The new video game Atomic Heart, set in an alternate history in which the Soviet Union experiences a technological boom after World War II, is facing accusations that it sells dangerous pro-Russian propaganda and criticizes its developer’s alleged connections with Russia. in the midst of the country’s invasion of Russia. Ukraine.
On Friday, the Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine and Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov tweeted official letters he sent to the heads 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 game purchases will be transferred to Russia’s budget, thus it will be used to finance the war against Ukraine.»
NBC News could find no evidence that the revenue from the game was being used to finance the war.
Online, other critics have shared Fedorov’s concerns.
Critics of the game, some of whom are Ukrainian in the gaming sphere, are calling on players to stay away from Atomic Heart, imploring them not to buy or play the first-person shooter.
“Some users might claim that they could just hack it [Atomic Heart], and do not pay money to Russian developers, and continue to enjoy the game. To that, I can’t say anything. At that point, it just depends on your moral compass,” Ukrainian YouTuber Harenko said in a post. video about the game.
Critics of Atomic Heart have pointed to an alleged connection between Mundfish, the game’s developer, and Russian state-owned and sanctioned companies and companies, an allegation Mundfish denies. Those calling for boycotts have also suggested that the game is Russian propaganda.
Atomic Heart is set in a prosperous 1950s Soviet Union, where robotics and technology have advanced far beyond our modern days. The story follows the fictional character Major Sergey Nechaev, who also goes by the name P-3, who must shut down a group of robots that have gone rogue and started killing the locals.
Through Nechaev, the player unravels the mystery of why the robots have gone on a killing spree. The game has been compared to BioShock, the popular first-person shooter released in 2007. Atomic Heart, with its elegant graphics and unique gameplay style, has garnered positive reviews since its debut.
Those who believe the game is propaganda point to things like the aesthetic of Atomic Heart: a utopian USSR where red banners festooned with hammers and sickles are a frequent part of the setting. Critics are also wary of the game’s main character, Nechaev, who is a member of the KGB and loyal to the USSR. Fedorov specifically noted the game’s promotion of «communist regime and Soviet symbols». (NBC News has not reproduced Atomic Heart.)
«This kind of approach to showcase the USSR and communism walks a fine line between using it to build a world and praising it,» Harenko said in a video titled «Please Don’t Buy Atomic Heart.» Harenko, whose video on 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.
Production of Atomic Heart, which was announced over five years ago, 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 the debate over the ethics of buying a game. In his letters, Fedorov said the concerns stem from Mundfish being a Russian company with Russian management. Critics like Fedorov say he worries that any money the title wins could end up financially backing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Critics take aim at Mundfish’s investors, which include GEM Capital, a company founded by a former executive of a Russian state-owned oil and gas company. The debate has consumed corners of TikTok, Twitter and YouTube.
“The fact that the Russians can easily release a propaganda-laden video game and place it on Microsoft, Steam and Nintendo stores in the middle of a war against a sovereign nation is the ultimate demonstration of how light the sanctions are,” said one critic. . tweeted.
Another person wrote: “I don’t normally get into these things here, but please don’t buy Atomic Heart. The main developer has ties to a Russian state gas company. In-game money will help finance the war in Ukraine.»
With the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine just days after the game’s release, many, including the Ukrainian government, say that buying the game supports Russia’s assault on the country. Some game critics also suggested that the game’s release date, so close to the anniversary of the invasion, was intentional.
In a statement to NBC News, Alex Bornyakov, Ukraine’s deputy minister for digital transformation, said that Atomic Heart «has Russian roots and romanticizes communist ideology and the Soviet Union.» Bornyakov said the ministry sent a letter to Sony, Microsoft and Valve «requesting a ban on selling digital versions of this game in Ukraine.»
«We also urge limiting the distribution of this game in other countries due to its toxicity, possible collection of user data, and potential use of money collected from in-game purchases to carry out a war against Ukraine,» Bornyakov said. .
Officials at the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media did not respond to requests for comment.
The controversy highlights how an increasingly global video game market has also come under scrutiny, particularly over games seen as spreading propaganda or cultural values.
Mundfish’s current website says the company is based in Cyprus. However, a version of the website accessed by NBC News using the Wayback Machine archiving site shows that, as recently as June 25, the website stated that «Atomic Heart is one of the oldest single-player projects.» greats of the Russian Federation». It is not clear why this line was removed.
A spokesperson for Mundfish did not provide NBC News with any comment prior to the publication of this article.
In January, when the debate on the game began, Mundfish tweeted a vague response to some of the concerns about Atomic Heart.
“Guys, we have taken note of the questions surrounding our position at Mundfish. We want to reassure you that Mundfish is a developer and studio with a global team focused on innovative gameplay and is undeniably a pro-peace organization against violence against people,» the company said. tweeted. “We don’t comment on politics or religion. He is sure; we are a global team focused on getting Atomic Heart into the hands of gamers around the world.”
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 ties to Russia.
Gaijin Entertainment was founded in Russia in 2002.
GEM Capital was founded by Russian businessman Anatoliy Paliy, former executive of Gazprom entities, according to the Russian media Interfax.
GEM Capital did not respond to a request for comment.
Tencent is a Chinese technology and entertainment conglomerate. Tencent did not respond to a request for comment.
In a statement to NBC News, Gaijin Entertainment founder Anton Yudintsev said his company is a European-based Hungarian company 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 that 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 has no Russian branches or Russian-based investors. All Mundfish founders and managers do not live in Russia and are European residents.»
“So basically these allegations are based solely on the ethnicity of the people working on the game and have nothing to do with the way money flows, and it would be unfortunate if someone took any action based on rumors and speculation. baseless,” Yudintsev said.
Atomic Heart and allegations of a link to the Russian government is a microcosm of a sprawling gaming market in China.
As Chinese companies like Tencent acquire more of the gaming market, some experts have wondered what the future of freedom and artistic expression will look like in the increasingly pervasive industry.