After its October release, Red Dead Redemption 2 earned $US725 million in just three days, giving it the highest-grossing opening weekend of any entertainment product — ever.
If you’re wondering why you haven’t seen this at this box office, it’s because it’s not a movie. It’s a video game.
To put those numbers in context, this year’s biggest Marvel film, Avengers: Infinity War, grossed about $US640 million worldwide in its opening weekend.
In popular entertainment, nothing is bigger than video games, and the holiday shopping season is when many of the year’s most anticipated releases hit stores.
Yet video games remain something of a second-class cultural medium, even as geek culture has otherwise ascended into the mainstream.
Today’s elite tastemakers might be perfectly comfortable discussing the inner workings of the banking system in Westeros, but gaming is still stigmatised, at best as a guilty pleasure, and at worst as a psychologically destructive hobby for socially stunted young men.
So the perception is that video games don’t really matter, because they have nothing — or at least nothing important — to say.
This is understandable, but wrong. Yes, many video games are violent and frivolous, and the most devoted players still tend to be young and male.
But the best games reveal a mass cultural medium that has come fully into its own, artistically flourishing in ways that resemble the movie industry during its 20th-century peak and television over the past 20 years.
From The Searchers to The Godfather, from The Sopranos to The Americans, what connects these eras, and their most outstanding works, is a shared ambition, a desire to be both grand and granular, telling individual stories against the backdrop of national and cultural identity, deconstructing their genres while advancing the form.
If ever a video game has risen to the level of those classics, it’s Red Dead Redemption 2. With an enormous production budget, seven years of development and a script running about 2000 pages just for the main story, it might well be the most ambitious game ever made.
Like the classic westerns and gangster stories it draws from, it can be crude and violent. But it is also richly cinematic and even literary, serving up breathtaking digital vistas reminiscent of John Ford films along with a mix of deftly scripted stories about outlaws, immigrants, hustlers, con artists, lawmen and entrepreneurs, all trying to eke out an existence on the edges of civilisation.
It’s a game about power, violence, frontier justice and murky moral choices — a new American epic for the digital age.
As a technical achievement, it has no peers. Red Dead Redemption 2 teems with life.
Towns have daily rhythms, tied to time and weather, that seem to go on without you. Wildlife roams the countryside, growing skittish if you move too close.
Many video games allow players to interact with other characters only by attacking them; here every character, even the least important digital extra, can be spoken to and often conversed with at length.
Violence is anything but mindless.
You play as the outlaw Arthur Morgan, a member of the Van der Linde gang, whose goal is to help restore the gang to glory after a significant defeat. There are plenty of shootouts, chases and heists. But you can usually choose to avoid them — and when you don’t, they almost always come with a cost: Sheriffs and bounty hunters chase you down, important game options disappear, whole towns become hostile territory, horses you’ve bonded with (making them faster or more responsive) die.
Instead of indulging no-regrets fantasy violence, it is a literary experience that emphasises — and simulates — tragedy and personal consequences.
There is a big narrative difference between games and novels and movies: Instead of consuming a story, in a game you become part of it, choosing how it will unfold — even, in some cases, changing how it ends.
Most choices, however, are smaller in scale, focused on the mechanics of interacting with the world.
In both Red Dead Redemption 2 and Fallout 76 — an ambitious open-world game set in a post-apocalyptic West Virginia released this month — the emphasis is on staying alive: While playing, you must manage virtual campsites, and eat or drink to avoid in-game penalties.
These activities can feel like chores, but they also nudge players into a more contemplative style of play, forcing them to slow down and explore their surroundings, scrounging for supplies instead of running toward the next objective. These games are existential journeys built on the rhythms of survival.
Fallout 76 is similarly obsessed with Americana — but with its end rather than its formation. You emerge from a fallout shelter and are given the task of following in the footsteps of its former Overseer.
Along the way, you encounter the ruins of the nation after a nuclear holocaust, often in the form of written or recorded letters and diaries. Enter a dilapidated capital and you might discover a series of notes about a legislative initiative. It’s a game set in a world in which West Virginia is an echo lost to war, an interactive history lesson for you to explore.
Because they take so long to play — 60 hours is typical, and 100 or more is not unheard-of — games can make for unhealthy attachments.
Yet these games can also provide a way of confronting reality or, at the very least, an artificially rendered simulacrum of it that is heightened, shaped and structured by an authorial presence. The best of these works create an empathetic connection between viewer and character.
In Red Dead Redemption 2, the fact that the player controls much of the action enhances the connection; you feel for Arthur Morgan, a bad man with a good heart, because his choices are, in fact, your own.
Gaming’s cultural reputation is born partly from the sense that playing is a way of avoiding responsibility, of escaping into virtual worlds where nothing matters.
But Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game about both making choices and living with them, about taking responsibility for how you’ve lived.
It’s a game, in other words, that implicitly tells its players to grow up — and it’s as sure a sign as any that video games are starting to do just that.
Peter Suderman (@petersuderman) is the managing editor at Reason.com.
–The New York Times