Revisiting Rockstar’s smallest open world, Bullworth Academy, which favours community over size

Bullworth Academy exists because Rockstar reined itself in. The story of Grand Theft Auto in the PS2 era is one of ever-expanding boundaries, starting with the modestly proportioned islands of GTAIII and ending with San Andreas’s country and urban sprawl. But Bullworth Academy and the tiny New England town it’s nestled within don’t fit this trend. You can run the length of the grounds in minutes and do quick laps of the town on a skateboard. Released between San Andreas and Liberty City’s colossal current-gen incarnation, Bullworth looks awkwardly, embarrassingly small.

It works, though, because when you’re 15 your schoolyard stomping grounds, and the cliques and gangs populating them, are pretty much the extent of the known world. Bully (AKA Canis Canem Edit) taps into this feeling. Viewed that way, it can feel bigger than any GTA, blurring the line between open-world action title and Persona-style life sim. It’s tempting to hunt for autobiographical elements in Bullworth – lead writer Dan Houser attended London’s prestigious St Paul’s School, and Jimmy Hopkins’ alma mater is a similar bastion of privilege – but you won’t spot anything conclusive. The academy blends a host of English and American influences to become curiously nonspecific.

Its neo-Gothic architecture could be found either side of the ocean, but the schoolyard factions – the nerds, preppies, greasers and jocks – clearly play to American high school dynamics, even if the greasers stick out anachronistically given the contemporary setting. Still, Jimmy’s adventures, with their juvenile slapstick, are pure Beano: this is a Hollywood high school movie by way of Dennis The Menace and The Bash Street Kids. And, of course, there are the inescapable echoes of Skool Daze.

Bully offers something no other Rockstar title has managed, something that dramatically strengthens the sense that this – to use a phrase so often associated with open-world cities – is a living, breathing place: it exists in time. You can’t help but notice the clock ticking in Bully, because you have classes to attend. Two per day, in fact, and Jimmy can unlock items and upgrades by completing these basic minigames. Jimmy’s lax lesson schedule is a crucial part of the early game – the sense of obligation it provides and the penalties for truancy help underscore that you’re not in the anarchical Liberty City any more. Mute thugs for hire can go wherever they please, but Jimmy Hopkins has an art lesson in ten minutes.

The simple rhythm of the school day in Bullworth – wake up, attend class, accept mission, attend class, squeeze in a second mission before bed – coupled with the ebb and flow of students in out of the buildings, adds real depth to Rockstar’s simulation. This doesn’t just look like a boarding school, it operates like one too, while the feeling that a day has passed adds an extra dash of thrill to sneaking past prefects after dark.

Of course, if Bully stuck to that 24-hour schedule with no other changes, Bullworth would feel like an oddly static Groundhog Day, but Rockstar also offers a much grander sense of time passing. Progress through the story in Bully and seasons change. You’ll first notice this when, in Chapter 1, Halloween decorations appear college-wide overnight. The world observes other holidays too, but it’s the slow passing into winter and the dawning of spring that measures the passage of a school year. Strictly speaking, the effect is tied to progression, not a calendar, but it works all the same. Bullworth, unlike so many videogame worlds, routinely undergoes change.

At times, your life in Bullworth Academy doesn’t recall GTA as much as it does Animal Crossing, another digital home where life ticks along in metronomic fashion. And like an idyllic, animal-filled village, Bullworth’s inhabitants are all individuals too. It’s easy to miss this at first, since far too many students shout their version of GTA’s pedestrian chatter in what can seem like the same nasal drawl, but Bullworth Academy is home to 60 students, all with personalities of their own.

Follow students around and they’ll share secrets, character details, and gossip about other pupils. There’s the cheerleader whose airy chat about other people’s love lives devolves into talk of arson and suicide, the social outcast who admits to buying people presents so they will be his friends, and the nerd who keeps quoting Jabberwocky. Few of these characters have anything as prolonged as a storyline, and
most are written with the complete lack of self-awareness that typifies so many of GTA’s comic relief bitparts. Disappointingly, Jimmy’s interactions with them are limited to a set of Fable-esque gestures, ruling out real conversation. But still, these people aren’t generic NPCs: they’re characters. These pupils, teachers and townsfolk are all one of a kind, which gives Bully something you rarely find outside of Animal Crossing or Harvest Moon – a sense of community.

As Bully continues, the Academy diminishes in importance, with the surrounding town becoming Jimmy’s turf. It’s a slightly frustrating evolution into the scaled-down GTA structure that the early chapters manage to avoid. Even so, Bully never loses its charm. You still get lost in Liberty City and San Andreas: they’re large and intricate, with no end of streets that must be learned. And you drive by minimap in GTAIV, because you can never know a city the way you knew your school.

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