Arts

Game On

Between ‘Super Mario Bros.’ and nothingness, there’s Luigi

By this time of year, I’m always facing a bit of the post-Dog Days doldrums. I’m ready for fall to start, for the city to become habitable again. Summer has drained me a bit. One way to handle this would be to fire up the original “Super Mario Bros.” — lose myself in a classic, in the nostalgia of a simpler, more carefree time.

Instead, I did the opposite: I fired up “Ennuigi,” a browser-based game by Josh Millar that offers a very different, very dark take on its “Mario Bros.” source material.

As the game’s title implies, in “Ennuigi” you play not Mario but his sidekick brother, Luigi. He looks a little worse for the wear, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Instead of running and jumping in a sprightly manner, when you hit the left- or right-arrow key Luigi just sort of shuffles around a landscape that looks like it’s from the “night” levels that occur later in the original game.

Advertisement

Each screen is only a few paces worth — when you go off the edge of the screen, you’re in a new place (the game seems to have prebuilt screens, but randomly generates which one you go to next). There are no enemies. There’s no anything. It’s dark, and it’s clear some terrible events have happened.

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The only way to gain any clarity — if you can call it that — is to hit the up button, which causes Luigi to “ruminate.” When you do, words appear above him, and they tend to be somewhat existential. Sometimes, they’re about his relationship with his brother: “It’s a kind of slow death, being an understudy in someone else’s life.” At other times, Luigi makes references to what he and his brother accomplished in their goal of “saving” Princess Peach and the Mushroom Kingdom: “The aftermath. The after-math. When it no longer adds up.”

That’s it. You wander as Luigi and you ruminate. Oh, and if you hit the down key instead of the up key, Luigi will take a deep, thoughtful drag of his cigarette and puff it out. What sounds like an eight-bit funeral dirge plays as the ruminations just keep coming:

“So much depends on a red Koopa shell glazed with boot marks beside the green warp pipe.”

“I am alone in my thoughts, as I am alone in all things.”

Advertisement

As someone pointed out online, it’s like Luigi read too much Derrida. I’d add Sartre and Nietzsche too to that assessment.

“Ennuigi” works because of the stark contrast between it and the very superficial original Mario universe — before the billion-dollar juggernaut it became and the cartoons and all that. In the original games, Mario and (less often) Luigi are carefree avatars. They bop on turtles and rescue the Princess and have nothing to worry about. “Ennuigi” catches one of them in a much more honest moment, at a time of personal and existential crisis. Early-generation video games didn’t bother with this stuff at all: You inhabited characters without caring much about who they were or what motivated or scared or excited them. “Ennuigi” corrects — well, overcorrects — for this lack of depth. It’s an entertainingly pointless, dreary undertaking. “Much like life itself,” Luigi might say.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.