This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.

Ryan Powell has always had characters in his head.

When he was growing up in Lenoir, he didn’t know what he’d do with them. But those characters eventually led the Hibriten High School graduate to video game design, and to winning the college division of one of the world’s largest gaming trade shows.

Powell, who recently graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design, led a team that was a co-winner of the college division at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles June 11-12.

“Growing up, I always enjoyed drawing,” Powell said. “I could never put down a pencil. I would get in trouble for drawing in class all the time. So I always knew that I wanted to do something with my art, something with all these characters that I would come up with in my head.”

The game Powell and his teammates took to E3 started out as a senior project. “Lost in Thought” revolves around a character called Dr. Keyes, who tunnels into the minds and memories of his patients. The minds are represented as caves; Keyes is sort of a “spelunker of the mind,” Powell said.

“For several years now, I just had the idea of this character who was some kind of explorer or doctor or inventor, or some kind of character archetype along those lines, that had the ability to travel into a person’s mind,” he said.

The game was a hit at E3 and was ultimately announced as the co-winner of the college division, along with a team from the University of Wisconsin-Stout.

“When the news actually got announced that it was us — wow,” Powell said. “It was a pretty crazy moment. Everyone was jumping up and down and laughing and hugging each other and taking pictures.”

Powell has always been an artist, but he didn’t know he was interested in video game design until he enrolled in the animation program at Western Piedmont Community College in Morganton, where he first tried his hand at Adobe Photoshop and other visual design programs.

For Powell, video game design is just a modern way to tell the most ancient stories.

“I think the one thing that really made me decide I wanted to work on games is that it has the potential to be a very advanced and interactive form of storytelling,” Powell said. “I’ve always kind of thought that one of the things people might not realize about all these kind of modern-day characters and stories is, it’s kind of a modern version of myth.”

After WPCC, Powell made his way to Savannah, Ga., to study game design at SCAD. He had heard stories about the school from SCAD alumni in his life, including an art teacher in Caldwell County, and grew up knowing it was the school he wanted to attend.

“It just kind of seemed like fate that I would end up there,” he said. “It just kind of seemed like all roads led to SCAD. It just always kind of felt like the Hogwarts of artists.”

In addition to the winning title they brought home, E3 was full of networking opportunities for Powell and his teammates. The recent graduates got feedback on the game – most people commented on its striking visuals – exchanged a few business cards, and attended a party or two as well (where they hung out with a crowd Powell describes as “some programmer guys”).

Powell hopes the win will get him some attention and opportunities within the gaming industry. There’s work to do before the game is worthy of being marketed, he said, but the team is hoping to launch a website that showcases a trailer and a downloadable version of the game.

For now, Powell isn’t leading any big projects. He’s just savoring the win and working on his portfolio.

And, of course, there are plenty of new characters in his mind, waiting to make it the screen.

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