Atomic Heart wasn't meant to be controversial. The newly released first-person shooter, set in an alternate 1950s Soviet Russia, where robot killers rule, has brought the topic of Russia's invasion of Ukraine with killer robots into the forefront of public discourse.
Atomic Heart was announced over five years ago. It has been the subject of controversy, made by Mundfish, a Cyprus-based developer. There have been questions about the game's authenticity and the relationship between the developer and the Russian government.
It is a Bioshock-esque first person shooter. The game features you as a soldier who investigates a huge Soviet facility under attack by robots. You are charged with stopping the attacker. It was not revealed with gameplay, and the game was being published by a new studio that had never before shipped a videogame. This caused mixed reactions. The game's details became more clear over the years. After a long viral marketing campaign, the game was released with surprising success. There has been much public discussion about its content and the origins of the developer.
Mundfish has been vague about Russian connections. It omits any mentions of Russia on its website and avoids direct questions about its roots during interviews. But there are plenty of online evidence. Richard Gray, a level designer, describes Mundfish calling him about Atomic Heart in a YouTube studio tour in 2019. He said that he was "here in Russia, even in Moscow." Robert Bagratuni is the company's CEO. He was previously a marketing manager at Mail.RU, a Russian communication company. GEM Capital, a Cyprus-based, investment fund, also provided funding to Mundfish. It was founded by an ex-executive from Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned oil-and-gas company. GEM Capital has made a name for its ability to fund video games companies around the world, including the studios behind This Is the Police as well as the recently released Wanted: Dead. Russia and Cyprus have a strong economic relationship. Russian companies often take advantage of Cyprus' low taxes.
Some people have raised concerns about the game's connection to Russian state-owned or state-sanctioned businesses. This has led to calls to boycott the game. The game's critics claim that it supports Russia's war on Ukraine and that it is propaganda that valorizes the Soviet Union. They also suggest that the game contains anti-Ukranian elements. It's difficult to understand, but it appears that Atomic Heart will soon be a common topic as globalization of big-budget games and increased tensions between global power may make this a more familiar issue.
Because Atomic Heart is backed by a Russian financier, the criticism that it will enrich Russian entities can technically be true. Atomic Heart's position in the discourse isn't unique. The United States' almost unshakeable control over global media production and culture has begun to wane in recent years. This is evident by recent Korean successes, including Parasite and Squid Game. Also, Tencent's long-running project of media acquisitions and increasing investments from the Saudi government (including Nintendo) have all been exemplified by the success of the Korean film and TV industry. There have been many reactions to the changing media landscape. Some were positive, such as India's Oscar-nominated RRR. Others expressed concern about Chinese and Saudi companies having any influence over media consumed in the West.
A game's success is likely to benefit a nation if it was created in that country or its headquarters. This is a fundamental aspect of media production and is not only applicable to the Russian games industry. In exchange for the right of directing the script, the U.S. government lends equipment to the film industry. The U.S. firearms sector has a close relationship with military games such as Call of Duty. Some members of the Atomic Heart counter-backlash have demanded that the boycotters explain where they are drawing a line and what media they are comfortable with.
This lens has been used to interpret in-game content after the backlash against Atomic Heart's Russian ties. Atomic Heart is set in 1955. The Soviet Union, fresh from defeating the Nazis, has made significant scientific progress and is now a near-hegemonic global power. This was based on the discovery a highly malleable organic plastic that makes ordinary people super-intelligent. The Soviet state's achievements in organic technology are not the only ones. It also began mass producing highly capable, humanoid robotics. These robots became the central pillar of the game’s very edgy and successful marketing.
Some argue that depicting the Soviet Union in its most successful form is an abject moral error. The Ukrainian government is one of them. The use of Soviet or Nazi symbols, names and imagery was banned in Ukraine in 2015. This could lead to up to 10 years imprisonment. According to reports, the Digital Ministry of Ukraine requested that the game not be allowed in the country and asked other countries to restrict its distribution.
The Ministry of Digital Transformation in Ukraine didn't respond immediately to a request for comment.
The actual portrayal of the Soviet state in the game is nuanced and more subtle than the full-throated support. It depicts a scenario in which the Soviet Union's quest to technology and expansion --there are many sarcastic references about conquering the stars—has gone horribly, killingly wrong. It is in line with Bioshock's approach to objectivism, the Confederacy and creating a world that is defined by technological advancements and the social problems those technological advances have not solved. It would be an error to call Atomic Heart a celebration of the Soviet Union.
Many people suggest that the pro-Soviet propaganda campaign's wildly horny marketing, most notably a pair hypersexualized, robotic lesbians, is a key component of the game's wildly sexualized marketing. While researching this story, multiple public tweets showed videos of players masturbating to it. Some fans posted explicit comments about how they care more for the sexy robots that they do the war in Ukraine.
These criticisms are only amplified by Russia's ongoing moral and political panic and its continued invasion of Ukraine. In response to economic sanctions, the games industry has almost stopped large-scale operations within the country.
Atomic Heart's final criticism revolves around the inclusion of a few references to Ukraine throughout the game. First and foremost, there are photographs of Donetsk (a Ukrainian city) that are part of the game's environment. This criticism is fair. Russia has pointed to its historic role in Ukraine as a reason the country should be reunited with Russia. However, the game also takes place during the Soviet Union.
It is harder to find other hidden messages. Some believe that the game contains a large number of pigs that can easily be killed by players. This could be a reference or 'pigg', a derogatory term used for Ukrainians. The colors of the Ukrainian flag are also displayed on an in-game pork can. However, the can is just an upside down version of the Pek color scheme, which is a real-world canned pork product that was made in Poland. The game also features many other animals, such as chickens and cows. A loading screen tip warns the player to not hurt them. The intro section of the game features drones carrying potted Geraniums. Some have attributed this to Russo Iranian drones deployed in Ukraine.
These potential references seem like a lot of work. The game has been in development for many years. Although it is possible that the developers made vague references to Ukraine in the past year, this seems unlikely.
However, players from both sides have taken to them. Some pro-Russian posters have accepted images from the game as proof of their position regarding the Russian invasion in Ukraine. These supposed references have been used to argue that the developers of the game made a deeply reckless artistic decision.
Atomic Heart, regardless of its intentions, has become a source of contention in an ongoing culture war. Mundfish's problem, as well as the game, is that the far right can easily co-opt any text which doesn't specifically condemn it. Dog whistling allows individuals to communicate their beliefs, without having to explicitly say them. It also creates absurd discourse that makes those who care about a situation seem ridiculous. The far right shapes the discourse.
This controversy is not isolated. Situations like these will only get more common as global tensions increase in tandem with the international media sector. Already concerns about TikTok are growing, and Tencent, a giant publisher, will continue to invest heavily in the videogame industry. This will increase fear mongering about the dangers that Chinese media could pose. This is evident in the case of Genshin Impact, which was criticized for censoring mentions of Hong Kong during protests there.
Recent years have seen a rise in consumer activism. This is due to the feeling of powerlessness people feel in front of states and other global power mechanisms. Some people in the West are increasingly being forced to question the origins and content of media they consume, even domestically. For example, the recent release of Hogwarts Legacy sparked intense debate about its origins and relation to J.K. Rowling. It is important to remember that boycotts and consumer activism are not effective in isolation. Mass movements, such as the pro-Palestinian BDS Movement, work best when they combine passive consumer activism with direct action campaigns. This is something which concerns about media consumption has so far failed to generate.