“What kind of sick game is this? Why do some get a hard shape and others an easy one?”
The Korean television thriller The Squid Game has proven to be an unprecedented global hit for Netflix. It’s estimated to have been seen by more than 82 million subscribers worldwide just weeks after its release on the 17 September 2021. It became the number one streamed show in the US just four days after its release. The hashtag #squidgame dominates social media with 22.8 billion views on TikTok alone.
The Squid Game is a brilliant variation on the “death game” genre. This goes as far back as 1973’s Rollerball and which saw a massive revival with Battle Royale in 2000, followed by the Hunger Games trilogy.
Most efforts in this genre are set in dystopian futures under despotic regimes. The Squid Game doesn’t give its audience that comfort. The Squid Game is set in the present.
Some 456 Koreans, each burdened with massive debts, are coerced into participating in six lethal versions of children games. These are all played out in an unknown location and orchestrated by masked controllers.
In some of the games it’s everyone for themselves. In other games players can team up. But there can only be one winner who is rewarded with a huge cash prize.
The price of failure is a swift and bloody death.
The competition is played for the gratification of a tiny number of super-wealthy men—the VIPs. They watch in comfort while the competitors are accommodated in spartan barracks before risking their lives in the games.
Yet the competitors are not openly forced to take part in the games. The organisers give them the option to stop playing if a majority vote to leave.
But that choice is an illusion. The players have been selected because they are desperate and poor.
They include the gambling addict Seong Gi-hun (brilliantly played by Lee Jung-jae), the North Korean pickpocket Kang San-byeok (Jung HoYeong) and the brutally exploited Pakistani immigrant Abdul Ali (Anupam Tripathi).
On returning to Seoul, they find that the circumstances which forced them into the games are still there. They have no option but to return to The Squid Game.
The Squid Game is beautifully realised, rejecting CGI in favour of surreal physical sets. It is also very accessible.
But what really accounts for its universal popularity is that The Squid Game is about capitalism, competition, and class. Millions of viewers across the planet recognise and relate to the economic coercion at the heart of the drama.
Hwang Dong-hyuk’s series knows who the enemy is and that they can’t be beaten fighting by their rules.
He makes a compelling case that capitalism is a dystopian winner‑takes-all death game.