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Exploring the subversive childhood horror of Choo Choo Charles

Developer Gavin Eisenbeisz explains the appeal of distorting the nostalgic and familiar for the sake of terrifying your audience.

Joel Couture, Contributor

February 9, 2023

5 Min Read
Choo Choo Charles terrifying train monster

Choo-Choo Charles is an open-world horror game that sees players being chased by a train from their nightmares. Charles is a mix of locomotive and monstrous spider, and it will dog you all throughout your explorations of a gloomy, mysterious island. Fortunately, you have your own customizable train to fight back with. But to get strong enough to fight Charles, you’ll have to leave the safety of your locomotive to explore.

Game Developer sat down with Gavin Eisenbeisz, the game’s creator, to talk about exploring a horrifying side to Thomas the Tank Engine, what it feels like to try out a more lighthearted kind of horror, and the appeal of giving players a mobile safe haven as well as all sorts of good reasons to leave it.

You mentioned in another interview that Charles came from the idea of finding horror in children's television shows and specifically your own past love of Thomas the Tank Engine. What is the appeal of taking a beloved childhood thing and flipping it to horror? What makes it feel evocative to you?

Doing this is really enthralling to people for a number of reasons, all of which make a game more readable and intriguing. It mainly adds a sense of familiarity which gives people an instant connection to your game, as well as a sense of irony, which people find amusing and memorable. This makes the game stand out and is huge for branding.

What thoughts go into turning something once comforting and fun into something terrifying? As a developer, how did that affect the design of the game and the monster, Charles? How did designing in this way feel different from drawing from a purely new horrifying creature, if at all?

Overall, I didn’t find designing a monster that calls back to familiar things much different from just trying to make a normal spooky creature. You give them both big teeth, distorted features, and generally threatening attributes. The only difference is that in an ironic/callback character, there needs to be some familiar visual elements that are shared with the inspiring material.

You explore horror in much of your work (No-Snake Hotel, Night in Riverager, My Friend is a Raven), but in ways that feel very different. What do you feel you're exploring about fear in your works, and how is your exploration changing as you create new games?

In my earlier games like My Beautiful Paper Smile and My Friend is a Raven, I wanted to explore the darker, grittier, and [more] subtle unease/tension side of horror. I wasn’t too fond of jump scares since I felt like they were very much overused in horror and I wanted to create games that followed more of a “Slow Burn” approach.

After a few years of making games like that, my taste in horror media had shifted a bit and I didn’t find that style as fun to develop. It was pretty limiting and rigid, which is what brought on the change of pace you see in No Snake Hotel and Choo-Choo Charles. In these games, I wanted to take a more lighthearted/satirical approach that would allow me more freedom in how I presented things (which did make Choo-Choo Charles much more fun to create).

What thoughts went into Charles' visual design? Has it changed a great deal since you initially had the idea, and if so, can you tell us how?

Charles’ design has remained the same since the first model I did of his character. I drew out a few different face designs early on, picked one, and stuck with it all the way until release.

What drew you to give the player their own train to operate? What interested you in making the game an open world?

I knew that being chased by a spooky spider train would only be funny for a few minutes and it wasn’t enough of a reason for people to actually play the game. Giving players a weaponized, customizable train seems like a fitting, ridiculous, and fun mechanic to help fill that void.

The reason I made it open-world is that it’d be very boring to drive around the same tiny circle for four hours. It makes a lot more sense, makes for a better selling point, and is more fun from a gameplay perspective to navigate the train in a larger play area.

Choo Choo Charles on foot

What ideas go into designing a world that you can explore by train or on foot? How did you design the world around these two movement styles?

The main thing I had to keep in mind while designing the map layout was the spacing of key locations—keeping points of interest far enough apart that the train is still a necessary tool while traveling, but not too far apart that traveling becomes too boring. It’s a difficult balance to hit, but I think the game does this pretty decently.

Why did you make it possible for the player to leave the train and explore on foot? What do you feel added to the game and the fear you were trying to build in the player?

Allowing the player to leave the train serves a lot of purposes. First off, it just makes sense. It’d be a huge middle finger to players to allow them to drive around a massive island and see a bunch of cool places around them, but never let them explore these places up close.

As for the horror side of things, having a large part of the game take place off the train where players are more vulnerable adds a lot of tension—especially when certain missions take you far away from your train, and you can hear or see Charles roaming nearby.

What thoughts went into designing the train customization system? How did you make it interesting, challenging, and fun to personalize your train?

Customizability and giving players the choice to play a game in different ways is a great selling point. In Choo-Choo Charles, the customization options are pretty simple. There’s cosmetic choice (you can change the color of your train) and there are gameplay choices (upgrading your train’s speed, armor and damage, as well as choosing different guns). Adding these mechanics to the game, even in a simple form, gives players short-term goals to work toward which increases engagement, and pride in their progress and achievements.

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