Atomic Heart Has the Coolest Trailer of the Year, But What Actually Is It? - IGN
It’s fairly rare to see a game blow up from nowhere these days. Pre-development crowdfunding, #screenshotsaturday gif threads and teasers for teaser trailers for full trailers have somewhat put paid to the true unknown in gaming. Even E3 surprises - presumably shrouded in enough NDA paperwork to insulate a building - are few and far between in the age of the leak.
Which is why arriving at work on a Wednesday morning to find a Twitter feed full of people collectively losing their minds over an all-but-unheard-of Soviet nuclearpunk nightmare shooter felt quite so special. If you haven’t watched the Atomic Heart trailer, you should remedy that now:
Exit Theatre Mode
I just watched it twice more myself - it’s brilliant. An absolute dervish of styles, combat and, particularly, threats that promises so much. But so much of what? While it seems pretty clear that this is a first-person action game amid a Fallout-like rewritten history, there’s a lot more we can only guess at. What has caused robots, zombies and eldritch blood tentacles(?) to start cropping up, why are we fighting them, and should it be making me... laugh?
Perhaps more importantly - who’s making all this? Mundfish is listed as the developer, but there’s precious little information out there about the studio, aside from a willfully cryptic website that reveals another game, Soviet Lunapark VR, is in development. I’m happy to say that I can spoil some of the mystery for you.
Mundfish is a Russian studio currently made up of 20 developers (although that’s expected to double over the next six months) and, somewhat perfectly, was founded specifically because Atomic Heart sounded so cool - it’s been exciting people from nowhere since before it even had a name.
“The credit for the plot of the game belongs to the art director of the project, Artyom Galeev”, explains Mundfish CEO, Robert Bagratuni over email. “He had it in the making for seven years. When I read the synopsis and saw the first sketches, it became clear that the game had a huge potential. Then, together with the producer, Oleg, we assembled a whole group of talented game developers who shared our way of thinking, every single one of whom has worked on various game projects in the past.”
So what is that plot?
“The world of Atomic Heart is an alternative reality of the Soviet Union, or an alternative past”, says Bagratuni. “I.e. this is a game about everything that could have happened but did not take place in the USSR in the ’30s through to the ’60s.
“The storyline takes place in a reality where the USSR still exists, but a technical revolution has already taken place: robots, the Internet, holograms have already been invented, but all these innovations are submerged in the atmosphere of communism, confrontation with the imperialism of the West and all the other inherent political and social aspects of the time.”
So far, so Fallout - until we’re told about the lead character:
“The protagonist is a Soviet KGB officer. This officer has mental issues. This is putting it mildly. In fact, he is completely insane. And his party has sent him to the power plant ‘3826’ and is waiting for the report. ‘3826’ is inherently strategic - it produces robots for working in the fields, gathering timber, harvesting, keeping everything in peace as well as for working at home and in the public catering.
“Robots are everywhere, they are bartenders, cleaners, security guards, caretakers for the elderly. They have an appealing appearance because they were being sold everywhere, like iPhones. In every house there was a robot, in every business. Then something happened.”
He leaves it at that, but it’s clear from the trailer that there’s more at work here than broken robots. Bagratuni is a little more cryptic on that front. “The game world is definitely stuffed with all sorts of weird things. This is our thing. In fact, it was this way in the Soviet Union, in the sense that everything was very unusual and unpredictable. The USSR was famous for its brilliant engineers and advanced research in science, while at the same time, in the atmosphere of secrecy, some research institutes could easily have spawned robots and zombies, absolutely anything.”
The idea is to conjure up an exaggerated version of the strangeness of the real Soviet Union. Bagratuni brings up two real-world events as inspiration: the Dyatlov Pass incident, in which nine experienced ski hikers were found mutilated across the Ural mountains having torn their way out of their own tents; and the death of Leonid Brezhnev when, instead of announcing the passing of its General Secretary, the Communist Party reportedly broadcasted ‘Swan Lake’ on the radio for 4 hours. In an odd tribute to an odder event, Swan Lake will be played throughout the game, and be given a techno remix.
Mundfish is a lot less forthcoming with details about what it is to play the game, although Bagratuni admits that some commenters are making “very good progress” with their guesswork. The trailer’s gunplay and weapon customisation seem to point to an FPS with RPG elements, but he simply describes it as “part shooter, part hardcore close combat game.”
The map that appears at the end of the trailer certainly implies an open-world setting and, while not a true confirmation, Bagratuni does explain that “the map is huge”. It’s converted from a real-world USSR chart and encompasses the Arctic Circle, plains, forests, and mountain passes, and is connected by a usable railroad system. He also points out that it’s layered, with “a surface level and abandoned underground departments of ‘3826’” He also mentions Bunkers, “very detailed locations with a special Soviet atmosphere”. It seems these might act like dungeons of some kind, given that Bagratuni points out they’ll feature very limited ammo, meaning every shot needs to count.
The most common reference points among commenters have been Bioshock (shooter in a twisted world) and Fallout (retro-futurist setting), and Bagratuni acknowledges their influence, but it’s other titles - not all of them games - that he prefers to compare his studio’s work to. The story he compares to a Soviet-set episode of Black Mirror. He repeatedly mentions the team’s focus on close combat, eventually explaining that the team’s aiming for a “first-person Bloodborne” (it’s something you notice more when looking back at the trailer). Overall, he compares the game’s approach to arguably the loftiest creations of all: “We are all fans of Kojima and love hardcore games with a deep storyline, but we are not going to forget about the mass audience.”
We cover a little more - the trailer is meant much more as creeping horror than offbeat comedy (I won’t lie, I’m a little embarrassed that I may have upset Bagratuni by saying it made me laugh), the strange watch the character wears is a utility that ticks to distract hostile robots, and it absolutely will not be free-to-play - but it’s clear Mundfish doesn’t want to say much more.
Atomic Heart doesn’t yet have a concrete release date - the studio’s still deciding whether to partner with a publisher, which could wildly change when it can deliver what it’s working on - but it has plans for how it will reveal more before then.
Exit Theatre Mode
Soviet Lunapark VR is due for release this month, and is designed as something of a story primer. Set in the same universe, but broadly disconnected, it will “give the opportunity to see some zones of plant ‘3826’ from the inside, and witness yourself what the employees of the plant went through when an attack occurred and everything broke down.” The studio also wants to tackle some of the naysayers who believed the Atomic Heart trailer was too good to be true by releasing a gameplay trailer that shows more plot and mechanical detail.
Right now, however, Bagratuni seems content to let newly excited players simply speculate among themselves. “To be honest,” he says of the reaction to the first trailer, “its just incredible! Although we really want the game to be truly great and well-received by the players, we did not expect this even in our wildest fantasies! The whole team is absolutely excited, inspired and motivated by the reaction of the audience.” True surprises in gaming might be rare, but Mundfish is making a case for why the reward can justify the risk.
Joe Skrebels is IGNs UK News Editor, and he wants one of those sphere-headed robots for his house, stat. Follow him on Twitter.