By Melina Nath and Zack Lara, Staff Writer and Liaison Editor
// 456 players with nothing to lose line a barren field overseen by a mechanical doll. Viewers hold their breath as contestants play a simple game of “Red Light, Green Light,” backdropped by an eerie Korean chant. There’s just one catch: if they lose, they die.
Hwang Dong-hyuk’s “Squid Game,” released on Netflix on Sept. 17, grips audiences and shatters records through childhood games, high stakes, and a hint of nightmare fuel.
The show follows the fictional character Seong Gi-hun, who participates in a tournament of familiar childhood games, such as “Red Light, Green Light” and “Tug of War”. Each game places him one step closer to a cash prize, but a deadly consequence for losing looms over his head.
“I liked how it [starts] as just a game, but then it has [this] death factor that made it really intense. Everything was very complex, and there was always a sense of mystery from not knowing what the next game would be,” freshman Zachary Garcia said.
In the show, people of different professions, such as gamblers, presumably successful businessmen, and pickpockets, end up in the game after severe debt engulfs their lives. Participants eagerly compete against each other and use whatever means necessary while following the rules to survive and play the next game.
“Watching it in the moment, I stayed super engaged because there’s a lot of suspense and twists that left me shocked. There are also some brilliant betrayals,” junior Sophie Westen said.
Throughout the series, players witness hundreds of scarring deaths, sometimes turning on each other for survival.
“When people are pushed to the brink of desperation, [the question] is how far they’re willing to go. It’s more a testament of how far people can fall in life and how desperate they become,” history teacher Ed Seelenbacher said.
However, greed quickly replaces guilt when participants stare up at the large, glowing piggy bank of prize money.
“It was a very clear, societal critique of capitalism. It was really interesting and something people haven’t seen a lot of, especially in the U.S., which is why I think it caught on,” television screenwriter Hannah Ahn said. “We’re struggling with capitalism. There’s capitalism everywhere. People’s feelings, wants, needs, and ambitions really transcend in whatever language. It’s the same regardless of the country you’re in.”
The show lends a glimpse into the poor living situations of several contestants, helping viewers understand the moral dilemma participants face as they choose to risk death again and again for a slim shot at big bucks. From homeless teenagers to abandoned elderly, Dong-hyuk channels this helpless and conflicted spirit throughout the show.
“When I took a step back from it, the overall messages of the show are really interesting. It shows what people are willing to do for money. It was really intriguing to see the comparison between the terrors inside the game versus the horrors and the hardships these people face in real life,” Westen said.
In addition to detailing other participants’ lives, the show exposes the personal struggles of the main character, Seong Gi-hun, many of which viewers sympathize with.
“[Dong-hyuk] did a really good job with creating a main character people identify with,” Ahn said. “You understand what the stakes are and why this matters for him to get the money. It starts with a deep reason, which is his daughter, and then the more immediate reason of the loan shark. There’s all of these reasons that you’re on his side and rooting for him.”
Although “Squid Game” seemingly was an overnight success, Dong-hyuk fought a decade-long battle to air the show. According to the Wall Street Journal, skeptical investors rejected Dong-hyuk’s work for over a decade before Dong-hyuk secured Netflix’s approval in 2019. Now, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos predicts “Squid Game” will be the most successful show on the platform.
Since its release, “Squid Game” has dominated the Netflix top charts, comfortably upholding the number one spot in 90 different countries. The series also shattered Netflix’s viewership record, achieving a total of 111 million viewers in less than one month.
“Trying to predict the market is always going to be really painful… Sometimes studios don’t know [beforehand] if it’s going to be popular or not,” Ahn said. “It’s nice for diverse writers and up and coming writers like me to see things that are not traditionally things people would take a chance on, like “Squid Game”. By seeing that these are popular, [studios will] be open to buying other ideas.”