Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Space Invaders: Bully's Brevity

[Part of an ongoing series of posts exploring the way videogames use their spaces to convey their overall experience, ranging from design and dynamics to aesthetic and artistic appeal, and everything in between. Be warned, there are potential spoilers ahead.]

The town of Bullworth in Rockstar’s Bully really surprised me, its design and appearance being a lot different to what I was expecting and its smaller scale enhancing the game’s approach to schooling in a remarkable way. Instead of a bigger is better approach, the developers went in the opposite direction and the end result is a demonstration, yet again, that Rockstar know what they’re doing when it comes to creating and forming a unique world that accommodates the theme they’re trying to convey, and the gameplay ideas they want to explore within.

The first thing I want to point out is the idea that Bullworth is a town, not a city ala the ones featured in the Grand Theft Auto games, and while this might feel like a step back after the evolution that franchise has seen, it is in fact a step down another path, a smaller and more concise one that suits the theme of the game and makes sense within the context such a theme provides.

Bullworth feels like one of those towns where everybody knows each other and this feeling is exacerbated by the ubiquitous presence of the game’s many students. These teenagers don’t just populate the school’s many different areas as idol pedestrians to give the illusion of life in Bullworth; they actually live in the town and as such roam the various parts of it when they’re not required to attend their classes. Continuing the stereotypical parodying of school cliques, certain types of students -- nerds, preppies, etc. -- will appear at certain places in town, making it not only a more fleshed out place generally but also making it easy to find certain students if and when the need arises. The comic book store is where the nerds can be found while the preppies enjoy hanging out at the boxing gym; greasers can be found roaming the streets of New Coventry while the bullies can be found down on the beach, sometimes smoking, sometimes playing Frisbee. It gives Bullworth a sense of place as well as a sense of belonging for the game’s many characters, and it culminates in a community-like feeling that makes playing Bully strangely relaxing. Bumping into recognizable characters on the street such as Algie or Lola can yield a smile as you realise that, first and foremost, they’re not just quest-givers or conduits for information, and secondly, that you actually are getting to know these people: where they hang out, who they hang out with, what they represent (cliques) and what events they have been involved with. Unfortunately the technical limits of the game -- with it appearing on the Xbox 360 and Wii it’s easy to forget that Bully is a last generation game -- means that this illusion of community is ruined from time to time as you see the same characters appear repeatedly within the span of just a couple of minutes. It’s a small issue that you soon forgive and ignore, but one still worth mentioning all the same.

Bullworth Academy -- the place where most in-game time is spent -- is interesting in its own right. Existing almost in the centre of town, the place isn’t just important to the theme and story of the game, it also acts as a hub to the remaining areas, with roads and pathways leading to different sections of Bullworth. It doesn’t sound like anything special when described like that but it does make sense: the school is already the key focus of the game so by being the prominent building and area, its significance and familiarity is continually reinforced, reminding the player that at the end of the day -- quite literally -- that’s where they need to be.

The design of the school is also interesting, the aforementioned cliques each having their own section while the central and main building contains the majority of classes. The boys and girls dormitories sit at the front of the school while the football fields and observatory exist at the back. The greasers have their workshops; the nerds love the library; the jocks train on the fields and the preppies always converge outside Harrington House. Having these areas circle the main building makes sense both in terms of the stereotyping the game revels in as well as the cliques’ need to access their various classes. It also means there is always something to see while hanging out around the school, with rival students engaging in fisticuffs, couples walking together hand-in-hand and the school’s prefects constantly giving chase to troublemakers. As far as the player is concerned, the central focus Bullworth Academy maintains means that it’s always easy to access the classes that need to be attended or to find a particular clique at will, wasting less time when participating in the narrative or when performing a side quest such as taking student photos for the yearbook.

The Academy isn’t the only landmark that becomes familiar throughout play, however; Bullworth is punctuated by multiple landmarks that enhance the ease of becoming familiar with the town and provides neat little hot-spots to visit sporadically. Ranging from a dam to a lighthouse on the beach to the town hall and carnival, each landmark is recognizable, can be seen from a distance -- giving a sense of direction -- and is carefully spread out so that players never get lost. This is different from, say, Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV where landmarks are few and far between, spread out over a longer distance and can only be seen periodically. It once again leaves the impression of a more concise and compact game space, and while easy to overlook during play, really benefits the overall experience that Bully provides.

Last but not least, Bullworth also conveys the passing of time quite nicely by taking full advantage of a year’s given seasons. While related more to the game’s narrative than the town itself -- in particular the progress Jimmy Hopkins, the game's protagonist, makes as a student throughout each semester -- it’s still interesting to see the aesthetics of Bullworth change depending on the season. Most obvious is Winter, which takes place throughout Chapter Three. Snow covers the city; snowmen pop up everywhere; Christmas decorations adorn the school grounds; and a giant Christmas tree stands outside the town hall. While essentially just subtle tweaks, these additions as well as those that feature in the other seasons and the dynamic weather -- something I wasn’t aware of until late in the game as it took so long to occur -- add to the game and accentuate the feeling that Bullworth exists with or without you.

Ultimately the town of Bullworth is a neat little location that doesn’t rely on bells and whistles to awe its players and instead utilizes a quaint, dainty feel that makes the player feel at home as well as part of a community. It may not be that big, it may even get repetitive after a while, but it’s familiar, it suits the mischievous theme and presentation, and it’s unique in a genre that is arguably becoming over-saturated. It might not be a significant part of gaming history like Liberty City or Rapture may be, but it is a significant part of Jimmy Hopkins’ life, and really, isn’t that all that matters for a young delinquent such as himself?


Kirk Hamilton said...

Very much agree with your examples - I particularly liked the way the seasons changed over the course of the game as well as the relatively small size of the world.

In fact, it could have been smaller - the whole final area to the east felt a bit extraneous to me. It didn't have enough going on, and by the time the townies were introduced I was kinda ready for the story to wrap up.

But dang did I like that game. If only there had been horses and sharpshooting challenges. ;-)

Steven O'Dell said...

Kirk -- I was actually trying to incorporate the Blue Skies Industrial Park (gee, it helps when the game's still fresh on the mind!) into the post somehow for the exact reason you suggest: it seemed irrelevant and while it was still kind of fun to explore it and check out areas like the asylum, it just felt secluded from the rest of Bullworth and largely unnecessary.

The length of time between unlocking New Coventry and the Industrial Park was rather short, too, meaning that there were still areas of the former that I hadn't familiarized myself with yet. I don't know, it just seemed like an excuse to pad out the content some more, but at least the rest of Bullworth was brilliant!

As I think we discussed when I first begun playing, it took a little while for me to warm to Bully but damn now that I've played it in full, I cannot help but think about the potential a sequel may have. It almost feels like it absolutely needs to happen, but I get the feeling it won't -- not sure what to make of that.