New video game Atomic Heart, set in an alternative history in which the Soviet Union experiences a tech boom following World War II, is facing allegations that it peddles dangerous pro-Russian propaganda and criticism for its developer’s perceived connections with Russia amid the country’s invasion of Ukraine.
On Friday, Vice 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 raised from purchases of the game will be transferred to Russia's budget, so it will be used to fund the war against Ukraine."
NBC News was unable to find evidence that revenue from the game was being used to fund 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 gamers to walk away from Atomic Heart, imploring them to neither purchase nor play the first-person shooter.
“Some users could make a claim that they could simply pirate it [Atomic Heart], and pay no money to the Russian devs, and still enjoy the game. To that, I can’t say anything. At that point it depends only 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 that Mundfish denies. Those calling for boycotts also have suggested the game is Russian propaganda.
Atomic Heart is set in a thriving 1950s Soviet Union, where robotics and technology have advanced far beyond our modern day. The story follows fictional character Major Sergey Nechaev, who also goes by P-3, who must shut down a group of robots who have gone rogue and begun 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 wildly popular first-person shooter launched in 2007. Atomic Heart, with its sleek graphics and unique gameplay, has earned positive reviews since its debut.
Those who believe the game is propaganda point to things like Atomic Heart’s aesthetic: a utopian USSR where red banners adorned with hammer and sickles are a frequent part of the scenery. Critics are also wary of the game's lead character, 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 thin line between using it for world-building 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 he believes the game crosses that line.
Harenko did not respond to a request for comment.
Atomic Heart’s production, which was announced more than five years ago, predates the full-scale 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 purchasing a game. In his letters, Fedorov said the concerns stem from Mundfish being a Russian company with Russian management. Critics like Fedorov say they are concerned that whatever money the title earns could end up financially backing 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 corners of TikTok, Twitter and YouTube.
“The fact that Russians can easily launch a video game stuffed with propaganda and list it on Microsoft, Steam and Nintendo shops amidst war against sovereign nation is the ultimate showcase of how mild the sanctions are,” one critic tweeted.
Another person wrote: “I usually don’t get into this stuff here, but please don’t buy Atomic Heart. The lead developer has ties to a Russian state gas company. The money from the game will help fund 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, say that buying the game supports Russia’s assault on the country. Some critics of the game also suggested the game’s release date being so close to the invasion anniversary was intentional.
In a statement to NBC News, Alex Bornyakov, Ukraine’s deputy minister of 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 urge limiting the distribution of this game in other countries due to its toxicity, potential data collection of users, and the potential use of money raised from game purchases to conduct a war against Ukraine,” Bornyakov said.
Officials in 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 become the subject of scrutiny, most notably on games seen to be 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 archival site Wayback Machine shows, as recently as June 25, the website 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 ahead of its release also referred to Mundfish as a Russian video game studio.
A spokesperson for Mundfish did not provide NBC News with a comment ahead of publication of this article.
In January, as the debate around the game began, Mundfish tweeted a vague response to some of the concerns about Atomic Heart.
“Guys, we have noted 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 pro-peace organization against violence against people,” the company tweeted. “We do not comment on politics or religion. Rest assured; we are a global team focused on getting Atomic Heart into the hands of gamers 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 at Gazprom entities, according to Russian media outlet 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 enterprise based in Europe and denied any connection to Russia. A spokesperson for the company confirmed Gaijin was founded in Russia in 2002, but said the company has been based in Hungary since the mid-2010s.
Yudintsev, who said he’s lived in Europe for many years, added that he, not Gaijin, made a personal investment in Mundfish and said that Mundfish “is not a Russian entity, and it doesn’t have any Russian branches or any Russia-based investors. All Mundfish founders and management are not living in Russia and are European residents.”
“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 groundless rumors and speculations,” Yudintsev said.
Atomic Heart and the accusations of a link to the Russian government is a microcosm of an already expanding gaming market in China.
As Chinese companies like Tencent acquire more of the gaming market, some experts have wondered what the future of artistic freedom and expression in the ever-mainstreaming industry will look like.