After its release on September 17, 2021, the latest Netflix Korean TV series, Squid Game, has gained a lot of attention. Likened to The Hunger Games, Black Mirror, and Battle Royale, Squid Game presents a dystopic world investigating the deepest shores of being human and what humans are capable of to survive. Squid Game takes its name from a real game played in Korea. It literally means tag. Each lasting approximately an hour, Squid Game has 9 episodes. Just keep in mind that once you start, it will be very hard to stop until you watch it all.
But what is the show all about? Let’s go back to our childhood for a brief moment. We recall playing games in a neighbourhood spirit until our moms call us for dinner and make us wash our hands before taking our place at the dinner table. Imagine a world where these childhood games are transferred into an adult world. And the games that were once the uniting element of our neighbourhoods change their function. What if you were asked to kill your opponent(s)? What would you do if the games you played as a child turned into deadly games? Would you step on your childhood friend, who became your enemy and biggest obstacle for you to win 45.6 billion won? Squid Game asks these questions and also many more.
In this blog, first, I will introduce you to Squid Game and its major characters. Then, I will talk about what the show tells us and what kind of moral dilemmas it builds to question our human baseness.
What is Squid Game all about?
“I wanted to create a sense of connection between the nostalgic games we played in our childhood and the sense of never-ending competition that modern adults feel. There’s an irony in our most beautiful and innocent memories being changed into the most horrifying reality.” Hwang Dong Hyuk
Cheating? Betraying? Lying? The show mainly revolves around the in-debt characters, who find life unbearably hard. They are willing to do whatever is required to earn money. In their most vulnerable moments, a stranger appears and plays a game with the potential game players. If he wins, he slaps the player. If the player wins, s/he earns money. As he is leaving, he also gives them his card with a phone number on it in case they want to earn more. Since they have nothing to lose, most of them end up joining the game(s). The winner gets 45.6 billion won, while the losers might have to pay back with their body.
The games take place on an island in designed settings. If the characters accept the offer, a mysterious van comes to pick up the game players. Then, they are put to sleep without knowing where they are going. After that moment, their lives basically belong to the game operators unless the players cooperate and ask the games to stop. When they wake up, they meet the masked people in red clothes who are in charge of making everything go smoothly in accordance with the rules. Their masks have geometric shapes (circles, squares and triangles), which mark their rank in the hierarchy. Likewise, as an indication of their identity, 456 game players wear tracksuits. Each one of them has a number. Then, the games start, which are based on the games they played as a kid.
Squid Game characters
456 Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae)
Seong Gi- hun is a divorced man who has a daughter and lives with his mother, secretly withdrawing her pension money from the bank. He uses this money to gamble, betting on horses and hoping to earn money, but he keeps losing. To pay his debts, he decides to join the games.
218 Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-Soo)
Played by Park Hae-soo, Cho Sang-woo is the most intelligent and educated among all the players and a graduate of Seoul National University. Cho and Seong have a past as childhood friends playing games together. Then, they grow apart. Like all the other players, Cho Sang-woo is in debt and the police are searching for him everywhere because he stole money from his clients. He seems to be one of the most willing characters to play these dangerous games and ready to do anything to win.
001 Oh Il-nam (Oh Yeong-su)
In the game we have an elderly man who is waiting to die because of his brain tumour. He develops a special bond with Seong Gi-hun. They even become best-buddies at some point.
067 Kang Sae-byeok (HoYeon Jung)
Kang Sae-byeok is from North Korea who is trying to find her family members and bring them to live with her in South Korea. To do so, she needs to pay for a broker.
199 Abdul Ali (Anupam Tripathi)
Abdul Ali is a worker from Pakistan who has come to Korea with his wife and 9-year-old son. He enters the game for his family because his employer refuses to pay him.
029 The police officer ( Wi Ha-Joon)
In the other facet of the story, we have a police officer whose brother has gone missing for years. One day, he finds the card given to the potential game players in his brother’s house. Events follow and he manages to disguise himself as one of the masked people. As an inside-man, he gives us the chance to understand the hierarchy and the nature of the games and who is behind the organization.
The man behind Squid Game: Hwang Dong Hyuk
After meeting the characters, we can also turn to the creator of this show, who is both the director and writer of Squid Game: Hwang Donk Hyuk. Born and raised in Seoul, Hwang received his M.F.A degree in Film Production from the University of Southern California. During his student years, he shot short films. Some of them are Our Sad Life, A Puff of Smoke, Heven & Hell, and Miracle Mile. In 2007, he released his first feature film, My Father. The film is about the adoption of a Korean-American man, who starts searching for his birth parents.
His second film, The Silenced, has become a big hit. As a novel adaptation, the film focuses on the life-events in a deaf school where students are abused. Hwang shoots this film after giving second-thought because it is a very fragile issue. Finally, he decides to document what we see on TV every day as part of the news: sexual violence and the exploitation of the weak. He says, “I thought about two things when making this film. First, I wanted to let the world know about this horrific incident. Secondly, I wanted to expose the structural problems of society as revealed during the process of how the case was buried. ” Taking all his works into consideration, it seems that Hwang is interested in pinning down the biggest failures of humanity.
Embedded messages in Squid Game
The following might have minor spoilers.
To start with, the show sheds light upon the marginalized groups of society due to their race and economic position. Secondly, it confronts the audience with moral dilemmas. For instance, among the characters, we see a Pakistani guy who flees the country, imagining a better life. But he can’t even get the money he earned. Since he also can’t speak the language well enough, it really leaves him with limited options to survive and make a living. Also, feeling inferior, Abdul addresses the native Koreans as “master” and feels indebted if they help him out of a good heart.
In the series, Abdul’s relationship with Cho becomes another dilemma. The dynamics between the two start to build in real life when they are out of the game (after gameplayers cooperate to stop playing after the first game). The game players are dropped out of the van in pairs. Cho and Abdul become one of them, which prepares an environment where Cho helps Abdul. However, when they return to the game, he is the one who betrays Abdul. Do you think that Cho helped Abdul out of his good heart? Or did he make Abdul trust him on purpose, thinking Abdul might also be back at the game? Because it would be easier to deceive someone if you make him/her trust you, first. It’s really hard to see the intentions behind the actions.
Furthermore, the class struggle appears as a dominating element in South Korean films, such as Parasite and Burning. They tend to place capitalism, survival mechanism and Social Darwinism at the core of their philosophy. Likewise, Squid Game pins down the widening gap between the poor and the rich masterfully and how poor people’s lives turn into a game for the rich.
Voyeurism and the Reality TV shows
As a TV audience, we are not the only spectators of Squid Game. There is also an in-built system of voyeurism in the show. By saying that, I refer to the ones who sit at the top of the hierarchy and enjoy voyeurism, which refers to the pleasure gained from watching others’ pains, suffering, private lives and sexual relationships. After the 7th episode, we meet the rich, for whom the games are organized, enjoying the game players getting killed and how they deceive each other. They even bet on people, guessing who will win or lose and telling who their favorites are. Even if this game comes at the cost of others’ lives.
If we return to our world, today’s world enjoys watching reality shows such as Survivor, Fear Factor, and American Idol, rather than fictional works. There are so many studies done on the subject and why people enjoy reality shows more. Squid Game might also be playing with this fact in the show in an implicit manner.
Is Squid Game worth watching?
Squid Game is scary and it’s probably not for everybody’s taste. There is violence, blood, random shootings and even mass killings. Between the games, the authority holders also play tricks on the game players by causing conflicts. For instance, they cook less food and manipulate the players to be even harsher on each other. This provokes killing outside the games. It’s like a social experiment which explores human baseness, a game which traces the nature of children’s games and how they fit in achieving survival skills.
What’s more, it explores the brutality of capitalism and the marginalized groups of society who can’t live up to their potentials and find themselves in misery, as a result. Keeping all things in mind, Squid Game is definitely worth watching.
Will there be Squid Game Season 2?
It seems that writing the show was quite an exhausting process for Hwang. Currently, he doesn’t know for sure if more will be coming. The second season might come if he finds other directors. During an interview, he states, “I don’t have well-developed plans for ‘Squid Game 2.’ It is quite tiring just thinking about it. But if I were to do it, I would certainly not do it alone. I’d consider using a writers’ room and would want multiple experienced directors.”
Considering the end of the first season, it’s quite open-ended. Another layer of story could definitely be built. Thinking about how The Hunger Games proceeded with the second and third films, the winner of Squid Game might come back to take revenge on the game organizers and to make their game fall apart.
What to watch next?
If you really enjoyed this show and want to see more shows like this, below I share some TV series and films which follow a similar pattern to engage the audience.
As the Gods Will (2014)
Takashi Miike’s As the Gods Will is a film adaptation of the manga series written by Muneyuki Kaneshiro and Akeji Fujimura. Takashi Miike is one of the masters of Japanese horror movies, well-known for his movies such as Audition and Ichi the Killer. The story of As the Gods Will is about high school students, some of whom are bored and find no meaning in life. In particular, the main character, Shun Takahata (Sota Fukushi), spends his time playing violent video games. One day, at school, a toy in the shape of a giant red marble appears in the classroom and starts a game. The winner lives and the losers die.
The Korean director of Squid Game is accused of plagiarizing from As the Gods Will. Even though they share some similarities, there are many different dynamics playing throughout the series. For instance, Squid Game presents a great criticism of the system itself, which is not very present in As the Gods Will. Squid Game turns childhood games into life-death situations, while As the Gods Will converts different types of toys such as maneki-neko (beckoning cat), kokeshi (Japanese wooden dolls), and matryoshka dolls into lethal mechanisms. Strictly speaking, the killing scenes in Squid Game almost seem humane when compared to As the Gods Will, where people’s heads explode, or they get squashed by a white giant bear-like creature, and eaten by a giant cat toy. As the Gods Will is much more brutal in that sense.
Also, as a response to plagiarism claims, Straitstimes indicated that the script for Squid Game had been in the works since 2008 to 2009 [way before the film was released], but was shelved as there was a lack of interest until Netflix came knocking a decade later. Additionally, as Hwang says, “But if I had to say it, I would say I did it first.”
Alice in Borderland (2020)
Alice in Borderland is a Japanese sci-fiction thriller based on a manga of the same name by Haro Aso. In this series, the three close friends find themselves transported to a parallel universe of Tokyo. In this universe, even though everything looks the same, there is no one except the players. Each player connects to a game through a phone they find in the game zone. Games might demand extreme physical skills and intelligence, depending on the game’s nature. An anime version of this show of the same name is also available. It is a mini-series released in 2014-2015. It has only 3 episodes.
Battle Royale (2000)
Starring one of the most iconic director-actors, Takeshi Kitano, Battle Royale takes place on an island where high school students are brought to fight and kill each other. Their former high schoolteacher (Takeshi Kitano) takes revenge on his students for being disobedient to him in class. In this game, the students test their humanity. Some kill others with no hesitation, some form groups to defy their real enemy, which is the system itself. Some commit suicide, while some just try to survive together.
What does Squid Game tell us about our world?
“I wanted to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society, something that depicts extreme competition, somewhat like the extreme competition of life. But I wanted it to use the kind of characters we’ve all met in real life.”Hwang Hong Dyunk
I think the show does a fantastic job by bringing our childhood themes into an adult world. In that sense, it comes as a reminder of the English Romantic William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, where he portrays the innocence of children and the corrupted adult world in paired-poems. Squid Game is like a visual recitation or narration of these poems’ and their philosophy of ‘the two contrary states of the human soul’. In other words, it demonstrates the good and bad aspects of human nature and how we grow and adapt to a corrupted, consumerist and capitalist world. Most importantly, in the biggest picture, considering us as part of a network dominated by apparatuses of surveillance systems, it asks: do we actually have a place to go? Can we ever be out of the game?
I think the show tackles all these issues masterfully. Even in the end, it asks: What would you do if you survived and had all the money? Would you be able to spend it carelessly after seeing 455 people dying? In short, it leaves us with the message that the game is still on.