I'm staring at the city from my balcony, jutting out over my deck and offering me a risky but rewarding dive into my generously proportioned pool. The lawn either side is immaculate. The city's soundtrack drifts towards my luxury house on the hill, a mixture of machine noise and human voices. Inside, a radio plays rap music, and I follow its rhymes to a bottle of wine, open on the side. I pour a glass and toast my lifestyle: free and single, rolling in the readies to the tune of seven figures, a mighty king among the regular Vinewood Hills rabble.
Of course, "I" am Franklin Clinton, merely an avatar in Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto V, one of the game's three leading men. Early on in the story, Franklin, whose previous job was working repossession for a dodgy car dealer, is unwittingly introduced to ex-career criminal Michael De Santa, who's about to experience a relapse and welcome him into his world of shady shenanigans. Franklin subsequently meets Lester Crest, a fixer with an eye for manipulating the stock market, and soon enough he has made some serious money, albeit at the expense of popping a few heads. Risky business, sure, but "work" instantly rewarded with a property in the game's equivalent of the Hollywood Hills.
It's all exciting stuff, so very far away from the boring repetition of doing a real job to earn in-game currency. But that's the nature of GTA: bigger bangs, more catastrophic crashes, shinier set pieces and truckloads of dough. Indeed, it's not too long before your average GTAV player will have amassed enough cash to get whatever they want – clothing, guns, fancy cars, property, whatever the game allows you to buy. And all through aiming a reticule at an NPC's forehead and gently nudging the trigger.
Some games make the player work a lot harder for their money, though – to the extent that there's actually a day job to attend for a set period of time, and the game forces you to carry out a series of pretty menial tasks. Whether or not these sequences are entertaining depends on the player's appreciation of realism in their digital worlds. Playing Football Manager, or even FIFA, can feel like a proper job a lot of the time, but there are always options to simulate certain aspects of the experience, or to assign a task to an AI colleague. But one title stands out to me as really torturing the player as they attain the monetary means to progress the story.
Shenmue: just say the word in select circles and you'll be surrounded by a revered hush. Sega's Dreamcast adventure of 1999, which came to Europe and America in late 2000, has a huge following, even today, and not least of all because it's a series that never reached closure. A sequel arrived in 2001, which saw the game's protagonist Ryo travel from Yokosuka, Japan to Hong Kong on the trail of nefarious sorts who killed his father, but since that game ended, with our hero mucking about with a magical mirror, nothing more has been heard of the saga. Producer-director Yu Suzuki, something of a Sega legend with credits on Out Run and Virtua Fighter, has spoken openly of his desire to return to Ryo for a third instalment, but right now you've as much chance of playing Shenmue III in imminent years as you do The Last Guardian.
The first game required Ryo to save for a boat trip to Hong Kong – and that meant getting a job, on the New Yokosuka Harbour, driving a forklift from dawn to dusk. There's gang activity in the vicinity, too, which he has to investigate to build a picture of the people he's after, but the player will spend most of their time dockside, running crates from A to B with their stiffly controlled prongs-fronted vehicle, lifting and lowering, until it's time to board the bus back home. There's a race every morning, but when the forklifts' handling is as much fun as wrangling wild bulls with liquorice laces, don't expect to draw much pleasure from these competitions.
I enjoyed a lot of Shenmue, even though I came to it long after release: I didn't see the game through to its end until early 2014. But the forklift phase came really close to ending my involvement with what is acknowledged as an outstanding title on Sega's swansong console, a work of real ambition – and a massive budget, equivalent to $98 million by current calculations. It might well be this spend that has hamstrung the opportunities for a third, perhaps concluding game—or, the best programmers on the original all lost the will to live by the fifth month of making forklift trucks roll around a harbour, resulting in a personnel blow that AM2 is yet to recover from.
A forklift race in 'Shenmue'
Shenmue isn't the only game that bothers the player with busywork, of course. The Fable and Elder Scrolls series have provided occupations for gamers to get stuck into, from making pies and playing the lute through to woodcutting, smithing and carrying out assassinations. The Sims has a wealth of potential careers to pursue: your little person of choice can move into the medical industry, knuckle down for a music career or, in The Sims 4, serve as a secret agent. Fantasy Life, finally given an English translation on Nintendo's 3DS in late 2014, permits one of 12 career paths, although they can be chopped and changed between relatively at will.
But it was only Shenmue that, from recent memory, really had me feeling: fuck, this is a chore. And where's the fun in that? Much better to take a call from Lester, meet the old crank and then take out his target. Because while its view is nice and everything, 3671 Whispymound Drive is nothing without more classy abstract art on its perfectly plastered internal walls.
This column originally appeared in VICE Volume #21, Issue 12 – The Wall Street Issue