NEW YORK — A year after critics said it should be banned, "Bully" — the new game from "Grand Theft Auto" maker Rockstar Games — is finally in action.
And the biggest shock so far is that the game is not exactly what the "Bully" opponents said it would be. In fact, it even has an advocate in the bullying-awareness crowd.
"When I saw it, I was like, 'I want to be the first one to play the game,' " said Izzy Kalman, a Staten Island school psychologist and founder of Bullies2Buddies, who saw the game in action at Rockstar's offices last week. "I think it's wonderful."
Dubbed a "Columbine simulator" last year by attorney Jack Thompson and the subject of a picketing campaign by a group called the Peaceoholics, the game, as demonstrated, appears to be more of a "Napoleon Dynamite" or "Breakfast Club" simulator (see "Rockstar Games' 'Bully' Won't Take Your Lunch Money Until '06").
That's still too much for some, but the game is clearly not the worst of what people were expecting.
A trio of Rockstar reps recently demonstrated "Bully" for MTV News at the game maker's downtown office. When the company demoed "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," it opened with a video reel featuring clips from "Boyz N the Hood" and "Easy Rider." This time, it was "Rushmore" and "Napoleon Dynamite" and seemingly every movie that features schoolboys wearing blazers with a patch on the chest.
"Bully" is the tale of squat, 15-year-old, buzz-cut-sporting Jimmy Hopkins and the rough-and-tumble halls of Bullworth Academy. By the time the Rockstar team turned off the movie reel and began running through Jimmy's travails on a PS2, the message was clear: This concept has been shown outside of games plenty of times; we're just joining in.
"Rockstar is often portrayed as doing a certain kind of game: guns or crime," said Harry Allen, a Rockstar publicist. "What we do is find narratives and situations, stories, and we try to make a game out of it."
Certain hot buttons won't be punched by "Bully." There are no guns in the game. The most combustible element is a small firecracker. The most nefarious projectiles are fistfuls of marbles used to trip school counselors angry that Jimmy is skipping chemistry class. Violence against the girls is barely tolerated. "If you grab a girl, she kicks you in the nuts," said a Rockstar rep steering the game demo.
This less volatile treatment didn't satisfy Ronald Moten, co-founder of the Peaceoholics, the group that protested the game last year and plans to protest again close to its release. Moten hasn't played the game but has followed recent reports of its content.
"We don't think it's respectful for all the children who have been killed in these schools, all the teachers who have to work with these children, for anybody to put anything out that would give children the concept of doing anything [like what's in the game] in schools," he said.
Asked if his objections were tempered by the revelation that the game won't include guns, he said, "People are making enough insults and disrespect to our teachers. That's why we can't get quality teachers to stay in the schools. These fistfights lead to gunplay. We don't need to teach kids to play pranks."
He attributed his sensitivity to the effects of violent media on incarcerated friends who "still haven't come home from trying to be like 'Scarface.' " Games, he said, could be more damaging than movies, because kids are exposed to them for even longer.
On the other hand, Bullies2Buddies' Kalman said he hopes it will provide an outlet for people to find some thrills without hurting anyone.
"Life is so safe today," he said. "We need these other diversions to give us some stimulation. Otherwise we'd be bored out of our skulls."
He wasn't alarmed by the fighting in the game and said that "play fighting" is an essential, healthy human behavior that can't be shut off. A game provides that instinct a safe venue, he said. He is writing his impressions of the game for the 12,000 school counselors and parents on his mailing list, exhorting them to buy "Bully."
There's no denying that the game is violent. The main mechanic demonstrated by Rockstar was fist-fighting. Bullies to fight were abundant, and once a clash ensued, onscreen prompts directed the player: "Now fight the bully." "Now humiliate the bully." Some button-presses later, the bully was wrapped in a headlock.
But besides obvious differences, like a lack of actual killing and maiming, the game's violence is even more hemmed in than the police-penalized mayhem of "GTA." Jimmy's skipped classes and fistfights raise the alert level of school officials. He's also forced to obey an 11 p.m. curfew each night for fear of having the game get blurry and uncontrollable for the player. Rampant misbehavior forces a visit to the principal's office or punishments like mowing the athletic field's lawn.
The tale of a rough year in high school replete with misfit friends, annoying rivals and eccentric teachers may be old hat in other forms of entertainment, but it has been virtually untouched by games. The only other game focused on high school life announced for release this year or next is Konami's "Brooktown High" for the PSP (see "Forget Beating The Bad Guy — This Game's Goal Is A Date To Prom").
The "Bully" tale is told with cheek: Its opening has Jimmy getting deposited at Bullworth by his mother and her third husband, the two of whom are about to embark on a yearlong honeymoon. Characters milling on campus crack one-liners. During action scenes, funky '70s action-movie music plays. "Bully" is the rare video game that seems designed to be filed in the comedy section.
Some of the game's missions put Jimmy in class, managing the beakers in chem or doing who-knows-what in the promised English, photography and gym classes. As the school year progresses, seasons change, holiday decorations deck the dorms, and the scope of the game expands beyond the academy to the neighboring town. The plot moves through a series of missions that allow the player to help or challenge Jimmy's scheming, hopeful and hopeless classmates.
One mission has a nerd despondent over the theft of some character sheets for a game of a Dungeons & Dragons-style game called Grottos & Gremlins. Jimmy agrees to rescue them and goes on a hunt for the guilty bullies. It was at about this point in the demonstration that the Rockstar reps began to boast of the game's nuanced relationship system that will cause members of the game's four non-bully factions — the nerds, preppies, jocks or greasers — to provide aid if they are helped in previous missions.
The demo version of Jimmy had been good to the nerds already — too good for the demo, it turned out. During a scene that was supposed to show some dialogue between Jimmy and another bully, a nerd flew into the picture and tackled the bully. That wasn't in the script. It was the game's alliance system getting hyperactive. The Rockstar reps promised that the story-line scenes would be walled off from such interference by the time the game is finalized.
"Bully" had been expected last fall, but was delayed a full year for what Rockstar termed creative reasons. The game was developed over the past four years by Rockstar's new Vancouver studio. The game, which will be available for PlayStation 2 in October, has not yet been rated.