Illustration by Cynthia

Somehow I can’t let it go. I’ve tried playing Secret of Mana with girlfriends, boyfriends, by myself. I’ve tried confronting it with alcohol, or studying it with sharp sobriety. I’ve emulated the game on my Mac, played fan-translations with extended dialogue; I’ve shoved it into my tobacco-stained Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) more times than I can count. I’ve sold it off, only to repurchase it at a greater cost.

Let’s go back to the beginning. I dated a guy in high school for almost two years, and it was the worst two years of my entire life. A nameless shame kept me stuck to his side, bound by my own insecurities, naïve and traumatized. I spent every single afternoon defending my innocence, deflecting his advances, gasping for air as he pinned me with kisses I didn’t want.

I should have left him. But I didn’t know any better. All of my friends had boyfriends, and most had long ago lost their virginities. Making out was supposed to feel good; I just needed to overcome my inhibitions. Sure, I knew most girls didn’t sweat when the school bell rang at the end of the day, most girls didn’t cry when their boyfriends felt up their shirts, didn’t drive home dry-heaving. The only time I got pulled over by the police in Chicago was after leaving his house. I blew through a stop sign. I couldn’t get away fast enough.

He demeaned me with constant clichés, trying to get in my pants with the grace of an after-school special. “You would if you loved me,” he said, pressing his knee between mine. Another time it was, “Are you gay or something?” More often than not, it was “Please, I need this.” I was never date-raped, but I was constantly dodging. I don’t know why he didn’t leave me. Maybe the only thing left for him was the conquest.

We didn’t have sex. But we did play Secret of Mana together. And I’ll never forgive him for it.

Secret of Mana is a top-down action role-playing game with bright, chunky, primitive graphics, made by Squaresoft before they merged with Enix. Like in The Legend of Zelda, you explore a giant, interlinked map and fight enemies. But unlike in Zelda, you’re not alone. In Mana, the main character is accompanied by two A.I.-controlled sidekicks. Or, if you’re lucky enough to have a friend over, you and your buddy can play simultaneously, marching through the shining countryside, carving up rabbits and wolves.

Secret of Mana is the only Super Nintendo game I still own. I can’t let it go. It sits atop of my yellowing SNES, dusty and threatening. I know it’s an incredible game. I love the music, the charming fights and simple swordplay. But I can’t play it, thanks to him.

It was the way he played the game. Like most role-playing games, Secret of Mana lets you name your protagonists. In defiance of the fantasy setting, my boyfriend christened the hero Asshole. The girl was Bitch. And the cheerful sprite was called Lump.

As we wandered through the world of Mana, saving villages and finding adventure, I was constantly being demeaned by the non-player characters. Every townsperson would call out Bitch when asking for my attention. When I couldn’t handle the humiliation, I’d switch to Lump, who was largely ignored by the shop-owners and innkeepers. Shame or silence. We’d play for hours; it was easier than trying to keep coming up with things to talk about until curfew.

What’s worse, my boyfriend and I didn’t so much enjoy the game as we did break it. When we realized that there could only be three enemies onscreen at once, we cheated through harder sections by keeping weak villains alive. We leveled up for days on Howlers in the Ice Forest, so that the following sections were just speed-runs. We skipped large portions of dialogue, and any time I started to drift into the world of the game, my boyfriend would yell something inappropriate at the screen. Or at me.

Maybe if I’d just acquiesced, it would have been easier. Why didn’t I like making out with him? I mean sure, obviously, the guy was a jerk. Another easy answer would be: I like girls, and was slowly going through a complicated sexual awakening. I came out to my parents as soon as I got to college.

But the truth is more muddy. In the years since high school, I’ve dated men and women. The longest relationship of my life has been with a man. Maybe I never was gay; there’s a part of me that wonders how much of my young identity was a response to those two terrible years with that boyfriend. Yeah, sure, when I sleep, I dream of girls…but how much is attraction, and how much is reaction? Did I stop dating boys because of him? Did I stop playing SNES because of Secret of Mana?

I can’t let go of the game until I can play it for itself, by itself, until I can erase my old save points and fill it with new ones. Or maybe it’s time to just let it go. ♦