A group of USC students will be featured at the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference and festival in Austin, TX for their interactive experience that combines the worlds of interactive gaming, live theatrical performance and personal narrative experience.
“Ascend: When Myths Fall, Heros Rise” is the passion project of narrative studies major Anahita Dalmia. She dreamed of creating an experience, “in which people have agency and impact in an unfolding story” in high school but had been unsuccessful. Upon coming to USC, she tried once again, applying to become the Director of Special Events for Undergraduate Student Government, which allowed her to funnel funding towards the creation of new student events.
After nearly a year’s work, the first immersive experience, “Alohomora,” a collaboration between theatre, gaming, music and writing students, debuted in the spring of 2018. Riding the waves of her first success, Dalmia immediately set about planning a second.
She retained a number of members of her original team, including Madeline Dile, Director of Games, and Jack McCarthy, Creative Director. She also asked a few members who had joined the Alohamora team later on in the process to take on new roles, including Anastasia Barbato, who stepped into the role of Administrative Director and Production Coordinator, and Nick Griffith, who was promoted to Director of Design and Production. In August 2018, the four helped Dalmia, who took the role of Narrative Director, interview over 100 students for a variety of open positions.
“Ascend,” which Dalmia described as “an intersection of theme park and video game,” debuted last March, the culmination of thousands of hours of work. Dalmia estimates that some students spent over 600 hours working on the production over the course of eight months.
The overall concept of “Ascend” is hard to grasp. Participants are given a personality test that assigns them to one of four pantheons of gods. They are then welcomed into a room illuminated with otherworldly holograms where they participate in a “choose your own adventure” experience replete with games, puzzles and more. It is an event that is transformative; immersive in both name and function.
Following their success at USC, the three, along with Madeleine Dile, the Director of Games, and Jack McCarthy, the Creative and Theatrics Director, submitted the immersive experience for the SXSW Student Innovation Award in August. On Jan. 31, 2020, they were announced as finalists.
In March, the group of five will travel to Texas, where they will condense their originally 9,000 square foot production into a 10-foot by 10-foot booth. In order to do this, the group will set up monitors displaying videos of the original production and select a number of the smaller games so that visitors can experience a little bit of the original magic.
“It’s almost a little bit of a highlights reel of everything that was great about “Ascend.” We’re taking those little elements; taking them from a big giant space and putting them in a little space,” Griffith said.
SXSW will not be the last time that some of these students collaborate. Following graduation, Dalmia, Barbato and Griffith have plans to found Alterea, a company that will “specialize in the intersection of immersive theater and interactive gaming in a way that creates an entire narrative world in which guests can come in and make decisions that will actually impact an unfolding story,” Dalmia said.
“It’s been really exciting to see how inspired everyone was by the idea because you don’t put that kind of time and effort into something unless you really care about it,” Dalmia said. “It really does feel like we’re transitioning into a new era of entertainment and it’s exciting to be a part of it and very much be next-generation leaders in it.”
Dile and McCarthy both graduated in 2019 and went on to produce what they call “ASCEND 2.0,” which won an ENCORE! award at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Both have remained in Los Angeles; Dile is currently working as a development associate at Blind Children’s Center in Los Angeles, and McCarthy is working as a professional themed entertainment consultant.
Correction: A previous version stated that Dile and McCarthy had been hired for ASCEND. That is incorrect - they had been a part of the original core team for Alohamora and had been asked to stay on to create ASCEND. A previous version stated that Dile and McCarthy were helping to found Alterea. That is incorrect - they are pursuing other opportunities.