You’ll be familiar with the concept of hard sci-fi – the stuff that takes the science part very seriously. Viewed on that spectrum, Light Repair Team #4 is crème brûlée – soft and fluffy, once you get into it.
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The city of New Corona is dependent on a power grid fuelled by light. And what better way to carry light than in pipes – a tubular transport system which, when it breaks down, requires a specialised team to come and redirect the flow. They do it with mirrors – or rather a Rube Goldberg arrangement of mirrors, lenses and prisms. Rerouting and returning power to the metropolis is a matter of bouncing, combining, moving and splitting coloured beams.
“What happened to Light Repair Team #1 through #3?”, asks the developer in the game’s own promotional blurb. “Well, that’s another story.”
It’s the sort of premise you might look at and wonder: how did somebody come up with this? But to do so is to look at the game the wrong way round. Just as Ubi Reflections conceived an off-the-wall coma concept to fit the car-hopping mechanics of Driver: San Francisco, solo developer Joe Radak twisted his fiction to fit what felt good for the HTC Vive.
Before unboxing “one of the last” Vive dev kits in mid-December, Radak had never tried the Valve-approved stick-waggling room VR kit. But last week, his debut became one of its launch games. Light Repair Team #4’s development has been a journey of self-enlightenment.
“Starting maybe a year ago I was one of the VR skeptics,” he says. “I was very much like, ‘It’s a peripheral.’ But I was interested.”
Only in November, when Radak slipped on a Seattle friend’s Gear VR to try out the Oculus Social alpha, did something shift. The next day, he visited Valve. Though the touring group was too large to get hands-on time with the Vive, he was already convinced. Radak returned home to put together a quick prototype, which he fired over to HTC.
“They were like, ‘Cool, here’s a Vive,’” he recalls.
The pace hasn’t dropped since. To realise his experiments, Radak has relied on Unreal Engine 4. Less a programmer than a dual-classed designer-artist, he’s leaned into the engine’s simplified scripting system, Blueprint.
“I looked up a couple of tutorials and it’s really, really quick to set VR up for Unreal,” he says. “I plugged that in and was like, ‘Alright, cool, let’s start doing stuff.’”
Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri famously invented one of the most successful games of all time to simulate his love of insect collecting. Light Repair Team #4 started the same way – in its first iteration, it was a bug-catching game.
“I don’t know why or what exactly, but something happened,” remembers Radak. “One of the bugs hit the net, and instead of being caught just reflected off and hit something else. I was like, ‘Wait a second.’”
Two weeks later, Radak had a working light-bouncing puzzler with two or three levels.
“The entire game is built in Blueprints,” he says. “With the exception of one thing where I was too lazy to figure it out so I asked my programming friend to do it.”
Everybody’s played a light reflection puzzle – usually as part of an action game, possibly involving a lot of jogging back and forth between pillars, probably in an Aztec temple.
“I was a big fan of Runescape as a kid, and Runescape has a whole quest solely devoted to this type of game,” volunteers Radak. “But there’s no memorable light reflection puzzle game, at least none that I can remember.”
As research, the designer bought The Witness – which proved ample inspiration for some of Light Repair Team’s forced perspective puzzles (“Number 25 has been described as ‘designed by Satan’, but I’ve put loopholes in”).
That last level was finalised in early March. When I talk to Radak less than week out from release, Light Repair Team #4 hasn’t been finished for more than two days.
Often developers struggle with fatigue, tied to the same tired ideas for years on end. But Radak hasn’t had time to stop being excited about the Vive.
“Originally I didn’t expect LRT to be a launch title. I didn’t expect it to get past the prototyping stage,” he admits. “But I sent it to a couple of friends and they’re like, ‘Yeah, this is pretty good’, so I kept going with it and I didn’t stop. It got to the point where, in mid-February, I’m a month and a half into development and like, ‘Well, I’ve come this far. I might as well finish it now.’”
In this sponsored series, we’re looking at how game developers are taking advantage of Unreal Engine 4 to create a new generation of PC games. With thanks to Epic Games and Eerie Bear Games.