Why are people modding Thomas the Tank Engine into video games?
It’s one of the modding community’s odder recent crazes. But how did an ’80s kids classic become an underground obsession?
From Disney’s Something Wicked This Way Comes to Square Enix’s Final Fantasy VI, trains have a rich association with horror in media of all stripes. Even today, many decades after the golden age of the railways, they remain potent symbols of inevitability and the brutalising force of industrial modernity. Depending on your tolerance for historical anecdote, you could argue that one of the first horror films ever made was, in fact, Auguste and Louis Lumiere’s celebrated L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, a 50-second long shot of a steam engine pulling up to a platform. According to legend, the film frightened audiences who imagined that the train would burst through the frame and crush them.
Skip forward a century, and trains are bursting through frames of a different sort. One of the video game modding community’s odder recent crazes is replacing characters in game worlds with Thomas the Tank Engine – the ”Really Useful” children’s TV character now owned by toy company Mattel. The first of these highly unofficial mods arrived for Bethesda’s fantasy epic The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim in 2013, morphing its roaming dragons into airborne, fire-breathing locomotives. Other victims of the trend include Rockstar’s top-selling Grand Theft Auto V, FromSoftware’s gloomy ninja adventure Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and Capcom’s flashy remake of zombie horror classic Resident Evil 2.
As you’d expect, the mods are essentially jokes, much like the stoner-friendly Thomas rap remixes of the noughties. “To be honest, the whole thing was spontaneous,” recalls Kevin Brock, game designer and author of the original Skyrim mod. “A friend of mine gave me some Thomas models he had ripped from a crappy iPhone game and asked me what I could do with them, so I spent half an hour replacing dragons. I read the books as a kid, but hadn’t really even thought about the whole thing in years. It was just ’what would be the funniest thing at the time?’.”
Brock had a track record for train mods, but it was the introduction of Thomas to Skyrim that made him infamous. As he suggests, the appeal of the mod was partly the snapshot it offered of an eccentric underground artistic community, where talented amateurs spend years fine-tuning games, warping them for kicks, or adding entire new characters, areas and plotlines. “At some point the collective consciousness of pop culture decided that mods equals Thomas the Tank Engine. By that point, there was enough steam behind the idea (pun intended) that everything that can be modded now at some point has Thomas in it.”
Naturally, parachuting licensed characters into games risks infringing copyright, though many mods are protected by fair use legislation providing they aren’t for profit. “I got in so much trouble,” recalls Brock. “Mattel pretty much want me dead at this point – it’s the reason why the Fallout 4 mod can’t be found on any normal website.” The company unleashed its lawyers following circulation of Brock’s Skyrim mod on Youtube. “It was some intermediary law firm based out of Macedonia, saying how I diminished the brand of Thomas by showing him blowing up (nothing about him violently murdering people). They issued takedown notices on the videos for it. The first time it got taken down. The second time Youtube told them it was covered under parody law, with no prompting from me. So that was nice.”
Legal threats aside, licensed character mods can attract a certain disdain from other modders, who object that they steal oxygen from more serious or intricate projects. “After my mod had generated a lot of buzz, I gained quite the reputation,” says ZombieAli, self-taught creator of the Resident Evil 2 mod, whose works include a set of blocky character models that mimic the aesthetic of the game’s original 1998 release. “I was often called ’the meme modder’ who only made mods for attention, when in fact this was my first ever mod like this.”
On the whole, though, he says that community reactions skew positive, because eye-catching character cameos in games help expose other mods to a wider audience. “Most actual modders understand that attention when it comes to a mod isn’t some limited resource,” agrees Brock. “Sure, more mainstream audiences pick up Thomas-style mods, but there’s never been a case where it’s somehow pushed attention away from another mod. If anything, I feel like my stupid viral joke mods contributed to introducing people to my more in-depth works.”
If the Thomas mods were created for shits and giggles, they can be deeply unnerving in ways their own creators perhaps don’t appreciate. In ZombieAli’s Resident Evil 2 mod, the character appears in place of Mr X, a towering, faceless mutant whose approaching footfalls reverberate through floors and walls. Seemingly invulnerable, and able to follow you around the game’s gutted police station where basic zombies can be sealed away behind doors and barricades, Mr X is dreadful enough in unadulterated form. As an anthropomorphic steam engine, however, he’s somehow even worse.
Part of it, perhaps, is that Thomas and his world are innately horrendous, and there’s something horrendous about taking all that off the rails and into a digital space. The original books, penned in the 1940s by the Anglican reverend Wilbert Awdry, now read like an enthusiastic allegory for bigotry and exploitation. The New Yorker, among other publications, has a ghoulish piece of essayistic fiction on the drizzly dystopia that is Thomas’s Island of Sodor, where cheerful anthropomorphic machines are torn apart, worked to death or bricked up in tunnels at the whim of a well-heeled Fat Controller. For all its dark corners and clutching cadavers, Resident Evil 2’s setting can seem almost benign by comparison.
But perhaps there’s something here, too, of the train’s history as a horror trope, now exacerbated by its being transported into an environment it doesn’t agree with. Like the monolith of 2001: Space Odyssey, the Thomas character is an alien presence where even the most revolting of Resident Evil 2‘s undead feel at home in their surroundings (indeed, many were once employees of its unfortunate police department). The engine is too bulky and inflexible for the game’s dripping, jerkily-lit corridors, melting through door frames and corners as it lumbers wide-eyed into the beam of your torch. It doesn’t even get along its own anatomy: rather than moving like a wheeled vehicle, the model is rigged to an animation “skeleton” designed for the original character, which leads to heaving, queasy motions. It’s as though you were being pursued by a humanoid phantom with poor old Thomas rammed through its torso.
Where the train from the Lumiere brothers film embodied an approaching future, heedlessly grinding up everything in its path, this locomotive seems caught between eras, half-born-again. As such, it also embraces the beautiful weirdness of game simulations where “fantasy” games like Skyrim are too invested in their own coherence, too wedded to the idea of making sense. This is especially disappointing, of course, when you’re talking about a horror experience like Resident Evil. It’s certainly comic to see Thomas and chums trundling through such locales, but I think the Really Useful aspect of it is the fear.