2006’s Bully is one of my favourite Rockstar Games titles because of the ways in which it innovated upon what an open-world environment could be. Although it ostensibly follows the standard Grand Theft Auto formula of roaming around a detailed environment at your leisure and triggering missions by speaking with key individuals around campus, Bully truly blurred the lines between what constitutes as ‘work’ and ‘play’ in an open-world setting. It pioneered the attitude pursued by Rockstar Games when making games today: to create lives for players to lose themselves in, combining story and gameplay into a cohesive, satisfying and engrossing whole.
For me, Bullworth Academy was truly home for fifteen-year-old Jimmy Hopkins. The private boarding school’s denizens were genuine friends and enemies whose relationships I had built organically over time. By doing away with the lethality of open-world games, no longer being allowed to eliminate characters from the world and therefore your thoughts, squabbles the player had with Trent, the blonde-haired bully, or Biff, the Preppy’s leading boxer, caused me to fear these individuals when skateboarding to an after-school mission. Such instances encouraged me to seek revenge by slapping a ‘Kick Me!’ sign on their back, or attacking them afar with stink bombs and itching powder, rather than engaging them in a one-on-one fight which I could very well have lost. And, of course, memorable individuals like Algernon and Sheldon would either be characters players would go out of their way to protect or victimise, should their comically whining behaviour have prompted them to do so. Individuals mattered in this world more so than anything else.
More than any other setting designed by Rockstar Games, Bullworth Academy felt alive. Its denizens felt real, and players were constantly forging their own narratives by messing with the AI outside of structured missions. Joining the Greaser egging the girls’ dorm, or incurring the wrath of the Jocks after you wedgie Ted, the star quarterback, are memories that stick with me just as much as defending ‘Pee Stain’ as he rode a girl’s bike away from pissed-off Greasers, or being trapped in the pit with Russell when searching for radio parts to trade with the deranged homeless veteran who secretly lives on campus.
Bully is rightfully remembered for its charm, which is why I don’t necessarily wish to see a sequel with new cliques or a college-based setting. However, its core mechanics can certainly be improved and innovated upon by transferring them to a similar, yet tonally-different, setting. In my mind, the most logical setting for a spiritual successor for Bully to be staged – especially given Rockstar’s exploration of more mature protagonists like Niko Bellic and John Marston – is a federal penitentiary.
I. The Strengths of Bully and Their Parallels to Inmate
The most notable strengths of Bully (or Canis Canem Edit, as I first experienced the title) involve the genuine relationships players develop with individual characters who, seemingly, have their own routines, friends and affiliations. Such a system would perfectly translate to a prison setting, where loyalties and allegiances are much more meaningful when ensuring one’s short-term adjustment (if not survival) to life inside. First impressions are hard to erase, and, in a confined environment like prison, Inmate could capitalise upon this fact.
Much like Bully, where Jimmy is dropped off outside his new school, and swiftly taken to reception where he is registered and greeted by the Principal, Inmate would see the player strip-searched upon arrival at the fictional penitentiary before being escorted to their cell in General Population by a prison guard. Once away from the supposedly ‘mindful’ eye of the authorities, players are immediately free rein to interact with – or be approached by – other inmates on their wing. Given that the opening environment would be a finite play space during the game’s early hours, as was the case with Bullworth Academy, players are naturally restricted to certain areas and curfews as they struggle to coexist with much more rooted and respected members of the homegrown, and possibly violent, community.
While the jovial tone and nature of Bully pulled on the player’s nostalgic experiences of their school days, focusing on ‘cliques’ which ranged from the ‘Nerds’ in the library to the ‘Jocks’ in the football field, the next-generation complexity of a prison setting would instead focus on developing a relationship not simply with ‘gangs’ or, more sinisterly, ethnic groups, but rather select individuals who each have their own wants, desires, talents and histories.
Inmates would differ in terms of their characteristics, dependent upon criminal histories, age, ethnicity, the length of their sentence, time inside, and desire to rehabilitate. Roaming around your small but multifunctional wing would reveal how different characters hold different positions within the in-game hierarchy. In Bully, there were teachers, prefects and then the tougher pupils. Here, the psychology of the prison hierarchy would be something players would have to figure out themselves, whether it be through talking with certain inmates or falling foul of wronging more intimidating and dangerous people. Indeed, the patrolling officers would perhaps be the least of the player’s worries should they – knowingly or unknowingly – offend the wrong person. Still, the watchful eye of prison officers would provide a natural restraint for the player, should they become too explosive in their physicality – again, building on the wanted system of Bully, if not the reputation system of Red Dead Redemption.
Building on institutions with established timetables, curfews and classes were a way of restricting Jimmy’s movement as well as rewarding the player by developing their skills (whether it be through crafting items or sweet-talking figures of authority into letting you off the hook). Jobs and punishments similarly kept players in line, incentivising them to genuinely fear authority and the risk of being caught misbehaving (as opposed to simply taking away some ammo and money before letting chaos resume). These systems would easily translate to a prison environment in the sense that jobs, routines and activities are available for prisoners to be involved with. Perhaps certain jobs would only become available if the player has a good enough reputation amongst the officers and prison staff, with added bonuses being that the ‘jobs’ (minigames which are fun in their own right) ultimately give you access to certain areas of the prison – such as the kitchen, laundry room, workshop, classrooms, and the nurse’s office. Still, drawing on my interests in seeing open-world games better blur the lines between structured narrative and in-game frivolities, such activities could serve as the means of gaining intel, learning more about other inmates, and forging allegiances and relationships.
Even something as simple playing chess, liar’s dice, or cards with a cell mate has the potential to become its own narrative experience. For instance, being asked to throw down some cash to make the match more interesting is all well and good, but would the player seriously consider:
A) owing money to certain types of individuals; or
B) have certain types of individuals owing them money?
Complex dynamics like this would add much more strategy into what otherwise amounts to a five-minute distraction in an open-world game, or simply as the means of farming cash to buy a better firearm or new outfit. Side activities would be given a more necessary function when used as a means to survive inside. Likewise, playing checkers with a character could be broken up with dialogue options (L.A. Noire style, if not reminiscent of The Wolf Among Us), allowing the player to manipulate their opponent or weasel out some information about a certain inmate or even, again in a more sinister turn, a member of staff. Hell, you could even find some way to smuggle contraband inside the facility, which is stashed inside your cell, or blackmail the warden, as morally questionable as such acts may be.
One of the limitations of Bully was that, when completing missions, players inadvertently helped one group whilst injuring their relations with others. The weakness with this system was that you didn’t know who you were going to hurt when engaging in any given mission. Naturally, this was a limitation of the PlayStation 2 era; but Bully was nonetheless a bold new step that the industry (and perhaps even Rockstar) has found difficult to build upon. At the end of the day, the original game used its setting as its strength to truly transport players to a setting perfectly suited for the interactive medium. Its spiritual successor would be duty bound to polish this ‘popularity’ system much more significantly.
Being forced to choose between one individual and another who are engaged in a dispute of some kind in prison is an altercation players simply cannot walk away from or avoid due to their close proximity to any heated exchange, meaning that choices like this could emerge constantly. Players might want to keep their head down for a day or two, after landing in hot water with another inmate or officer, but the ecosystem inside General Population constantly forces them to make choices and decisions which are remembered by others (perhaps even in a Shadow of Mordor-esque manner). Can you afford to let your only ally down, even if the risk is being sent away to solitary confinement for a week – thereby missing your weekly visitation? Such decisions would carry serious weight.
Importantly, the manipulation of AI could work in two ways. Louis Theroux’s two-part documentary on the so-called Miami Mega Jail inspired me to envision a mechanic where players may well be bullied into negotiating with their family members during visitation and having them send money to one of the stronger inmate’s accounts. Conversely, players could deal with this problem by taking care of business themselves, in the form of a verbal – and perhaps even physical – confrontation, but what consequences might such an impulse bring to your life inside? The art of the game’s AI interactions would stem from the player’s manipulation of key figures in the prison hierarchy, but also – perhaps unknowingly – having themselves be manipulated by specific inmates as well. You could even trade contraband, or simple materials like cigarettes, with other inmates in order to gain access to certain goods or people, resulting in a physical economy also bleeding into a social economy.
Perhaps the most obvious parallel of this setting to the schoolyard is that violence would be a likely recourse for all inmates, meaning that the visceral mechanics of punches, kicks, grapples and takedowns are all available to the player and their opponents. Moreover, like the breaking-into-lockers mechanic of Bully, players could thieve from one cell and plant its contents amongst another inmate’s belongings (if not keep the materials for themselves), angering individuals and leading to all sorts of distractions and chaos – assuming the player isn’t caught in the act or ratted out by an untrustworthy accomplice they recruited to serve as lookout. When the stakes are this high, players need to know who they can put their faith in to watch their back – and how to punish those who betray said trust.
Mini-games and side activities, like working out, boxing, playing football in the yard (or basketball, if it’s an American setting), are all viable translations to this setting. Even these could be means of learning more about the protagonist’s own past and crimes, such as when having a tattoo done. The more you play and engage with other inmates, the more you learn about your own history. Flashbacks could provide the means to distinguish the isolating setting against a more open, rural environment – serving as both a relief in terms of freedom but also the player’s activities and the game’s general tone.
II. Inmate‘s Story Outline and Character-Driven Narrative
Having been fascinated academically by public anxieties surrounding crime, and their influence in reconfiguring images of the American city, a lot of my historical research contributes to the historiography ushered by Heather Ann Thompson and her assertion that America’s increasingly punitive penal system shaped mentalities of decline from the 1970s onwards. By focusing on the shift away from a more rehabilitative approach to prisons, the increased incarceration rate amongst Americans within inner cities undergoing deindustrialisation and white flight, the story of Inmate could explore how the post-civil rights decades represented a turning point for disparaging perceptions of the American poor. Building on the national reclassification of misdemeanours associated with poverty and homeless lifestyles as ‘crimes’, such as ‘squeegee men’ and nightwalkers, coupled with the shift in 1990s’ New York City under Mayor ‘Rudy’ Giuliani towards ‘zero-tolerance policing’, the game could take a more historical approach when exploring the prison system. More so than current games have considered, at least. The Warriors was a contemporary product of the increased paranoia towards the apparent criminal (and often ethnic) element that was brewing in economically-stagnant cities before President Reagan’s election, something Rockstar Games brought to my attention when releasing a fantastic adaption of the film under the guise of a semi-open-world brawler back in 2005. Importantly, The Warriors directly inspired the hand-to-hand combat of Bully, albeit through a less violent and more simplistic fighting style.
In terms of story, I would like a game to explore what it means to be a criminal and whether acts of survival and thinking like a criminal can ever be undone upon returning to civilised society. As such, the game’s overarching narrative could explore this element of criminality in both explicit and nuanced ways. The ultimate objective for the protagonist of Inmate, and therefore the player, could be to survive – say – one-hundred-and-eighty-days in prison, preparing for your court case when not engaged in daily life inside. You work with your lawyer to relive the events that led to your incarceration and, as despicable as it might be, purposely reconceive and construct a narrative of events which ultimately proves your innocence – however untruthful the ‘plausible narrative’ might well be. Actions inside the prison could negatively impact the case (for instance, as evidenced in HBO’s excellent limited series, The Night Of, with Riz Ahmed and John Turturro, losing the ‘good-boy image’ by shaving your head and having tattoos when speaking before the jury). Nonetheless, in order to survive players might be forced to endanger themselves by balancing life inside – such as smuggling drugs or weapons during visitation – whilst standing trial and speaking in front of the judgemental eyes of your peers.
In a more subtle manner, the fantastic film Starred Up, starring Jack O’Connell, similarly featured character development in the form of therapy – both on a one-to-one basis and group therapy sessions, where friendships were forged and rivalries ignited. Succeeding in this area might better support your case by having character witnesses speak on your behalf during the trial, signalling to the jury that you are longing to reform your view of the world as well as your actions towards those who populate it.
Whatever the consequences are for the protagonist of Inmate, whether it be ending up with a life sentence or being proven innocent, the impact of the game’s story would be much more personal by way of making players question how law and order is more about exploiting the system (rightly and wrongly) than it is achieving true justice.
By exploring how evidence and memory is deliberately altered, drawing on historical skills and having them inform the construction of an ‘official statement’ which players are charged with remembering and recounting when speaking in front of the jury (as well as improvising against unexpected evidence they are presented with when standing before the jury by the defence attorney) would really draw on the medium’s interactive qualities. Indeed, it allows the in-game activities inside the prison to be less prescriptive and structured. The ‘story’ told inside the prison would be much more dynamic, stemming from ’emergent gameplay’, meaning that players construct their own stories from inside rather than a forced narrative imposed by the developers. The main narrative would be the court case itself, testing how well prepared you are and how smart you are to earn your freedom.
This added legal dimension builds on one of the best games I played in 2014, the grossly underrated The Wolf Among Us. When interrogating Tweedle Dee, I ultimately proved inconsistent with my ‘good cop, bad cop’ method of extracting information from the suspect. Rather than engaging in the boring ‘paragon and renegade’ dialogue options found in many games, I was poorly manipulating my suspect and got called out for it by Dee. Experimenting with memory and how believable you are is a much more effective use of an in-game dialogue system than simply saying something nice or nasty. Such mechanics challenge the player to keep stories straight in their own head, making every time they open their mouth add tension to everything the player has been working towards. One slip up could seriously compromise your efforts up until this point. That’s as much pressure as keeping one eye open when moving from one area of the prison to another.
More broadly, perhaps you could even pick your legal team, much like when selecting a crew for heists in Grand Theft Auto V. One adviser, who’s cheaper, might suggest you just take fifteen years and not fight your case, whereas a more boisterous lawyer could ask you to take the stand and plead your case. Do you trust the evidence that’s been collected to prove your innocence, or do you answer the DA’s questions and risk undoing your entire alibi by being caught off guard by a string of unexpected questions? The ultimate challenge of such a mechanic is being consistent when bluffing the jury. Interestingly, the Rockstar Games-published L.A. Noire was interested in a similar mechanic – albeit with a focus towards those who stood on the allegedly more honest side of the interrogation table.
III. Limitations to this Idea and its Execution as a Fully-Interactive Game
Firstly, in no way am I suggesting that I’d want this to be a sequel to Bully. Jimmy was a delinquent, but a clever and ultimately honourable one. Nonetheless, the dominant issues I foresee with this game are twofold: first, the play space would be too small to constitute a fully-fledged triple-A release, meaning that the experience would probably have to be packaged as DLC. But would a DLC have all the intricate interactions with individuals necessary to make Inmate what it is capable of being? Perhaps if the base game had similar mechanics, but what game could capture these mechanics in a larger, more unwieldy environment? The natural choice is most likely a university campus, but I’m not convinced enough gameplay opportunities are there to build a game which surpasses the gains made by Bully. Perhaps an espionage-focused game would be better suited, perhaps with Cold War-era spies as the subject matter, which naturally affords more standard third-person gameplay in the form of shootouts, car chases and general action, alongside the more nuanced character interactions and narrative drive. Espionage in a small town might work, where what the player unearths dictate the direction of where they go and what they do. Is this the formula for the long-rumoured and surely now-abandoned PlayStation exclusive, Agent? Only Rockstar, if not Sony, knows.
The second, more important, issue facing Inmate is its tone. Unlike the jovial antics of Jimmy Hopkins and co. in Bully, Inmate focuses on individuals who are certified criminals. Even if we assume that the most despicable and evil criminals who harm others (especially the frail in any given society) are kept away from General Population through mental asylums and maximum security facilities, the allies and enemies that players associate with would still be thieves, violent offenders and so on. Although it could be argued that you only need to draw the relevant aspects of criminality from the source material when creating gameplay sequences and characters, without diluting the content too much that it becomes absurd, the fact remains that we are designing a long-form game here. This is one of the major challenges which interests me most when designing games. A two-hour documentary, an hour-forty-five film, or ten-hour television series are all potent but small-scale narratives (often with characters outside of the prison to humanise the inmates). Inmate would place players in a world for fifteen to twenty hours, if not more. The tonal difficulty would be confronting the reality of prison life without burning players out. Simply put, it would be hard to find humour due to the oppressive nature of the environment and its inhabitants. The nature of the crimes inmates have committed, and how they manipulate others, could be extremely nasty. The psychological aspect of prisons – people getting to know what other people do and how they live on the outside – mean that you can’t talk to people about your past lives because of the potential of being blackmailed (i.e. ‘we’re going to kidnap person X, Y and Z because we know when your loved ones are at work.’ That, and ‘no one’s watching them; not whilst you’re in here.’).
Overall, it is difficult to keep everything consistently fun in terms of tone without becoming a mockery when avoiding the outright bleak and morose nature of prison. Rockstar Games are brilliant because they blend drama with comedy, capturing the essence and complexity of real life in many ways. This thought experiment is very revealing of how Rockstar gets the tone right with their games, as Grand Theft Auto V is filled to the brim with murder and violence, yet its tone is largely comic (aside from the controversial but ultimately informative torture scene on behalf of the FIB). It also explains why Bullworth Academy was such a genius location for this type of gameplay to be explored to begin with.
IV. Conclusions: A Difficult Game to Design but One Worth Making
There are certainly limitations to this idea, but Inmate allows players to blend ‘on-mission’ activities with ‘off-mission’ frivolities in an active, near seamless manner. The potential of the detailed environments and sound design, the merging of side activities with mainline narrative, and the constant sense of claustrophobic paranoia that inmates are plotting against you – or know your secrets – could prove palpable if brought to life. Coupled with the legal dimension, in which players prepare their own defence, Inmate would be a game players want to revisit. The same would be said of forging various allegiances with the range of personalities inside the facility.
Ultimately, Inmate would be a worthy spiritual successor to Bully in the sense that it elevates how players interact with AI characters and are forced not to rush their way through an environment and its enemies but instead learn to coexist with the people who you call ‘friends’ as well as ‘foes’. If anyone can find the balance of comedy and drama in an environment as potentially hostile and aggressive (and, it must be acknowledged, boring) as a prison, it’s Rockstar Games. Whether it’s a game in its own right or an extension of another property, such as Grand Theft Auto, is another matter entirely. What is most important is that a mechanically-driven game should someday be created which pushes a narrative without overt reliance on linear set pieces or cut scenes. Games can be so much more and this is one direction I can see the industry experimenting with in the future.
The next game I’ll be writing a pitch (of sorts) for will be a spiritual successor to L.A. Noire, entitled ‘It Always Ends With Blood’.