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Atomic Heart's Retro-Futuristic Soviet Union and its Cultural Elements

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with my friend Julia, who introduced me to a captivating video game that she has been enjoying playing. This is Atomic Heart, an action role-playing video game developed and published by Russian game studio Mundfish and set in a remarkably authentic Soviet-inspired ambience. Although it has been a while since the last time I dug into an intriguing videogame, being a big fan of the dystopic, post-apocalyptic, and retro-futuristic genres (such as Fallout, Metro, Wolfenstein or Bioshock), I decided to spend some time exploring its storyline, some of its characters, as well as the setting –this beautiful alternate reality version of 1955 Soviet Union, where advanced technology and machinery brought about a new era of prosperity. And yet, this wonderful idyll was disrupted by a mysterious accident at a secret research facility which caused robots to malfunction, turning them into violent, murderous machines. Players have to take on the role of a KGB agent named P-3, sent to investigate the cause of the incident and eliminate any threats to Soviet society. Along the way, players will encounter various hostile robots and mutated creatures and engage in fast-paced combat using various weapons and abilities.

Atomic Heart's unique art style blends Soviet-era architecture and technology with sci-fi elements, creating a surreal and otherworldly atmosphere, and making the game interesting from many perspectives. It comes out in the midst of an international tempest, it interestingly rejuvenates some aspects of the Russian identity, and its creators have been accused of having liaisons with the government. But apart from these issues, it contains a lot of interesting cultural details. Being set in the 1950s, the game avoids the controversies associated with destalinisation and, at the same time, winks at the recent revival in Russia of this figure in the last few years. In fact, the 50s remain in the collective memory as the period of the interregnum following the death of Stalin in 1953. This was a moment in which the party leadership began a struggle for power which led to the murder of Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, the most powerful member of the politburo at the time; the demotion of Georgy Maximilianovich Malenkov, the acting first party secretary; and the election of Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev as new stable successor in 1956. However, the creators propose the character of Molotov –not the Stalinist minister Vyacheslav Mikhaylovich but the invented Yegor Timofeyevich Molotov– as the head of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union, reinforcing this sort of cryptic innuendo. Considering the other facets of this naming, then, I cannot but think of Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov –the inventor of the homonymous machinegun– who share the same patronymic, whereas Yegor sounds pretty much like the average Russian name in Western imaginary –in the same vein of Orwell's Winston Smith.

As per the protagonist, the almost anonymous P-3, the main character's name seems to me to be a parody of Evgeniy Ivanovich Zamyatin's equally anonymous protagonist D-503 in the novel Мы (We) –which earned him the exile under Stalin's era. In the novel, D-503 is a mathematician and engineer who is responsible for designing the spaceship, Integral, which will be used to spread the totalitarian One State's ideology to other planets as well as a loyal citizen of the One State, fully committed to its principles and way of life. He is a highly skilled professional who believes in the importance of precision, order, and efficiency. However, as the story progresses, D-503 begins to have doubts about the One State's system and becomes increasingly disillusioned with its rigid, dehumanizing nature. The same kind of process seems to be observed in P-3's evolution throughout the game. Unlike D-503, P-3 is not a skilled engineer but a faithful soldier, representing perhaps only the imperfect parodical reflection of Zamyatin's hero. Despite that, they share this downward evolution which in the case of D-503 configures itself as the loss of faith in the state's ideology, while in the case of P-3, it takes the form of a progressive descent into madness and chaos.

To this, what struck the web was the depiction of the sensual twin robot ballerinas. To me, the creators were playing on the stereotype of the almost mechanic perfection of Bolshoi-like professional dancers vaguely associate with the trope of the femme fatale and visually represented as models of Russian femininity through the traditional Russian braid. A fantasy already well present in our culture –reminding me of the silly example of Robbie William's Prokofievan sonorities in Party like a Russian.

And as mentioned before, post-humanism is at the core of the game dynamics where hybridisation between humans and machines, the struggle against robotics and mass mind control are the conducting wires of the plot decreeing the success of the game along with the careful integration of Soviet cultural elements.

I personally enjoyed very much the soundtrack of the game proposing metal/rock remixes of classic popular Soviet songs by Geoffrey Day, such as Alla Borisovna Pugacheva's Арлекино (Harlequin) and Zemlyane's Трава у дома (The grass around the house).


Acknowledgement

I thank Julia for sharing with me her experience with the game which has revealed invaluable to the writing of this short piece.

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