Anthony Montuori makes curious video games. On the surface, they resemble the classic fun of 1980s 8-bit games (“I just love the way it looks,” he says)—stacking blocks, jumping around collecting coins, flying a triangle through space. But then things get … funny. Instead of just racking up points, the games reveal themselves as philosophical riddles or parables or jokes that ask you to question the big, daunting, existential meaning of it all.
Consider his 2015 game “Super Maria,” one of six you can play at his exhibition “One Liner” at High Five Arts at 250 Jackson St., fifth floor, Lowell, through Jan. 6, 2018.
You sit on one of two wooden chairs and play it like an old basement Nintendo. “It’s literally a copy of ‘Super Mario,’ the original,” the 31-year-old Melrose resident explains. “It’s the same pixels. I just changed a few things. You play as her. She lives out her life basically.” You look for coins to pay your bills. You buy various things. “Those items will break and you’ll have to buy them again, over and over forever.”
In the game, Maria grows up and lives her life. By about age 60, “she starts to get old basically. She can’t run or jump or anything,” Montuori says. And “I gave her this dementia thing.”
In other words, Montuori’s games can feel like something the pessimistic 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer might have made to help people ponder the dismal chores and pointlessness of life. “They are very depressing,” Montuori acknowledges. “Which is weird because I’m not generally a depressed person. I just have a lot of existential dread.”
His “The Adventures of Sisyphus” game has you pushing the legendary rock up the hill, the rock rolling back down, you pushing it up again, and so on forever. “You’re given a boring useless task that you can’t stop unless you walk away,” Montuori says.
“Debtris” (2012) is the popular game “Tetris” with a small adjustment—instead of earning points, players are laboring to slowly (metaphorically) pay off Montuori’s student loans. “It’s kind of about the idea that college should be something that the government pays for. You get federal minimum wage for each hour you play ‘Debtris,’” he says. “It’s only been up long enough for people to earn, like, $1,300. Which is kind of sad.”
Montuori says, “I just want to keep making seductive, cute video games and keep flipping them on their head and doing subjects you would not think to approach, the existential issues. I think video games treat mortality as such a cute afterthought. … So I’m making games about not being able to pay your bills and getting old and dying.”
“I/O” (2017), Montuori explains, is an “‘Asteroids’-style game. You fly a little ship in the infinite nothingness of space. … You have a limited amount of health and eventually you die.” The dead ships become clutter—but also landmarks to help you orient yourself in the vast emptiness. “Your goal is to find this one random coin that is flying around in space, that is meandering, and if you find it your health stops dropping and you live forever.”
Which is all fine and good … except what does one do with forever in the vast emptiness? “I give the player a red button to kill yourself. … Once you have infinite life, you have nothing, you’ve achieved your goal.”
Maybe there’s a bit of optimism in Montuori’s game “Long” (2017), which he says is “basically just ‘Pong’ in a coffee table and the ball takes 10 to 15 minutes to bounce back and forth. So the people are forced to communicate with each other. … At the opening, people kind of sat with it and talked to each other.”
“I don’t know why I think about these things,” Montuori says. “I think, as human beings, Pandora’s Box is open and you kind of have to think about these things. … This is how we choose to live our lives and this is how we choose to treat each other.”
Montuori adds, “If life is meaningless, you need to define and create your own meaning. That’s the whole point. That’s what life is—providing your own context for the duration. I find this riddle of existence so weird. So I’m going to keep making work about it.”