Tag Archive | Grand Theft Auto

Rockstar’s Bully and the Brilliance of Casual NPC Interactions

Bully is a game that is remembered mostly for the controversy it generated before its release. From initial hysterics claiming that Rockstar was developing a “Columbine simulator” to cries that the game was promoting bullying behaviors (it wasn’t) or trivializing them (which was maybe a more legitimate criticism), Bully may have received more attention in the media before its release than after, when people had a chance to experience the game and evaluate it for what it was: a competent translation of the Grand Theft Auto formula into a different aesthetic that was maybe a little rough around the edges. In truth, there wasn’t a whole lot about the game that was controversial once people had a chance to play it.

Well, except that you could kiss boys. Some people didn’t like that bit.

The fact that so much hot air was expended on the “controversial” aspects of Bully means that not much attention was paid to some of the game’s subtler touches. Like anything Rockstar puts out, the game is as deep as it is broad, and there are a lot of little gems in the design that are worth taking the magnifying glass to. In particular, Rockstar included a number of systems designed to make the world of the game compelling, immersive, and real, some of which I’ve not seen included in other games–which is a real shame.

The fact that the town of Bullworth goes through each of the four seasons gives an air of authenticity to the school-year-length story. The fact that each student at Bullworth Academy has their own name and identity makes each person you pass on campus seem real. But the system that really sold me, the one that made me fall in love with the world of Bully and become really invested in each and every person that inhabited it, was a touch so simple and brilliant that I’m aghast that it hasn’t been mimicked elsewhere. The simple touch is this:

You can say “hi” to everyone.

Bully isn’t unique in letting you converse with people you meet in the street. Nintendo Power has been admonishing us to “talk to everyone” since the days of the original Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior. In fact, a good majority of narrative-focused games will let you interact with non-player characters. The way in which Bully handles its social interactions, however, is so pitch-perfect that I never cease to be pleased by it.

The way that social interactions work in Bully is pretty basic: As soon as you target a character, you’ve got the option to give them a positive or negative greeting. Positive interactions are simple phrases like “You cool?”, “How’s it goin’?”, or “Anything going on?” If you happen to be targeting a pretty girl (or boy) who might be willing to spend a little quality time with Jimmy, you get phrases like “I really like spending time with you” or the somewhat bolder “If I were you, I’d make out with me.”

The negative interactions are similarly basic. Jimmy tosses out adolescent insults like “You suck big time,” “Dumbass,” and the somewhat inexplicable “Yo mama!”

The beauty of these interactions is their simplicity: The positive phrases are all legitimate greetings that you might offer to friends you pass as you walk across the campus of your school. The students’ responses are in the same tone: “Whattaya say, friend?” “What’s your deal?” or even–in a lot of cases–just a simple “Hi!” or “Hello!” On the other hand, if you insult a jock, they might try and beat the snot out of you. Call a little kid a dumbass, and they might cower, whimpering “I don’t understand! I never did anything to you!”

These social interactions don’t serve a lot of purpose in terms of the mechanics of the game–flirt with the right girl (or boy, again) enough, and they’ll make out with you, giving you a health boost. Occasionally you can “hire” associates from friendly cliques to come help you fight your battles. The mechanic of speaking with NPCs is the way that you can talk your way out of trouble with the prefects or calm someone you’ve accidentally insulted or injured.

Mostly, however, these interactions serve to establish Jimmy Hopkins as a character, and the fact that you have a choice in how he deals with his peers allows you to feel as though Jimmy is more directly representative of you within the game’s world. You’re more invested in Jimmy because his relationships with the other students of Bullworth are, in a sense, your relationships, simple though they might be.

The fact that you can target other characters while on the move means you can call out passing greetings to friends as you make your way to class, without having to interrupt the flow of gameplay. If you catch a bully roughing up a little kid, you can threaten them into submission. In fact, the end of the game’s first chapter sort of establishes Jimmy’s status within the school as a defender of the oppressed, a role which is reinforced by your ability to “check in” with the younger students, constantly asking them if they’re all right and how things are going.

You can greet–or insult–the adults, as well. Mouth off too much to one of the locals, and they might call down the fuzz to haul your sorry butt back to the dorms. The police are less likely to let you talk your way out of trouble than the prefects are, but it’s worth a try.

I can’t think of another game that lets you interact with NPCs in a way that is so quick, easy, and authentic. In a Final Fantasy, talking to the citizens of a town doesn’t really feel like interacting with actual people–it feels like activating information dispensers, mannequins eager to inform you of the nearby, monster-filled cave or the Secret Back Entrance to the Bad Guy’s Lair.

Western RPGs, like Fallout or Mass Effect, like to give you more conversational options with their NPCs, or simply have them mutter things when you’re in their vicinity. These have the potential to create real, authentic characters  (remember that teenager waiting for her parents in the Citadel cargo area in ME3? Heartbreaking!), but they also require you to devote the time to process them and would break the flow of an action/exploration-centric game like Bully.

The Fable games allow you to build individual relationships with townsfolk, and the tracking mechanism for managing these relationships is much more robust than what Rockstar has on offer in Bully. The means of interaction, however, is all pantomime–flexing your character’s muscles, for example, or doing a happy jig. None of it has dialogue, and all of it is exaggerated to the point where the narrative veneer is entirely stripped away from the interactions and the mechanics are laid bare–almost entirely the opposite scenario than that of Bully.

I want to see more games offer mechanics by which your protagonist can express themselves in ways that resonate, that are authentic, that feel natural. In writing, they say that dialogue is action, and action is how characters are defined. In offering simple ways for players to have their character interact with every citizen of the game’s world, developers can give players a greater measure of control over how their character is represented, and players will feel more connected with their character and the world as a result.

At the end of Bully, the epilogue is called “Endless Summer.” You have the opportunity to hang out at Bullworth Academy and wrap up all the side missions you may have missed. When I played the game, I was particularly fastidious, and I’d completed most everything before I took on the final mission. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to linger a while and ride my bike around town, even if there was nothing to do.

You know. Just so I could say “hi” to everyone.

Broadening Your Gaming Horizons

I’ve been out of college for five years now, and contrary to my mother’s constant predictions throughout my youth, I’ve yet to “grow out of” gaming. Fortunately or unfortunately for me, the medium has grown up, too, and each year brings new and fascinating explorations of player agency and interactive storytelling.

As I’ve matured, however, so have my tastes in games–and as I come to see myself more and more as a critical and academic appreciator of the medium as a whole, I’ve made a conscious effort to try games that, once upon a time, would have been outside of my wheelhouse. Part of this endeavor has meant going back to play the classic games that passed me by as a youth, but part of it has simply been pushing myself to play games that I might otherwise have overlooked because of genre preferences.

This process may have begun as early as the late nineties, when I came home from the mall with a game which was way outside the aesthetic that I usually preferred: Metal Gear Solid.

This was a little too real for me.

I had read an article in the latest issue of the now-defunct gaming mag “Next Generation” about how The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was unquestionably the “game of the century,” which was immediately followed by a review for MGS which stated that if you were one of the unfortunates who happened not to have an N64, then this new Hideo Kojima joint was probably the best that you could hope for. (Of course, even at the tender age of fourteen, I could tell with reasonable certainty that I had already played the greatest game of all time, and it was definitely a PlayStation exclusive.)

As you may recall, I was one of those unfortunates who had picked the PSX over the N64, and I was determined to play this “last, greatest PSX title.”

The only problem was: Metal Gear was scary as hell. You had to sneak around, and your weapons were exceptionally limited, and there was a very loud alarm sound every time someone detected you! The visual aesthetic and tone of the game were realistic, somber, and dramatic–even to someone whose favorite series was a certain anime-flavored, melodramatic epic, the stakes were raised considerably.

Actually, this was about more my speed at the time.

Eventually, of course, I grew accustomed to Metal Gear’s high-tension thrills, and I’ll be among the first to champion it as one of the greatest games of all time. I am certainly among the ranks of those who got a little shiver at hearing Psycho Mantis describe their love of Castlevania.

So–my aesthetic horizons as a gamer had been broadened, and I was better for it.

Several years later, I embarked on a campaign to familiarize myself with a new genre–one with which I had extremely limited experience–the first-person shooter. How was it that I made it through fifteen-plus years of gaming without seriously investing time in an FPS? Well, my family had never had a PC capable of running top-of-the-line games, and as a result I stuck mostly to consoles. Glance quickly at my console ownership history, and… well. Name an FPS worth playing on the Genesis or the PSX.

Yeah? That’s what I thought.

Oh? Yeah? Was that… a thing? Huh. I missed that one.

So, when my buddies and I gathered at our esteemed colleague’s house for a night of Halo, I was that guy. We couldn’t play 2-on-2 matches, because someone would have to get stuck with me. People hunted me down in deathmatch because I was an easy kill, like a tiny flightless bird in a very small pen. I excused myself from the challenges in Perfect Dark because, well, I wanted them to have a chance at victory.

Eventually, just after graduating from college, I decided that I’d had quite enough of that and embarked on a quest to play through the campaigns of the entire Halo trilogy in an attempt to hone my skills. My good friend Sebastian and I teamed up to do it cooperatively, and we became so wrapped up in the challenge that by the time we got to Halo 3, we decided we’d invite some of our other buddies in to join us, and maybe crank the difficulty up to Legendary. You know, for funsies.

Afterwards, I noticed that whenever we played multiplayer, I was no longer at the bottom of the standings! I wasn’t exactly dominating, of course, but I was holding my own. I had expanded my horizons as a gamer yet again–this time, into a genre I’d not been comfortable with. If I hadn’t pressed myself to engage with first-person shooters, I never would have played the first Call of Duty–or Bioshock–or Borderlands! There are so many superb shooters in the medium, and I would have missed them if I hadn’t stepped outside my comfort zone as a gamer.

Aww… I can’t imagine my life without these guys!

Over the last couple of weeks, however, I realized that there may well be limits to how far and how fast we can push ourselves as gamers. As part of my continual effort to engage with classic games of all genres, I picked up a copy of the original Gran Turismo at a flea market. I was immediately impressed with the depth of the customization system, the wealth of authentic cars, and the RPG-like progression that fueled the “simulation mode.” And that’s not mentioning its graphics! It may not look like much these days, but it’s obvious even now that Gran Turismo pushes the PSX hardware pretty heavily.

Well, you know. This was 1998.

As I fooled around with it, however, I realized that despite all of its positive features, it just wasn’t getting its hooks in me. I could appreciate it thoroughly as an excellent game, but I wasn’t invested. I spent a lot of time wondering why it was that I could eagerly memorize half of the Final Fantasy Tactics Battle Mechanics Guide but couldn’t be bothered to look up which cars I should put money into in this “driving simulator.” Was it the fact that there was a huge time investment needed, and I am now a busy adult with (ugh) responsibilities? Was it the fact that I was reluctant to dive down a rabbit hole which was fourteen years old?

Or, I thought with dread, was it simply the fact that I was not into racing games?

Now, hold on, I reassured myself. You played Ridge Racer Revolution and Jet Moto when you were a kid. None of your friends will play you in Mario Kart: Double Dash because they think it’s a foregone conclusion. You’ve beaten every Grand Theft Auto– aren’t those sort of racing games?

Not really, as it turns out.

I wasn’t fooling myself. I knew that just because I liked arcade racers and gangster crime sagas, I didn’t have any real experience with the genre to which Gran Turismo belongs. It bills itself as a “racing simulator,” and though it certainly has an arcade mode, the real meat of the experience is in building a career as a racer, customizing your car, earning licenses, and pimping your ride. The pull of the game is in winning races to earn CarBux to buy sweeter wheels, so you can win more races and earn more CarBux.

And I just wasn’t into it. I doubt that I would be into it if I were to pick up 2 Gran 2 Turismo, or Gran Turismo 5: This Time It’s Personal.

So I’m going to put GT back on the shelf and let it stew for a while. Perhaps it’s simply too far, too fast. Maybe if I were to bridge that gap more gradually, maybe play some Burnout or Need for Speed, I could come to appreciate the greater complexities of the “driving simulator” series. I feel a certain obligation to– as a gamer, as a gaming scholar, as someone who strives to be “well played.” Because I know what wonderful things can come when you step outside your gaming comfort zone–and I hope that as long as I game, I never stop cultivating my tastes.