On November 3, 1957, under leader Nikita Khrushchev, the USSR launched Sputnik 2 into Earth's orbit with Laika the dog on board. Laika was not expected to survive the mission and she died of overheating hours after takeoff.
This is where Minicore Studios begins The Sun at Night – by imagining a scenario where Laika doesn't die. Instead, she returns to Earth with robotic enhancements – including speech – and joins the fight against Soviet forces, which have conquered the world using a mysterious energy source.
Some people don't like this premise. They're not upset about seeing an animal harmed in a digital world, they don't mind that the true story behind the game is kind of upsetting, and they're fine with the suspension of disbelief required to play as a talking robotic animal who crash-lands on Earth. They don't like how Soviets are portrayed in The Sun at Night – and they want Minicore to know.
Of all the comments that Minicore receives on The Sun at Night's websites and email, 5 - 8 percent are from upset Russian nationals, non-Russian Communists or Neo-Stalinists who believe the game paints Soviets in an unjust light, studio founder John Warren tells me.
"[They've] decided, after being given very little information about the game's premise, that it's a very pro-USA, anti-communism kind of narrative – which it really isn't," Warren says. "I mean, the Western countries like Britain and the US don't even really factor into the narrative at all. The game itself isn't really an indictment of any one political ideology or anything like that. At the end of the day, it's still a sci-fi platformer about a robot space dog."
Mostly, Warren finds the comments odd and, at their worst, unpleasant. They range from one-liners about Western ignorance to a four-part, derogatory novella about the systematic brainwashing of American students. Here are some of the stand-out comments that Minicore has collected:
"USA kill more monkeys in space than soviets kill dogs."
"How about game, where dolphin Alphredo from US Navy Marine Mammal Program kill some Americans? It will be funny! :D"
"People in Russia are really tired of being bad guy cliche, still we are third Steam market in Europe, and no more of this insulting shit would be allowed."
"Evil empire is your greasy bastard face."
"You crazy americans. Drunk on hamburgers."
"Another antisoviet shit."
And, from that four-parter: "I wish somebody told me when Stalin forbid women and negroes to vote, or if he's responsible for holocaust, but average american already knows Stalin did this all when as a kid he is attending elementary school .... P.S. stop using jewish names for all russian heroes, its no novelty at all, its not smart (well except if you are rusophobes, then alright). Everything that comes from USA and tells of a russian who is not a criminal, has a jewish name. This is a gay cliche like vodka drinking already."
Russian patriotism in the gaming realm isn't a new idea: Recently sales of Company of Heroes 2 were halted in Russia for misrepresenting Soviet soldiers in World War II, and the Russian government has begun a program to produce "patriotic" games that won't allow a negative portrayal of its military history. Russia is tired of playing the bad guy.
One thing Warren finds strange about the run of Neo-Stalinist comments on The Sun at Night is that Minicore hasn't ever officially said if Stalin is in the game. Historically, he's dead by the time Laika is shot into space. Warren says that Stalin's influence is felt in The Sun at Night's universe, but it's still an alternate, fictional place.
"We've found it kind of amusing and troubling that so many folks have latched on to the political ramifications of, I guess, the story of Laika coming back and fighting against a Soviet empire, even though it's a very different Soviet regime than the one that actually existed," Warren says.
He continues, "We've seen folks tweet at us about how Stalin was a wonderful twentieth century leader, and we haven't even said if Stalin is a central part of our game. We've just seen a lot of folks latch on to our game because I think people assume that it will rely heavily on tropes that Russian nationalists, communists and Neo-Stalinists abhor – and we think we're avoiding that pretty well. But I guess we'll find out."
So far, it's hard to tell. The "greasy face" comment was posted to Minicore's Facebook page, under a video of Warren discussing the game, and it included the top picture of Uncle Sam wearing a rifle and clutching a sad dog, perched atop a pile of human bones.
The picture (in full here) was drawn by Livejournal user Egor Motygin and uploaded in July, alongside a description, in Russian, of The Sun at Night. The text focuses on the plot of The Sun at Night, and many of Motygin's posts – including more drawings – reference Stalinism or the ineptitude of the US.
"I'm not arrogant enough to think that this was made for us," Warren says, though that drawing showed up 10 - 15 times across Minicore's websites this summer. Considering that Motygin also unveiled it in the summer, it may very well have been made just for Laika.
Still, that long message on The Sun at Night's Greenlight page stands out as the most horrifying, Warren says:
"It was an unhinged, scary series of messages. It made everybody in the office super, super uncomfortable. That was really the worst."
Warren says that he understands where some of these people are coming from – they're passionate about their country and gaming, and these two things collide in Minicore's comment section. He even gets that the US is involved in animal testing, and it's responsible for sending plenty of monkeys to their deaths in space. That's just not what The Sun at Night is about, he says:
"The truth is that I just don't think monkeys in America are as interesting as dogs in the USSR. That's really what it boils down to."
Warren doesn't want to offend anyone, and the story has undergone careful consideration to that end.
"We've been more careful in the way we talk about the game, and I think we've been more careful to address political matters in the game with more attention to detail and care in terms of the way we explain some characters' motivations," he says. "But we definitely haven't removed anything from the game because it was never really inflammatory, real-world satire to begin with. It's still a sci-fi game that has a plot somewhat based in this kind of historical fiction."
If anything, the real-life story of a dog dying in space is the most troubling aspect of The Sun at Night, Warren says, and Minicore has made sure this aspect isn't too in-your-face. Laika is more robot than dog, especially in her death animation, which is a pixelated explosion rather than a "dog death." Laika used to bark whenever she got hit, but that felt "too weird and bad," Warren says, so that mechanic is gone.
Laika's true history is upsetting, and that's part of the reason this game even exists.
"It's a way for us to kind of make things right in our heads about that story," he says. "Because it is super sad; it made me sad for a very long time. It just seemed like such a ripe story for someone to riff on it and do something interesting with it."
Some people get what Minicore is trying to do – including people in Russia, Warren notes:
"That's been more common than the negative stuff. Not only from American players but from Russians and elsewhere – that's an important note, that we've actually had a lot of positive support, which has been great because it's helped counter-balance some of the bad stuff."
The Sun at Night is due out on February 4 for PC, available via Humble Store and Minicore, among other retailers that the studio is still lining up. It's also on Steam Greenlight.
Warren is aware that talking about his run-ins with a vocal, active online community may only drive more negative comments his way. "Whenever we run an article – like this – we get a new influx of comments," he says. "But, you know, that's ok .... I don't think any of these people are dangerous. I just think they're angry and they don't quite know how to express what they want to – often in English, which is obviously broken in a lot of cases."
Warren isn't going to sit in despair or stay stuck in The Sun at Night's development process, and he certainly won't roll over and let the hateful comments get him down:
"We're making a science fiction game about an alternate universe and a robot space dog. I kind of let that stuff roll off my back."