Michigan: Report from Hell 

Michigan: Report from Hell is one of my favorite video games. It did not take long for me to realize it was one of my favorite video games once I started playing it. It was as clear to me as immediately as House (1977) became one of my favorite movies upon seeing it.

House is marketed today as something like the strangest film ever in order to get people to watch it because of its oddness. This is unfortunate, because there is really a lot of beauty to it, and its oddness is actually there with purpose. House will get its own post some day. I’m not even sure of another movie off the top of my head that deserves its own post.

Lots of games these days are marketed as “indie”. Obviously, the roots of this word, to not be produced/pushed by a publisher, are no longer applicable. Today it means something more like “game that was made without AAA graphics”. This, though, is a poor definition, and one I think might work if it were applied to painting or something, because how a game looks is only one very small part of what makes a game a game. Yet another possible definition is “a game made by a small team”, and now we are on the right path, but are still off from target. “Indie” applied to film denotes a film that is marked by its singularity. Indie movies are made by directors who have a unique idea for a film they want to try out. They are marked by their experimentation. They opt to not use techniques they know will sell, instead going for things that edge towards avant-gardism, and which are possibly not all that marketable. Indie movies do not make very much money. It is not uncommon for “indie” games to make a ton of money.

Please, go and check out two short films, The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra, and Meshes of the Afternoon

There are several things of note about these films. For one, they are short. For two, they are clearly low budget and made by small teams. And for three, they enormously influenced generations of filmmakers in the wakes of their release. That third bit is the most important bit to me. Movies like these, which are unhindered by the burden of needing to bring in a lot of money, create novel techniques that others then use later in a way that is palatable for mass audiences. Avant-gardism is art for artists, and indie productions thrive on it and are important influencers on Hollywood. This is why it pains me to see a whole generation of indie game makers (and now movies, too) looking backwards for inspiration for how to design their games, when they should be looking forwards before they have large production costs to answer to. But I digress.

Avant-gardism is not something you see big budget studios doing every day. And that is why Michigan: Report from Hell is so special. Using the ideas I have laid out, this game can be nothing but a (true) indie game, except one made with a budget that allowed it to do things a typical indie production could never have dreamed of doing.

First off, I really, really like this title.

You are a cameraman for a three person news crew. A strange fog has settled over lake Michigan, and you are tasked with going to the southern tip of it, in the Chicago area, to investigate. Cameras are heavy. Since you are a professional camera man, you can’t really put it down.Therefore, all interactions must happen by you calling for the reporter to do stuff in your stead. She’ll open doors for you to go through, pick up keys you see laying around, flip pages in books, and shoot monsters.

People refer to this game as survival horror. According to the US box art, it was marketed as horror, as well. But I’m not really all that sure that its purpose is to be scary. For one, it isn’t. And for two, the systems implemented in this game allow for a staggeringly deep and nuanced play that goes way beyond the realm of your typical horror game. If you look at the Japanese box art, I think you will agree that its tone is indicative of something more than your standard horror game fare.

Since you are unable to do anything yourself, what you basically do is walk around while real time cutscenes take place. You can film what is going on around you or film innocuous items on tables. Points are given for filming different things, which influence the ending you receive. If you film horrific things, it remembers you as immoral. If you film tense dramatic conversations, you are into suspense. And if you film panties, it categorizes you as a pervert. Because the scenes take place in real time, you have to decide on the spot what to film.

One misstep of this game is its literalizing of the filming influences you have. Whenever you record something in one of the three categories, it lets you know you are getting “points” in that category. Not only does it distract from the story, but it also influences what the player films to not be completely true to what the player would like to film (ie, the player wants an “immoral” ending, so she only tries to film immoral stuff). This, I am sure, is a decision added later into its development in order to make it feel more “like a game”, and to have a selling point.

Otherwise, this game allows you to be as much or as little of a voyeur as you want. It gives you some uncomfortable scenes, and allows you to look at them. Or not.

You might be made fun of, though, if you look at things Brisco has decided are too stupid. Brisco is your sound guy. We will come back to Brisco.
Where the real brilliance in this game lies is that it is impossible to lose. (Except in two instances, which are just two last miscalculations I’m sure were added because of marketability). No matter what it is you choose to look at, you will complete the game. There are no serious roadblocks to its progression. Combat is all handled by your reporter. You tell her to shoot things, she shoots. Even if she dies, the game does not stop — you merely skip forward to the next level (possibly skipping one or two) and get a new one. Your reporter is with you until she dies. Having different reporters on each level can cause various events to trigger that are unique to that situation.

By not having any real fail states, Michigan expects the player to try and “see what happens”.

We encounter this feeling quite often when playing games. All the time in action games, for instance, you are in a flooding room, and your partner is calling for you to hurry — but what if you stay? What if you let the boulder rolling at you get too close? What if you don’t shoot the monster and save your partner? These questions are always answered in games with a retry. You get to see the death animation, and so you let it happen, knowing that you’ll have to play the last few minutes to get to that part again and actually pass it.

What Michigan is about is letting the player “see what happens”, but without the negative consequence. Its entire raison d’etre is to “see what happens”.

All of its systems are designed to encourage this behavior. You cannot die. You cannot lose. Levels are short, and each sequence in a level is skippable, allowing you to quickly get to parts you thought were interesting on replays.

The moment I realized all of this is captured in the picture above. During one of the first levels, this creature started to crawl, very slowly, towards my reporter. Because of how I have been trained by games to react to such things, I told my reporter to shoot it. But then I stopped and just let the camera roll. She was killed by it with an interesting animation, Brisco said some stuff, and we moved on. I was given the key to my freedom — I was really allowed to do whatever I wanted.

Nothing you decide to do or not do in Michigan affects it strongly. The story stays basically the same. You may get some different dialogue happening, and that just serves to enhance the experience and make it more consistent. The game simply sets up interesting situations and doesn’t ask the player to do a thing, and in that way — when we are not presented with “morality options” that will heavily affect the outcome of the game — we make real decisions, rather than ones based on “beating” the game:

Do we want to see her die, or not? There is a lot to be said about the interesting design that has went into the voyeurism aspect of this game, and lot of other aspects of it are just very cool. Running around with your camera has the whole screen shake with your motion, which makes it genuinely exciting when your reporter hears something and runs toward it with a command at you to follow. One of the only real actions you can do in the game is to slam your entire person into objects. This serves to knock back monsters and open lockers and doors. Having the player responsible for knocking opening lockers leads to some unexpected surprises, such as corpses falling out of them.

But I said I would get to Brisco. Possibly what I love most of all about the game is Brisco’s US voice actor. The following statement is not a joke: the performance on Brisco’s character is possibly the best performance ever recorded for a video game. It is no secret that dialogue in games is generally pretty bad, and the English translation of a lowish budget Japanese video game is going to be a cut below the rest. Brisco’s performer realized this and went all out for his take on the character. Have a listen below.

By letting loose any desire to do any real dramatic performance like all game voice actors tend to go for, he instead goes for camp, and it works wonderfully. It’s funny and weirdly poignant at times. When Brisco turns introspective, the performance turns it into something like your real life goofy friend giving a confessional. You want to laugh, but can’t — you know when they are in this state, they’re talking about something exceptionally serious.

It’s the perfect performance for this game, and one that gives it another tie to House, which smartly takes a campy, almost childish tone for its subject matter. Some will think of House and Michigan as being goofy and poorly made, but it is because they chose to be this way that makes them great.