Squid Game, worldwide hit, raises radical questions about choice, death and squalor

Characters can opt out of deadly game but most stay, choosing near-certain death over continued poverty



RELEVANT: Contestants in ‘Squid Game’ wear green or pink uniforms, which South Korean demonstrators now wear to protest against low wages and other problems in their country’s economic system.

Boom. A bullet knocks a man dead, another falls, then another. They lost the game – a simple childhood game of red light-green light, with a ghoulish twist of reality. 

Although Netflix’s new TV series, Squid Game, shows a hellish dystopia of greed, gore, and poverty, audiences worldwide are finding truth in its underlying themes. It has become Netflix’s biggest series launch and has reached more than 142 million households. 

Squid Game packs a punch, but it isn’t just a horror series.  Its graphic storyline explores money’s effects on human morality and people’s spot in their economic system. 

Set in South Korea, it vividly and cogently depicts the human desperation that results from poverty and debt in odious conditions in low-income areas of that country. There is only one winner, who wins a huge sum of money, while all the rest die. This is meant to represent the reality of meritocracy in South Korea, where even though one out of all the capable “contestants” will escape poverty, it is rare to do so. Most poor people will die poor.

As its creator, Hwang Dong-hyuk, put it, Squid Games is an “allegory or fable about modern capitalist society.”

The pressures and conditions of poverty push most of the survivors to rejoin the games and compete for the money – this time knowing they face an overwhelming likelihood of death.

The games: 456 struggling South Koreans heavily indebted to creditors compete in six life-and-death children games in hope of winning a cash prize of $38 million and pulling themselves out of poverty. 

When the first contestant loses, the others discover that those who lose are executed while those who win survive. After the massacre from red light-green light, in accordance with the game’s rules, a majority of survivors vote to leave the game and return home. 

But back at home, they are faced with a world just as unforgiving as the games.  One contestant cannot afford to treat his mother’s diabetes; another does not have enough money to find her missing parents and support her little brother. Another contestant due to his intense debt even attempts suicide. 

Characters in the show are given the illusion of choosing whether to play a game, but in reality, there is no choice for them. They live in such repugnant and stressful conditions that even the smallest prospect of a monetary prize, tied to a near certainty of death, feels like their only viable option of survival. 

And so the pressures and conditions of poverty push most of the survivors to rejoin the games and compete for the money – this time knowing they face an almost certain consequence of death.

The players continue through the different games and the contenders’ numbers grow smaller as more people lose and die. 

Diverse in the background but united by debt and an urgent need for money, the characters respond differently to their intolerable conditions. Some shine in continued demonstrations of morality, while others resort to primitive and barbaric behaviors.  

For example, after a tug-of-war game, when the lights go out to signal night, there is a massacre. Forming tribal alliances, contestants brutally murder one another in a bloody scene reminiscent of the 1990 film Lord of the Flies. 

   Throughout all of the show’s nine episodes, Squid Game juxtaposes violence with children’s environments. Contenders are brutally killed, and brutally kill while playing classic Korean children’s games, including not only red light-green light but tug-of-war and marbles. Characters are even executed on an oversized children’s playground. 

The cinematography helps with this juxtaposition. The imagery of the games evokes a sense of fear, but also awe and nostalgia. All of the settings seem bigger than life. For example, characters walk through a colorful pastel M.C Escher- Esque staircase before entering the games, and each game has its own unique feeling. 

Squid Game’s soundtrack is likewise a combination of chilling and childish. The score travels from intense music to light nursery-sounding music, sometimes even mixing the two, which further emphasizes the show’s themes.

How civilized, ethical, and empathetic would you be in a world without order?

Even though the games may not seem realistic, the stresses people experience in the series and what they will go through to escape them are painfully understandable to many.  The main character, Seong Gi-Hung, is almost $500,000 in debt, divorced from his wife, and soon to be separated from his daughter; these stresses, added to the awful conditions he lives in, and the violent loan sharks threatening him, all understandably push him to re-join the games and risk his life for a change.

South Koreans have found Squid Game relatable and are using it as a means to protest for more jobs and improved working conditions. Demonstrators recently wore pink jumpsuits and black masks – the same clothing is worn by characters in Squid Game – to protest for better terms of employment. 

Hwang Dong-hyuk, who is both creator and the director of the series, experienced this same distress of looming debt which likely inspired the TV Series. Mr. Hwang started writing Squid Game while in poverty himself. He wrote the series in 2009 and after being told it was too bizarre and unrealistic, he put it to rest. Ten years later, however, he decided to revive it when he observed the increase of poverty in South Korea. 

“It’s a sad story. But the reason I came back to the project is that today’s world has become a place where these incredible survival stories are so common,” the director told the Korean site Chosun. “Sadly, the world has changed and that’s why it came out now.”

This is not the first time a Korean production heavily rooted in themes of poverty has shocked the world. In 2020, Korean-made Parasite gained much recognition and became the first foreign movie to win Best Picture at the Oscars. The conditions in South Korea seem to be significant and spreading into their culture.

And far beyond South Korea, components of Squid Game have spread worldwide across TikTok. There’s a viral Dolgona candy challenge, which requires people to delicately carve shapes out of brittle sugar cookies without breaking them, just like contestants did in the second game. Squid Game’s games and imagery have gone viral, giving more people access to the TV series’ harder-to-digest themes.

A few years after the Korean War, South Korea experienced enormous economic growth, making it one of the leading economies in the world and causing an increase in the overall standard of living. 

However, as some South Koreans achieved immeasurable wealth, many South Koreans struggle to survive, causing a large gap between the rich and poor.

Squid Game’s characters, story, and music will keep you invested and on your feet. Mr. Hwang, however, intended more than entertainment. In his work is a plethora of metaphors, and commentaries on human nature, capitalism, and authority. It begs the question, What would you do to survive? How civilized, ethical, and empathetic would you be in a world without order? What would you do for  $38 million? 

Such questions allude to the real-life instability of society and morality under pressure. They arouse a sense of terror that can not be accomplished with merely violence and gore: it is rather deeper, darker, and tied more fundamentally to the human experience.

They resound not far below the otherworldly and violent surface of Squid Game. And Squid Game will throw them onto you without any clear answers. 

If you have the stomach for it, and the willingness to grapple with real, deep, and dark ideas, Squid Game is the show for you.