For most people, high school sucked. The endless questioning and self-doubt, the lack of control over your own schedule, dealing with the impossible mysteries of the opposite sex while navigating the often treacherous shoals of what amounted to a four year, walled-in social experiment. Yeah, high school sucked.
It's that very suckage that makes high school such ripe territory for entertaining storytelling. How many classic movies and TV shows have channeled the angst and confusion of high school into memorable entertainment? John Hughes made his entire fortune mining teen angst, and triumphant television shows from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to My So-Called Life to Friday Night Lights have put us through high school again and again. Writers never tire of the setting, nor do audiences. And yet in the last ten years, there have been a mere handful of high school-centric video games. What gives?
I've recently been playing an iOS game from Electronic Arts called Surviving High School. It is… it is not the kind of game that I normally play. It's more of an interactive choose-your-own-adventure than a real game; it features a cartoony look, cheesy music, and in-app purchases and ads that can be really distracting.
And yet I'm in love with it. I first checked it out when our august friend in augustness Tom Bissell wrote of it, "What makes Surviving High School special is that a few of its characters genuinely surprised me, and a number of its scenarios have real emotional bite… This is the rare high school simulacrum in which even parents come across as totally human people."
This is certainly true; the characters in the game start off as high school archetypes (e.g. the nerd, the jock, the cheerleader) but almost all wind up shrugging off their assigned archetype in surprising ways. Two other things about the game also captured my imagination: One, due to its choose-your-own-adventure format, you begin making decisions from the start and never stop throughout. The "gameplay" involves simply tapping buttons on the screen, but the game itself is constantly engaging you and letting you tell your own story. Two, it's set in a real-life high school, and it has led me to realize how fresh the setting still feels.
My favorite Rockstar game isn't GTA IV or Red Dead Redemption—it's their 2006 high school game Bully. Bully didn't have GTA IV's explosive action and moody story, and it lacked Red Dead's incredible vistas and immersive world. But it did have Bullworth Academy, the most enjoyable setting of any open-world game I've ever played.
Back when the game came out, the inimitable Ian Bogost wrote an article for Gamasutra (which, unfortunately, has vanished from the site) called "Taking Bully Seriously." His piece captured much of what made the game unique. He introduced it thusly:
Imagine a video game about the difficult life of a typical, but troubled adolescent. He's the product of a broken home and alienated from his parents, who are more interested in the novelty of their new marriage than in the responsibility of raising a child. He's been in and out of different schools and finds it hard to make friends. Disappointing relationships make it hard for him to trust other kids, and more so other adults. He acts out and gets in trouble, sometimes from boredom, sometimes from belligerence, and sometimes just to get some attention, since he doesn't get any at home.
The video game would allow the player to live in the shoes of this typical adolescent during a time-compressed academic calendar year, in order to understand the conflicted social situation for a troubled teen. The game might be appropriate for teenagers, especially as a curative. But it would really be targeted at adults, especially the parents, educators, and policymakers who have the power, authority, and life experience to help counsel teens like him in the real world.
This description sounds like it might have been lifted from a grant proposal for a serious game, one that a researcher might submit to the Department of Education, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), or the National Science Foundation (NSF). But it's not. It's the premise for Rockstar Games' controversial new title, Bully.
Behind all of the banana-peel and cherry-bomb hijinks, Bully taps into something real and relatable: the angst of growing up. It lets us take on the role of another person, a damaged and frustrated kid named Jimmy Hopkins who, over the course of the story, learns to navigate the dangerous waters of high school socialization.
In Bogost's article, he mentions how the running audio commentary from student passers-by is a particularly sharp commentary on high school and social norms. As players run about Bullworth Academy, they overhear kids talking about the pressures of homework, their secret crushes, and frustrations with themselves and with society's expectations. The milieu of Bully is immersive, funny, and conveys a unique vibe.
The thing is, high school stories are rarely actually about high school.
But when it comes down to it, Bully was simply a lot of fun. The game mechanics and feel don't quite match up with a current-generation game, but it was fun to play as a maladjusted high school kid, it was fun to skip class and romance the cheerleader and set off the smoke detectors. It was fun to get involved in the private lives of the teachers, to stand up for the downtrodden, to put those rich kids in their place! I'd never done these things in a game before, and it was a small thrill to have a chance to.
I hear that the Japanese developer Atlus' Persona games deal with high school-type things as well (though in a much different, weirder way). I must confess ignorance of the series; it's one of the ones I haven't yet played. But in a way similar to how the developer's Catherine tackled issues like fear of commitment and infidelity, I could imagine how an Atlus game could effectively (if a bit bizarrely) approach the subject of high school and adolescence. The game is most definitely on my to-play "blindspot" list.
I worked with high school students for seven years, and I probably wouldn't want to play a game set in the school where I taught. But then, the high schools we visit in pop culture aren't all that much like the places where we actually spent out teen years; they're heightened and iconic, even universal. They are backdrops for stories that we can all relate to—we've all been there!—and yet they still provide the sort of escapist thrill that can make video games so enjoyable in the first place.
Science fiction and fantasy are great, and games set within in those genres have proven to sell well. High school-based games, perhaps not so much; I certainly don't remember anyone calling Bully a rousing commercial success. But while we Bully fans hold out faint (but still very much alive!) hope for a sequel, I also have hope that we'll see more small games like Surviving High School.