Simple ideas are often the best, and Biome is onto a winner. As I walked through the Leftfield Collection during the first day of EGX Rezzed, having experienced the oppressive horror of Alien: Isolation and reeling from Oculus Rift simulation sickness, I was suddenly and inexplicably drawn to a distant monitor on which beckoned a lonely little low-poly cube.
Upon further investigation, it was a chunk of nondescript land suspended in space, with only a cursor acting as a clue of what I was supposed to do. I clicked it, and the terrain deformed around my cursor, thrusting hills and mountains upwards as I continued to click around. Seawater rushed in to fill the gaps, creating lakes and levees, all while rain and clouds swooped in. Grass gave way to rocky crags, then lava, oceans and ice, all responding to my simple inputs. I was mesmerised, in fact, I could have happily sat there all day.
Biome is a fascinating little curio, then, an addictive timewasting distraction and streamlined god game rolled into one - and doubly impressive considering that it's being developed by a clutch of university students.
"Biome is an audiovisual experience, "explained programmer Tom Kail. "That sounds pretentious, but that's exactly what it is. It's a game about evolution and discovery of a little cubic box-world." The cubic world in question is uniquely yours, a canvas that you can shape simply by clicking it. Various different biomes are supported, from verdant woodlands to hellish lava fields, all with their own liquids and entities brought to live in a striking minimalist style, and all responding to you in unique ways. It's currently targeting iPad as its lead platform, which will allow us to literally touch our cuboid creations and engage with them on a more fundamental level. By poking and prodding them, basically.
More an experience than a traditional 'gamey' game, perhaps, the joy of Biome comes from just messing about with it and seeing what happens, much like the thrill of exploring Proteus' directionless islands, enjoying a relaxing stress-and-objective-free environment. Worlds can then be shared via social networks, which should let a lively community form around it.
If you can imagine something halfway between Curiosity, Reus and Proteus, you're probably nowhere near the mark. At all. We're still coming to terms with games that defy our familiar genre pigeonholes.
Originally designed as a grad project in conjunction with sound designer Jonathon Tree and Joe Grainger, Biome is still in its earliest stages of development, and they're planning on adding a host of new features. Animals and entities are in the pipeline, which will grow and evolve before your eyes depending on the world you've put them in. They'll live and die depending on the terrain, topography, weather and food supply - perhaps even preying on each other. Much is still in the air, and Kail is currently looking into whether different modes could offer more in the way of objectives and/or granular sliders without compromising the original, relaxing vision.
My one concern, and something that Kail, Tree, Grainger and co. would do well to bear in mind, is that the dreaded spectre of "feature creep" could easily derail the project. They're so full of great ideas, but it'll be very tempting to continually expand Biome beyond its initial goals, implementing more and more systems that could bloat it beyond all recognition; and introducing even more chances for something to go horribly wrong.
We often see this happen with enthusiastic developers, but I'm sure that their lecturers have been hammering this point home for some time - and they certainly seem to know what they're doing.
Which is, as far as I can make out, creating a truly fascinating little project that could well become our new addiction, or at the very least something to absent-mindedly prod at during the morning commute. We'll see how it turns out later this year and keep you posted with the latest.