea is great, and I have no doubt that it picks up later on, as all these positive reviewers will attest… but unlike them, it wasn’t my job to play through the game, and it lacked enough “carrots” to keep me compelled. What I was interested in observing is whether Bully’s initial unappealing situation (at least to me) could have been avoided.

  3. As an American male who actually went to a pretentious east coast boarding school for a couple years (Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, NH), I think the setting is extremely reminiscent of my experiences there. Not only did it resonate with boarding school, but when I continued my education at public school in Boston, it was also very similar. In most major cities, you have a closed campus (i.e. not allowed off grounds) and a wealth of hang outs in the nearby city.

    In addition, even if you’re surrounded by people you like, everyone has people in school who are angry, nasty and treat them with disdain. If you’re a popular kid and live the high life, all the “unpopular” kids make snide remarks and find little ways to have their social revenge.

    In all, the beauty of the plot-line is that if you finish the first chapter, the morality of your character shifts as you alienate Gary, the real jackass friend, and begin to win the school over. Just like it really worked during childhood, your friends become your enemies and vice versa as you mature and grow.

    The one thing you definitely nailed on the head was the 1950s style. Personally, I felt that was intentional. How else could a company decide to include “greasers” as one of their groups. Plus, if they had put the setting in a modern high school, you’d run into Columbine related protests and severe violence. In Bully, the worst weapon available was the bottle rocket. In a modern school, it would have to be guns of all sorts and minor explosives (M80s). That’s not something I’d be comfortable putting out there.

    It really doesn’t take more than a couple hours to reach that point, which makes me all the more disappointed you didn’t play just a little while longer. The payoff is definitely worth it.

  4. I have to heavily agree with the concept of the Blog. For me the setting seemed so unappealing that despite the rest of the game sounding good I couldn’t bring myself to even try it.

  5. I’ll start out by stating that I like Bully very much. Once I got into the time thing (attending class, going to sleep) and realized it wasn’t a game breaker I had no problems at all with the game.

    I don’t know what the difference between us is, but the things you described had absolutely no negative effect on me. I didn’t mind the nerdy kid who wet himself, he was kind of funny in a sad way. I didn’t mind the “ugly” girl(s) and I had no problem with the jerk (hey, I was fairly certain I’d get to beat up on him sooner or later).

    I wonder if it could be a Euro/US cultural difference, because the whole idealization thing just doesn’t do it for me. I liked Buffy, but I got bored of it pretty easily. As for Potter…maybe I’m just a cynical bastard but I really don’t like Harry Potter.

    I’m thinking it all comes down to different target groups. I’m in the group that are more predisposed to like Bully. There’s a Swedish saying which may or may not work in English;
    “Taste is like an ass, divided”.

  6. i dont see what your problem with the classes are, their not hard, once you beat the 3 levels of them, their gone, and they give you upgrades. I know you say you played it for 2 hours but it seems like you played it for 5 minutes, thats not long enough for me to get involved in the setting of movie, let alone a game. The games setting is very realistic, unlike “Buffy” where everyone is pretty. Later in the game you run into prettier girls, and see people who are “pretty people”.

    in the end i feel it is very unfair to play a game for a few hours and make judgments about the theme and setting. It’s like you played GTA:SA and judged the whole game just on the first city.

  7. I loved GTA, all of them. I’m not dissing anyone who enjoyed Bully either. I’m an explorer, so I checked out a lot of content and places, then went through a few early missions.

    These discussions come up because it’s my job to create settings and activites that interest people and that will ultimately sell, so I am always looking at why one game sells and one didn’t.

  8. The classes were very GTA-ish minigames that only got annoying due to the shortcomings inherent to dual analog controls when taking the Shop class. I enjoy sequence breaking in linear games, so opening up the game before even beginning the story missions was right up my alley.

    The setting totally reminded me of Revenge of the Nerds, Grease, or Back to the Future. I got into The Warriors-esque movie within a game storytelling. The unattractive characters fit well into the underdog theme and the pretty girls were approachable once you finished taking the classes.

    I guess it’s just a matter of your attitude going in. It totally fit my expectations from reading reviews and playing the GTA games beforehand, and was the most fun yet challenging experience I’ve had since Beyond Good and Evil.

  9. I had the same experience with Bully. I wanted to like it, but the first few hours really put me off. I’m not saying it’s a bad game on the whole, because I obviously didn’t get far enough to determine that, but the opening didn’t work for me at all.

    In a sense, they were doomed by their own success: they wanted to present the picture of a stiff, repressive boarding school that didn’t let you have fun, and that’s what I got out of it. Now, if you’re like the main character in Bully, a hellion who is going to seek out ways to have fun and cause trouble, then I’m sure you could find it. I’ve got very limited time to play games and a huge pile of them I want to get through, and Bully just didn’t pull me in enough to make me want to keep playing.

    It’s a tough problem, because they need to create that unfun atmosphere for the game to work. In a movie, that opening could have been fine, since the fun that (everyone assures me) follows quickly would make the restrictive opening fade into the background. But a game needs to grab the player immediately and make them want to keep playing, and Bully didn’t do that for me. I got that there was fun out there to be ferreted out and dug up, but the game didn’t make me want to go to that effort, so it went back to the bottom of the pile, and I pulled the next game off.

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