Games have always had a certain element of voyeurism in one form or another. The act of controlling an avatar means that fundamentally the player is intruding upon the world of the character. Through interactivity, the player imposes choices upon the avatar as far as the game will allow. These choices can manifest in a potentially passive character becoming a violent killer, or a placid persona becoming an uptight thug. Yet, this voyeurism is different, enacted only because the television screen separates the player from the on-screen world. Imagine if that distancing from your actions was taken a step further, however.
Michigan: Report from Hell offers just that. A game conceived by Suda 51 of Killer 7 fame, long before the GameCube classic was visualised. The player takes on the persona of a silent camera man employed by ZaKa TV. He completes a news crew made up of a ‘well-endowed’ reporter, Pamela, and the rather disturbing sound tech, Brisco. The plot, as it stands, is that your crew were sent out to discover why a mysterious mist has descended over the city. It isn’t long before it becomes obvious that this isn’t just some freaky weather condition brought about by global warming. No, it is far more plausible. In fact, the mist is causing people to be transformed into gory leech-like creatures that attack and mutate others. In the course of discovering this, a tragedy occurs, with your busty reporter falling foul of the same fate. A sad event, sure, but at least you are there to catch the whole event on camera, right?
This is essentially what Michigan boils down to. A deeper, and if anything, more disturbing form of voyeurism presented in a style akin to the found footage trope of horror films. Even as Pamela is screaming out for help, your job is to make sure you have her in shot. Her death doesn’t matter, after all, since she will only replaced by another young, attractive reporter. The objective of the game revolves around capturing interesting footage, monsters, documents, arguments; whatever the player finds the most interesting. Anything the player records is rewarded in the form of three different points, suspense, erotic and immoral.
Suspense is the most basic, given for good camera-work and capturing interesting occurrences. Erotic is awarded for taking the chance to peek up a reporters skirt or down her blouse, or just by being distracted by the various pornographic magazines that seem to have been strewn around. Finally, immoral is achieved through negative actions. In essence in letting your current reporter die rather than helping.
This game is full of moralistic choices. Sure, you could save your current reporter if you find her attractive enough. Or would it be more interesting watching her die to see which hottie you get next? Maybe act the model camera man, never missing a beat. Filming every single interesting event and document in order to discover the truth. Then again, there is always filming up that reporter’s skirt. She is asking for it undressing in view of the camera lens.
It is potentially because of this camera lens, however, that there seems to be a lack of agency with the player. Agency is the power afforded to the player to take meaningful actions in order to see the results of choices and decisions; for example, performing effective protective actions to keep the protagonist alive. In a standard game, when the player takes direct control of an avatar, a natural response is to feel empathy for the character or project yourself onto that avatar. You have a certain investment in seeing them alive and thriving. In Michigan, however, behind that lens your camera man feels invincible. ‘He’ never feels in danger, the beautiful anchor always being the object of monsters affections. So, in that case, why do anything at all?
Here lies the real challenge. In a game where you are rewarded no matter what you shoot, the deaths of other significant characters means little more than a replacement, why bother at all? As clunky as the mechanics are, as out-dated the graphics may be, and as funny/irritating Brisco may become with his talk of ‘armoires’, in the end you are still the camera man. First and foremost responsible for recording the facts (or breasts) around you. Maybe in the course of doing this, you’ll learn a little about what kind of a person you really are, when in the ultimate position of voyeurism.
Michigan: Report From Hell is available for the PS2 from all good games retailers.