What if the games you played as a child were deadly?
That’s the main hook of Squid Game, a South Korean series that shot to the top of Netflix’s most-watched list in the days following its release. It’s been likened to Battle Royale, Black Mirror, and The Hunger Games — all of which are apt comparisons. And while the “children’s games, but with murder” premise is intriguing enough by itself, Squid Game adds enough substance beyond that to cement itself as a compelling (and terrifying) watch.
Let’s start at the very beginning: Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) is down on his luck and heavily in debt. He’s so desperate for money that he doesn’t hesitate to accept a mysterious stranger’s offer to play simple children’s games for cash. What could go wrong?
Turns out, a lot. Gi-hun and 455 other willing participants, all of whom are struggling financially, are drugged and brought to a building full of masked guards and creepy pastel playrooms. They realize the danger they’re in when they play a simple game of “Red Light, Green Light” and the losers are murdered.
The rules become clear: Lose the games and die, or win and receive 45.6 billion won ($38.5 million). Even though the odds are stacked against them, the players’ lives outside the games are in such disarray that they see risking their necks as the only solution to their considerable problems.
Despite spending most of its time in a dystopian playground hellscape, Squid Game does an excellent job at establishing its characters’ struggles. Gi-hun is at risk of never seeing his daughter again; plus, his mother cannot afford the medical treatment she desperately needs. Gi-hun’s old friend Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo) lost money that he stole from clients and used his mother’s house and business as collateral. Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon) is a North Korean defector who needs the money to care for her brother and reunite with her mother.
While the “children’s games, but with murder” premise is intriguing enough by itself, Squid Game adds enough substance beyond that to cement itself as a compelling (and terrifying) watch.
The games themselves are as brutal as can be expected; the twist that they are typically played by children adds a new level of horror to an already stressful situation. However, Squid Game also maintains the tension between its sickening set pieces by focusing on the relationships between the players: alliances, rivalries, and even the occasional betrayal. A particularly harrowing subplot features policeman Hwang Jun-ho (Wi Ha-joon) searching for his missing brother by infiltrating the games’ guards.
With all of these storylines and the threat of death hanging over every character’s head, Squid Game is nearly impossible to stop watching. Most episodes end in cliffhangers that leave you racing toward the show’s bloody conclusion.
Still, Squid Game isn’t just carnage for carnage’s sake. It is fully aware of the cruelty of its premise, and also of the cruelty its players face in the real world. The entire concept of having people play children’s games for money (and for their lives) seems psychopathic. Squid Game leans into this feeling: If the people behind these games are so wealthy that they can give the winner all this money, why don’t they use that wealth to directly help the people in need? Why make them fight it out? Why is our world so messed up that some people are obscenely wealthy while others are killing themselves for money?
Squid Game maintains this tone of frustrated questioning throughout, all while keeping a careful eye on just how much shock value it can rely on before getting repetitive. Stylish, gripping, and well-acted by an excellent ensemble cast, Squid Game will keep you pressing play, no matter how scared you get.