Mario Marker as the Path Less Traveled

(This title birthed through my reading of In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, a memoir that triggered my process.)  

Mario Maker is a video game where one must dedicate a shit ton of time to create the most beautiful yet difficult Mario-themed course. Depending on your schedule, one course can be built in one week, two weeks, or even twelve hours.

The process starts with a blank white screen. The next step, choose the background to fill said white screen, choose the type of path each character – Mario, Luigi, Toad, Toadette – will run on. Then the decision of how challenging, how hard, will it be for each player to get through this course. Will you add water? If so, how deep? Do you add bombs falling from the sky? Will you create a path so narrow that characters must barrow-roll to get through?

You find a happy place to call the course finished, yet you play through it a few times, check for problems in the mechanics, make sure the course exceeds your expectations. The excitement? Possibilities? They’re endless. Creation at the tip of your fingertips, kissed by the analogs of your Nintendo Switch.

Now what? You upload it. Then, of course, anxiety cracks open your ribs, the way the heart doctor conducted open-heart surgery on Papa. Nervously, you sat in the waiting room, head resting on Nana’s shoulder, jumping at every nut crunched by a nurse’s shoe.

The anxiety’s company only temporary. You upload the file at night, right before you fall asleep. And when you wake for work, you struggle to get up and leave your house on time. Distractions serenade your attention, which is good. You check your course’s progress when you get home. “Ah-ha! Yes.” You smile when you notice twenty-two people have played. Twelve people have made it through. Twelve thumbs guarantee satisfaction, your job well done.

You are half-way through the second month of living on my friend’s couch in her studio apartment. The Saturday, August 2019, sun shoves its way through our open window. A small current of ventilation powered by a small fan, removing the staleness from the heat. You finished showering, but your sweat keeps the hairs on your neck damp. You imagine how death by hair-suffocation would sound in your obituary in the weekly newspaper as you watch another episode of Atypical on Netflix. Ace texts you.

“I got the game.” You feel it, a small amount of panic. No recollection of Ace mentioning an interest in a new game as you scroll through days old, text messages, or as you rampage through your memory palace. You start to type “What game?” when another message comes in, “Mario Maker 2.” A third, “I think you would like this game.”

“What makes you think that? What’s the game even about?” You respond.

“It’s hard to explain. Dunkey has a few Let’s Plays on the tube of you to watch. I just think you’d enjoy it if you were to buy it.” He says. “You build your own Mario maps.” He adds.

You’re not completely invested in the idea, text him that you’ll check it out later that night, even though you know you won’t. In fact, you watch a twenty-minute video as you’re on the train from Yonkers to Northport to see him, which is exactly one week later. With Dunkey’s distinct voice speaking in your ears, you think Ace is correct. This is a game you would enjoy if you were better at Mario games, in general. So, with the decision made – you weren’t as interested, you close your phone, check the time. You’ll be with Ace in less than twenty minutes.

When you find his white Ford Fusion, you walk to it, open the door, throw your backpack at your feet. He greets you with a hug and a kiss to your right temple, asks how the commute was. You bitch about how long it took, how your back is drench from sweat, moan about how you’re ready for fall weather to return. Ace pfts and pshs at that comment, says “you’re crazy.” He pats your knee, smiles, and pulls out of the train station’s parking lot.

The car ride is eleven minutes long, and you’re silent the entire ride. Ace tries to crack jokes, attempts to conversate. You remain quiet. His spit catches flight in the rays of the sun that peek through branches that pass. You feel bad for having no interest in a game he suggests, and definitely, don’t want to admit it.

The silence shifts from quiet to awkward, when Ace asks. “You get around to watching any of those YouTube videos?”

Yes, groaning to yourself, this is just my luck, but you play dumb. “What videos?”

“Any about Mario Maker 2?”

“Oh yeah, I’ve definitely checked them out, watched Dunkey’s video.” You run your hand through your untamed mane, look out the window to avoid eye contact. You know he knows your lying, even if it’s about something so small. “The game looks difficult, way to advance to for myself. I don’t know if it’s worth investing in.” You’re an anxious person, always have been. The smallest ounce of disappointment makes your stomach rumble.

“We’ll play when we get home. I’ll show you.” Ace smirk, yet anxiety punches your colon, like your niece’s open palm smacking against your left cheek. The feeling that you need to shit sprouts a tail in between your legs. Your stomach feels hallow, like you’ve ingested nothing but caffeine. 

It’s the first activity you and Ace do when you walk through the door. You’ve never seen a human being so fast with excitement, or maybe an attempt to fill in space where you know the two of you would sit, silently, with nothing to do.

He shows you how to play, adds on the second player limitations – where if you die, you don’t lose the game. He’ll press a button, and you’ll appear back in a bubble that his character must pop. He plays as Toadette. You continue to fall off, die, repeat. You’re frustrated.

You and Ace cycle through Mario Maker over the next few weekends you are with him. You mention in in text messages when you’re away, back at home. Repeatedly question him on whether or not you should invest in the game. Eventually, the reassurance stops. Annoyed he is, annoyed you become.

His short messages flip like a switch, as if he were plucking petals from a flower, questioning himself. Will I respond now; will I not. You know this is unrealistic. He’s a human who thinks about other things, not just you, but you can’t manifest the knot in your stomach that you’ve done something wrong. You’ve done something to upset him.

No path is identical to the next. They are walkways that lead into homes. Trails in the middle of a dark, hooded forest. Veins that allow blood flow and oxygen to circulate the human body. But with each path taken, there’s a narrative written in every step. Narratives speak their own language brought to life through experience – positive, negative, or the Russian Roulette of both. There’s got to be a breath of fresh air here. You walk a path or live out a story where reality sets in, eliminating one’s control of a future situation. No matter how hard you try to take control.

Ace shows you every course he’s created. His excitement radiates in his body language. His brow arches inward, concentrated. He adjusts the screen of his Nintendo Switch as it illuminates the beige of his pillows, the gray and dark brown stubble growing in on his chin. You lay next to him; your torso circles. You bend your knees for comfort. Your body displays the number two. Your head on his shoulder when he hands you a controller. “Ready?” He questions, and you repeat the same process of dying. Bubbles pop, but this time, not as often.

“Go to a blank course. Let’s make our own,” you suggest.

“It’s time consuming and difficult, but yeah, sure. Let’s do it.” His head raises, subtle excitement again, bolting his body language awake. He’s finally opening up to you, transposing creativity from his Capricorn brain to a digital existence.

Mario Maker rolls itself back and forth – as thought to text, as player to character, trying to comprehend why there’s such a fascination with a game you will not own for yourself. Yet, the explanation is plain, lame, maybe a little boring. Ace loves everything and anything Mario; you love Ace.

He creates courses to share for validation; you create memories. For three years, you grasp on any memory that ignites itself in your presence, any evidence to make sense of this friends-with-benefits-turned-relationship or whatever. And when there is no concrete clarity that validates exclusiveness, each hang out walks the same narrative path with no predications of what comes at the end. He and you cycle through the course, together. Tread through the deep waters looking for keys to unlock the door hidden behind bolder. Barrell-roll through paths, so narrow you don’t know which step in communication will ignite the bombs overhead. Your hand in his, yet there’s no grasp. Your articulation, his unfortunate ultimatum.

The fantastical façade behind Mario Maker is the parallel between your relationship with Ace and the unknown adventure ahead. The lack of muscle memory in correlation with confusion, how you feel.

Every time you die, in this simulation, you lose a part of yourself. Every bubble he bursts, you accommodate under a sense of false hope. When you’re his second player, the lifeline is endless, even after you push boredom out of your head.

The paths where your weight triggers a trap are easy to manage, until one night where your alcohol intake increases. Filter removed, your conscious screams behind that door hidden by boulder, only unlockable by key. Your heart is the vibration as Toadette steps forward, as Ace uses Mario to lead the way.

And the ironic beauty, of this specific course, is that Ace knows what’s coming, his creation with a no spoilers mentality. Drops hit, articulates how he feels. Treating each play, each hang, with hope that you will not fall off, with hope that this won’t be the last time you hold Ace so close. You see him out of your own fear, as if this will be the last time. As if he will die in his sleep, leaving only the sack of his skin behind, stuck endlessly below the soil you fuck him on.

You throat closes up, makes spit hard to digest. Each new exploration settles as fear that you will fail. Each course touched, some brand new – less traction, less imprinted. A path less traveled, like Robert Frost’s the Road not Taken.

Familiar with frustration’s company, exhaustion eliminates any desire for other activity when you’re with Ace. Desperation for answers, long overdue, you’re ahead of Ace on this recently uploaded, new designed course. You see the Do Not Step Here warning sign before he does yet knock it over in hopes that he’ll never see it. And you step on the patch of grass that ignites the sky-soaring bombs.

You’re in the car on the way to hang out with friends, watch your close-mutual friend play hockey. You have hardly touched alcohol for the entire month of February, yet today, you’re three beers in before the journey starts. You know it’s coming, the end to the end, the last life where Ace will not pop the bubble for you to return to the game.

You joke about having children with him, knowing well that you nor he want any. A joke taken one step to far, an argument that leaves you in his car in his parents’ driveway until five morning. An agreement that leaves the two of you in an embrace until you say your last goodbye before you step on the train to go home.

He needs time to process, to breathe without the moisture of you on his neck, yet you can only stand one week. So, you press your foot against the soil, unleash your Pisces’ personality, demand his time. Your intention to articulate clarity fails as an ultimatum in his head where you remove yourself from his life. You desire to remove unnecessary weeds from your garden so sacred only a few others know of its existence, see how powerful you truly are once they’re with you in the middle of it.

“I need you to know, I’m serious.” You see he’s not slept well these last few days. His eyes sink or the bags under his eyes puff more than usual. “I’m ready to move on from this, from us.”

You drink Golden Monkey, the beer Ace returns with for you. You ask him to bring it to you in a text because you’re weighted down by a mixture of relief and loss. You tell him it’s because you’re too lazy to get up.

The beer glass is half-full as he’s waiting for you to respond. Trying to process quickly, you realize the obligation is gone. Thoughts flicker about the goodness that is to come with knowing you no longer have to accommodate yourself. You, both, in agreement. It’s been three years coming. Both ready to take what you’ve learned, grow from it. He ready to move on with his life; you ready to write the conclusion to a narrative you haven’t had the language for – the weird, yet healthy relationship beyond your abusive ex that came before him.

When reading this, one contains the authority to say, “it’s too soon to write this.” When in your reality, it took an agreement to not play another game after you fall of Mario Maker’s course to realize the words have been there. The language able to handle transposing confusion, happiness, pain, relief. The relationship with Ace lives and dies yet births your power to articulate this story. Reclaiming, or mourning, the loss of time you needed for yourself.

“Better late than never,” your father reassures you. You are here, and your lesson teaches you that you are capable of loving someone with your whole heart. Each door, unlocked, does not lead to an end. There’s more life left beyond three years. You didn’t move across country to navigate life as a video game. You did it because you can, and now, breathe – this is the start to exploration in free will and identity.

Welcome, my friend, and make sure to say hi to the future, true you, when you meet her. 

Q. M. Hall is the Founder and Editor for Grimm Tales Journal. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence and is an alum of the Kettle Pond Writers’ Conference. Her words have appeared in the Scarletleaf Review, Breadcrumbs Magazine, and the Grief Diaries. 

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