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Explaining the ‘Atomic Heart’ controversy and links to Russian state

This month’s standout Game Pass title Atomic Heart has been a source of constant controversy since its development. Now, the Ukraine government is calling for Microsoft, Sony, and Valve to ban it. Here’s why. 

When it comes to gaming controversies surrounding specific titles, feuds are typically fought between publishers and consumers. 

Unrest can usually be traced back to either unethical business practices, lack of product quality, or greedy in-game mechanics. In short, consumers now hold game-makers to a far higher standard than in previous eras. 

Occasionally, however, there are gaming disputes rooted in issues spanning way beyond the remit of entertainment. Ravelled in a backdrop of political turmoil between Ukraine and Russia, Atomic Heart is one such exceptional case. 

What is Atomic Heart? 

Cut from the same cloth as Bioshock and MachineGuns’ Wolfenstein series, Atomic Heart is an alternate history shooter developed by Mundfish and published by Focus Entertainment and 4Divinity. 

Based in a fictional imagining of 1950s rural Russia, players experience a flourishing Soviet Union in which the nation has mastered robotics through a mysterious compound called ‘polymer.’ 

In one research facility, sentient robots predictably experience a sinister awakening and set about wreaking havoc and ousting any biological lifeforms in sight. From there, the plot quickly thickens with pure sci-fi wackiness, conspiracies, and betrayal.

The player traverses the world in the shoes of veteran military agent Sergey Nechaev, who peels back the layers on this false utopia while blowing up countless iterations of death machines and failed bio-experiments. 

Almost instantly, as someone based in the Eastern Hemisphere, your mind drifts to how brazen it is to release a title full of soviet symbolism in 2023, while Ukraine continues to be shelled by Russian forces with no real end in sight. 

A week into Atomic Heart’s release and reports suggest there could be more to the story than just imprudence or an unfortunate coincidence in terms of timing – the title began development back in 2018. Regardless, the game has been well received critically.

Ties to Russian state & calls of ‘propaganda’ 

Putting aside anything thematic where Atomic Heart is concerned, Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation is convinced the game is impacting ongoing conflicts in a very real way. 

Developers Mundfish are a Russian development studio with unquestionable (and some dubious) ties to state government, plus an inner circle of investors closely linked to Putin.  

Without feeding into unfounded claims, Mundfish is financially backed by a former deputy general of Gazprom, Russia’s state-controlled energy behemoth, and Atomic Heart is distributed by the Gazprom-owned VK Play, the nation’s equivalent of Steam. 

The president of this platform, in-fact, is the son of Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Sergey Kiriyenko, who happens to be under sanctions from the US for his role in organising referendums in contested areas of Ukraine.

One can deduce, therefore, that some funding from the game’s sales will surely be traceable back to Russian government. Given Putin has reportedly hiked military spending 40% higher than declared budgets, this fact is not sitting well with Ukrainian officials. 

Its Ministry of Digital Transformation has sent an open letter to Microsoft, Sony, and Valve requesting that digital sales of the title be completely suspended within Ukraine. The company also urged other countries to abstain from purchasing Atomic Heart due to its ‘toxicity’ and ‘potential use of money to conduct a war.’ 

Faced by swarms of concerned Twitter-goers, developers Mundfish refused to be drawn on the situation, proclaiming its team as a ‘pro-peace organisation’ but declining to address issues of ‘politics or religion.’ 

Last January, the company contested  allegations it had been harvesting data for the government following the discovery of a clause in its digital terms of service. This stated that user data could be submitted to Russian authorities including the tax office and Federal Security Service. Mundfish labelled the report as ‘outdated and wrong.’ 

A video from Ukrainian YouTuber Harenko, meanwhile, has accrued 2 million views entitled ‘Please, don’t buy Atomic Heart,’ in which he refutes claims that the game is not propaganda or political as ‘nonsense.’

Many of those with the same opinion point to the uncanny resemblance between Atomic Heart’s sex robots and the leader of Ukraine’s ‘Batkivshchyna’ political party Yulia Tymoshenko. No smoke without fire? We’ll deal in the facts, for now. 

What we know for sure, is that games are seriously big business these days. Far and away the most lucrative industry within the bracket of entertainment, there are potentially huge economic revenue streams to capitalise on. 

Perhaps the political affiliations and connections of game makers should become another research point for us conscious consumers. With Atomic Heart, there’s surely more to play out.