Do you remember GoldenEye 007 on Nintendo 64? Do you remember dying? The halted forward progress, the bucking controller in your hand, the blood, the screen reddening at each blow, the wincing gasps of Bond-pain? In multi-player, you’re killed, transported to a new location, all your possessions left behind–your life is taken and so are the things that you had once gathered, including the Golden Gun you had spent days (well, minutes) acquiring. And now, now, it is upon you to start from scratch, to climb the uphill battle against friends and enemies that commandeered the weapons from your dead body. Beginning again; unless you’re a committed gamer (not me), it’s enough to make you want to quit the whole gig altogether. And yet killing–now, that’s something entirely different…

Gamer blog Kotaku covered with considerable insight the evolution of video game deaths from the original Super Mario Brothers to the now heavily moralized and supposedly costless deaths. Though the post eventually spins the re-invented deaths charitably, it seems that the more advanced video games become, the more one is able to keep what one has died with. “Game Over” now has a completely different meaning–you now get to live by your “Checkpoints,”  keep your loot, be resurrected with the ammunition you gathered before you were swiped by a hidden sniper.

What is dying, then? Rather than a complete relinquishment of those things which you once carried, which allowed you to move forward to the next level, you still have those things and the cost means very little. Nonetheless, the article does a great job asking the right kinds of questions, and landing on this inexplicable compulsion we feel to die, or at the very least, confront death.

Games have changed a great deal in this respect; for one thing, GAME OVER used to be a much costlier affair. In the 8-bit days, death meant losing all your character’s attributes, all his jewels, coins, weapons and experiences. It was in some ways like real-life death (or maybe the Buddhist version of it.) You were forced to start over absolutely, from nothing. There was a certain Puritanical satisfaction in this hard reality, I must say. You must learn your lesson, the game’s underlying message seemed to suggest. There is no free ride for you, not ever. (Human ingenuity being what it is, there were, and are, a number of ways to foil the unpleasant consequences of total 8-bit doom. For example, there’s this gang of modern NES enthusiasts I know at Oberlin College who recently kept a single game of Super Mario Brothers 3 going uninterrupted for over a month, and came in the fullness of time to taste the joys of the eighth world. World without end, amen.)

There was, though—there is—no real terror in game-death, or nothing very comparable to the terror we feel at the prospect of complete annihilation. And in the modern game, even less so.

The deadly risks, the need for valor and daring, the hair’s-breadth deliverance; these attributes are all still there, but today’s games keep you alive for a lot longer, and the cost of death in general has become relatively slight. Your progress may entitle you to reenter the world at a way advanced level; long investment in a role-playing game is rewarded with a richly developed character that may persist for months or years. The underlying logic of newer games is in balancing the thrill of escaping danger and dismemberment with various other complications in the gameplay, with aspects of exploration and literary elements that provide not just the adrenaline spikes of a shooter game, but permit the player to give rein to a range of more complex intellectual pleasures, to curiosity and narrative appetite. Increasingly, the game is more than a question of win/lose; it’s more and more like a dream, a totally immersive fantasy.

This desire for complexity is well served by the semi-death in the modern game, where the player retains certain artifacts or experiences from his former life. But there’s another way of looking at it, too. The retention of assets from previous incarnations mirrors the way we make and remake ourselves in waking life. My friend Kip Hampton put this well. “In your life, when everything crashes and burns, you aren’t rebuilding from scratch. Even though it feels like death when you have to put the world as you knew it aside and reinvent yourself, it’s not a true death, because you carry your knowledge and experience along with you.”

I am rather afraid of heights, and one evening I was discussing this irrational fear over dinner with our friend Jake, who is this amazingly doughty, worldly, fearless-seeming guy who used to run a safari company in Kenya. And it turned out that he, too, is really scared of heights. So I shared with him my theory as to the reason for the fear, which is as follows. When you are standing on the edge and looking down, there is some part of you, a tiny part, that is wondering what it would feel like to fall; that is actively imagining falling. And then, there is a part of you, just a very tiny little bit, that is absolutely longing to try it. What you really fear is that the rest of you will act on that microscopic impulse, listen to that bitty little maniac in there…

“Stop it!” [my heights-fearing friend] Jake roared in a panic. “Stop it I am going to climb on this table and jump off it RIGHT NOW.”

Maybe that’s ultimately just what gaming is for, to give us the thrill without the cost, to satisfy the urge to risk everything, anything, to fall, to drown and burn, to kill and be killed, to explore the dark corners of our own minds, to expiate the sins in our deepest and most frightening part.