Is ‘Atomic Heart’ Pro-Russia, or Just Russian?

Atomic Heart was not destined to be a flashpoint for conversations about real wars. But the newly-released first-person shooter, being set in an alternate version of 1950s Soviet Russia where killer robots have run amok, has stepped right into the crosshairs of discourse stemming from current-day Russia’s very real invasion of Ukraine using killer robots

Since its announcement over five years ago, controversy has followed Atomic Heart—made by Cyprus-headquartered developer Mundfish—ranging from concerns about whether or not the game was actually real upon its announcement, to questions over the developer’s relationship to the Russian government.

The game is a Bioshock-esque first person shooter. You play as a soldier investigating a massive Soviet facility that has come under attack from the robots which were formerly staffing it, and are tasked with finding and stopping the person responsible for the attacks. The game was met with a mixed reaction upon its announcement, as the reveal featured no gameplay and it was being published by a studio that had not previously shipped a video game. As the years went on, details about the game solidified and, following a pretty horny viral marketing campaign, the game’s release has been surprisingly successful for a new studio, and has spawned a significant amount of public discourse surrounding the game’s content and its developer’s origins.

Screenshot by Mundfish.

Mundfish has been coy about its Russian connections—it omits any mention of Russia on its website, and has evaded direct questions about its roots in interviews—but there is plenty of evidence online. In a 2019 studio tour on YouTube, level designer Richard Gray describes Mundfish contacting him about Atomic Heart and saying “we’re here in Russia, in Moscow even.” The company’s CEO, Robert Bagratuni, previously worked as a marketing leader at Mail.RU, a Russian communications company. Additionally, Mundfish received funding from GEM Capital, a Cyprus-based investment fund founded by a former executive for Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned oil and gas company. GEM has made a name for itself funding video game companies internationally, including the studios behind This Is the Police and the newly-released Wanted: Dead. The economies of Russia and Cyprus are tightly linked, with Russian firms often taking advantage of Cyprus’ low tax rates

These connections to Russian state-owned and state-sanctioned enterprises have led to some people questioning the game’s relationship to the Russian government and its ongoing war in Ukraine, leading to calls for a boycott. Critics of the game suggest that purchasing it directly supports Russia’s war in Ukraine, that the game is a piece of Russian propaganda valorizing the Soviet Union, and that the game includes anti-Ukranian elements. There’s a lot to unpack, but it seems clear that the controversy around Atomic Heart may soon be a familiar one, as big-budget game production further globalizes in tandem with heightened tensions between global powers.

The criticism that Atomic Heart will enrich Russian entities is technically accurate, due to being backed by a Russian financier.  However, Atomic Heart’s place in the discourse is not unique. Over the last decade, the United States’ near unshakeable hold over the global production of media and culture has finally begun to falter, exemplified by the recent successes of the Korean film and television industry, most notably Parasite and Squid Game, Chinese giant Tencent’s years long project of media acquisitions, and the Saudi government’s increasing investment in the entertainment industry (including Nintendo). The shifting media landscape has been met with responses ranging from the celebration of international successes, like India’s Oscar-nominated RRR, to a building moral panic about the idea that Chinese and Saudi companies could have any influence on media consumed by those in the West.

If a game’s developer was founded in, or based out of, a particular nation, that game’s success will likely benefit that nation in one way or another, even simply due to prestige. This is not unique to the Russian games industry, but is a basic facet of media production. The U.S. government loans out equipment to the film industry, in exchange for the right to supervise the script, and the U.S. firearms industry has an uncomfortably close relationship to military games like Call of Duty. This fact has led to some members of the counter-backlash to Atomic Heart demanding that boycotters explain what the line they’re drawing in the sand is, and what forms of compromised media they’re comfortable consuming.

The backlash to Atomic Heart’s Russian ties has spiraled into interpreting in-game content through this lens. Atomic Heart takes place in a version of 1955 in which the Soviet Union—fresh from its defeat of the Nazis—has made such significant scientific progress that it has become a nigh-hegemonic world power, based on the discovery of a highly malleable organic polymer that makes average people super-intelligent. In addition to its achievements in organic technology, the Soviet state has also begun the mass production of highly capable, humanoid robots, a pair of which became a central pillar of the game’s extremely horny and very successful marketing.

Some have argued that depicting a successful version of the Soviet Union is, in and of itself, an abject moral wrong—the Ukrainian government among them. In 2015, Ukraine banned the use of Soviet and Nazi symbols, names, and imagery, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The country’s Digital Ministry reportedly requested that the game be banned in Ukraine, and urged other countries to limit the game’s distribution. 

Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Screenshot by Mundfish.

The game’s actual depiction of the Soviet state is more nuanced than full-throated support. After all, it depicts a scenario where the Soviet Union’s quest for technology and expansion—there are numerous sarcastic references to conquering the stars—has gone horribly, murderously wrong. It’s in-line with Bioshock’s approach to objectivism and the Confederacy, crafting a world defined by technological progress and the social problems that those technological advances have failed to solve. To call Atomic Heart a straight-up celebration of the Soviet Union would be a misrepresentation.

Some people have suggested that the game’s wildly horny marketing—most notably, a pair of hyper sexualized, robot lesbians—is a key part of this pro-Soviet propaganda campaign. (While researching this story, I stumbled across multiple public tweets that included videos of people masturbating to the game). Some fans have explicitly posted about how they care more about the sexy robots than they do about the war in Ukraine.

Each of these critiques is only heightened by the ongoing moral and political panic around Russia, and the people living there, due to its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The games industry, for example, has all but ceased large-scale operations in the country, in response to economic sanctions and public outrage. 

The final criticism leveled at Atomic Heart revolves around a handful of supposed references to Ukraine sprinkled throughout the game. The first, and most obvious, are photos of Donetsk, a Ukrainian city, which are included in the game’s environment. This is somewhat of a fair criticism—Russia has leaned on its historical role in Ukraine as being a reason for the country to become a part of Russia once again—but, also, the game takes place at a time when Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union. 

Other supposed hidden messages are harder to pin down. The game includes a significant number of pigs that can be killed by the player if they choose, which some believe to be a reference to “pigg,” a derogatory term for Ukrainians. An in-game pork can also has the colors of the Ukrainian flag, however, it’s worth noting that the can is just an upside-down version of the color scheme used for Pek, a real-world canned pork product made in Poland. There are also numerous other animals in the game, including cows and chickens, and a loading screen tip implores the player not to hurt them. Finally, the game’s intro section includes drones helpfully carrying potted geraniums, which some have associated with Russo-Iranian drones being deployed in Ukraine, nicknamed geraniums.

On the whole, these potential references feel like a pretty heavy stretch. After all, the game has been in development for years. It’s possible the developers slipped in numerous vague references to Ukraine within the last year, but that seems highly unlikely. 

However, that hasn’t stopped players on both sides from latching onto them. Some aggressively pro-Russian posters have embraced images in the game as validating their position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The support for these supposed references has been used to argue that they are, if not intentional, a deeply irresponsible artistic decision on the part of the game’s developers.

Regardless of their intentions, Atomic Heart has become a point of contention in not only an ongoing culture war, but a real one, too. The difficulty facing Mundfish, and the game itself, is the fact that it is very easy for the far right to co-opt any text that doesn’t explicitly condemn it. The practice of dog whistling doesn’t just allow for individuals to broadcast their beliefs without explicitly saying them, but also creates patently absurd discourse that paints those who actually care about a given situation as ridiculous—either way, the far right ends up shaping the discourse.

This controversy does not exist in isolation, either. As global tensions rise in tandem with the international media industry, situations like this will become all the more common. Concerns over TikTok have already taken hold, and as massive publishers like Tencent continue to expand into the video game industry, there will be more fear mongering around the potential dangers of Chinese media. We’ve already seen a bit of this with the success of Genshin Impact and outrage over how it censored mentions of Hong Kong in-game during protests there.  

In recent years, the sense of powerlessness that people feel before states and other global mechanisms of power has led to more frequent (and frequently ineffective) calls for consumer activism. Even domestically, some in the West have become increasingly forced to engage with the origins of the media they consume. The recent release of Hogwarts Legacy, for example, spawned intense discourse over the game’s origins and relationship to J.K. Rowling. However, it is worth remembering that consumer activism like boycotts do very little in isolation, and mass movements (like the pro-Palestinian BDS movement) are generally effective only if they combine passive consumer activism with material, direct action campaigns—something which concerns around media consumption has, so far, failed to spawn.

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Renata Price Jordan Pearson