Students unable to attend conference

Student game designers were hoped to present their ideas on their game ASCEND, a game that immerses the audience in a mythological world through puzzle and improvisation games. (Photo courtesy of ASCEND)

Five USC student and alumni game designers will no longer travel to Austin, Texas Thursday after growing concern regarding the spread of coronavirus led to the canceling of the 2020 South by Southwest Innovation Awards. The students planned to present their game ASCEND at SXSW but the city of Austin canceled the festival Friday amid public health concerns regarding large gatherings.

“It was disappointing,” said administrative director Anastasia Barbato, a senior majoring in narrative studies and nongovernmental organizations and social change. “We thought of it as a good networking opportunity, and a good opportunity to meet with other people in the entertainment industry, and generally get our names out there.”

ASCEND, an interactive performance where actors portray mythological characters, was selected in the Student Innovation Award category at the 2020 SXSW Innovation Awards in January. The game uses Greek, Egyptian, Chinese and Mayan characters to portray modern issues such as environmental protection and gender parity and encourages the audience to interact with the narrative of the story through games and puzzles. 

“It’s mostly just a huge disappointment, you know, a lost opportunity,” said 2019 alumnus and creative director Jack McCarthy. “I think all of us are still hoping to be able to present somehow, if it [is through] digital, if it is through an application, so that there is still a chance that we can get this award.”

The team is currently waiting to hear from organizers about next steps. Dalmia said she does not know what will happen in the future. 

“We have no idea if we get a virtual pitch or a certificate for being a top five finalist, or if the event is going to be delayed — we just have no clue on what’s coming next,” narrative director Anahita Dalmia said. “Our spectrum of uncertainty is in regards to what do we do now that we don’t have this opportunity and how do we make up for the opportunity costs?” 

Dalmia, who heard about SXSW — an annual festival that invites filmmakers, music festival representatives and different interactive media creators to promote their upcoming projects and events — canceling Friday by an email from event representatives, said team members were disappointed that they would miss out on the opportunities provided by the event. She said they were looking forward to networking and meeting individuals interested in hiring entertainment designers.

“All of us were really excited about going to the conference,” said Dalmia, a senior majoring in narrative studies. “Me and my three other teammates — we intend to start a company next — were hoping that this would be a way for us to get sponsorship traction for our next events and potentially even clients.”

The team was relying heavily on the project to make connections and interact with members of the entertainment industry and introduce their plan to create Alterea, a company that creates events and games on alternative realities designed to have the audience actively contribute to the story through decisions they take while interacting with the characters to affect the outcome of the story.

ASCEND creators premiered the game, which immersed students into the worlds of Greek, Egyptian, Chinese and Mayan mythology, last March. More than 400 people attended the event.(Photos courtesy of ASCEND)

“There’s definitely a lot of opportunities that we’re not going to get to have now,” McCarthy said. “There are a lot of connections that could have been made. There’s a lot of … development that is not going to happen anymore.”

The team that planned to attend SXSW, which included Dalmia, McCarthy, Barbato, design director Nick Griffith, a senior majoring in architectural design, and games director Madeleine Dile, a 2019 alumna, also suffered financial losses for flight tickets and accommodations. 

“What we’ve lost is minuscule compared to the amount of money a lot of other people have lost,” Dalmia said. “I think it was mostly $100 to $500 [each] because we were choosing to stay with friends and relatives … We are kind of trying to be mindful of the fact that the situation was completely out of our control.”

The show premiered in March 2019 at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center Ballroom with more than 400 people in attendance. After their premiere, the group worked on creating a proposal for the 2020 SXSW conference that included shooting promotional videos to showcase their game design that was submitted in August. They were one of the 65 student submissions and chosen as one of the five finalists invited to Austin to showcase their project on March 14. 

In the meantime, Dalmia plans to work with Griffiths and Barbato for ASCEND to work with other organizations in Los Angeles by putting on an event similar to ASCEND but themed to Clifton Republic’s Hollywood history in July. She believes the group will have the opportunity to learn from this collaboration with the company. 

“That’s our personal next step because we strongly believe in the format that we’ve created and the potential of it,” Dalmia said. “It’s very experimental and everything can crash and burn and blow up in our face, but that’s a risk we are currently willing and able to take.”