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Questions remain over Atomic Heart developer's Russian origins

As release on anniversary of Ukraine invasion nears.

As the release of sci-fi shooter Atomic Heart nears, numerous questions around the project remain - which its developer Mundfish seems disinclined to answer.

Concerns have been raised regarding the game's heavily pro-Soviet themes, as well as the activities of both developer Mundfish and its investors.

Those concerns include, but are not limited to, the use of glorification of Russia in marketing and the apparent origins of Mundfish as a Russian entity, including the reported investment in Mundfish by Russian companies.

Atomic Heart - Combat Trailer | gamescom 2022Watch on YouTube

Atomic Heart has been in development since 2017. Inspired by the BioShock series, it's a game that - according to the Mundfish website - explores "the utopia of an alternative world" that takes place in an alternative Soviet Union of 1955.

"Science, equality and fraternity are the main symbols of freedom in this reality. But what kind of effort does it take to build an ideal society?" Mundfish asks, teasing a story which will question "what forces are behind the Utopian dream?"

It is, ostensibly, a game about the alternate universe success of the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s, and its technological superiority - as scientific progress leads to the discovery of a new polymer used in the development of robotics.

There's a fine line between world building and glorification and it remains to be seen to what extent the game potentially idolises the Soviet Union until the game is released. Yet Mundfish has already raised eyebrows for its use of pro-Soviet themes in marketing.

Back in November, an extravagant promotional event for the game was held for Russian press, with the venue dressed in Soviet finery and signage reading "Glory to Soviet engineers" and "Comrade, join the society of tomorrow". The timing of the event coincided with international backlash to the new anti-LGBT laws in Russia, and as Game World Observer reported, some attendees questioned whether the event was appropriate due to the war in Ukraine.

So who is Mundfish?

"Founded in 2017, by a team of four like-minded gaming enthusiasts, Mundfish is a video game development studio headquartered in Cyprus. Mundfish is led by a talented global team focused on creating an original, captivating, and unique gaming experience with their first title, Atomic Heart," a statement on the company website reads.

It's stated that Mundfish now comprises an "experienced international team of developers" operating in 10 countries including Poland, Ukraine, Austria, Georgia, Israel, Armenia, UAE, Serbia, and Cyprus. One country is conspicuously missing.

Mundfish's statement omits the detail its team was originally from Moscow, and that Russian media continue to describe the studio as Russian in articles about the game.

Mundfish was recently forced to deny claims it was harvesting data for Russian authorities. The site AIN.Capital alleged that Mundfish's Russian store website included a clause to inform users their data may be collected and sent to Russian state authorities, including the tax office and Federal Security Service.

AIN alleged the website policy cited "Russian mobilisation laws, under which soldiers are currently being recruited in Russia to continue the criminal war against Ukraine" and claimed Mundfish listed its legal address was still listed as in Moscow.

"Our game and website DO NOT collect any information or data," a spokesperson for Mundfish told GamesRadar by way of a response. "The website's privacy statement is outdated and wrong, and should have been removed years ago. We have shut down the shop to assure our fans of the integrity of our studio and products. We apologise for any confusion on this matter."

Other incidents and choices from Mundfish have raised concern. For one, Atomic Heart's release date.

On 21st February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a presidential decree recognising the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, which preceded military action less than 72 hours later.

Atomic Heart is set for release on the same day this year, raising eyebrows. If it was a mere coincidence, why not say so? If Mundfish wished to avoid speculation, why not shift the date? Eurogamer specifically asked Mundfish and Atomic Heart publisher Focus Entertainment about the game's choice of release date, but did not hear back.

At the start of 2023, Mundfish released a statement on its stance to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which was criticised for its lack of specificity and vague language.

"Guys, we have noted the questions surrounding where we, at Mundfish, stand," Mundfish said in a Twitter thread. "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 organisation against violence against people.

"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.

"We do not, and will not, condone contributors or spammers with offensive, hateful, discriminatory, violent, or threatening language or content."

For a game depicting an idealised alternate universe Soviet Union utopia, the lack of comment on politics or religion rubbed many the wrong way. However, with the developer's ties to Russian companies, there may be a fear of reprisal for staff at Mundfish.

Lastly, there's the matter of Mundfish's investor, the Russian firm GEM Capital.

GEM Capital is an investment firm with a strong interest in gaming companies, led by an individual named Anatoliy Paliy. So far, the company has invested in Mundfish, along with Owlcat Games (Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous), Weappy (This is the Police), Deus Craft (Grand Hotel Mania), and Unfrozen (Iratus: Lord of the Dead).

Paliy previously worked for Russian majority state-owned gas company Gazprom. Further, in Russia the game is set for release on VKPlay due to Steam ceasing business in the country, which is part of VKontakte - Russia's primary social media platform that's controlled by Gazprom. It means sales for the game in Russia can be linked back to the state.

How much was GEM involved in the development of Atomic Heart? Again, Eurogamer asked Mundfish for more information - which was not provided.

However, when asked in an interview with Russian media about his involvement as an investor in gaming projects, Paliy responded that the company actively participates in strategy development, raising funds, optimising processes, and making operational decisions - it is not just an investor.

All of this ties Mundfish, and the potential financial success of Atomic Heart, back to Russian money - even if investment deals were completed ahead of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

This is why commenters online are calling for more transparency over Mundfish's financial dealings, and Russian origins. Local press AIN has released multiple articles noting the game's Russian origins.

Please, Don't Buy Atomic Heart.Watch on YouTube

Eurogamer contacted both Mundfish and publisher Focus Entertainment for the purpose of this report but did not receive a response. Eurogamer also did not receive a response from Microsoft, which is promoting the game via Game Pass.

This week, Atomic Heart composer Mick Gordon donated his fee to Red Cross Australia's Ukraine Crisis Appeal "to stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine".

"My motivations are solely to support the Ukrainian people affected by the conflict," he said in a statement to Eurogamer.

"I believe it is important to separate the actions of a government from the actions of individual citizens. The talented team at Mundfish has worked hard for many years to create a unique and imaginative project, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have contributed to it. The game is a truly international effort, with 130 developers contributing to the project from more than ten different countries. I deeply respect the artistry and creativity that went into the development of Atomic Heart, and I am grateful for the opportunity to work with the Mundfish team. I also have a strong ethical and moral obligation to help those in need and stand up for what I believe is right. I hope that by making my donation public, I can also encourage others to consider making a difference."

Atomic Heart is set for release on 21st February across PC, PlayStation and Xbox consoles, including through Xbox Game Pass.

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