The concept of a twisted game where humans have to fight to the death for resources or entertainment is nothing new. Think The Hunger Games where kids are chosen from each of twelve – once thirteen – districts to fight to earn resources for their home region. Or even the brutal 2000 movie Battle Royale where out-of-control teens are forced to fight to the death by a totalitarian Japanese government to teach the youths of the nation a lesson. But Squid Game tears away all hints or suggestions that what lies behind this imagined dystopian future is anything but greed. Squid Games is brutally honest in its criticism of capitalism and the desperation it drives people to, and the new Korean Netflix series has people talking. So what’s it all about?
What is Squid Game?
Squid Game: It’s a funny name for a series that sometimes uses humor but explores a topic that is anything but funny. In the beginning of the first episode, the narrator explains that the name comes from a game they played as children on a squid-shaped court. In the game, kids “die” for failing to hit their objective, but of course it’s all made up.
In the real world, no one dies for losing a game, right? Well, Squid Game says, “not so fast.” The protagonist is Seong Gi-hun, a chauffer who suffers from gambling addiction. Seong lives with his mom and is trying to build a relationship with his daughter, but he can’t avoid gambling. A businessman approaches him when he’s down on his luck after being beaten and threatened by people he owes money to. The businessman and Seong play a game, and he gets a chance to walk away with 100K Won, about $84 USD. But the businessman clearly knows more about him than a casual encounter on the street would account for, and he offers Seong a chance to recoup 160M Won, around $135K USD, owed to loan sharks by playing a game.
The Wrap reports, “… he suddenly finds himself thrust into a game alongside 455 other people who are similarly in severe debt and have, seemingly, nothing left to lose.
These 456 strangers are whisked away to a secret location where they are asked to play a series of kids’ games like ‘Red Light, Green Light.’ The rules are simple – if you lose, you’re eliminated. What the guards fail to tell these contestants at first is that elimination means death, and for every contestant who is ‘eliminated’ the cash prize for the ultimate winner grows bigger.
Whoever makes it through all six games alive will walk away with more money than they can imagine, but to get there they must compete against one another where the stakes are literally life or death.”
In the first episode, the method of elimination makes it instantly and terrifyingly obvious that this is no child’s game, and you win or you die.
The Message Behind it All
That sounds pretty morbid and intense, so why are people loving it so much? When you break it down to its basic principles, the show is about taking desperate people and giving them a chance to do increasingly desperate things to get free from the chains of debt. How far are people willing to go? What will they do when faced with life-or-death situations and must sometimes themselves harm others to get ahead? It’s a direct reflection of capitalism, stretched into hyperbole.
But it isn’t just about gory deaths or watching desperate people. That wouldn’t keep audiences binging the series. What it does brilliantly is take the setting of dystopian capitalism and break it down into a series of human decisions. You get a window into their feelings, their thoughts, and the way people feel when faced with the impossible challenge. These people have willingly consented to participate and the stakes are high: so what do they do with this chance?
PolyGon writes, “The show’s message sounds like a self-help idiom: A person’s choices make up their life. What you do with your circumstances is what counts. Squid Game is that ethos dialed up to a hundred. Who’s behind the curtain, what societal circumstances led to the Game’s founding, who knows that the Game is occurring, and who turns a blind eye — none of these details are the real point. The show succeeds because it creates two-dimensional characters and respects every choice they make, whether to help or harm, keep their humanity or sacrifice it for profit. While the game itself is a parable, the characters are fully, empathetically human.”
Will There Be More?
There’s something everyone has asked when the last episode wraps: when can I watch more?! And there’s good news, Netflix has signaled that they are interested in continuing the series. Not every show hits screens at the exact right time, but this one managed it. In a year of desperation and uncertainty, the themes behind Squid Game have resonated with audiences – sometimes painfully.
Per The Wrap, “But perhaps there’s a greater, more depressing reason people are responding to Squid Game — it speaks to the desperation and impossibility of upward socio-economic mobility that many feel. Just like another South Korean work of fiction recently connected to the world at large in the Oscar-winning Parasite, this series takes aim at the greed of capitalism and paints an unsettling portrait of the world that we live in. The lengths to which people will go for a chance to become incredibly rich, even if it means harming their fellow man, feel particularly ripe right now. And it’s a theme that connects globally – this is not an issue unique just to South Korea or America.”
With the series hitting at exactly the right time, Netflix has even more incentive to keep making more. It may be brutal and uncomfortable to watch – but that’s the point, and it draws you in. We just hope we get the chance to be drawn into another season or two!