Arts, Culture & Entertainment

From the Underworld to the clouds: USC Games Expo 2022 preview

Student-made games set to take viewers from the depths of the underworld to tips of the clouds

A flyer for the USC Games Expo 2022

On Thursday May 12, USC Games is planning to take the gaming world by storm.

In partnership with media outlet IGN and game developer Jam City, USC Games will showcase over 50 games made by its students at the USC Games Expo 2022.

Among the games set to premiere are eight Advanced Game Projects — or AGPs for short.

Each AGP was approved from a slate of student pitches by USC Games faculty and industry professionals.

Teams of students, with some as large as 40 people, then developed each pitch into a full-fledged game over the course of just about a year.

I sat down with members of various AGP development teams to learn about their games, their development processes and their thoughts about finally unveiling their work to the world.


A graphic from the video game "Impasto"

People often talk about getting lost in a work of art. The upcoming game “Impasto” takes this a bit more literally as it brings the player into a dark fantasy world directly inspired by the bleak, ghastly Black Paintings of Spanish artist Francisco Goya. Adventuring through this world, players will explore facets of the trials and travails of Goya’s life and what led to the creation of the Black Paintings.

“Impasto” is the culmination of the work of an entire team of students, but it started roughly two years ago as the brainchild of director Alex Tomkow. Tomkow was on, playing indie horror games with a friend. As they made their way through one, Tomkow was struck by a horrifyingly beautiful painting in the background, a painting of a grotesque, monstrous creature grasping a humanoid corpse in its hands, devouring it. The artwork wasn’t an original creation. It was perhaps the most famous of the Black Paintings, a composition called “Saturn Devouring His Son.” The painting stuck in Tomkow’s mind. It led him to research that painting, its sister works and Goya. As a USC Games student, Tomkow then started to wonder what the Black Paintings would be like as a game, which led him to develop the concept further. Tomkow’s ideas eventually crystallized into an AGP pitch which was approved for development around May 2021.

Lead designer Alan Karbachinsky and lead producer Ria Xi joined “Impasto” early on and worked to see the overall vision for “Impasto” to fruition. To better serve the narrative focus of “Impasto,” Karbachinsky embedded himself and his fellow designers in with the narrative team to ensure that their work helped to tell the overall story in the best way possible. Xi onboarded new team members as they joined, ensuring that everyone was in-line with the overall goals, focus and timetable for the project.

Now, roughly a year since development started, “Impasto” is ready for the world. Tomkow, Karbachinsky and Xi all expressed a deep pride in what their team managed to accomplish in the time they had. That said, each of them had a unique hope for the audience.

Xi said she hopes the audience notices just how much a team of students managed to achieve and innovate in the limited time available to them.

Karbachinsky hopes viewers and players alike have a blast with the game while hopefully learning something new in the process.

As for Tomkow, he hopes that the love and respect his team have for Francisco Goya’s life and art shines through.


A graphic from the video game "SPOOKUELE"

Haru and Spooky are two reapers. Together, they’re out to smack down ghosts and stave off an endless night using musically applied violence. But in doing so, they might just drop the hottest album to ever come out of New Orleans. That’s the idea anyways, in Spookulele Games’ new action-adventure RPG (role-playing game): “SPOOKULELE.”

Now, “SPOOKULELE” is set to premiere at the USC Games Expo 2022, but its roots go back much further. In fact, the current incarnation of “SPOOKULELE” is a spiritual successor to a class project that executive producer Weston Bell-Geddes and creative director Sheehan Ahmed were paired together for in their freshman year. The original version is a far cry from the current version though. The original iteration was a tabletop game, Spooky was an antagonist and the overall experience was an asymmetrical 4v1 multiplayer game.

Ahmed and Bell-Geddes liked the overall concept, so they kept working on it. In bringing “SPOOKULELE” through the AGP process – from pitch to publication – they discovered what the game wanted to be.

They kept the main emotional goals of contrasting dark and scary elements like ghosts and skeletons with cute and innocent elements like ukelele music. Ahmed drew inspiration from games like “Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” and “NieR:Automata” which combine different thematic and gameplay elements in unique ways.

But, Ahmed also credits their team with bringing in new influences, balancing him out and generally making the game better. Ahmed remembers team members talking him out of some initial ideas that – in retrospect – weren’t very good.

Bell-Geddes, in turn, saw it as his job to facilitate communication between all the departments so everyone was not only on the same page, but could also work together to make each part of “SPOOKULELE” the best it could be.

Sarah Yuen, the animation director for “SPOOKULELE”, is one of those people who worked to make the project the best it could be. Yuen largely worked on the animations for Haru – one of the playable characters. Yuen wanted Haru’s animations to feel quick and reactive in order to complement the combat system.

But while this incarnation of “SPOOKULELE” is ready for the world, it’s not the end for Haru and Spooky – or Ahmed and Bell-Geddes. Ahmed and Bell-Geddes have founded their own company – suitably called Spookulele Games – and they intend to seek the funding from different companies to develop “SPOOKULELE” into a roughly 10-hour experience.

So watch out Lil Wayne, Haru and Spooky might just be gunning for the New Orleans music scene throne.


A graphic design collage depicting the setting of the video game, Skylost.

The skies don’t hide many secrets in real life. There’s birds and the occasional spat of inclement weather, but not much else. That makes them kind of boring. That’s not the case in the upcoming game “Skylost”. In this upcoming 3D crafting and exploration game, players will traverse a series of mysterious islands fixed high in the sky, all to find a lost love named Amelia. Although Annenberg Media covered the origins and partial development of “Skylost” back in December,  a lot has changed since then and the “Skylost” team has been hard at work iterating on and polishing their game.

Hang Yang is the usability lead on “Skylost” and he’s been working hard to make sure that everyone who watches or plays “Skylost” is going to be able to seamlessly pick up what the team is looking to put down. As Yang describes it, his job is to make sure that there are no accidental or unnecessary challenges or interruptions to the game, thereby giving players the deepest possible experience. So, since he joined the team in August 2021, he’s been working towards that goal, recruiting people to playtest “Skylost” and provide feedback for the dev team to integrate into their work.

Meanwhile “Skylost” art producer Luke Todaro has been working with the art team to keep production chugging along. During production, Todaro worked to collaborate with the design team to make sure that the art assets being created matched up with their intended purpose in-game.

Ultimately though, “Skylost” is a culmination of the time, energy, effort and trust that Director Charlie Anderson put into pitching and developing it as well as the hard work of each and every person on the “Skylost” team. Going into the Expo, Anderson hopes that everyone who sees “Skylost,” no matter where they are in the world, notices and recognizes all of his team’s hard work.

Anderson declared, “When they watch the stream, I want them to notice all the work that the team did… I want them to see how much effort and time and focus each person really put into the game.”


A graphic from the video game "Charon"

“Charon” represents the start of something new. In Greek mythology, the ferryman Charon represents the start of the afterlife for the newly deceased, who have to pay him to ferry them into Hades, the mythological Greek underworld.  “Charon,” the soon-to-be-showcased AGP, draws on this myth. In doing so, it might just represent the start of a new type of game.

“Charon” is an action rower, in which players control the titular ferryman as he works to reunite the dead spirit of a woman named Alexis, who has unfortunately angered the goddess Demeter, with someone who was precious to her in life.

In terms of genre, rowers are something new. Sure, there have been boats in games before. But the team behind “Charon” has put a lot of effort into making the overall experience something new and unique.

For that, the team pulled influences from all over. “Charon” director Selah Wright personally cited theme park rides like “Pirates of the Caribbean,” an old Neopets game called “Shenkuu River Rush,” as well as the Tony Award winning musical “Hadestown,” as influences on “Charon.”

One of the things the team behind “Charon” worked hardest on though, was the ferry itself. The design team wanted players to feel immersed in the game, like they were controlling the mythical ferryman guiding his boat down the rivers of Hades.

As they worked, the design team sought tons of feedback from the “Charon” usability team. According to design lead Justin Sindecuse-Hayden, his team went through five different movement schemes, but none of them quite felt right. The team then realized that they had the boat, but they were missing the influence of the water. Sindecuse-Hayden explained that once the design team created and implemented water physics alongside their latest movement scheme, the difference in feedback from playtesters was night-and-day.

Together, these influences work together to make “Charon” a brand new experience. In describing “Charon” to me, director Wright, design lead Sindecuse-Hayden and lead producer Eli Bork all used the term “rower” to refer to their game.

Sindecuse-Hayden explained that although “rower” isn’t an existing game genre, there aren’t any other games out there that quite try to do what “Charon” is aiming for.

“We didn’t just make a first person shooter, we didn’t make a platformer, we didn’t make some fighting game,” Sindecuse-Hayden said. “We made something that really hasn’t been done before.”

Going into the Expo, Bork hopes that viewers and players really notice this innovation. Bork hopes that audiences notice the polish that went into the movement of the boat, how it interacts with and is affected by the water.

Sindecuse-Hayden shares this hope, but also wants players and viewers to feel Charon’s power as a god during combat. After all, players don’t just control the ferry, they control the person piloting it.

Wright, for her part, wants players to be captivated by the unique vision of the underworld that the “Charon” team created.

“It’s not just like your typical, run of the mill, hell-type Hades. It’s not fire and brimstone, it’s actually a very colorful and vibrant world that was this child/collaboration between our art team and our narrative team.”

Bounty Heart

A graphic design depicting the gameplay of the video game, "Bounty Heart"

“Dead or alive” sits at the core of “Bounty Heart.” As a game, “Bounty Heart” is a rogue-like that merges match-three gameplay with tactical RPG elements. Narratively, the player controls a group of bounty hunters that hunt down fugitives while also looking to lock down a legendary bounty. What sets “Bounty Heart” apart though, is that the players have the choice of how to handle the opponents they face off against. After defeating an opponent, players can kill their quarry and cash in on the bounty. Or, players can spare their vanquished opponent and recruit them to the party – forfeiting any profit in exchange.

For “Bounty Heart” creative director Larry Wu, the game started with its mechanics. Wu is a big fan of “Puzzles and Dragons.” But as Wu was playing through it one day, he started to wish that it had a mode where he didn’t have to grind as much to progress. At the time, Wu was also playing a lot of “Fire Emblem Heroes.” So, Wu decided to try out merging their mechanics together, taking further inspiration from “Undertale” and its kill-or-spare system.

Once development got going though, a lot of time was spent refining and iterating on the core mechanics. For instance, Wu detailed, when production was first getting going, there were only three different types of icons to match and matching sets didn’t clear immediately when new orbs were added. The problem was that when they programmed new matching sets to clear immediately after new icons were added, enemies could easily die by accident. That worked against the whole recruit-or-kill part of “Bounty Heart.” Ultimately Wu and his team solved that problem by adding a fourth type of icon, which reduced the chances of new sets automatically clearing.

For “Bounty Heart” UI artist and art lead Dorian Trinh, the iterative process was valuable as well. Trinh started her UI work designing wireframe layouts that the art team could then fill in. The weekly playtests of “Bounty Heart” provided feedback so that anything that needed changes could be adjusted before it became too big of a deal.

“Bounty Heart” is now set for a global showcase and both Wu and Trinh are excited.

Wu said he is extremely excited for the world to see “Bounty Heart” and is grateful for the chance to have made this game. He would’ve loved to keep developing the game, but said he feels that the team has put together a full and complete experience that people can surely enjoy.

Trinh hopes that players and viewers find themselves drawn to the world and characters of “Bounty Heart.”

“It’s not a typical match three where you’re like matching tiles – this is an RPG as well. You’re moving, you’re interacting with the characters of this world. So I hope that players can get a sense of being attached to our characters because we’ve worked really hard on the character designs in this game.”

That’s Not How It Happened

A graphic from the video game "That’s Now How It Happened"

Sugar, spice and everything nice. Plus a touch of Chemical X and a splash of classic Japanese cinema. These were the ingredients chosen to make the perfect little game. Then,  director Meny Menczel added an extra ingredient to the concoction. The AGP process! Thus, “That’s Not How It Happened” was born! Using their ultra-super powers of selective recollection, George, Alan and Zoey Turner are dedicated to explaining how their family inn ended up burning to the ground in this multi-styled game.

Multi-styled is an odd term, but it’s the best way to describe “That’s Not How It Happened.” As players progress through the game, they play through George, Alan and Zoey’s explanations of what led to their family inn burning down. But each character recalls the situation differently. The difference isn’t only narrative – it also extends to the art style and gameplay of each segment. For instance, one part is a “River City Girls” style beat-’em-up, while another draws on point-and-click dating sims.

This all stems from the original inspiration for this game. A while back, creative director Meny Menczel was watching an episode of the classic cartoon “The Powerpuff Girls” titled “The Bare Facts.” In it, the main characters rescue the Mayor, but since he was blindfolded the whole time, he asks them to explain something that he heard happen. The girls then recount the story. In a Rashomon-esque twist, each of their retellings is extremely subjective, and each is animated in a different style that reflects the speaker’s personality.

Menczel has a fondness for comedy in games and thought the basic idea could translate well. So, Menczel worked the idea over. He knew that to make this idea work, the art styles needed to be distinct and suit each character, so he met with Rachel Geng – who is now the art director on “That’s Not How It Happened” –  to work out some concept art.

Menczel also thought it would be interesting to tell an overarching story through the lenses of different game genres. After all, the stories told by games like “Streets of Rage” and “River City Girls” are a lot different than the stories told by games like “Persona 5″ and “Monster Prom.”

Now, with the USC Games Expo 2022 looming, Menczel is excited for the world to see what his team has accomplished. As for specifics he wants for the audience, Menczel kept it simple.

“I’d love [viewers] to have a couple of laughs as they watch it.”

Turtle Town

A graphic from the video game "Turtle Town"

See this turtle of enormous girth. On its shell, it holds not the earth. Instead, the top of Tortimer Turtle’s shell hosts a vibrant community of adorable critters looking to escape the mechanical animals threatening Brightleaf Hollow. In the upcoming AGP “Turtle Town,” players control the mayor of the city and are responsible for building it up. As the player steers Tortimer around the forest, the city gains more resources and items. The player can use these to build up the city and customize it.

The seemingly-disparate gameplay elements invite comparisons to a diverse array of games like “FTL: Faster Than Light” and the “Animal Crossing.” That’s good, because that’s what the “Turtle Town” team was aiming for. Creative Director Michael Ford said he was heavily inspired by the “FTL” gameplay of managing something as it’s moving through different encounters, but also by the fluffy, animal community aesthetic of the “Animal Crossing” series.

“Turtle Town” seems wonderfully original, but one of the most surprising things about it is that the original idea was born out of a really bad film; one of the key inspirations for “Turtle Town” came from the 2018 box office bomb “Mortal Engines.”

Ford reminisced, “For whatever reason, I went to see this terrible movie and walked out of it feeling like ‘Yeah, that was a really bad movie. It was not a good cinema-going experience.’ But then there was this other tiny part of me that was like ‘Cities on wheels? That’s… That’s actually kind of cool.’”

At the time he saw that film, Ford was playing a lot of games that involved managing cities. So, he started thinking about ways to mesh those two ideas together. He brought his idea to Laura Littleton, an artist friend of his who now serves as the art director for “Turtle Town.” Littleton told Ford to scrap the industrial aesthetic. It was ugly to look at and she didn’t want to draw it, so Littleton suggested putting the city on the back of a turtle instead. Ford liked the idea, and eventually brought Littleton on as the art director for “Turtle Town.”

The combination has merit. It had to, for USC Games to approve it as an AGP.

Soon though, the world will be able to see “Turtle Town” for itself. Ford is excited to get public eyes on it. But more than that, Ford has spent the past year seeing his team’s work in all the neat, minute details of the game. Now, he’s glad to see it up on the world stage.

“I think the really cool thing about being in charge of a project – especially a project this big – is that you know what everyone on the team works on,” Ford said. “When you play through the game, you can see all the little things that each person put in. You can look at the turtle and be like ‘Oh, hey! I know the person who drew that turtle!’”

Ford concluded, “That’s my favorite part of the game, going through and seeing all those little details. I think that’ll be fun for other people, to see all the love that’s been sprinkled into this game world and the game itself.”

Social Moth

A graphic from the video game "Social Moth"

“Social Moth” is a game that wants something from its players.

That’s not unique. Every game wants that.

Some games aim to scare, others aim to distract and nearly all games want their players to have fun. “Social Moth” aims higher though. It wants its players to develop a greater understanding of social anxiety.

Narratively, “Social Moth” revolves around a moth named Aletris. Aletris has social anxiety. The job of players is to guide Aletris through the world around them both physically and socially. As a game, “Social Moth” is a platformer. As Aletris steps out of their home, players move them through the world. But as players do, a gauge in the corner of the screen keeps track of Aletris’ anxiety, which steadily rises as they’re outside. Players can lower Aletris’ anxiety by finding collectables throughout the world, but also by guiding her thinking during conversations with her friends. Guiding Aletris’ thoughts in a more self-forgiving direction during conversations lowers her anxiety. Guiding her thoughts the other direction raises it. If players allow Aletris’ social anxiety to get out of hand, those feelings will manifest in-game and players will have to deal with the monstrous manifestation of that.

This might sound like a massive undertaking for a game. That’s because it is. Social anxiety is a major issue. The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health estimates that more than 12% of Americans will deal with social anxiety during their lifetimes. That’s why the team behind “Social Moth” worked to treat the topic with the care it deserves.

For “Social Moth” Creative Director Ben Heid, this game was a chance to address an issue close to him. Heid said he’s dealt with social anxiety for a large part of his life and many people on his team have dealt with social anxiety as well.

Heid was open about his team’s work to address this issue with sensitivity. Heid explained that his team sought advice and input from a clinical psychologist in order to make sure that “Social Moth” could address social anxiety in the most constructive way possible.

But for Heid and many on his team, social anxiety has been a personal struggle. A number of team members offered up feedback during the development process, based on their own lived experiences.

The “Social Moth” team also worked to seek out a range of playtesters. Some with lived experiences with social anxiety and others without. That was important for Heid. He wanted people with social anxiety to be able to identify with Aletris. But Heid also wanted to give people who haven’t dealt with social anxiety an idea of the experience.

Going into the USC Games Expo 2022, Heid is so incredibly proud of his team and what they’ve done.

“To have people be able to play [”Social Moth”], and hopefully… relate, and feel a bit more seen, and a bit more validated in their struggles with social anxiety is something that I’m so excited for.”