Bully is an open world, action-adventure game played from a third-person perspective. The game's single-player mode lets players control a high school student—teenage rebel James "Jimmy" Hopkins. Throughout the story, Jimmy rises through the ranks of the school groups, which include the Bullies, Nerds, Preppies, Greasers, and Jock archetypes. Players complete missions—linear scenarios with set objectives—to progress through the story. Outside of missions, players can freely roam the game's open world, and have the ability to complete optional side missions. The world of Bully, named Bullworth, is separated between five areas: Bullworth Academy, Old Bullworth Vale, Bullworth Town, New Coventry, and the Blue Skies Industrial Area. At the beginning of the game, players can only explore Bullworth Academy, with all other areas unlocking as the story progresses.
Players use melee attacks and weapons to fight enemies, and may run, jump, swim or use vehicles to navigate the game's world. Bus stops are located in various locations around the world, allowing players to quickly travel back to Bullworth Academy. Should players take damage, their health meter can be fully regenerated using multiple techniques, such as drinking sodas. If players break rules while playing, the game's authority figures may respond as indicated by a "trouble" meter in the head-up display (HUD). On the meter, the displayed levels indicate the current level of severity (for example, at the maximum sixth level, efforts by all authority figures to incapacitate players become very aggressive). Authority figures will search for players who escape their line of sight; the trouble meter enters a cooldown mode and eventually recedes when the player has evaded the authority figures.
When not performing missions, players have the ability to attend classes; truanting a required class is a rule violation. Each class grants the player with a special ability upon passing; for example, English allows players to apologise to authority figures after violating rules, and Chemistry grants players with the ability to create firecrackers, Stink Bombs, and Itching Powder. Players are also able to initiate romantic relationships with non-player characters, acquiring the ability to give them gifts and kiss them.
Bully takes place at Bullworth Academy, a private boarding school in the New England region of the United States. After being expelled from seven previous schools, the game's protagonist, 15-year old James "Jimmy" Hopkins, is sent there for a year while his mother and her new husband go on honeymoon. Surrounding the Academy is the town of Bullworth, which appears to exist in the same fictional universe as the Grand Theft Auto series. The school campus is designed in a neo-gothic style, similar to public schools and colleges in the United Kingdom and New England, such as Fettes College in Edinburgh.
After getting dropped off at Bullworth by his parents, Jimmy (Gerry Rosenthal) meets with the school's principal, Dr. Crabblesnitch, who urges him to "keep his nose clean". He is soon befriended by senior Gary Smith (Peter Vack) and freshman Peter "Pete/Petey" Kowalski (Matt Bush). Assuming the role of mentor, Gary introduces Jimmy to Bullworth's various "cliques": the Bullies, Nerds, Preppies, Greasers, and Jocks. At first, the two boys work together to try and assert their dominance over the cliques. However, Gary, who appears to suffer from a god complex, eventually betrays Jimmy by pitting him against Russell Northrop (Cody Melton), the leader of the Bullies, in an underground cage fight. Jimmy beats Russell and forces him to stop picking on his fellow students, to which the latter agrees. With this, Jimmy befriends Russell and has himself earned a great deal of popularity.
Eager to expand his control, Jimmy turns his attention to the Preppies, the clique that consists of rich students. Just as he begins to win them over, Gary tricks them into turning against him. In response, Jimmy signs up for a boxing tournament hosted by the Preppies' leader, Derby Harrington. Though he wins, the Preppies refuse to accept defeat and gang up on him, resulting in a massive fight that ends with Jimmy declaring himself the new leader. With the Preppies subdued, Jimmy then sets out to conquer their rivals, the Greasers. Johnny Vincent (Rocco Rosanio), their leader, asks Jimmy to help him expose an affair between his girlfriend Lola Lombardi (Phoebe Strole), and Gord, a member of the Preppies. The Preppies, angered by Jimmy's betrayal, abandon him, but he gradually wins back their trust. Gary manages to convince Johnny that Jimmy wants Lola, so he sets an ambush for him in a scrapyard. With Petey's help, Johnny is defeated and the Greasers recognize Jimmy as their superior.
Determined to bring peace to Bullworth, Jimmy moves to take over the Jocks, who are considered to be the most powerful of the cliques. To beat them, Jimmy works to gain the trust of the Nerds and their leader, student president Earnest Jones. After beating Earnest, Jimmy befriends him and enlists his help in ruining the Jocks' reputation. The Nerds reveal a plan to sabotage the Jocks' big home game and Jimmy does all of the hard work, embarrassing not just the Jocks, but also the cheerleaders and the school mascot. Humiliated, the Jocks and their leader, Ted Thompson, challenge Jimmy to a fight in the school's football field, which they subsequently lose.
With the cliques united under Jimmy's rule, peace is restored to Bullworth and Jimmy, who now basks in his newfound glory, is well respected by everyone. Secretly, Gary convinces the cliques to pressure Jimmy to vandalize Bullworth's town hall, an event caught on camera by the local press. Shortly afterwards, Gary orchestrates a series of dangerous and destructive pranks throughout the school and blames them on Jimmy's lack of leadership. These events ruin Jimmy's reputation in the eyes of the cliques, and he gradually loses their respect. The final straw comes when Gary falsely informs Crabblesnitch of Jimmy's alleged crimes, triggering immediate expulsion from Bullworth.
Jimmy accepts defeat, but Petey urges him to find the true culprits behind the pranks. This leads him to the "Townies", a group of former Bullworth students who have turned to Gary for revenge against the school. One of them, Zoe Taylor (Molly Fox), agrees to help him find their leader, Edgar. With Russell distracting the police and Zoe keeping the other Townies occupied, Jimmy sneaks into their hideout and confronts Edgar. After beating him, he explains Gary's deception. Zoe then arrives with news that Gary and his followers have taken Crabblesnitch hostage, sparking a full-blown war between the cliques. The Townies and Russell then help Jimmy neutralize the clique leaders, giving him an opening to enter the main building and chase Gary to the roof.
Gary taunts Jimmy, claiming that he will win no matter what. Jimmy tackles him over the side and the two end up falling through the roof of Crabblesnitch's office. Once freed, he has Gary expelled and then fires Burton, a gym teacher who got Zoe expelled after she accused him of sexually harassing her. He allows Jimmy and Zoe to return to Bullworth, and takes Petey on as his personal pupil. As his friends and allies cheer on, Jimmy shares a kiss with Zoe.
Rockstar announced Bully on May 2005 for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox with an original expected release date of October 2005. Early information released by Take-Two Interactive seemed to indicate that the player would be taking the role of a bully, and screenshots printed in Electronic Gaming Monthly showed the player-controlled antagonist administering a "swirlie" and throwing a punch at another student. However, the tone of the final game was different, with the player in the role of a problem student who stood up to and fought back against bullies, in effect, bullying on behalf of the victims, or in self-defense.
The PlayStation 2 version of the game uses an advanced Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas engine through RenderWare. Rockstar Vancouver also decided to make every student in the school have a unique appearance and personality.
When developing the characters, the team aimed at recreating the state of being a child, and making it enjoyable. Parallels were made between Jimmy and Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield. Jimmy and Holden share a background of a difficult homelife and being thrown out of multiple private schools. Though the pompous school principal Dr. Crabblesnitch is originally introduced as the main nemesis, this role is later replaced by Gary Smith, who initially befriends Jimmy. Gary is described as a sociopath. He admits that he suffers from attention-deficit disorder and is also a narcissist, as he considers himself smarter and better than everyone, and wants to run the school.
The originally announced Xbox version was silently cancelled during development.
On 19 July 2007, Rockstar announced that a remaster would be released for the Wii and Xbox 360, subtitled Scholarship Edition. Rockstar New England, then called Mad Doc Software, led development with the Xbox 360 version while Rockstar Toronto ported it to the Wii. The Wii and Xbox 360 versions were released on 4 March 2008. A Microsoft Windows port was later developed by Rockstar New England and released on 21 October 2008. The game features exclusive content which is unavailable in the original version, including new missions, characters, school classes, and unlockable items and clothing. Some small script changes have been made, and the highly compressed voice files of the original have been replaced with higher-quality versions. The random NPCs also have more lines. In addition, single system two-player competitive multiplayer minigames have also been added, along with Achievements for the Xbox 360 version and Wii Remote and Nunchuk motion and pointer controls for the Wii version. All ports of the Scholarship Edition use the game engine Gamebryo, rather than Renderware, which was used for the original version.
Bully received highly positive reviews from critics. The game received ratings of 8.9/10 from IGN, 4.5/5 from GamesRadar, an A+ from 1UP.com, 8.7/10 from GameSpot, and a 5/5 from X-Play.
As of 12 March 2008, the PlayStation 2 version of Bully had sold 1.5 million copies according to Take-Two Interactive. Hyper's Daniel Wilks commends the game for its "clever script, some novel missions, and well constructed characters". However, he criticises it for "time dilation, dodgy camera, and generic mini-games".
Bully: Scholarship Edition was released on 4 March 2008. Both the Wii and Xbox 360 versions of the game generally received positive reviews with IGN giving the Wii version an 8/10, while the Xbox 360 version received 8.7/10. 1UP.com gave the Wii version an A- grade and the Xbox 360 version a B- grade. Gameplasma gave the Wii version a 9/10. The PC version, however, received mixed reviews ranging from a "Good" rating of 7.8 from IGN to a C- from 1UP.com who called it "[a] shoddy, untimely port that, inexplicably -- considering its ridiculously long port time -- feels like a rush job." GameSpot later rated it with a "fair" rating of 6.0, calling it "[a] lazy porting job [which] hinders Bully's classic classroom hijinks".
The Xbox 360 version of Bully: Scholarship Edition was found to be unstable on some players' consoles, resulting in glitches, crashes and performance issues. On 20 March, a patch was released via Xbox Live, but there were reports claiming that the problems continued or worsened.Won IGN's award for Best PlayStation 2 Action Game.
Won GameSpot's award for Best Original Music.
Finalist for GameSpot's Game of the Year 2006
Gaming Target – 52 Games We'll Still Be Playing From 2006 selection
In 2010, the game was included as one of the titles in the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. Bully: Scholarship Edition was nominated for the Best Voice Acting award for an Xbox 360 game at IGN's Best of 2008 awards.
Bully's title and gameplay features inspired controversy among parents and educators who noted the adult content in previous Rockstar games, including the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas Hot Coffee minigame controversy. Groups such as Bullying Online and Peaceaholics criticized the game for glorifying or trivializing school bullying, although they raised their objections before the game was released to the public. The player may also choose to kiss select girls and a boy in the game, which the ESRB was aware of when rating the product. Classification boards generally restricted Bully to a teenage audience: the United-States based Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) classified the game with a T rating, the British Board of Film Classification gave it a 15 rating, the Australian Classification Board rated it M, and the New Zealand OFLC restricted it to persons 13 years of age and over.
In 2007, Yahoo! Games listed it as one of the top ten most controversial games of all time.
Bully was banned in Brazil. In April 2008, Brazilian justice prohibited the commerce and import of the game. The decision was taken by judge Flávio Mendes Rabelo from the state of Rio Grande do Sul based on psychological findings by the state psychology society which said that the game would be potentially harmful to teenagers and adults. Anyone caught selling the game would face a daily fine of R$1,000.00.
Whilst British Labour MP Keith Vaz argued that Bully be banned or reclassified as rated 18 in the UK before its publication, the game was released rated 15. Currys and PC World, both owned by DSG International, said that they did not wish to sell the game in the UK because it is "not appropriate for Currys' family-friendly image". The official statement lists what Currys believes is "the explicit link between violence and children" as the reason behind the ban. Despite this decision, other high street retailers including Game, HMV and Virgin Megastores announced intentions to stock the game. DSG stores still stock other Rockstar games including the GTA series, and other violent games like Manhunt, which both have BBFC 18 ratings, whereas Bully has a BBFC 15 rating.
Prior to both the ESRB's rating and the release of Bully, Jack Thompson filed a lawsuit attempting to have the game banned from store shelves in Florida. Thompson declared the game a "nuisance" and "Columbine simulator". Thompson's petition, filed with the 11th Judicial Circuit Court, asked for Wal-Mart and Take-Two to furnish him with an advance copy of Bully so he could have "an independent third party" play the game and determine if it would constitute a public nuisance in the state of Florida, in which case it could be banned. Take-Two offered to bring in a copy and let both the judge and Thompson view the game in the judge's chambers on 12 October 2006. On 13 October 2006, Judge Ronald Friedman subsequently ruled in favor of shipping the game, noting that there was no content in the game that was not already on late night television. Thompson responded to the ruling with fiery speech directed at the judge. When given a preview build, the mainstream American media took a generally positive view of the game. Press coverage described the game as free-form, focusing on building a social network and learning new skills from classes, with strictly enforced punishments for serious misbehaviour.
In November 2009, The Gaming Liberty interviewed musician Shawn Lee, who scored Bully, and was asked if he was scoring any more games in the near future; he responded, "Yes. It looks like I will be doing the soundtrack for Bully 2 in the not so distant future...".
In November 2011, in an interview with Gamasutra, Rockstar executive Dan Houser revealed the studio may focus on a sequel for Bully once Max Payne 3 is released. "Contrary to a lot of people, we like to take a little bit of time at the end of a game before starting a sequel, so we can wait for the excitement or disappointment and everything else of the experience to shake down and really see what we should do in the next game," he said. "So we knew that we didn't want to start doing the Bully sequel instantly at that second with those guys -- even though it is a property that, like Max, we adore and might come back to in the future. There was just no impetus to do that then. So we said, 'You can do Max, and then we will see what we can do with Bully."
In July 2012, Rockstar Vancouver was merged into Rockstar Toronto, and the staff was offered to join a different Rockstar studio. In September 2013, Dan Houser said he has many different ideas for a Bully sequel.