• Q&A with Call of Duty: Black Ops' Thom Tran

    All the way back at the start of November, we wrote about Activision's all-kinds-of-excellent "There's A Soldier In All Of us" live-action Call of Duty: Black Ops trailer. In it, we saw a bunch of names plastered on weapons, such as Jimmy Kimmel's "PROUD n00b" and Kobe Bryant's "MAMBA". We also spotted "SSG TRAN", and after some digging had come to the conclusion that it was a tribute to a Staff Sergeant Tran, killed in action during 2009. How wrong we were!

    The SSG Tran actually featured in the trailer, Thom Tran, stopped by the forums to clear things up and gave us a quick run-down on his involvement. So while he was here, we thought we might as well flesh out the details of his involvement with Black Ops. Don't be surprised if it feels like you already know him very well - you've been shooting him for the last fortnight!

    First of all, sorry for saying you died in combat! My bad. But, we understand you did indeed serve in the military, and did so for a considerable amount of time. Tell us a little about your military background and reasons for retirement.

    Haha! No worries, mate. I just needed to clear up the confusion. I have friends who are gamers, who are still on Active Duty, and they knew I was working on "Black Ops", so when they read the boards, they were calling me up going, "Ummm, dude. Did you get killed in 2009?". And I was like, "Uh, no?" So then I checked it out for myself, and tried to clear it up on as many boards as possible. It's amazing how many people got it wrong. I suppose that's what happens when you Google something, and assume the first answer is the correct one. There were three Staff Sergeant (SSG) Trans in Iraq when I was there, so I have to assume there are a few more. SSGTRAN just happens to be my Xbox Live gamer tag.

    As for my service, I was wounded in combat, but not killed. I was shot during a firefight in Iraq in 2003, and those injuries lead to my early retirement from the military in 2005.

    Since then, you've been writing, have become a performing stand-up comedian, play the guitar, DJ, and have even been spotted in the hit television series CSI: NY, among others! The question has to be asked: what's next for Thom Tran? Should we expect to see you in a Hollywood blockbuster in a few years?

    I don't know. My focus is stand up comedy. That's why I moved to Los Angeles in the first place. My acting career will go wherever my agent tells me to. Haha! I'm lucky enough to have an agent that understands that I didn't come to Hollywood to be an actor. I started doing standup comedy after I retired from the Army as a way to fight post-combat stress and to deal with the demons I brought back from Iraq. It's become my therapy, as well as my career, so I'm focusing on that. I'm producing a show which I'm hoping to take on tour early next year, but while I'm here in Los angeles, I'll take whatever acting work comes my way. And of course, if Activision decides they want the services of Dagger Media Group again, we'll be MORE than happy to oblige! Without saying too much, you may be seeing some more of me, very soon.

    With such a busy schedule, when did the idea pop-up to continue to use your military experience beyond the call of duty, sorry for the pun, and become a consultant in media and video games. How did your role with Dager Media Group come about?

    Actually, my involvement with Activision came about because of my job at Dagger Media Group. I started at DMG as an actor on a few projects here and there, and eventually was moved into the "writer's room" because of my experience as a journalist and a comedy writer, and eventually became one of the core staffers. As a staff writer and military consultant with the company I was around during the inception of our relationship with Activision. On top of being a military consulting firm, Dagger Media Group is also a full-service, in house production company that creates and provides training material for the US military. Our relationship with Activision started back when Modern Warfare 2 was being released. The folks at Activision came to us with the Call of Duty Endowment, which helps raise money and services for veterans to help find careers when they leave the military. They asked us to film a live-action Modern Warfare type project to help launch The Call of Duty Endowment last November. We immediately, and with no hesitation, said yes, and shot it on a budget of zero, because we're all vets, AND fans of Call of Duty, and wanted to do our part. The video can be seen at www.daggermediagroup.com, on my website, and on youtube.

    Activision loved it, and they eventually asked us to help with "Black Ops", and the rest I suppose is history.

    When news first arrived of your impending involvement with Call of Duty: Black Ops, that must have been pretty exciting, given that you're a gamer. We see you in "There's a soldier in all of us" with your Gamertag stuck to the side of your shotgun. Now that is cool. I'm betting it was your idea?

    When we were asked to consult on, and eventually be heavily involved in both the game itself, and the commercial, it was the ultimate geek dream come true! Minus having Jeri Ryan, Ashley Greene, and Alice Eve as my alternating girlfriends, that is. It's like a sports fan who plays Madden going, "Man, I wish I could be in this game". I'm ACTUALLY in the game! It's still kind of crazy to me, when I play, I'm ACTUALLY playing me. And I've killed myself THOUSANDS of times since last week, which my therapist is a tad concerned about. When my boss at DMG got a chance to play a beta of the game, he came back to the office and was like, "I just killed you for 45 minutes." My reaction was, "That. Is. Amazing!"

    As for the gamer-tag on the weapons, the Activision folks and the production company that shot the commercial (MJZ) came up with that idea, but I was immediately like, "Yeah! Yeah! Let's do that!" And I believe Kobe and Jimmy were more than happy to oblige!

    How was your experience during filming, it looks like it would have been a ball on set. Did you get to shoot with Kobe and Jimmy?

    This was hands down the biggest non-feature Hollywood project I've worked on, and it was AWESOME! So much fun! And the production company, MJZ, is so good, and so professional. I'd worked with the director, Rupert Sanders, on another project and he is so talented and fun to work for! It was just a great time!

    But I remember finding out that Kobe and Kimmel were going to be there. We shot it in the desert in the middle of nowhere, and a limo pulls up, and it's Kobe. I was like, "I didn't get a limo." Haha! But I shot my scene in the morning, and Kobe shot his in the afternoon, and he was such a great dude. There was no air of "I'm Kobe Bryant", you know what I mean? He was just a gamer who was just as happy to be involved with this as the rest of us. You know that smile of his in the commercial? Yeah, that's genuine, "This is awesome fun" on his face. Which is was for everyone. I didn't get to work with Jimmy, though. He shot the next day, and I had to get back to Los Angeles for something else.

    And who's the duel-wielding butcher at the end? Did you meet him? He looks totally bad-ass.

    I don't know! But that dude is a freakin' rock star now! Yeah, everyone loves that guy, and he does look very bad ass. They shot that the same day Jimmy was there, so I didn't get to work in that scene.

    Despite not facing-off on set, let's get down to brass tacks. Who's funnier, you or Jimmy? It's ok, you can tell us what you really think.

    Hmmm.. who's funnier? Me or Kimmel. Let's see. Jimmy has a very successful late-night TV show, and I'm playing the "Chuckle-Hut" in Boise, Idaho next month - actually I'm playing the Hollywood Improv the day after Thanksgiving, and the Sacramento Punchline in December. Jimmy's got the star power, but I could definitely take him in a Black Ops Wager Match.

    Thom Tran Character You mentioned earlier that you are actually in the game. What's the story there, what other areas of Black Ops did you have a hand in?

    Well, we started off as uniform and weapons consultants first. We'd been working with the Treyarch guys for a LONG time on Black Ops. The art guys at Treyarch actually dressed me up as every Vietnamese character in the game as the base model for the avatars, as they did with some of the other DMG guys for the other characters. Then one day they were like, "Would you mind being used as a face in the game?", and I was like, "Are you drunk? What the Hell kind of question is that? Of course I wouldn't mind!" Next thing I know, me and my buddies are playable characters in the game! If you customize the NVA character, and select Scavenger for Perk 1, that's my unaltered face on that avatar. All the other faces, I think, are minor alterations of my head. All the noses are definitely mine though! And the iconic "Sitting Bull" that you see everywhere? That's my buddy Joe Anderson, a very talented actor who is EVERYWHERE.

    The game is soaring, as far as sales and critical acclaim is concerned. It had the biggest launch week in entertainment history, and is sporting an average review score of 86 across the major platforms. Have you had time to get stuck in and play yourself? What rank are you?

    Are you kidding me? It's been non-stop Black Ops at DMG Headquarters since last week! We have a dozen Xbox 360's rigged up in our office, and it's been day in and day out since last Tuesday! I'm only a level 24 as of today though, because if I didn't set a limit for myself nothing would get done at the office. So I have a simple rule, I play until I get promoted to the next level, then I'm done for the day. Except the first day, when I played until I passed out from hunger. I literally forgot to eat that day! And with press and interviews and all that stuff from the launch, I've really had to limit my time on the game. But once it calms down, I'll be Prestiging in no time.

    It's always weird to play myself, and then kill myself! The first time I killed my avatar, I stood over the body, looking at my "dead" face, like, "Wow. Really?" Then someone came along and killed me while I was looking! That was damn inconsiderate!

    We've had some community input for this interview, and Aegis has thrown in a great question. You may or may not be aware of the whole "Taliban" fiasco regarding the recently released Medal of Honor. Complaints were made about its setting in current day Afghanistan, and the use of the term Taliban. These complaints were made by current military personnel, as well as the families of deceased soldiers. They were heard on FOX News, in papers and in letters to EA Games. Given that you've served in the military, now work in the entertainment industry and work for DMG, who specialise in military consultation for entertainment mediums, we would assume you don't have any major beef with this sort of thing. What's your opinion on Medal of Honor, and the broader topic?

    Yeah. I'm well aware of the fiasco that went down with "Medal of Honor", with the game being banned from PX's on military installations and all that. And let me be clear, that what I'm about to say is SOLEY my own opinion and not that of Dagger Media Group, Activision, Treyarch, or ANYONE else, OK?

    I understand the sensitivity to that situation. And I understand and grieve along with the families that made those complaints. I was wounded in Iraq. I bled for my country. And two weeks before my team was to redeploy back to the States, my soldier, friend, room mate and fellow gamer was killed in an IED attack. That's something I live with everyday. I understand better than most people what it's like to lose someone in combat. He wasn't blood, but he was my family. However, I also understand OVER-sensitivity and the fact that some media outlets that claim to be "news" organizations go for what ever is going to stir up the pot. But to me, it's a non-issue. This is Hollywood. This is entertainment. There has to be a bad guy if there's going to be a good guy. It's that simple.

    Regardless of whether you call them "Taliban" or "Op For", you're looking at the same thing. They're the bad guys. Louis C.K. is one of my favorite comics and one of the guys I look up to, and he does a bit about "The N Word". Not the actual word, but the phrase, "The N Word". He says that people who use the phrase "The N Word" are just as bad as people who say the word itself. You're not making it any better by replacing the word with a phrase that means the same thing. If someone says "The N Word", you know what word they're talking about, and they put that word in your head. (He clearly tells the joke much better and much funnier than I do). And that's how I feel about this non-sense. You're playing a game based on the current conflict in Afghanistan, and you're playing the bad guy. Whether you call them "Taliban" or "Op For", you know who they are. This whole thing is stupid.

    You want to talk about sensitivity? I play EVERY NVA and ARVN solider in the game. My father, a Vietnam vet, was a POW in a North Vietnamese prison camp for 3 years. Now his son is portraying the very people who beat and tortured him for 3 years. If ANYONE should be sensitive about something like that, it's him. You know what he says about it? "As long as you're not calling home asking for rent money or to tell me you're doing porn, I don't care."

    So no, I don't have a beef with it. That's like saying I have a beef with Persian actors who play terrorist in my movies. It's stupid.

    Thanks to Thom for his time. Anyone who's in a Call of Duty game and is a fan of Louis C.K. is a friend of GU, so perhaps we'll speak more with him again come the next installment of Activision's blockbuster franchise!

    In the meantime, make sure you check out the photo album he has posted on Facebook, covering his involvement with the game. Oh, and his own site as well!

    Comments 6 Comments
    1. rec's Avatar
      I've just added a bunch of photos to the article - so if you're reading this in the forums, check out the original view to see them.
    1. Aegis's Avatar
      Great interview, rec! Really good responses too (particularly to my question, which was the awesomest one you have to admit )
    1. Harbinger's Avatar
      quoted on front page of slashdot.

      Slashdot Games Story | Combat Vets On CoD: Black Ops, Medal of Honor Taliban
    1. rec's Avatar
      RogueyWon's comments at Slashdot were interesting:

      Quote Originally Posted by RogueyWon View Post
      I've played through the campaigns in both MoH and Black Ops. I'm not quite sure why I did; I was pretty sure in advance that I wouldn't like them. I'm not a great fan of the "gated corridor" school of level design that the Call of Duty series has promoted and I feel like I've seen pretty much every possible variation on their big "set piece" scenes by now. Indeed, having completed both of them, it's hard to manage more than a "meh".

      MoH is a strange game, at least partially, I suspect, because of how the developers were trying to skirt around the "taste" issue. It seems to alternate between the kind of po-faced faux-seriousness that made me wonder whether I was supposed to be saluting my monitor, and "yay, quad bike level". The weird thing is that this ended up creeping me out rather more than a straightforward treatment of the same material would have.

      The game clearly has aspirations to be the kind of semi-serious treatment of contemporary conflicts that we see in some movies, but it falls short because of the fact that... well... it's an action game pitched at a fairly low common denominator in terms of its player base. It's hard to square serious reflections on war with mowing down vast waves of infinitely respawning Taliban with a big machinegun. In fact, while I generally regard MoH as too silly to be offensive, the one area in which it does skirt close to crossing a line, I felt, was in portraying the Taliban as braindead grunts who charge in their hundreds into a hail of machinegun fire. That's seriously underestimating and trivialising the task that our actual armed forces have to do in Afghanistan.

      Black Ops is a different kettle of fish entirely, in that it accepts its own ridiculousness from the outset. It's basically just a pastiche of cold war conspiracy theories and Boy's Own adventure stories which, despite some graphic content that's not for the squeamish, is unlikely to ever cross the line into actually offensive (well, apart from the whole Cuba issue, but I confess to having just found that funny). It put me in mind of the Roger Moore era James Bond movies; The Spy Who Loved Me and so on, mixed with some of the more famous scenes from Vietnam movies like The Deer Hunter and Full Metal Jacket.

      I don't think it even aims for historical accuracy. Guns show up in the campaign that shouldn't have existed until years later. In the context of some of the howlers that Black Ops throws into the mix with gleeful abandon, I don't think that a few errors in the poster are really worth noting.

      As a final note, I enjoyed Black Ops more than MoH (in so far as I enjoyed either, given how constrained the gameplay is). A cheerfully unrealistic game is always going to be more fun than a game which would like to be realistic but fails spectacularly. I think MoH presents a pretty good case that videogames aren't likely to be able to do serious treatments of current wars. But then, maybe it's just the genre? Would a suvival-horror based game, or a small-squad RTS (a la Dawn of War 2) have more luck?
    1. skfhsegrlk's Avatar
      Can you save your classes on multyplayer on call of duty Black ops???
    1. rec's Avatar
      Some drama revolving Kobe's involvement in the trailer:

      Last month a live-action ad for Call of Duty: Black Ops debuted, depicting Jimmy Kimmel, Kobe Bryant and seemingly everyday people waging war in a desert battlefield. Some people were upset to see the Lakers star wielding an assault rifle, especially ESPN -- there was a discussion criticizing Kobe for his participation in the commercial. "He's smiling while wielding an assault rifle in combat while we have troops overseas at this moment doing that same thing for real, in combat," ESPN's Skip Bayless said of Bryant.

      Activision isn't sweating it, though. In an interview with IndustryGamers, Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg criticized any network who would complain about the content of the ad, yet accept the money to air it on their network. "I'm going to put it in air quotes, which you can't see, but the 'controversy' surrounding Kobe Bryant I find very hypocritical. Those same networks that are now questioning Kobe's inclusion in this had no problem accepting the ad and approving the ad, and accepting the dollars to run the ad on their networks. Are they being irresponsible to their fan base by running the ad on their networks? Because if it's good for the goose, it's good for the gander. I find that to be very hypocritical."
      Activision: Kobe Bryant Black Ops ad controversy is 'hypocritical' | Joystiq
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