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 2s 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 2s 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.

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