Atomic Heart video game draws scrutiny from Ukrainians over Russia ties

The new video game Atomic Heart, set in an alternate history where the Soviet Union experiences a post-World War II technological boom, is facing allegations that it engages in dangerous pro-Russian propaganda and criticism for its developer’s perceived ties to Russia amid the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

On Friday, Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine and Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov tweeted official letter he sent to the executives of Sony, Microsoft and Valve, urging them to block Atomic Heart from their gaming platforms.

Fedorov cited concerns that “there is a potential risk that money collected from the purchase of the game will be transferred to Russia’s budget, so it will be used to finance the war against Ukraine.”

NBC News was unable to find evidence that the proceeds from the game were used to finance the war.

Online, other critics have shared Fedorov’s concerns.

Critics of the game, some of whom are Ukrainians in the gaming sphere, are asking players to walk away from Atomic Heart, asking them to neither buy nor play the first-person shooter.

“Some users may claim that they can simply pirate it [Atomic Heart], and pay no money to the Russian developers, and still enjoy the game. I can’t say anything about that. At that point, it just depends on your moral compass,” Ukrainian YouTuber Harenko said in a video about the game.

Those critical of Atomic Heart have pointed to an alleged connection between Mundfish, the game’s developer, and Russian state-owned and state-sanctioned companies and enterprises – a charge Mundfish denies. Those calling for a boycott have also suggested that the game is Russian propaganda.

A still image from the video game Atomic Heart.Mouthfish

Atomic Heart is set in a booming 1950s Soviet Union, where robotics and technology have advanced far beyond our modern times. The story follows the fictional character Major Sergey Nechaev, who also goes by P-3, who must shut down a group of robots that have gone rogue and started killing the local population.

Through Nechaev, the player uncovers the mystery of why the robots have gone on a killing spree. The game has been compared to BioShock, the wildly popular first-person shooter released in 2007. Atomic Heart, with its elegant graphics and unique gameplay, has received positive reviews since its debut.

Those who think the game is propaganda point to things like Atomic Heart’s aesthetic: a utopian Soviet Union where red banners emblazoned with hammer and sickles are a frequent part of the landscape. Critics are also wary of the game’s protagonist, Nechaev, who is a member of the KGB and loyal to the USSR. Fedorov specifically pointed to the game’s promotion of “the communist regime and Soviet symbols”. (NBC News has not played Atomic Heart.)

“This kind of approach to the showcase of the USSR and communism walks a fine line between using it for world-building and glorifying it,” Harenko said in a video titled “Please Don’t Buy Atomic Heart.” Harenko, whose video about the game received more than 2 million views, said in the video that he believes the game crosses that line.

Harenko did not respond to a request for comment.

Announced more than five years ago, Atomic Heart’s production predates full-scale production Russian invasion of Ukraine. The company behind the game and its investors deny ties to Russia and the Russian government.

Still, Atomic Heart has remained a flashpoint for debate about the ethics of buying a game. In his letters, Fedorov said the concerns stem from the fact that Mundfish is a Russian company with Russian management. Critics like Fedorov say they worry that the money the title makes could end up financially supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Critics point to Mundfish’s investors, which include GEM Capital, a company founded by a former Russian state-owned oil and gas company executive. The debate has consumed the corners of TikTok, Twitter and YouTube.

“The fact that Russians can easily release a video game filled with propaganda and put it on Microsoft, Steam and Nintendo stores in the middle of war against sovereign nations is the ultimate showcase for how lenient the sanctions are,” one critic. tweeted.

Another person wrote: “I don’t usually go into this here, but don’t buy Atomic Heart. The main developer has ties to a Russian state gas company. The money from the game will help finance the war in Ukraine.”

With the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine coming just days after the game’s release, many, including the Ukrainian government, are saying that buying the game is supporting Russia’s attack on the country. Some critics of the game also suggested that the game’s release date being so close to the invasion anniversary was on purpose.

In a statement to NBC News, Alex Bornyakov, Ukraine’s deputy minister for digital transformation, said Atomic Heart “has Russian roots and romanticizes communist ideology and the Soviet Union.” Bornyakov said the ministry has sent a letter to Sony, Microsoft and Valve “requesting a ban on selling digital versions of this game in Ukraine.”

“We also call for limiting the distribution of this game in other countries due to its toxicity, potential data collection of users and potential use of money collected from game purchases to wage a war against Ukraine,” Bornyakov said.

Officials at the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media of the Russian Federation did not respond to requests for comment.

The controversy highlights how an increasingly global video game market has also come under scrutiny, particularly on games believed to spread propaganda or cultural values.

Mundfish’s current website states that the company is based in Cyprus. However, a version of the site accessed by NBC News using the archive site Wayback Machine shows that as of June 25, the site stated that “Atomic Heart is one of the largest single-player projects in the Russian Federation.” It is unclear why this line was removed.

Russian media covering Atomic Heart years before its release also referred to Mundfish as a Russian video game studio.

A spokesperson for Mundfish did not provide NBC News with a comment prior to publication of this article.

In January, when the debate surrounding the game began, Mundfish tweeted a vague response to some of the concerns surrounding Atomic Heart.

“Guys, we have taken note of the questions surrounding where we at Mundfish stand. We want to assure you that Mundfish is a developer and studio with a global team focused on an innovative game and is undeniably a peace organization against violence against people,” the company says. tweeted. “We do not comment on politics or religion. Be safe; we’re a global team focused on getting Atomic Heart into the hands of players everywhere.”

As recently as December, Mundfish listed its investors on its website as Gaijin Entertainment, GEM Capital and Tencent. Gaijin Entertainment and GEM Capital appear to have links to Russia.

Gaijin Entertainment was founded in Russia in 2002.

GEM Capital was founded by Russian businessman Anatoliy Paliy, a former executive in Gazprom units, according to Russian media Interfax.

GEM Capital did not return a request for comment.

Tencent is a Chinese technology and entertainment conglomerate. Tencent did not return a request for comment.

In a statement to NBC News, Gaijin Entertainment founder Anton Yudintsev said his company is a Hungarian company based in Europe and denied any connection to Russia. A company spokesperson confirmed that Gaijin was founded in Russia in 2002, but said the company has been based in Hungary since the mid-2010s.

Yudintsev, who said he has lived in Europe for many years, added that he, not Gaijin, made a personal investment in Mundfish, saying that Mundfish “is not a Russian entity, and it has no Russian branches or any Russia-based investors. All Mundfish founders and management do not live in Russia and reside in Europe.”

“So basically these accusations are based solely on the ethnicity of people working on the game and have nothing to do with how money flows, and it would be unfortunate if anyone would take any action based on baseless rumors and speculation,” Yudintsev said.

Atomic Heart and the allegations of a link to the Russian government are a microcosm of an already growing gaming market in China.

As Chinese companies like Tencent take over more of the gaming market, some experts have wondered what the future of artistic freedom and expression in the increasingly mainstreaming industry will look like.

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