Numbness, Grief, and Super Monkey Ball 2

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Content warning: article discusses addiction & death

The night my older sister turned 23 and 10 months I left the rugby party to stay up for a few hours playing Super Monkey Ball 2 in the co-op. While the people who actually lived there would struggle on Launchers and Arthropod back in Advanced mode, I would roll in drunk to crush all of their records before heading home. That particular night I had breezed through Expert, Expert Extra, and Master, and was halfway through Master Extra when I decided to leave, watch the sunrise, get into bed, start studying for finals. A few hours after I fell asleep, I got a call that my sister was dead.

Since my sister died I have done the following: finished college; traveled for 18 months; attempted suicide 1–3 times (depending on your metrics); and moved to a small town in the middle of nowhere. My life held no space for video games. There was too much to do. But in small towns like this, killing time becomes a high art. So once I found enough work to afford a mild alcohol dependency, I would wait til my housemates were out and sit at my desk slowly downing a handle of straight gin and playing video games again. I began with Super Monkey Ball 2.

The night I turned 23 and 10 months, I left karaoke night at the bar in my small town, got to my apartment and booted up the Wii. I recreated that night as best I could: the drunken revelry, the midnight trudge home, the same game. But things are different now. I wasn’t young anymore, or at least it didn’t feel that way. I wasn’t freeloading on someone else’s Gamecube. I was home. Before I quit in numb frustration, I got through 6 out of 10 levels of Advanced Extra and only 39 out of 50 stages of Expert. I fell asleep, woke up, and nothing had changed.

There’s nothing to explain. Grief doesn’t talk. I tried to use a Gamecube launch title from my adolescence to bridge the chasm of grief, but my failure to improve at this game mirrored my failure to make any sense out of the loss of a loved one.

If you haven’t played the game: you’re a monkey. In a ball. With three monkey friends. There are bananas. The bananas all have the Dole logo on them. Except if you’re playing Super Monkey Ball Deluxe. Because I think they didn’t actually have the rights to use the Dole logo. Anyway, you’re a monkey. In a ball. The control stick tilts the stage. You can’t move the monkey. You’re in a ball. Or maybe you’re the stage. You identify with the monkey at least, even though you can’t control it. But you move the control stick, which (if done correctly), gets the monkey to the goal. The monkey cheers and warps off to another stage. And another. And another.

Addiction runs in my family, you understand. It’s a foundational narrative for my growing up. But as the older sibling, my sister absorbed so much more of it than I did. She shielded me — even when she came home blackout drunk or crashed a stranger’s car or threw wild parties that destroyed the house, she was showing me the horrors that I would never have to live with. And I am deeply ungrateful. Because she soaked up everything that could’ve destroyed me into herself, and left me with nothing. I’m free. My dependencies are mild, what others might even call “healthy.” And that’s the problem. I can’t destroy myself the way I would like to, the way that would connect me to her legacy and the legacy of my family. I have to devise other ways of undermining myself.

So I figured I would try to speedrun Super Monkey Ball 2. The game features cute backgrounds, an irreverent electropop score, and a press campaign convincing you that you’re playing the greatest party game ever developed for the console. But the men vying for world record speedruns of SMB2 play the game that lies underneath: a well-designed, difficult, and frustrating platformer. None of the world record speedruns are deathless — everyone has fallouts here and there. And in the youtube comments on these incredible videos, users clash over millisecond differences between strategies. I shouldn’t have tried to join this world, but I wanted to turn my grief into something I could live with; so I figured if I worked hard, why couldn’t I get as good as these speedrunners?

I’m not as good as they are. I will never be as good as they are. And witnessing their delicate, athletic, creative, ingenious runs only alienated myself further from my body. I remember when I was good at the game, I remember when the game was fun. What happened to those times? Is there are meritocracy to pain — if I work hard enough, will I have to feel grief ever again? Meanwhile, I’m downing whatever substances my wallet and puritanical conscience can afford, leaving me always not-quite-drunk-enough and not-quite-awake-enough and not-quite-good-enough for what I have forced myself to do.

I’ve played other of my old games since SMB2, to great success. My 120-shine run of Super Mario Sunshine went great; I’m currently working through a Metroid Prime 2 100% as well. In both of these examples, I am taking my sweet damn time to soak up as much of the environment as possible. Talking to NPCs, reading Logbook files, the whole thing. There’s even an old cross-console strategy-RPG called Gladius that I’m beating 100% — which is absolutely fucking pointless. The game scales opponent levels to your current levels, so it doesn’t give you god-like powers to crush enemies, and the game only requires that you beat 40–50% of battles anyway in order to advance. But here I am, alone at home in the freezing rain, hashing it out with archers and barbarians or whatever. Waiting.

Somehow — this is the worst part — I’ve gotten better at these games in the many years of not playing them. Which makes me wonder why I failed so hard at regaining my skills in SMB2 — why the thing I thought I needed most is the thing I’m never going to get. Which makes me wonder if grief consumes everything you do to contain it. Which makes me wonder how long I can stay here playing the same old games. Which makes me wonder if I averted a worse fate by failing to “git gud” at SMB2: what if I had won, had crushed all my old records, had started posting times on the SpeedRunArchive leaderboards, had climbed on a drunken pedestal of anger and victory — and still felt entirely empty?

All playthroughs are equally invalid; complexity or skill of playthrough is entirely irrelevant; just obey the vague ache in your body that tells you to keep playing. These are the nihilist dictates which guide my living and my playing. And yet, I still nurture a horrible hope that I haven’t managed to beat out of me after all these months. I secretly believe that if I find the right sequence of moves, or the right game at the right time, I will feel better somehow. Like those studies with Tetris and PTSD. There was even a medical study about Super Monkey Ball 2: doctors who played a little before surgery tended to have fewer mistakes. Despite myself, I believe that if I put enough faith in my redemption, if I submit wholly enough to my circumstances and my limitations and my god, I will find a strength that can carry me through the widest grief and the deepest ennui. It sounds like optimism, but it’s just the addiction mindset:

There’s a hole in me. It’s always been there. Or it’s been there for a while. It’s the same hole as yesterday. Or a different hole. It doesn’t matter. It’s a hole, so I fill it. Nothing happens when I do. It doesn’t matter. I believe. I have faith. If I fill this hole high enough I will never have to feel empty again. One more hit is all it’ll take. Then I’ll be well. This is the optimism of addiction, in contrast to the nihilism of living: that I will never be well, that my waiting will come to nothing.

My sister was probably bored, just like I’m bored. She was probably sad, just like I’m sad. She was definitely unemployed and out of school, just like me. She realized she was falling apart and moved back to New England, just like I quit traveling for a few months to live in this drafty house. She probably went back to see old friends and pick up old habits, to see if they’d energize her again. She probably thought she was healing. She probably thought it’d be fine. She picked up the controls and, for whatever reason — intentional, not intentional — she’s gone now.

I’m still here. Super Monkey Ball 2 is still on my shelf. It’s much lighter than anything she was fucking with in order to numb out and stay alive, but we have the same reasons. I’m returning slowly to video games as the months grow colder, and picking ones with less action, bigger worlds, more puzzles. If I focus really really hard on every atmospheric detail when I play, I don’t numb out: I expand into the world, feel my way around it, feel myself magnified in its story. Maybe that’s healthy. But Super Monkey Ball 2 is still on my shelf. Maybe I’ll stay away from it, maybe I won’t. No choice is more meaningful than any other because all choices are equally invalid. I’ve already failed and I’m not fighting back against grief anymore. I’m just waiting.

I wake up. It’s cold in my house. I see if my job has work for me. It doesn’t. I check my calendar for the next time I leave town. A few weeks. I try to strain the beans that’ve been soaking since yesterday. I don’t have the emotional energy for straining beans. I pray that they don’t rot. I waste time. Do things that my friends tell me are “good” “things” that’ll make me “feel” “better.” Stop eating almost entirely. Stop calling friends. Wait for night to fall and my body to shut off. Lie in bed. Wake up for another day. And another. And another. It’s been three years and seven months and the only thing scarier than not having gotten over my grief is the fear that I’d be doing the exact same thing now if my sister was still alive.

I can’t wait for much longer. I turn 24 this month. From this day onward, for the rest of my life, I will be older than my older sister. She’s mine to take care of now. I don’t know what that means, and it probably doesn’t mean anything. But it’s leading me to learn how to learn how to wait better. To try to soak up the right things. To stop lusting for the things that destroyed her. To build a lust for the life she wanted for me. In other words: to put down the controller, get up, and leave. I don’t know how, but I’m learning. I am angry and hurt. But I am older now. I do not have the right to cling to the things I once loved. I can wait for now, here with my memories and my gin and my Wii. But every time I leave, I get a little better at leaving. And when I leave this house for good I am going to carry her with me.

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