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The Controversy Around 'Atomic Heart,' the Soviet-Inspired ... 'Answer' to 'Bioshock'

By Alberto Cox Délano | Miscellaneous | February 23, 2023 |

By Alberto Cox Délano | Miscellaneous | February 23, 2023 |


Here’s something everybody loves: A video-game controversy. Why, is there a more intellectually invigorating and nuanced topic of conversation?


Atomic Heart is a recently released FPS videogame. It released its first announcement trailers, way back in mid-2017, while opening pre-orders at a pretty steep price. Despite reasonable skepticism, the studio behind it eventually delivered a finished product, and the trailers have been generating hype ever since.

The game is set in a retrofuturistic vision of Soviet Russia, set in an alternate history where the USSR made enormous technological strides in robotics, energy, and computing. The storyline is… well, I don’t wanna sound pedantic, but it’s Bioshock. It’s not just the mechanics, the mid-century sci-fi aesthetics, and being in a collapsing totalitarian regime. Beat for beat, the narrative is almost an exact copy of Bioshock but set in a Communist regime instead of a Libertarian one. Also, with 100% more sexy femme androids. The reviews have been good to middling, it seems to be an OK if not generic game, the mid-century Soviet aesthetics being the standout element. But the controversy has been, as it usually is with videogames, about politics. Bring in the shell-shocked Lisa Simpson gif again!

Mundfish, the studio behind Atomic Heart, is Russian, but currently headquartered in Cyprus. The debate over the game started after an Ukrainian YouTuber, Harenko, published “Please, Don’t Buy Atomic Heart,” a video denouncing both the links of the studio to Russian state apparatus and the content itself with its apparent glorification of the USSR and its standard videogame sexism.

In short, though I recommend giving it a watch, Harenko claims that, in contrast to previous reporting, the company only began to present itself as an international company in 2022, erasing any visible connection to its Russian roots and its original HQs in Moscow. As the trailers gained popularity, they issued a very milquetoast “We don’t comment on politics. Peace & Love to everybody” PR statement to avoid any potential association with the invasion of Ukraine. Harenko claims that the studio’s CEO and founders, Robert Bagratuni and Evheniya Sedova, have ties to Russia’s biggest tech and social network conglomerate, VK, and Newmedia Stars, a company that manages Russian mass media outlets. All of these are, of course, controlled and used as propaganda channels by the Russian Government, while Harenko claims that the main investors in the studio are connected to Gazprom and various oligarchs, all eventually connected to Putin’s regime.

Harenko also denounces the content of Atomic Hearts, which by referencing Soviet propaganda and aesthetics, provides an unexamined, “cool-for-coolness’-sake” vision of the period, not unlike the edgy fascination of certain people with Nazy Germany’s imagery. Moreover, Harenko pointedly criticizes the sexist objectification found in the game (two sexy androids are ever-present in its promotional materials) and the hive culture of male gamers, always antagonistic towards nuance and being critical towards the content they consume.

There is also the timing of the game’s release, on February 21. Much too close to the one-year anniversary of the Invasion of Ukraine and the militaristic Defender of the Fatherland Day.

However, an interesting counterpoint was presented by Rusian Youtuber Roman, host of the channel NKFRZ. His channel is dedicated to Russian and Eastern European history, culture and society, being very critical of Putin’s regime, so much that he is currently living in Georgia as an exile. Roman has always been supportive towards Ukrainians and has no time for Z-supporters. He comes from a legitimate place is what I’m saying, so he had a nuanced take on this controversy. He considered Harenko’s claims to be very likely, and that there are problematic elements in how Mundfish has chosen to promote Atomic Heart. However, he explained that in Russia, the only way to get any project going is through the economic structures, all controlled by the Government and oligarchs. Similarly, considering the size of the VK conglomerate, it’s almost impossible for a Russian person in tech not to be involved with the company, in any way, shape or form.

He did agree on the one really fucked-up thing about the company’s online store, which included clauses that could have them providing data to Russia’s security services.

The lukewarm reception to the game will probably deflate the controversy by the next press cycle. However, Atomic Heart does pose a question that I cannot answer right now, and it’s not about whether its ethical to buy this game in particular. The answer is simple: I don’t think anyone should because the studio is too connected to Putin’s regime.

My real question is about the fascination we have with Soviet culture and aesthetics, which is very prevalent among Leftists, even those who are not tankies. Is that our equivalent to the edgelords and their “ironic” Nazi shitpost memes? The USSR also killed millions of people, it was antisemitic and sexist in practice, homophobic in policy, and still permeated by Russian imperialist supremacism. But unlike nazism, it wasn’t founded on racism, reactionarism, and imperialist extermination. Its cultural output and imagery is way too diverse and complex to condemn outright. Again, it’s a topic for a broader conversation. But when it comes to Atomic Heart … just play Bioshock.

Alberto Cox is your friendly CIA plant.