Originally published in Script magazine January/February 2012
Aaron Ginsburg is a longtime TV/Film writer, producer and director. His television writing/producing credits include The 100 (CW), The Good Guys (Fox), The Finder (Fox), Burn Notice: The Fall of Sam Axe (USA), and Intelligence (CBS), to name a few. Follow his adventures on Twitter @DrLawyercop.
The award was heavier than it looked, a futuristic totem of glass and polished steel, but the weight felt exhilarating in my hands. From the stage, I could see an ocean of the industry’s top game developers, all waiting for me to speak. But I had no speech prepared. No one had expected us to win, so I’d enjoyed more than a few complimentary whiskeys at the pre-party. Now, fueled by adrenaline and grain alcohol, I approached the mic, hoisted the award valiantly above my head ... and began to ramble.
It’s an Honor Just to be Nominated ...
In 2006, my writing partner and I were hired to write an ambitious videogame—Call of Duty 2: Big Red One. Many of you have surely heard of the franchise, but the concept for this game was a departure for Activision and Treyarch at the time. Under the guidance of Treyarch’s passionate creative director, we were hired to create characters and a story that had the power to emotionally involve the player, to provoke excitement to fear to sadness to bittersweet gratification. It was to be a playable, interactive version of HBO’s Band of Brothers, and my writing partner and I jumped into the project with full force. We were (and are) gamers ourselves, and the chance to pen a 10-hour drama that we could then play on our consoles was a challenge we couldn’t pass up. If you dig through the archives of Script magazine, you can even find my first article for this publication—detailing my strange and wonderfully exciting journey through the videogame writing process.
It took nearly a year of intense research, writing and rewriting, but eventually our 300-page tome of a script was complete, and the insanely talented designers, animators and engineers were hard at work bringing to life the story of the intrepid infantrymen of Big Red One.
After the game was released, we knew we’d done something right when The Onion ran a hilarious story about our game and our characters. The headline read: “Call of Duty 2 Gamer Wonders If War Is Worth Dying 79 Times For.” In the article, the fictional gamer, Martin Avers, is interviewed about his experience playing the game, “Pausing the horrors of war on his PlayStation 2, the bleary-eyed Avers spoke about his fallen comrades, ‘I mean, watching Bloomfield die onscreen was tough, especially because I was the one who pushed the buttons that sent him to his death.’” Certainly, the article was poking fun, but they’d ironically captured the very sentiment we’d been striving for: inspiring the gamer to feel emotionally connected to their onscreen comrades.
A month later, Treyarch’s creative director called me with some incredible news: Our game had been nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Story and Character Development by the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences (AIAS) at the 9th Annual Interactive Achievement Awards. The ceremony would take place in Las Vegas and, as the writer of the story and characters in question, if I wanted to attend, I’d need to find my own way there.
What Happens in Vegas ...
The company was taking care of the creative director’s travel and hotel, but as the writer of the nominated script, I was—naturally—left to fend for myself. Writers are used to getting the short end of the stick in the film industry, so it was almost reassuring to discover the same level of disregard was shared by the burgeoning videogame industry. Determined to attend the award ceremony, mostly as a matter of principle, I found a moderately affordable flight online and convinced the creative director to let me crash in his expansive hotel suite.
When I arrived at the location of the ceremony, a swanky Vegas casino right on the strip, I quickly changed into my nice suit in a bathroom near the nickel slots. Then I met up with the creative director at the pre-party. The Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences had taken over one of the casino’s trendy nightclubs, filled it with videogame artwork and flatscreen TVs arranged so participants could play the nominated games, all while enjoying complimentary food and cocktails.
I looked around the room and saw fellow nominees from some of the year’s biggest games: God of War, Guitar Hero, Shadow of the Colossus, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell ... the creative director handed me another whiskey on the rocks and we toasted. “We don’t have a prayer,” he confessed. “We’re a first-person shooter.” In the history of the Interactive Achievement Awards, a first-person had never won the award for Outstanding Story and Character Development. With the pressure of winning off the table, he and I grabbed another whiskey and decided to sit back and simply enjoy the experience.
And the Winner is ...
“Call of Duty 2: Big Red One!”
On stage, the speaker announced our game’s title through the sound system although, for me, this information did not compute. As a wave of applause filled the packed auditorium, I twisted around in my seat, looking for the lucky winners. Next to me, the creative director was shoving me out of my seat.
And then it hit me. We had won. In an instant, the world came racing into focus. It felt as though I could see the individual faces of the 500 other participants, all watching me as I stumbled up from the back of the theater.
I climbed onto the stage and a six-foot-tall blonde model handed me the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences’ Award for Outstanding Achievement in Story and Character Development. As I admired it in the stage lights, the creative director was already speaking at the mic. At the end of his time, he looked at me as if to say, “Would you like to add anything?”
I didn’t have an acceptance speech planned. Of course, you’ve heard that old yarn before. Whenever you watch award ceremonies, you’ll see some winners humbly admit to the crowd that they hadn’t expected a victory and, bashfully, confess they don’t have anything planned ... then they immediately proceed to speak articulately and passionately for five solid minutes and it’s obvious they’ve been rehearsing this “impromptu acceptance speech” for weeks in their bathroom mirror.
On the contrary, I literally had nothing planned. I had not expected to win. Yet, there I was, on stage, in front of my peers in a cloud of equal parts elation, surprise and intoxication. What I should have done at that moment was nod humbly, maybe toss in a respectful “thank you” or “such an honor” before walking confidently off the stage. That is not what I did.
Feeling a rush of unbridled euphoria, I approached the microphone and hoisted the award above my head like I was Charlton Heston on Mount Sinai. For a second, I stared out at the crowd, taking in their adoration, absorbing it like a sponge. Then I began to speak. To be fair, I can’t remember the content of my thoroughly unplanned oration, but I do recall how my voice echoed through the theater, amplified by the sound system. I do remember consciously thinking “What the hell are you doing?! Get off the stage, you idiot”—although this reasonable side of my brain was easily shoved aside by my rascally, inebriated id.
We’ll never know who I actually thanked or didn’t thank. We’ll never know how long I was standing at that microphone, rambling incoherently. It was an out-of-body experience where my rational, well-behaved mind floated into hiding because it was just too embarrassed to be seen with the rest of me.
There is one thing I do remember, sadly. At the end of my allocution, I gripped the trophy in one fist and bellowed, with sincerity and self-importance, “This goes out to the troops, to the infantrymen of Big Red One!” In my head, it was meant to be the exclamation point to my brilliant soliloquy, the applause line that would inspire the audience to instantaneously erupt into cheers. I’m guessing it didn’t work, but I have no idea. The second I said it, I turned dramatically and marched off the stage.
Easy Come ...
Seconds after reaching the wings of the theater, I was met by a kind-looking woman in a suit. She reached out and tried to take the award from my grasp. I pulled away, naturally, protecting the spoils of victory. Had my speech been so terrible, so embarrassing, that the Academy had already regretted giving me the win? Had I said something so offensive or ridiculous that they had no choice but to reclaim the prize? My fear and sadness must have been transparent on my face because the woman chuckled.
“Honey, that’s not the real award. It’s a dummy.”
I looked at her and then at the award. What was she saying? I couldn’t understand.
“This is just the mock-up we use for the live ceremony,” she continued. “It’s a temp. We send it out on stage over and over again. It’s the same trophy that everyone wins during the show because we can’t have them engraved in advance.”
And with that, she waited for me to relinquish the fake trophy. I looked at the award like an old friend: We had been through battle together, we’d soared to the highest of highs and now we would suffer the lowest of lows. As I placed my award in her open hands, I muttered, “I’ll never see that trophy again.”
The woman guffawed at my despair, “Of course, you will, sweetie. The Academy will mail you the real one.”
She was wrong. Years later, I can attest that I have never seen the real engraved award. Oh, I’m sure it’s somewhere, proudly displayed in some company trophy case. And whenever I think about it, I wonder: Did Charlton Heston get to keep The Ten Commandments?
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