Death and Rebirth in Platformer Games
Edward F. Melcer and Marjorie Ann M. Cuerdo
12.1 Introduction ................................................................................ 266
12.2 Background ................................................................................ 268
12.2.1 Game Taxonomies and Frameworks ............................................ 268
12.2.2 In-Game Death ................................................................... 268
12.2.3 Dynamic Difﬁculty Adjustment ................................................. 269
12.2.4 Grounded Theory ................................................................ 270
12.3 Methodology ............................................................................... 270
12.3.1 Search Strategy .................................................................. 271
12.3.2 Analysis Procedure .............................................................. 271
220.127.116.11 Phase 1: Observations of Death and Rebirth Mechanics .......... 271
18.104.22.168 Phase 2: Open, Axial, and Selective Coding ....................... 272
12.4 A Taxonomy of Death and Rebirth in Platformer Games ................................ 272
12.4.1 Obstacles ......................................................................... 273
22.214.171.124 Intelligent ............................................................ 274
126.96.36.199 Environmental ....................................................... 274
188.8.131.52 Interactive ............................................................ 275
12.4.2 Death Conditions ................................................................ 275
184.108.40.206 Instant Death ......................................................... 277
220.127.116.11 Out of Health ........................................................ 277
18.104.22.168 No Death ............................................................. 277
12.4.3 Aesthetics ........................................................................ 278
22.214.171.124 Visual ................................................................ 278
126.96.36.199 Auditory .............................................................. 278
12.4.4 Changes to Player Progress ..................................................... 279
188.8.131.52 Upgrades ............................................................. 279
184.108.40.206 Inventory Changes ................................................... 279
12.4.5 Respawn Locations .............................................................. 281
E. F. Melcer ()
University of California, Santa Cruz, CA, USA
M. A. M. Cuerdo
DePaul University, Chicago, IL, USA
© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020
B. Bostan (ed.), Game User Experience And Player-Centered Design,
International Series on Computer Entertainment and Media Technology,
266 E. F. Melcer and M. A. M. Cuerdo
220.127.116.11 Respawn at Beginning of Game .................................... 281
18.104.22.168 Respawn at Beginning of Level ..................................... 283
22.214.171.124 Respawn at Checkpoint ............................................. 283
126.96.36.199 Respawn at Save Point .............................................. 284
188.8.131.52 No Respawning ...................................................... 284
12.5 Discussion .................................................................................. 284
12.5.1 Differentiating Roguelikes/Roguelites from Other Platformers ............... 285
12.5.2 Examining Common Combinations of Design Choices ....................... 285
12.5.3 Guiding Dynamic Difﬁculty Adjustment and Related Techniques ............ 286
12.6 Limitations ................................................................................. 287
12.7 Conclusion ................................................................................. 287
Ludography ........................................................................................ 288
References .......................................................................................... 289
Abstract Failure is a central aspect of almost every game experience, driving
player perceptions of difﬁculty and impacting core game user experience concepts
such as ﬂow. At the heart of failure in many game genres is player death. While
techniques such as dynamic difﬁculty adjustment have addressed tweaking game
parameters to control the frequency of player death occurrence, there is a surpris-
ingly limited amount of research examining how games handle what happens when a
player actually dies. We posit that this is a rich, underexplored space with signiﬁcant
implications for player experience and related techniques. This chapter presents
our exploration into the space of player death and rebirth through the creation of a
generalized taxonomy of death in platformer games—one of the genres that features
player death and respawning most heavily. In order to create this taxonomy, we
collected and catalogued examples of death and respawning mechanics from 62
recent platformer games released on the digital distribution platform Steam after
January 2018. Games selected varied equally across positive, mixed, and negative
overall reviews in order to provide a broader range of mechanics, both good and bad.
We observed gameplays of each individual game and noted the processes of death
and rebirth, respectively. A grounded theory approach was then employed to develop
the taxonomy of game death and respawning, resulting in ﬁve notable dimensions:
(1) obstacles,(2)death conditions,(3)aesthetics,(4)changes to player progress,
and (5) respawn locations. Finally, we discuss how the different dimensions and
mechanics highlighted in our taxonomy have implications for key aspects of player
experience, as well as how they could be used to improve the effectiveness of related
techniques such as dynamic difﬁculty adjustment.
Keywords Taxonomy · Platformers · Games · In-game death · Respawning ·
Failure in video games, often represented through death, is a central element of the
player experience (Klimmt et al. 2009). For instance, failure is well documented
to have substantial positive and negative impacts on game enjoyment (Juul 2013).
12 Death and Rebirth in Platformer Games 267
It is also intrinsically linked to challenge, and consequently a major factor in the
experience of game ﬂow (Juul 2009). While there have been various approaches
to examining and manipulating this critical aspect of the gaming experience—
e.g., dynamic difﬁculty adjustment (Denisova and Cairns 2015; Hunicke 2005),
difﬁculty design (Wehbe et al. 2017), and challenge design (Brandse 2017) and
modeling (Sorenson et al. 2011)—research understanding failure explicitly as it
relates to handling in-game death is surprisingly limited. We propose that how
video games actually deal with in-game death is a rich, underexplored space
with signiﬁcant implications for player experience and related techniques such as
dynamic difﬁculty adjustment. With that in mind, we created a taxonomy of player
death and rebirth in platformer games to better understand the current design space.
Platformers are a video game genre where players typically control a game
character to jump and climb between platforms while avoiding obstacles. We
chose this as our genre of focus since platformer games are generally designed
around constant player death and respawning in pursuit of a goal. They are also
notorious for being difﬁcult, with many such games leading to the creation of the
term “Nintendo hard”—referring colloquially to the extreme difﬁculty of games
(particularly platformers) from the Nintendo Entertainment System era (Enger
2012). Notably, the fairness of difﬁculty in Nintendo hard games has been called into
question in recent years (Lessel 2013), highlighting that such designs can sometimes
serve more to infuriate players through frequent unfair death rather than provide an
appropriate challenge. A taxonomy of player death in this space provides a tool
to systematically classify death and respawning mechanics across games—helping
to elucidate which mechanics may evoke positive and negative player experiences,
enhance or inhibit game ﬂow, and provide sufﬁcient challenge or create a feeling of
In this chapter speciﬁcally, we want to understand the essential features and
types of mechanics around death in video games. This is done by employing
grounded theory to analyse existing platformer games of varying user rating. We
chose games as our main source of data for analysis because there is a relatively
limited amount of existing literature that addresses the actual mechanics around in-
game death, making expert analysis of games as artefacts a more useful source of
information (Alharthi et al. 2018). We start this chapter by providing background
and related work on game taxonomies, game death, dynamic difﬁculty adjustment,
and grounded theory. This is followed by an overview of our search and analysis
procedure for the corpus of platformer games. We then present our taxonomy of
death and rebirth in platformer games that is derived from the collected dataset.
Finally, we conclude with a discussion of the implications and potential application
areas of our framework, as well as provide insights obtained from its use on the
current dataset of platformer games. It is also important to note that we provide a
ludography for the 62 games included in our dataset. Therefore, when we cite a
game, the reference will be preﬁxed with a “G” (e.g., [G7]).
268 E. F. Melcer and M. A. M. Cuerdo
In this section, we discuss existing game taxonomies and the grounded theory
methodology employed to create our taxonomy, as well as highlight relevant
research examining death in video games and dynamic difﬁculty adjustment.
12.2.1 Game Taxonomies and Frameworks
Although they are used rather interchangeably in the literature, there are some
notable differences between taxonomies and frameworks. Taxonomies provide a
means to organize and classify concepts while frameworks are composed of a
number of concepts and the interrelations between them (Antle and Wise 2013).
There can even be overlap between the two in the form of taxonomical design
frameworks (e.g., Ens et al. 2014; Melcer and Isbister 2016), which treat a set of tax-
onomical terms as orthogonal dimensions in a design space—resulting in a matrix
that provides structure for classiﬁcation and comparison of designs (Robinett 1992).
In terms of games, there have been a substantial number of taxonomies and
frameworks ranging from general classiﬁcations of games themselves (Aarseth et al.
2003; Elverdam and Aarseth 2007; Vossen 2004) to various aspects of games—
such as core mechanics (Sedig et al. 2017), bugs (Lewis et al. 2010), player
modeling (Smith et al. 2011), and external factors (Mäkelä et al. 2017)—to (most
commonly) speciﬁc genres of games. E.g., serious games (De Lope and Medina-
Medina 2017;Regoetal.2010), games for dementia (Dormann 2016; McCallum
and Boletsis 2013), exertion games (Mueller et al. 2008), affective games (Lara-
Cabrera and Camacho 2019), idle games (Alharthi et al. 2018), and games and
simulations (Klabbers 2003) to name a few. Of particular relevance to this work
is the framework created by Smith et al. (2008) for analysing 2D platformer
levels. Their framework consists of components in the form of platforms, obstacles,
movement aids, collectible items, and triggers; as well as structural representation
for how the components ﬁt together. We utilize many of these concepts in our coding
scheme and taxonomy; however, their framework ultimately focuses on rhythm and
pacing to evoke challenge, rather than player death.
12.2.2 In-Game Death
Players are ultimately humans, and therefore, the player experience is tied to the
human experience (Melnic and Melnic 2018). With respect to death, a notable
fascination exists regarding the relationship between players’ perception of in-
game death and actual death. Some have argued that in-game death trivializes the
seriousness of actual death (Frasca 2007). However, others believe that the inherent
interactive nature of games is powerful in expressing meaningful facets of the human
experience of life and death (Chittaro and Sioni 2018;Harrer2013; Rusch 2009).
12 Death and Rebirth in Platformer Games 269
Players in particular can be impacted by death in games when they are attached to
characters (their avatars or NPCs) at some emotional level or self-identify with the
goals or events in the game (Bopp et al. 2016; Melnic and Melnic 2018; Rusch 2009;
Schneider et al. 2004). For instance, when players are immersed in gameplay, the
risk of death produces anxiety and encourages more careful decision-making, but
can also evoke strong emotions from players that result in enjoyment and positive
player experience despite the frustration that comes with the territory (Bopp et al.
Death is also an intrinsic part of gameplay (Mukherjee 2009) and the player
experience (Klastrup 2006), with notoriously difﬁcult level design in platformers
resulting in frequent occurrences of player death (Enger 2012). These instances
of in-game death generally impede player progress, e.g., through the loss of
inventory items, achievements, or game functionality (Bopp et al. 2016). Notably,
repetitive deaths have been found to increasingly reduce player enjoyment, as
each death occurrence compounds as an evaluation of the insufﬁciency of a
player’s skills (Van Den Hoogen 2012). At even greater extremes, in-game death
can completely reset player progress such as through the popular high-risk death
mechanic, permadeath—i.e., the permanent in-game death of a playable character
(c.f., Copcic et al. 2013)—which forces the player to restart the entire game upon
dying. While the ability to have save states in some platformers has alleviated the
difﬁculty of death and altered player strategy, the majority of platformer games still
operate using linear, sequential checkpoints. As such, it is critical to examine the
aesthetics and mechanics that comprise in-game death for a broader understanding
of its overall effects on player experience.
12.2.3 Dynamic Difﬁculty Adjustment
Dynamic difﬁculty adjustment (DDA) describes a challenge design strategy that
continuously and automatically adapts a game’s difﬁculty level to a player’s current
skill level (Jennings-Teats et al. 2010; Smeddinck et al. 2016; Zohaib 2018), and as
such attempts to keep the player in a constant state of ﬂow (Denisova and Cairns
2015). There is evidence that dynamically adjusting components in games affects
their perceived difﬁculty (Denisova and Cairns 2015; Jennings-Teats et al. 2010;
Wehbe et al. 2017) and boosts player conﬁdence (Constant and Levieux 2019).
Other advantages of DDA include a decrease in the risk of players quitting a game
due to frustration from constant deaths as well as an increase in a players’ perceived
self-efﬁcacy (Constant and Levieux 2019; Gilleade and Dix 2004). Furthermore,
it has been argued that player engagement and enjoyment can be maximized with
DDA in games (Denisova and Cairns 2015; Sarkar and Cooper 2019; Xue et al.
2017). However, one notable criticism of most current DDA techniques is that
they are based on designer intuition, which may not reﬂect actual play patterns or
mechanics (Jennings-Teats et al. 2010). Therefore, a taxonomy highlighting speciﬁc
mechanics and design choices around in-game death and respawning could serve to
better inform and aid the design of these techniques.
270 E. F. Melcer and M. A. M. Cuerdo
12.2.4 Grounded Theory
Grounded theory methodology (GTM) is commonly used to explore new
domains (Alharthi et al. 2018; Glaser and Strauss 2017). It is a data-driven
and inductive research methodology where the analysis is conducted as data is
collected (Hook 2015). The GTM process starts with data collection, gradually
building up categories and forming a theory, before linking that theory to
previous literature at the end (Hook 2015). It effectively enables a researcher to
simultaneously analyse a body of artefacts (in this case platformer video games)
and develop a theory about what elements of these artefacts are salient (Kreminski
et al. 2019). This is usually done through the creation of a codebook which evolves
over the course of the analysis and is used to note down the features of speciﬁc
artefacts as they are analysed.
It is, however, important to note that GTM does not actually represent a single set
of methods, as there are different philosophical schools of practice which fragment
the ways it can be interpreted and deployed—often causing confusion (Glaser
1992). Notably, there are three major variants of GTM which can have major
effects on the research outcome (Salisbury and Cole 2016), i.e., Strauss, Glaser,
and Charmaz/Constructivist. For the creation of our taxonomy on in-game death
and rebirth, we adopted the constructivist ﬂavour of GTM (Charmaz 2006). This
GTM variant frames the researcher as co-creating meaning within the domain they
are studying (Charmaz 2000), focusing on providing lenses for analysis rather than
a single objectively correct model of the domain (Salisbury and Cole 2016).
We conducted a qualitative analysis of platformer games in order to identify the
essential features and differing types of mechanics around death and respawning in
platformer video games, as well as to highlight design choices that may be beneﬁcial
or detrimental to the player experience. We utilized a constructivist grounded theory
approach (Charmaz 2006) (see related work) that started with an iterative process
of ﬁnding and selecting platformer games. Games were analysed and coded by
watching videos of gameplay as well as playing them when there was a lack of
existing footage. Speciﬁcally, we employed open coding and conceptual memoing
to identify the initial concepts around death and respawning. Axial coding—i.e.,
identifying relationships among the open codes and initial concepts (Alharthi et al.
2018)—was then employed to determine our initial set of categories. Finally,
selective coding—i.e., integrating initial categories to form a core category that
comprehensively describes the data (Alharthi et al. 2018)—was used to determine
the ﬁnal categories of our taxonomy.
12 Death and Rebirth in Platformer Games 271
Fig. 12.1 The 62 platformer games in our corpus, categorized by corresponding critical reception:
Positively,Mixed,andNegatively Reviewed. A ludography is included for our dataset
12.3.1 Search Strategy
In order to obtain an accurate corpus of recent popular platformer games, we utilized
the extremely popular digital games distribution platform, Steam, for our search.
We searched for all video games that were explicitly tagged as a “Platformer”. In
an effort to observe trends in characteristics of recent platformers, we speciﬁcally
restricted the search to video games that were released within the recent period of
January 2018 to May 2019. Because we wanted to observe the most popular games
in terms of rating count and Steam did not offer the ability to sort by number of
reviews, we manually selected the top twenty or so games with the highest number
of player reviews for the positively, mixed, and negatively reviewed categories
A total of 62 games were selected based on three categories of player ratings (see
Fig. 12.1): (1) positively reviewed, 21 collected; (2) mixed-reviewed, 22 collected;
and (3) negatively reviewed, 19 collected. We chose a fairly even spread of positively
to negatively reviewed games to ensure that we were collecting the broadest range
of death and respawning mechanics, both good and bad, to inform the creation of
our taxonomy. Games were identiﬁed as positively reviewed if they had at least 85%
or higher of their player audience positively recommend the game, mixed-reviewed
if they were between 60% to 84%, and negatively reviewed if they had less than
60%. We adjusted for a high approval percentage of at least 85% for positively
reviewed games, because we observed that even games with the poorest reputations
had about half of their players recommend them while critically acclaimed games
generally had overwhelmingly positive reviews of 90% or more.
12.3.2 Analysis Procedure
184.108.40.206 Phase 1: Observations of Death and Rebirth Mechanics
We examined each game individually by watching a playthrough online or, if
not available, obtaining the game and playing them ourselves. We recorded each
game’s approach to handling player death with information on what conditions
result in death, where players were respawned, what was lost and gained, obstacle
types, and visual and auditory representations of death. Other information we noted
were its Steam game tags (in addition to “platformer”), game description, approval
percentage, number of reviews, and basic game mechanics.
272 E. F. Melcer and M. A. M. Cuerdo
Fig. 12.2 The coding process. Starting with open coding of observations. The open codes were
then related into concepts using axial coding, and were later grouped and developed using selective
coding to create our ﬁve main Death and Rebirth Taxonomy Categories
220.127.116.11 Phase 2: Open, Axial, and Selective Coding
We started this phase by performing open coding on our observations of the 62
platformer games from phase 1. Axial coding was then employed to identify a
set of emerging concepts and initial categories around death and respawning. This
was followed by multiple iterative discussion sessions to explore the relationships
between the open codes, emergent concepts, and initial categories—resulting in
selective coding of the 5 key categories for our taxonomy of death and rebirth
in platformer games. Throughout the coding process and construction of the
categories, we re-observed a number of the games and reviewed related literature
to reﬁne the concepts. This coding process is further illustrated in Fig. 12.2.
12.4 A Taxonomy of Death and Rebirth in Platformer Games
Based on the concepts, common features, and mechanics that emerged from our
analysis, we formed the taxonomy of death and rebirth in platformer games (see
Fig. 12.3). Our taxonomy describes 5 major aspects of the cyclical process of death
and rebirth in games: (1) obstacles, which are the cause of (2) death conditions
12 Death and Rebirth in Platformer Games 273
Fig. 12.3 The death and rebirth taxonomy for platformers depicted in its cyclical nature. obstacles
are the cause of death conditions being met, resulting in player death. Death is depicted through
aesthetics and causes changes to player progress. Players are then reborn into respawn locations
where they must attempt to overcome obstacles again as the cycle repeats
being met and resulting in player death depicted through (3) aesthetics as well as
causing (4) changes to player progress before being reborn at (5) respawn locations
to repeat the entire process. While not every game follows this process exactly (e.g.,
in some games the characters cannot die but have other forms of failure instead
[G23, G26–27, G43–44]), this taxonomy provides the high-level structure necessary
to understand, break down, and categorize the process of death and rebirth among
a variety of platformer games. We also ran the 62 games/reviews from our corpus
back through some of the taxonomy categories in order to highlight certain design
decisions that may be positively or negatively impacting the player experience.
Obstacles in platformers present challenges and difﬁculties for players to over-
come (Smith et al. 2008; Sorenson et al. 2011; Wehbe et al. 2017). They are also
critical elements of existing literature on analysing (Smith et al. 2008), dynamically
274 E. F. Melcer and M. A. M. Cuerdo
adjusting (Hunicke 2005), and generating (Dahlskog and Togelius 2012) platformer
levels. The resulting effects that obstacles have on player progress can either disrupt
or encourage ﬂow in gameplay (Isaksen et al. 2015; Lomas et al. 2013). And,
ultimately, they are key factors that lead to player death (Wehbe et al. 2017). To
analyse the role of obstacles in platformers, we determined what type of obstacle
was the most prominent in each observed game. We identiﬁed three notably different
types of obstacles that could lead to player death: (1) intelligent,(2)environmental,
and (3) interactive.
Intelligent obstacles are objects in the game that actively attempt to kill the player,
and their movements/actions respond in real time to player actions. Examples of
these obstacles include enemy characters that follow a player and deadly moving
objects, such as homing weapons and other projectiles that aim towards the player’s
location. Of the 62 observed platformers, 19 predominately featured intelligent
obstacles with relatively positive reviews from players (11 positive, 6 mixed, and
Environmental obstacles are components that are directly part of the game envi-
ronment and can lead to player death. They can be either static obstacles that
do not move or automated obstacles that move in rigid, ﬁxed patterns. Of the 62
observed platformers, 34 of them predominately featured environmental obstacles
with relatively negative player reviews (16 negative, 12 mixed, and 6 positive).
Static environmental obstacles are immovable components of the level, such as
spikes, pits, platforms, and walls. While platforms and walls do not necessarily
directly result in death, their presence requires the player to make efforts to
manoeuvre around them. The player can then be led to another deadly obstacle
such as a pit or lose valuable resources like time as a result. Smith et al. (2008)
similarly treated details such as the gaps between platforms as obstacles in their
framework. Interestingly, spikes also appear to be fundamental to platformers, as
they existed in some form across all of the games, regardless of their respective
Automated environmental obstacles are notably different from intelligent obstacles
in that they only move in ﬁxed patterns and do not respond or adapt to the player—
12 Death and Rebirth in Platformer Games 275
therefore remaining a relatively ﬁxed part of the environment that the player must
navigate around. Examples of automated obstacles include moving platforms or
enemy characters that follow a ﬁxed path, looping their movement and actions.
In this sense, enemies act more like objects that blend in with the environment
and not as actively smart characters, reminiscent of most enemies from traditional
Interactive obstacles are objects in the game that can be activated or interacted with
by the player. Examples of these include doors, levers, destructible objects, and
treasure chests. While it was more common for goals in platformers to either focus
on defeating enemy characters or utilizing the player’s abilities to manoeuvre around
a mostly static environment, platformers that were heavy on object interaction
instead tended to focus on survival [G4, G40], strategy [G30], stealth [G31, G35], or
simply had easily destructible objects almost everywhere in the game environment
[G10, G13, G38, G53]. Only 9 of the 62 observed platformers primarily featured
interactive obstacles with fairly mixed player reviews (4 positive, 3 mixed, and 2
12.4.2 Death Conditions
Platformer games heavily feature player death, to the extent that many such games
have been colloquially referred to as “Nintendo hard” (Enger 2012). Player death
has also been shown to evoke both positive (Bopp et al. 2016) and negative (Van
Den Hoogen 2012) player experiences. As such, the primary death conditions
and mechanics prevalent in these games are critical elements of the taxonomy.
Speciﬁcally, we identiﬁed three distinct types of death conditions: (1) instant death,
(2) out of health, and (3) no death. We also ran all 62 games and their review scores
from the corpus back through this category of the taxonomy in order to explore
if there were speciﬁc death conditions that might evoke a more positive or negative
player experience (see Fig. 12.4). In Fig. 12.4,no death appears to be a rather neutral
design choice, but using instant death as the primary vehicle for player death seems
to create a fairly negative experience. Conversely, out of health appears to instill
far more positive player experiences. We hypothesize that this is because instant
death is likely to increase the frequency of player death—which has been found to
subsequently decrease player enjoyment (Van Den Hoogen 2012)—over the more
forgiving out of health death condition. However, this should be explored further in
276 E. F. Melcer and M. A. M. Cuerdo
Fig. 12.4 The frequency of games in each death condition from our 62 game corpus (top), and the
distribution of player ratings for each death condition (bottom)
12 Death and Rebirth in Platformer Games 277
18.104.22.168 Instant Death
Instant death describes games where the player’s character dies immediately from
a single injury, such as from hitting an enemy. Most of the games that applied this
concept were traditional 2D side-scrolling games with puzzles and environments
that relied on timing and pixel perfect platforming. One such game in our corpus was
Celeste [G11], which had gained a reputation for being difﬁcult to beat and applied
this instant death concept to much critical acclaim. However, as Fig. 12.4 illustrates,
this positive reception is more of an exception than the rule, where the majority of
games in our corpus that employed this approach received negative player feedback
overall. While this death mechanic is slowly being phased out in more recent games
(e.g., only featured in 15 of the 62 observed games), there is a nostalgia factor still
driving interest, mirroring classic pixel perfect platformers such as Ninja Gaiden.
22.214.171.124 Out of Health
Outofhealthdescribes games where the life of a player’s character is dependent on
maintaining a health bar—usually located in a top corner of the screen or represented
by the character in some way. When the player runs out of in-game health, the
character dies. While health is always ﬁnite in this paradigm, players are given
far more chances to escape death if they make a mistake. Furthermore, games that
employed the out of health approach also provided the most visual feedback of
progression towards death. Therefore, this death condition may be perceived by
players as one that affords more control over in-game death. Notably, this death
condition also contained signiﬁcantly more positively reviewed games than the
other two (15 games), and was utilized in the largest number of platformers from
our corpus (32 games). This suggests it might be a highly beneﬁcial approach to
incorporate into the design of platformer games.
126.96.36.199 No Death
No death describes games where death is not possible through the gameplay. It is
also a fairly uncommon approach with only 7 of the 62 observed games falling in
this category. However, no death also leads to fairly unique designs and mechanics in
platformer games. For instance, two of the games [G23, G27] were heavily focused
on narrative and sensory experiences instead of death. While two others [G26, G43]
instead place focus on utilizing level design (rather than death) to enforce a high-risk
potential loss of progress at all times—e.g., climbing up a mountain only to make
a mistake and fall all the way down to where the game started [G26]. Interestingly,
the game Poultry Panic [G43] features no death from the player’s perspective, but
instead makes the goal of the game to control multiple chickens simultaneously and
turn them into food to earn points. Despite the heavy amount of death present in the
game, the player’s character (factory manager) never actually dies.
278 E. F. Melcer and M. A. M. Cuerdo
Although there are a number of deﬁnitions and interpretations of game aesthetics,
such as the emotional responses evoked in players (Hunicke et al. 2004), aesthetics
in relation to this taxonomy refers purely to the sensory phenomena that players
encounter in the game (Niedenthal 2009). Speciﬁcally, we focus on the different
variations of Visual and Auditory aesthetics that occur during in-game death.
However, as noted below, these aesthetic decisions can greatly impact player
emotion and the overall gaming experience (Kao and Harrell 2016; Keehl and
Melcer 2019; Nacke and Grimshaw 2011; Sanders and Cairns 2010), and therefore
aesthetics is an important category to consider for the design of in-game death.
Visuals are a critical aspect of the aesthetic experience, where even fundamental
elements—such as shape and colour—can have a substantial impact on player
emotions and overall experience (Kao and Harrell 2016; Melcer and Isbister 2016;
Plass et al. 2014;Umetal.2012). With respect to visual aesthetics around in-
game death, we observed that the visual changes were primarily focused on the
appearance of the character and/or the use of death screens. For instance, upon
death, the body of the character could undergo a dissolve, explode into pieces, fall
down, or disappear. Iconography such blood, skulls, and souls was also often used
to indicate character death in-game, and could remain in the environment through
multiple iterations of death and rebirth to indicate where the player had previously
died. A number of the platformers observed would also utilize transition effects,
e.g., cutting to black or tinting corners of the screen red. Death screens were also
quite commonly utilized (20 of the 62 platformers) to halt gameplay and inform
players of their failed attempt, as well as potentially show changes to their in-game
progress—e.g., inventory items gained or lost, running death count total, number of
lives left, or achievements.
Audio, in the form of music and sound effects, is another critical aspect of the
aesthetic experience. For instance, both music and sound effects have been shown to
impact player immersion and emotional response (Kallinen 2004; Keehl and Melcer
2019; Nacke and Grimshaw 2011; Sanders and Cairns 2010). In our observed
games, a number of different sound effects were employed during and immediately
after death such as cries or grunts, squishing or wind noises, and short electronic
sounds. Music would also often be modiﬁed such as by playing a unique melody
or even abruptly stopping the background music upon death. Surprisingly, a fair
number of platformers did not make any auditory changes at death (21 out of 62).
12 Death and Rebirth in Platformer Games 279
Consequently, this appears to be an often overlooked category of the taxonomy that
could be better utilized to improve the emotional impact of platformer games.
12.4.4 Changes to Player Progress
After a player’s character dies, aspects of their progress are either retained or lost.
Changes to the player’s progress is an important aspect to include in our taxonomy
as these types of changes have been shown to impact various aspects of the player
experience (Lange-Nielsen 2011) and lead to strong emotional responses (Bopp
et al. 2016). This is also a fairly prevalent category with 40 of the 62 games observed
featuring some form of change to the player’s progress (see Fig.12.5). While these
changes do take on a variety of forms, in an abstract sense they can be categorized
as upgrades and inventory changes.
Similarlytothedeath conditions category, we ran our 62 game corpus through
this category of the taxonomy in order to explore if there were speciﬁc changes to
player progress that might evoke negative or positive experiences. As exempliﬁed
in Fig. 12.5, no changes to player progress appears to have a fairly even spread of
game ratings while (1) changes to inventory only and (2) simultaneous upgrade
and inventory changes appear to evoke increasingly positive player experiences,
respectively. Surprisingly, only changing upgrades resulted in the majority of player
experiences being negative and had the most negatively received games of any of
the subcategories (8 games).
Many platformers enable retention of earned upgrades for a character after
death. Examples of preserved upgrades observed in our corpus include power-
ups, weapons, custom character items, skill levels, and achievements. Prior
work has shown that the use of such upgrades can have signiﬁcant impact on
enjoyment (Ketcheson et al. 2015; Melcer et al. 2017; Melcer and Isbister 2018)
and challenge (Lange-Nielsen 2011), allowing players to customize their overall
experience (Denisova and Cook 2019). Notably, Smith et al. (2008) combined
the use of upgrades, speciﬁcally power-ups, and inventory into one category they
referred to as Collectible Items in their framework. We chose to separate the two
as they felt distinct and might have different impacts on the player experience, as
illustrated in Fig. 12.5.
188.8.131.52 Inventory Changes
Inventory systems in platformer games are another important feature to observe as
they contain various explicit indicators of player progress, such as currency, lives,
280 E. F. Melcer and M. A. M. Cuerdo
Fig. 12.5 The frequency of games for each type of change to player progress from our 62 game
corpus (left), and the distribution of player ratings for each type of change to player progress (right)
12 Death and Rebirth in Platformer Games 281
and items. We observed that the changes to inventory ranged from players’ keeping
all of their inventory after in-game death to losing some or all of it. Conversely, a
number of games from the corpus also did not have an inventory (38 games), and
did not utilize this subcategory as a result.
How much inventory is maintained or lost after in-game death alters the conse-
quence of death for the player, and ultimately impacts the overall gameplay (Keogh
2013) and game experience (Carter et al. 2013). We observed this in our corpus as
well, where games in which players lose all of their inventory after death featured
far more frenetic gameplay than games where players only lost some or kept all of
their inventory—which tended to be slower paced and more strategic.
12.4.5 Respawn Locations
When there is death, there is also respawning in platformer games, i.e., when the
player’s character is brought back to life to continue gameplay. However, where the
player can actually reappear varies wildly. Poor use of respawn locations (e.g., too
far away or too directly into action) can lead to negative player experience (Clarke
and Duimering 2006), and therefore the respawn location is another important focus
of our taxonomy. For platformer games, we observed ﬁve distinct types of respawn
locations: (1) beginning of game,(2)beginning of level,(3)checkpoint,(4)save
point, and (5) no respawning.
In order to explore which respawn locations might evoke negative or positive
player experiences, we ran our 62 game corpus through this category of the
taxonomy (see Fig. 12.6). As illustrated in Fig. 12.6, both the use of check points
and not allowing respawning at all led to fairly mixed player experiences, while
respawning from the last player deﬁned save point had quite positive player
response. Surprisingly, while respawning at the beginning of a level was fairly
negatively received, respawning even further back at the beginning of a game (e.g.,
starting over after death) had primarily positive player reviews. While there could
be a number of factors contributing to this difference, we hypothesize that this may
in part be due to the differences in how player progress is changed between the two
subcategories (see Fig. 12.7). I.e., respawning at the beginning of the level primarily
maintains upgrades only or nothing at all, while respawning at the beginning of the
game primarily preserves both inventory and upgrades—giving players a stronger
sense of progression.
184.108.40.206 Respawn at Beginning of Game
When players are respawned at the beginning of the game, the player’s current run
ends and they are usually booted to the game’s initial menu screen and given options
to restart the game. Players must oftentimes replay all or some sections of the game
as a result. Consequently, this respawn location usually means that it requires more
282 E. F. Melcer and M. A. M. Cuerdo
Fig. 12.6 The frequency of games for each respawn location from our 62 game corpus (top), and
the distribution of player ratings for each respawn location (bottom)
12 Death and Rebirth in Platformer Games 283
Fig. 12.7 The differences between respawning at the beginning of a level and respawning at
the beginning of the game in terms of Changes to Player Progress.Notably,respawningat
the beginning of a game primarily maintains inventory and upgrades, while respawning at the
beginning of a level primarily maintains upgrades only or nothing at all
of a player’s time to attempt completing the game. However, depending on whether
character and inventory progress are retained after death, restarting the game may
not be a back-to-square-one situation. One well known and popular subgenre of
games that focus entirely around this mechanic is permadeath (Copcic et al. 2013).
220.127.116.11 Respawn at Beginning of Level
Respawning at the beginning of a level occurs in games that are explicitly split into
distinct levels or stages. When players die, they are respawned at the beginning
of the level that they failed to successfully complete. Usually, this respawn location
also means that any character progress, such as points and inventory, achieved in that
failed level are lost upon death (see Fig.12.7). The length of levels was generally
dependent on subgenre, but the pixel perfect platforming style with relatively short
levels in particular was common among these games. Notably, platformers from
our corpus that featured this respawning location only had 1 positively reviewed
game out of 12 and was fairly negatively received by players. Many of these games,
such as Freezeer [G24] and Cube the Jumper [G15], also featured instant death—
resulting in a high frequency of player deaths per level and offering another potential
explanation for the highly negative player response (Van Den Hoogen 2012).
18.104.22.168 Respawn at Checkpoint
Platformers in our corpus would most commonly respawn players at a checkpoint
location not explicitly deﬁned by the player (30 out of 62 games). Usually, this
occurs when the character reaches a speciﬁc location in the game that automatically
284 E. F. Melcer and M. A. M. Cuerdo
saves the progress, indicated by a brief saving animation or object that signiﬁes the
checkpoint location. Most platformers with checkpoints gradually increased their
difﬁculty by expanding the distance between checkpoints as the game progressed;
however, the distance was never so large that it forced the player to replay a lengthy
portion of the level. I.e., checkpoints were used to break down levels into separate
segments with smaller challenges for the player to overcome.
22.214.171.124 Respawn at Save Point
Players are given a greater level of autonomy and control in games that have save
points. Save points differ from checkpoints in that they are consciously activated
by the player. When players die, they are respawned at those exact locations where
the save point was activated. In the observed platformers, players activated save
points by having their character interact with an object in the game environment
that triggers a save in that location, or by manually saving the current progress
of the game with a save function—usually through a pause menu or button press
during gameplay. Notably, games that employed save points in the corpus received
mainly positive reviews (5 out of 6 games). We hypothesize that this may be due
to the greater autonomy that this approach affords players—which has been shown
to increase enjoyment (Kim et al. 2015) and motivation (Deterding 2011)—with
respect to in-game death.
126.96.36.199 No Respawning
Games that had no respawning mechanics were essentially the same games that
featured no death in their gameplay (see Section 4.2.3). The absence of death means
that there is also no need for respawning in the game.
We observed various components of platformer games to develop death and rebirth
concepts for our taxonomy of death and rebirth in platformer games. We also ran
our game corpus back through some of the taxonomy categories in order to highlight
design decisions that may positively or negatively impact the player experience. Our
taxonomy shows that there are a substantial number of mechanics, aesthetics, and
design decisions that go into the death and respawning elements of games, despite
the surprisingly limited amount of literature examining these categories directly.
12 Death and Rebirth in Platformer Games 285
12.5.1 Differentiating Roguelikes/Roguelites from Other
We observed that there were outliers of positive reception for platformers which
featured high-risk gameplay. While the majority of games that employed a loss of
inventory—i.e., no progress changes or maintaining only upgrades upon death—
were negatively received in our corpus (see Fig. 12.5), there were two speciﬁc
subsets of high-risk platformer games that still received positive reviews in this
subcategory. Speciﬁcally, either pure survival games or games that applied roguelike
or roguelite concepts. Although death mechanics featured in roguelikes have
evolved over the years, the extremely popular mainstay features that have persisted
are permadeath (Copcic et al. 2013) and procedurally generated levels (Shaker et al.
2016). Examples of these positively reviewed high-risk platformers include Dead
Cells [G18], Dungreed [G22], and Vagante [G60].
What may seem counterintuitive makes sense when one remembers that it has
been found that negative emotions triggered by in-game death can still lead to
engaging positive player experiences (Bopp et al. 2016) and potential meaningful
reﬂections of the human experience (Chittaro and Sioni 2018). The great amount
of challenge is also particularly enticing to certain player types who value achieve-
ments, i.e., Advancement types (Yee 2006). Therefore, platformers with roguelike
elements are high-risk, high-reward situations that certain (but not all) types of
players can appreciate and actively seek out.
12.5.2 Examining Common Combinations of Design Choices
One fundamental feature of any taxonomy is its capability to categorize and describe
existing designs (Melcer and Isbister 2016). In addition to running the 62 game
corpus through the taxonomy to examine player experience for individual cate-
gories, we also examined common combinations of design choices for platformers
(see Fig. 12.8)—further highlighting its descriptive power. Speciﬁcally, Fig. 12.8
shows the six most frequent combinations (5+ games for each) of death conditions,
changes to player progress, and respawn locations. The most common combination
(10 games) was the use of checkpoints with players dying once they run out
of health and encountering changes to upgrades before respawning. Surprisingly,
although this was the most frequent combination of design choices, the majority of
games utilizing this combination were negatively reviewed (3 positive, 1 neutral, 6
negative). This illustrates how even popular platformer designs may not necessarily
evoke the best player experience, and our taxonomy may be a useful tool to aid in
identifying and improving these potentially problematic designs.
286 E. F. Melcer and M. A. M. Cuerdo
Fig. 12.8 The top 6 combinations of design choices for death conditions,changes to player
12.5.3 Guiding Dynamic Difﬁculty Adjustment and Related
Game designers must focus on the balance between inspiring conﬁdence in players
and providing sufﬁcient challenge (Juul 2013). As mentioned earlier, techniques
such as DDA attempt to effectively strike this balance for players of varying skill
levels (Jennings-Teats et al. 2010; Smeddinck et al. 2016; Zohaib 2018), keeping
the player in a constant state of ﬂow (Denisova and Cairns 2015). However, current
DDA techniques have been criticized for being based primarily on designer intuition
rather than actual play patterns. While existing approaches addressing this issue
have utilized machine learning (Jennings-Teats et al. 2010), our taxonomy presents
a different opportunity since in-game death—and the categories of our taxonomy
as a result—is inherently linked to challenge. Speciﬁcally, our taxonomy presents
a structured tool grounded in the design of commercial platformers to categorize
the different design possibilities around death and rebirth in games. As a result,
it highlights novel and broadly applicable elements of a game’s design that can
be dynamically adjusted to improve the player experience. For instance, adjusting
how far backwards a player respawns, how much of their progress is maintained,
and the overall conditions for death are all approaches that have not been explored
deeply in current DDA literature, but are highlighted in our taxonomy. Furthermore,
future research could be done to examine how speciﬁc death and rebirth mechanics
12 Death and Rebirth in Platformer Games 287
relate to various aspects of player experience to further inform DDA technique
design. E.g., death and rebirth mechanics that enable a higher level of control could
satisfy a player’s need for autonomy (Ryan et al. 2006), or mechanics that better
enable continuous successful progression in a game could satisfy a player’s need
for competence (Ijsselsteijn et al. 2008; Johnson et al. 2018; Ryan et al. 2006).
It is important to acknowledge that the platformer game genre has now evolved
to include multiple subgenres with distinct characteristics. This evolution of plat-
formers may affect the way certain observed games with more “classic” designs
were received by players and their resulting critical reception. Additionally, there
are various player styles and preferences that are not accounted for in anonymous
Steam user reviews. Positive and negative reviews may also not be related to aspects
of death and rebirth, and could partially be from other aspects of the games (e.g.,
overall aesthetics, critical bugs, and so forth). As such, using overall Steam scores
for a game to judge the efﬁcacy of speciﬁc taxonomy categories is fairly limited.
However, it does serve to illustrate how the taxonomic breakdown could be utilized
to examine the impact of speciﬁc design decisions around the handling of death
and rebirth on player experience. Finally, it is also important to note that the game
experience is composed of many layers beyond what the ﬁve dimensions of our
taxonomy covers, and has been represented by a number of factors in various game
experience questionnaires. While the taxonomy is a helpful tool to guide some
aspects of design for researchers and designers, further research is needed to clarify
and nuance the relationship between death and rebirth design decisions and the
many layers of player experience.
We utilized grounded theory to develop a taxonomy of death and rebirth concepts in
platformer games. The goal of our taxonomy was to provide a means for game
designers and researchers to better analyse and design how platformers handle
in-game death. We identiﬁed 5 key categories as the basis of our taxonomy of
death and rebirth in platformer games:(1)obstacles,(2)death conditions,(3)
aesthetics,(4)changes to player progress, and (5) respawn locations.Wealsoran
our 62 game corpus back through some of the taxonomy categories in order to
highlight certain design decisions that may be positively or negatively impacting
player experience. Further studies should be conducted to more deeply understand
how categories and concepts in our taxonomy impact crucial player experience
aspects such as game ﬂow, engagement, challenge, autonomy, and self-efﬁcacy.
288 E. F. Melcer and M. A. M. Cuerdo
G1. Adventures of Hendri. (Mar 7, 2018). Developed by LionAnt.
G2. Another Sight: Hodge’s Journey. (Nov 14, 2018). Developed by Lunar Great
G3. Ascendance. (Mar 27, 2018). Developed by ONEVISION GAMES.
G4. Away from Earth: Mars. (Aug 23, 2018). Developed by Only Voxel Games.
G5. Block Shock. (Feb 6, 2018). Developed by VoxStudios.
G6. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon. (May 24, 2018). Developed by INTI
CREATES CO., LTD.
G7. Bloody Trapland 2: Curiosity. (Feb 1, 2019). Developed by 2Play Studios
G8. Bombix. (Mar 2, 2018). Developed by Pragmatix Ltd.
G9. Bouncers. (Jun 1, 2018). Developed by Firehawk Studios.
G10. Castlevania Anniversary Collection. (May 16, 2019). Developed by Konami
G11. Celeste. (Jan 25, 2018). Developed by Matt Makes Games Inc.
G12. Chamber of Darkness. (Oct 10, 2018). Developed by The Crow Studios.
G13. Chasm. (Jul 31, 2018). Developed by Bit Kid, Inc.
G14. Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy. (Jun 29, 2018). Developed by Vicarious
Visions and Iron Galaxy.
G15. Cube - The Jumper. (May 15, 2018). Developed by DZEJK.
G16. Cube XL. (Mar 12, 2018). Developed by Timberwolf Studios.
G17. Cybarian: The Time Travelling Warrior. (Nov 9, 2018). Developed by Ritual
G18. Dead Cells. (Aug 6, 2018). Developed by Motion Twin.
G19. Death’s Gambit. (Aug 13, 2018). Developed by White Rabbit.
G20. DeepWeb. (Sep 20, 2018). Developed by ImageCode.
G21. Dream Alone. (Jun 28, 2018). Developed by WarSaw Games.
G22. Dungreed. (Feb 14, 2018). Developed by TEAM HORAY.
G23. Everything Will Flow. (Jul 28, 2018). Developed by Hont.
G24. Freezeer. (Jun 21, 2018). Developed by NedoStudio.
G25. Frog Demon. (Dec 11, 2018). Developed by White Dog Games.
G26. Golﬁng Over It with Alva Majo. (Mar 28, 201). Developed by Majorariatto.
G27. Gris. (Dec 13, 2018). Developed by Nomada Studio.
G28. Guacamelee! 2. (Aug 21, 2018). Developed by DrinkBox Studios.
G29. I was rebuilt. (Jun 28, 2018). Developed by Gurila Ware Games.
G30. Iconoclasts. (Jan 23, 2018). Developed by Joakim Sandberg.
G31. Katana ZERO. (Apr 18, 2019). Developed by Askiisoft.
G32. Lightform. (Feb 19, 2018). Developed by Shadow Motion.
G33. Little Marisa’s Disaster Journey. (Apr 28, 2018). Developed by Dark Sky
G34. MagiCats Builder (Crazy Dreamz). (Jul 10, 2018). Developed by Dreamz
12 Death and Rebirth in Platformer Games 289
G35. Mark of the Ninja: Remastered. (Oct 9, 2018). Developed by Klei Entertain-
G36. Mega Man 11. (Oct 2, 2018). Developed by CAPCOM CO., LTD.
G37. Mind Twins - The Twisted Co-op Platformer. (Jan 19, 2018). Developed by
G38. Mines of Mars. (Sep 10, 2018). Developed by Wickey Ware.
G39. Neon Beats. (May 3, 2019). Developed by OKYO GAMES.
G40. Niffelheim. (Sep 26, 2018). Developed by Ellada Games.
G41. Night Fly. (Jan 24, 2018). Developed by ARGames.
G42. Order No. 227: Not one step back!. (Jul 3, 2018). Developed by High Wide.
G43. Pogostuck: Rage with Your Friends. (Feb 28, 2019). Developed by Hendrik
G44. Poultry Panic. (Jan 17, 2018). Developed by Virtual Top.
G45. Razed. (Sep 14, 2018). Developed by Warpﬁsh Games.
G46. ReCore: Deﬁnitive Edition. (Sep 14, 2018). Developed by Armature Studio
G47. Return. (Aug 3, 2018). Developed by Breadmeat.
G48. Richy’s Nightmares. (Jul 10, 2018). Developed by Unreal Gaming.
G49. Rift Keeper. (Jan 14, 2019). Developed by Frymore.
G50. Riverhill Trials. (Apr 12, 2018). Developed by Watercolor Games.
G51. Running Man 3D. (Aug 21, 2018). Developed by GGaming.
G52. Slap City. (Mar 5, 2018). Developed by Ludosity.
G53. Steel Rats. (Nov 7, 2018). Developed by Tate Multimedia.
G54. Sure Footing. (Mar 30, 2018). Developed by Table Flip Games.
G55. The Cursed Tower. (Feb 6, 2018). Developed by Mohsin Rizvi.
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G61. Viral Cry. (Mar 7, 2018). Developed by Strategy Empire.
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