High School Sucked. Can We Please Have More Games About It?

Illustration for article titled High School Sucked. Can We Please Have More Games About It?

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.

Illustration for article titled High School Sucked. Can We Please Have More Games About It?

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.

Illustration for article titled High School Sucked. Can We Please Have More Games About It?

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.


So many of my favorite movies and TV shows take place in or around high schools, from Veronica Mars to Friday Night Lights. But the thing is, high school stories are rarely actually about high school. They're about bucking authority and making friends, about adventure and family, about mysteries and self-exploration. In other words, they're about life.

High School sucked. And yet I find that I want to go back, even if it's just in a video game.


Nick Ha

Here's my pitch for what I think would be the perfect high school game: an open-world action RPG that takes cues from Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Dragon Age, and Japanese visual novels.


The game starts the same way Dragon Age started: with an origin story. You're a student, and you pick a high school archetype (really, a race and class). Your "race" would be the clique (jocks, nerds, preps, gangsters, regular student), then your "class" would be your role within that archetype (football player, basketball player, cheer team, otaku, gamer, comic nerd, etc.). These various selections will define how the story begins, and it decides how people treat you throughout the rest of the game. It also doesn't immediately place you with these cliques. Your starting skillset and proficiencies will also be defined by your class. Under all circumstances, you're a freshman. Your age can vary from normal (14) to held-back (16) to early entry (12), which will further have an impact on the story.


You are a resident in a moderately-sized town of an unnamed American state, and there is only one high school that serves your region. America is in a state of serious economic depression thanks to overpopulation and a few wars, which has resulted in rising crime rates and unrest within the American populace. It explains the deprecated state of the school authorities and the rising restlessness of the student body, whose families have been severely affected by the depression.

Upon entry to the school, you find that the massive increase in socioeconomic concerns has run its toll on the students, and there's a lot of tension between the pre-existing cliques, who have shaped into gangs (they have each established a loose and informal organizational power structure with a governing body, and represent themselves with symbols and names). They've taken advantage of the weakness of the school authorities and have risen to become major powers within the student body as a result. The different cliques have different systems that define their leadership (the geeks vote in their leaders, the gangsters have a single gang leader, the preps are run by a succession of siblings, etc.), making them each a political microcosm. Only a few days after you join, violence begins to break out between the cliques. There's also a regular student body consisting of students unaffiliated with the major cliques, but is collapsing under the pressure of the inter-clique tension; "civilians", you could say.

Main Story

A student council is eventually established, and regardless of whichever archetype you belong to, you become recruited through various means and inducted into a sort of task force of the student council that becomes responsible for helping to stem the tide of violence between the cliques, a war that's not exactly easy to fight directly since there are no clear instigators and no identifiable sources. The main story will involve you 1. rising to the top position of the student council, and 2. resolving or propagating the clique war in some manner.

The story will be mostly serious. As in, not like Grand Theft Auto or Bully. There will be humor sprinkled in here and there, naturally, but the factions won't be severely exaggerated to goofball degrees like they were in Bully. Each clique will be represented as realistically as possible. The whole point is to force adult decisions and problems on child-aged characters. It's the same reason why the economic depression plays a major role in the story, the same reason why each clique is more like a gang, the same reason why the factions are supposed to represent some sort of political ideology. This game will have much the same mood as Lord of the Flies or Infinite Ryvius, where a bunch of children are left to their own machinations with virtually no reliable guidance from the older or wiser. It'll explore elements of sociology, cultural anthropology, and child psychology. How does a youthful, inexperienced, impressionable child handle the problems and responsibilities of an adult?

Game World

The game world itself will be the campus of a large university. It used to be privately owned and run, but it went bankrupt during the depression, and so the government bought the campus out and reconstituted it into a single high school that would serve as the largest secondary educational facility for a much larger region and student body. The campus is a university for a reason; universities are larger and much more diversely-designed than high schools and academies, plus many campuses have neighborhoods within them, which can serve as student dormitories. There will be some instanced locations outside of the campus, but they won't be a major part of the game world; most of your needs can and will be served on campus, including lodging. The school will be separated into various sections, and each clique will have its own stomping grounds (nerds have the computer hall, preps have the library, jocks have the gym, etc.)

There will be player housing, and you'll be able to decorate your dorm room/home with trophies representing your past successes. You can purchase better housing as you progress through the game. Player housing will also serve as a save point.

Travel can be done by either freerunning, biking, blading, scootering, or skateboarding. There will be no fast-travel.

Story Progression

The progression—the manner in which you move forward through the game—becomes like Oblivion or Fallout. The game sort of places you in the setting, and then gives you options on where you want to go and what you want to do. There's a main story to follow, and that main story is important, but you follow it at will instead of being forced to do it from the get-go, and there are plenty of optional diversions outside the main story that you can engage in. The biggest "diversions" are the cliques, or factions, in the game.

Dealing with the individual cliques wouldn't be like in Dragon Age (where there is no factional representation whatsoever) or The Elder Scrolls (where they're completely irrelevant to the story), but more like New Vegas. The problems of each clique are tied to the greater conflict at hand, and your involvement with them will have a significant impact on the main story. Most of them are optional to deal with, but based on your standing with each one, the main story's ending will change drastically. All of the cliques are in a state of disarray, and it becomes up to you to decide their fate. You can help individual factions rise to power, obliterate them by decimating their leadership, or take control yourself. It becomes entirely possible to become leader of most, if not all, factions within the game.


You'll have companion characters—friends that you recruit into the student council task force. There will be one or two from each faction that you can draw in, including a few non-affiliated members of the student body. Like in New Vegas, most companions are optional, and each one will have a story that relates to the factions and how the factional tension is having an effect on their personal lives.

Almost every single companion will be a potential romance partner; this is where the Japanese visual novels come into play. The things you say to them, the gifts you give them, your dealings with the factions, and the manner in which you conduct yourself will have an effect on their affection towards you. Some of them will be more open to romance than others, at least one member of each gender will be openly gay/bi, and many of the others can be convinced to change their sexuality to suit yours. There'll be love triangles; some companions will compete against each other for you, and some companions will compete against you for other companions. You are not the sole love object in this story. And no, there will be no sex scenes, neither implied nor implicit.

Character Progression

Upon reaching a leadership position at the top of the student council, you'll have control over the diversity of its membership. You'll have various leadership positions taken by all of your companions (you choose who does what, but only companions can fill these spots).

Assembling and recruiting the rest of the students for student government will work much like it does in Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. The build of the council itself will be split into several divisions (disciplinary, treasury/procurement, propaganda/morale, medical, intel), each consisting of up to seven or so members. You can mostly recruit members of the student body unaffiliated with the factions, or you can build it up such that it'll have students from one particular faction, or you can make it diverse. Different types of students will have different effects on the powers granted to the student council, since they'll lobby for different rights and regulations to be established by the school authority, and naturally, student council members affiliated with a certain clique within the school will lobby for rights that give their clique an advantage over others.


I have no idea. I suck at designing combat systems. But here we go.

Combat will be a combination of Assassin's Creed, Bully, and fighting games. Combat will be principally melee, and you'll be able to grow your combat ability in a few different categories: strength, agility, and momentum. Strength dictates the raw power of your attacks, so it's good for straight-up boxing. Agility dictates how quickly you can deliver follow-up attacks and dodge incoming ones. Momentum will dictate your ability to manipulate attackers, so we're mainly looking at throws and counters.

You'll also be able to unleash combo attacks, which are affected by all three stats: agility affects the speed at which you execute a combo, strength dictates the power of the initial attack, and momentum dictates the damage bonus of follow-up attacks. There will be finishers for enemies with low health; using them will demoralize other combatants and make them more open to your attacks or more prone to fleeing. Most attacks will be based on backyard brawling, but you can grow your ability through martial arts and sports training.

You'll also have access to ranged and thrown weapons, which include slingshots, potato launchers, stink bombs, marbles, firecrackers, itching powder, water guns, bananas, eggs, snowballs, rocks, etc. but these will mostly be used sparingly.

The role that companions will play in combat is significantly less than in other games. You can have only two companions with you at a time, and only one can be eligible for combat. The most that a companion will be able to do while not under your control is hold the attention of other attackers or whittle away health from range; you'll be responsible for most combat, depending on who you're controlling at the time. On occasion, you'll be able to do a tag-team attack on enemies with some companions, which will be based on their talents.


Ultimately, the main story is resolved by the time you depart the school permanently by either graduation or expulsion. You will end up either convincing the various cliques to cooperate, obliterating all of them by decimating their leadership, helping one rise to dominance over the others, subjugating them underneath the indomitable will of a totalitarian student council, or reinforcing their power so that they may continue to wage war against each other. The cliques left standing by the end of the story will be left entirely up to you, and the ending will discuss the future of the school's student body and what happens after you graduate or get expelled.

What else… oh yeah

There are hall monitors standing around. They all have the same set of lines, and one of the lines is "I used to be a councilor like you… then I took a slingshot round to the knee."

One of your companions is a Brony.

There will be a Pokemon trading card minigame!