Bully came out during my freshman year of high school. I didn't bother playing it at the time, since I was way too cool for products aimed at my age group. Playing through it recently, after countless recommendations and a well-timed Steam sale, however, I tried to keep my freshman self in mind, wondering how Bully would have resonated with me then versus now.
It didn't click. Time-worn gameplay and technical hiccups aside, my biggest issue with Bully was that the template it was working from felt dated. Jokes about nerds being socially awkward (a fat kid with their shorts zipper undone peeing themselves? Really?) and jocks being too stupid to know when they're being insulted don't even work ironically anymore, much less played straight. The most current clique are the Townies, which seem reminiscent of 90s-era latchkey kids. The game looks squarely in the past for inspiration, but while the classic atmosphere is likely what Rockstar was going for, placing its relevance in a time current high schoolers didn't go through is an alienating way to set up a game that was pitched as a softer version of Grand Theft Auto.
I appreciate the choice, but this combination of factors makes the school environment unnecessary.
The other big issue I had with Bully was its time table. Because of its accelerated clock and option to skip school entirely, the environment the game takes place in seems incidental to the main plot. For one, the missing time frame for when central plot points happen relative to the character's regular lives (is Jimmy's assault on the nerd clique's hideout taking place between classes? Before school?) makes the experience harder to map out mentally.
Skipping classes might go hand-in-hand with lead character Jimmy Hopkins' attitude, but it separates him from the average high-schooler since the consequence for skipping as often as my rendition of Jimmy did is about the same as a one-star wanted level in Grand Theft Auto. I appreciate the choice, but this combination of factors makes the school environment unnecessary. Most kids have to go to school, so as a videogame without real consequences for skipping, Bully is more aspirational fantasy than statement.
By comparison, Persona 3, a Japanese RPG that came out a year later, gets right what Bully gets wrong: the dreadful repetitiveness of school. For most videogame players living outside Japan, the Persona series acts a form of cultural tourism, showing them how a different school system works (supernatural happenings notwithstanding) through a hybrid of high school simulation and RPG gameplay. There's school on Saturday, students are heavily pressured to join clubs, and there's no three-month break. Persona is supposed to show the American crowd a different view of the world, and yet despite the cultural differences, Persona easily hits nerve with most people still in high school, because it reminds them that school is incredibly boring.
In Persona 3, school is a mandatory part of the game; players are asked questions on short lectures, take finals, and can even fall asleep mid-class. Though its relevancy on actual gameplay is far outweighed by dungeon-crawling and building relationships with people at school and around town, the rote school schedule establishes the game's core. Within the narrative of Persona's universe, the main plot, side quests, and other diversions are essentially extracurricular activities. This immediately makes the experience more relatable than Bully's, since saving the world - as herculean a task as it may be - is what the player does after school. This makes it easier to establish a time frame for anything else that might happen.
Bully, with its focus on one-off, larger-than-life setpieces, makes it seem like our teenage years could be a non-stop deluge of interesting events. The game doesn't leave classes out entirely, and you can make Jimmy as academically successful at school as you want him to be, even if the story doesn't acknowledge it. But while many of our most memorable experiences as teenagers happen outside the school system, some of the most important experiences take place inside a classroom, whether it's a love note you got in Geography, realizing what you want to do with your life has nothing to do with schooling, or finding that you have a passion for physics. Both Bully and Persona ignore this, but Persona at least makes the effort to frame its story sequences during classes.