According to the front cover Grasshopper Manufacture’s 2004 PlayStation 2 title Michigan is an all-new and intriguing genre – an “Immoral Adventure”. The opening FMV tantalisingly expands upon this unusual concept by outright stating at one point (in English no less) “story changes depending on your morality” – not your bravery, not your intelligence, but very specifically your morality. It’s a fascinating idea and one that really gets my imagination going – I envisage some abstract test of my mental resolve, forcing me to choose between a few equally awful decisions under horrifying circumstances with no definitively “good” outcome.
In reality my behavioural leaning was constantly shown at the top of the screen as if it was the high score in a shmup, bizarrely ranging from “erotic” to “suspense” with “immoral” marked with a widening slash of red across the same bar.
So what are these three seemingly unrelated factors upon which Michigan’s players are constantly judged?
We’ll start with the most basic one: Suspense. This is the only “good” category to gain points in (as stated in the game’s manual – that’s not a judgement on my part), earned by doing nothing more than behaving like a proper cameraman. To increase Suspense you’ll need to film people when they speak (whether to you or someone else) and record footage of any files, memos, or plot-relevant clues you may find lying around – that sort of thing. You’ll wrack up plenty of points in this category and reach the Suspense ending pretty much by default.
Next is “Immoral”. Points for this one are awarded by filming death and gore, and for not helping people when the “Press X to help!” prompt pops up during a rare few FMV sequences (irritatingly the prompt appears long before the danger does and immediately cuts short the rest of the clip, so it’s entirely possible to never see whatever trouble the reporter was apparently in). This one feels a little at odds with Suspense to me because the line between corpse-as-a-clue and corpse-as-something-you-shouldn’t-look-at isn’t especially clear, and the event and cutscene direction often seems to hypocritically indulge in the very thing it explicitly considers to be immoral.
And then there’s “Erotic”. Oh Michigan; you keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means. You see, when the game says “erotic” what it actually means is mostly “getting down on the floor (this is the only reason you ever need to crouch) so you can do some upskirt filming” – thankfully a specific crime in several countries – apart from the times it invites you to sneak in on a woman having a shower, film a different woman while she’s chained to a table with her legs forcibly spread apart and will actually die if you take too long to help her, or stare at a low-resolution texture of somebody else’s discarded pornographic reading material like you’re an easily-duped Metal Gear Solid 2 guard on patrol.
I’m neither shocked nor surprised by this content, and this is quite obviously not the first game I’ve ever played – I am as used to this as I am so very tired of it. I want to make very clear that at this point in gaming, the internet, and my life in general it’s not so much the… “gameplay opportunities” themselves (purely when considered within the context of single-player videogames) that grate as much as it is labelling such activities as erotic – especially when in Michigan these instances can only occur in a non-consensual manner between paid professionals at work during literal life and death scenarios. “But her crotch is up there! Maybe I can see her pants!” “I almost saw her boob!” “Ooh, I found a porno mag!”. These are schoolboy levels of sexual expression, and entirely one-sided. All’s not lost though – perhaps the unlockable pole dancing filming mode (yes, really) is where the real sensual content lies, the main game serving as something of a misguided horny tease?
I wish, I really do.
Between the distinctly OK-ish character models and the stiff animations there’s just nothing to get excited about here – there are ancient adverts for chocolate pudding that offer a more visually seductive experience than Michigan’s dedicated pole dancing extra, for goodness’ sake.
Even if you decide to go out of your way to behave as the most chivalrous and unwaveringly professional cameraman that ever camera’ed the game is still littered with graphic examples of extreme violence against women in particular, often feeling excessive when compared to the dangers other male NPCs (and you, playing as a male cameraman as you do) face. Now maybe this is where the opening’s claims of “morality” finally come into play, demanding you choose between dogged pursuit of the truth at any gruesome cost or protecting the women around you from harm (it’s… interesting… to note that the men in your small group can’t ever be injured, never mind die, outside of a tiny handful of highly controlled scenarios – not even bosses can hurt you). Sadly this is not the case.
The story is so tightly railroaded that if/when your current reporter dies (sometimes they have to, because plot) your playable cameraman and companion boom-carrying sound guy Brisco are instantly and improbably whisked off to the next portion of the plot and gifted a fresh reporter, leaving entire plot threads and even whole stages skipped without explanation rather than making any effort to actually adjust to this tragic change in the situation. You are apparently nothing without your reporter – unable even to open doors without her present – and yet rather than treat their brutal demise as a tragedy spiralling out of control or a failure on your part to take good care of them instead Michigan decides to fast-forward to the next bit and drop in another interchangeably pretty lady. You can get one male reporter – Mark – during the last section of the game if all the other female reporters have died along the way (he’s not shown in the manual even though every single woman is, by the way – it seems having to spend time looking at a man is viewed as some sort of secret penalty). This section of the game is brief and the reporter here is invulnerable, so Mark, and only Mark, can never come to any harm. This “feature” severely undermines… well, everything but especially your constant companion Brisco’s drunken sadness and continued upset at the death of tutorial stage reporter Pamela. Even if we ignore the fact that you barely know anything about her, she has almost no interaction with either you or Brisco at all during her short time alive, and there is literally nothing that can be done to prevent her death, seeing her and every other woman after her so casually swapped out without issue or punishment sabotages the idea that any of them should mean anything to anyone – not you or the characters or the development team.
Pamela returns not too long after in any case, dragging herself towards her replacement, Ann, gigantic deformed genitalia first and attacking with her freshly-grown vagina teeth, her still-human (and still high-heeled) legs on either side. Later in the post-game bonus stage starring Yinling (Japanese version only) – a woman wearing even more chest-exposing top than the already low-cut clothing found on the reporters (except Mark, for some reason) – has to fend off a male variant, their split blobby not-penis dragging across the floor. Now this could be taken as a token attempt at equality… if the game had bothered to give this monster a name and spent multiple cutscenes detailing their painful transformation the way they did to Pamela – oh! – and also didn’t have this walking monster-phallus only attack women (really – there’s very, very, little in the game that even notices either male character even if you try to deliberately put them in harm’s way), and then if it killed her didn’t make sure you had plenty of time to ogle that oversized mutant willy furtively writhing over the still-warm corpse of an attractive woman.
Michigan is of course a horror game, and horror games are supposed to make you personally feel uncomfortable and present images viewers may find repulsive – that’s very much the point. But why does this game go so far out of its way to make women in particular scream and shout and suffer? Why do the men here either expire bravely (or off screen) as humans – or if mutated only show up as unnamed masses of organic matter without any voice of their own or any obvious personal suffering? Men do die in Michigan, but women get eaten alive. The very worst a man ever goes through happens to Brisco right at the very end of the game but even then his transformation is different from the torment Michigan’s women are put through – in their final moments they’re scared and overwhelmed, whereas Brisco smiles before leaping through a window. He looks powerful and dangerous. He looks like he’s almost enjoying it. He looks more than what he was.
The irritating thing is when Michigan does decide to do proper horror it’s really good: The thick fog that intensifies when monsters are nearby has a real soupy sense of closeness to it – I don’t know what it is about the PlayStation 2’s hardware that makes it do fog so well, but there must be some magic Mist Engine tucked away in there. There are the child ghosts standing in the corner of rooms where the walls covered in bloody handprints. Giggling dolls – dolls shouldn’t do that. Twisted masses of blood and body parts that must be set alight.
Even the compulsory through-the-viewfinder perspective is on occasion used to good effect: When the reporter dashes off and you chase close behind it does feel genuinely exciting and in these moments you get a glimpse of what the game could’ve been, with you knowingly sprinting towards danger, trying to get a good close up look of the action so the world can see the truth. Unfortunately these segments tend to last seconds, with the rest of your time spent pointing out doorknobs, watching reporters refuse to break the enormous gun-sized glass doors in a locked gun cabinet even though there’s a monster waiting (yes, waiting) on the stairs a few feet away, and staring at memos that generally amount to a lot of nothing.
Michigan just doesn’t know what it wants to be. The horror leans in to and sort-of eventually settles on viruses and goopy monsters but it’s never specific on anything, nothing comes to a satisfactory conclusion (the endings are terrible), and this later emphasis on the science-y bio-monsters makes the earlier ghosts and miscellaneous hauntings look ridiculous, because if there’s a rational explanation for everything then that means someone deliberately set a pot to float in the air for no reason, and the ghosts were just projections from somewhere because… what, exactly? You’re able and encouraged to lust after women who show no interest in you and will probably die anyway. You keep getting told how dangerous and terrible this situation is but are personally in almost no danger at all. I ended up letting one reporter die to some very easily shot enemies because the alternative was having to play more Michigan and the game didn’t care I did that.
I wouldn’t mind this mess so much if felt like Michigan was trying to say something – anything – however badly it screwed up the delivery. For all the fuss over morality I never felt like I’d been made to think about my actions, suffer the consequences of them, or that I’d been given the choice to go down an “immoral” path that the game would later use as a jumping-off point to say “Look at all the awful things you did for the sake of a scoop” or anything like that. The rankings earned for each category at the end of the game offer no more insight into anything than the fun titles given out by some arcade games – I was awarded the rank of “God of Journalism” for nothing more than having low “immorality” – uh… great?
Let’s compare Michigan to an obvious competitor on the same format: Silent Hill 2. That game also features painfully drawn-out and highly detailed examples of devastating violence against women – including one plot-upending instance that’s instigated by the leading man himself. But even in its darkest hours Silent Hill 2 never revels in its misery, it never enjoys the retelling of these past tragedies or frames them as something salacious for you to feign guilt at witnessing. Michigan is the worst sort of attention seeker, a game that childishly copies and then magnifies all the worst and most superficial aspects of the horror genre in a vain attempt to get the same reaction better games do out of the player but ultimately it’s not scary, it’s not sexy, and it has nothing to say for itself.