Bully Retrospective: Part I

Feature, General, Retro, Xbox

It’s been six years since Rockstar’s Bully was first released on Playstation 2 in October 2006. In that time we’ve seen Red Dead Redemption  Max Payne 3, Manhunt 2, and six releases with Grand theft in the title (with another slated to come out later this year). We’ve seen cancellations: We Are the Mods, Agent (well who knows what’s going on with this one), and considering how quiet Rockstar is about what they’re working on, who knows how many other projects that fell by the wayside.

Fans of Rockstar know though that if you wait long enough these maniacal bastards will deliver; nine years waiting for Max Payne, five years for the upcoming GTA V, and six years for Red Dead. Rockstar’s strength has always been knowing what their fans want, and knowing how long they’re willing to wait for it.

So while their next sequel could theoretically be Oni 2, State of Emergency 2, Manhunt 3, or L.A. Noire 2, I think (hope) their next announcement will be Bully 2. In fact, I’m so confident in this, that the interviews and and pieces I’m going to put up over the next couple days shouldn’t be considered a retrospective on Bully, but rather a primer for the upcoming Bully 2. So whether its in 2014 on the PS4 and Xbox 720, or 2020 on your EA Gamerdeck or in your Steam Pajamas, we wait with bated breath for our kind, giving, malevolent overlords to finally bring us Bully 2.

In the meantime, I’ve talked to a couple people who were key in creating the original Bully about their experience making the game, and what they’ve been up to since.

First up, Jacob Krarup, co-writer for Bully alongside Rockstar VP Dan Houser. Jacob was kind enough to take some time off of (hopefully) writing the multi-pathed, nonlinear, surprisingly dark, story of Bully 2  to answer a few questions about his experience in making Bully. Recently, Jacob worked as lead writer on Sleeping Dogs, as well as working on IOS game Ruby Skies. You can find his fantastic blog “Adventures in Writing”, all about his life in games, including his perspective on narrative design, and notes on each of his projects here 

GamersHavenNews: What was your role on Bully in relation to Dan? Did you help to solidify the basic concepts of the narrative, or were you working on more specific moments?

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Jacob Krarup: Basically, I was the guy responsible for all the narrative design and flavour bits. Dan’s a very busy man, so I’d usually make whatever call I thought needed to be made, and then verify with him via email or on the phone and get whatever direction he felt necessary to give.

I found it very satisfying to work with Dan, he knows what he’s doing and creatively he’s quite brilliant. He generally liked what I was doing, but whenever he pointed out problems to be solved it always ended up making the whole thing stronger.

The whole process went something like this… the lead designer, Mike Skupa, and I worked out the overall structure of the game. We did have some specific moments in mind, but it was usually something that would happen in a mission rather than a specific cutscene moment. With that roughed out, I developed the ambient dialogue system to work in conjunction with that structure.

The game was really quite a long way along by the time Dan involved himself directly. In fact we were getting a bit nervous as there were a bunch of gameplay and other bits that couldn’t really be locked down until we had the cutscene script in hand, and Dan kept being busy with other things (I think it was GTA). I hadn’t even gotten any kind of formal sign off on the story structure that the by then mostly fully implemented missions followed.

When Dan found the time he basically wrote most of the cutscene script. It was really strong from the get go. There was some back and forth where he needed clarification on what had to happen (f. ex. “this is where Gary starts turning on Jimmy, so we shouldn’t give it away before” or whatever) and certain subtleties we wanted in there (like setting up props that were needed in the mission etc), but there were very few changes to my work. I did eventually fill in a couple of minor scenes that were missing, but essentially Dan wrote the script to the narrative structure I had put in place.

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GHN: Did you draw upon any particular personal experiences writing the game? Did Bully accurately reflect your high school life?

JK: Hahaha! Well… yes and no. I tried to make sure that every character remained true to themselves, so to speak, so in that I drew on personal experiences and observations but in a more general sense. My high school life was nothing like Bully at all.

GHN: Were there any specific instances of narrative design (as described in your blog, pushing narrative without cutscenes) that you were particularly proud of in Bully?

JK: I think the parts where you’d overhear ambient characters discussing recent player actions but from their own perspectives worked pretty well. That’s a nice touch, and works both as a tool for foreshadowing, and for making the player feel the world is more solid and real. We didn’t overdo it, but whenever it does happen it’s a nice “aha!” moment. In general, I think the ambient dialogue in Bully did a great job in making the world feel alive and support the overall experience of the narrative.

There were also a number of times where changes in mission design resulted in something falling apart or not really making sense storywise; it then fell to mission dialogue to retroactively make sense of it without inhibiting gameplay. That kind of problem solving is very satisfying.

GHN: What character did you enjoy writing the most, did you relate to any of them more so than others? Were there any specific character arcs you preferred over others?

JK: I enjoyed writing the nerds; in particular I enjoyed writing Algie’s running commentary when he accompanied Jimmy on missions. Escort missions are often pretty obnoxious in games; I think we did a good job of making ours entertaining rather than annoying. I also enjoyed writing the various bits of romance dialogue for Jimmy and the other characters. But really, I love all of the characters on their own merits.

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GHN: What themes and ideas did you want to express, and in what ways do you feel the narrative succeeded in presenting them? What areas, if any, did you have to sacrifice the narrative for the sake of game mechanics or playability?

JK: My approach has always been that the gameplay comes first. Narrative has to support gameplay, so there never really were any sacrifices, only problem solving.

As for themes, I mean there’s a fair bit that deals with friendship and authority and finding your place, but most of all there’s it’s about absurdity – about the absurd situations you get yourself into as a teenager, about the absurd hierarchies people set up, and about the absurd rules and lies adults tell themselves and so on.

GHN: You mentioned in your blog you would have expanded upon the relationship mechanic in Bully, what would you have added if you could?

JK: I would like to have added a little more gameplay substance to the interactions. It would also have been nice to have more ambient reactions and dialogue to whatever relationship choices were made so you could overhear people gossiping about you – “I saw Jimmy kissing Lola!” “I thought he was dating Zoe! Oh my god! I have to tell her!” – more of that sort of high school drama thing would have been nice.

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GHN: Is there anything you would drastically change about the game if you were to make it now?

JK: No, not really. I mean, it’s not like there aren’t things that couldn’t have been done better in retrospective, but rather than go back and redo them I’d rather make a new game.

GHN: How has Bully influenced your work since the game, did it change your perspective on narrative or game design in any distinct ways? Were there any specific lessons from Bully that informed choices for Sleeping Dogs?

JK: I wouldn’t so much say that Bully changed my perspective as much as it formed it, if you get what I mean. I didn’t have a lot of theories about how things ought to be done before Bully, but afterwards I had a lot of practical experience to fall back on.

There were definitely lessons I brought with me to Sleeping Dogs. Things like how to structure ambient dialogue, when to lock down the story and record (as late as possible) and so on.

It also confirmed for me one of the fundamental principles of narrative design, which is to push as much as the narrative as possible into gameplay. Yes, cutscenes frame the action and they’re important, but if you want the player to really dislike a character, have them be a dick to the player during gameplay; conversely, if you want them to like a character make sure that character isn’t annoying during gameplay.

GHN: Were you concerned about how the game would be spun by conservative witch hunters at the time? Were you asked to scale back anything as a result of these worries?

JK: I wasn’t concerned, no, nor was I asked to scale stuff back. I mean, there were some ideas that were being brought up that were a little more extreme in one way or another, but they didn’t make it because they didn’t fit the tone we were going for. We made the game we wanted to make in terms of how the game came across. At one point the game was supposed to be a fair bit more hard edged, inspired by the 1979 British film Scum; but over time more and more whimsy.

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GHN: How much thought did you give to the level violence in general as you were writing?

JK: It was basically set by the requirements of gameplay and the tone. Everything was filtered through a nostalgic view of childhood from some undefined time in the past; back when kids could ride bikes around town after dark, when boys could get in fist fights and it was no big deal, that sort of thing. We look at kids differently now, and maybe things were never really like that – but that’s the fiction and that’s what you can do in the game. So really, that came first, before the writing. So I thought about it because that was the reality I was writing to; but I didn’t think about it in terms of where we’d set the level, it just evolved naturally as game mechanics were nailed down.

GHN: How would you characterize the relationship between victim and bully in the game? Does Jimmy represent one or the other?

JK: It’s ever changing really. Pretty much everyone is both a victim and a bully at different times. The school motto (and the release title in Europe) sort of encapsulates that – Canis Canem Edit (which means “dog eat dog” – I didn’t coin that, but I think it’s brilliant).

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I think part of what makes Jimmy attractive as a character is that he refuses to be a victim, even if he is one in many ways; and when he succeeds at climbing to the top he tries to stop the cycle of bullying.

Well, that’s how the story plays out, but really the level of bullying depends on what the player chooses to do in the open world. Some people have great fun being terrible jerks in the game, other people prefer to follow some sort of code -only getting involved to defend someone getting picked on or to revenge an insult, things like that. So beyond representing someone who refuses to be a victim, Jimmy really represents whoever is playing him. In a way, that’s the point of open world games.

 Bully Retrospective: Part I

David Willming

Amateur filmmaker, music junkie, and a gamer with a penchant for all things indie and/or weird

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