“Squid Game” review: Revealing the playground rules of the modern world

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Ben Saito Barwig

In Hwang Dong-hyuk’s “Squid Game,” you are presented with a simple challenge. Survive an assortment of children’s games in order to win a cash prize. Outlive 455 other players, and you can walk home with 456 billion won (around $385 million). This premise has attracted millions of households across the world, but does Netflix’s smash hit “Squid Game” live up to its viewership tally? 

The premise of “last person standing” has taken entertainment media by storm over the past couple of years. Whether it be in “The Hunger Games” and the subsequent flood of young adult dystopias, or in the battle royale genre of video games like “Apex Legends,” “Call of Duty: Warzone, ”and of course “Fortnite,” this genre has taken the market by storm. Whatever platform you participate in, it is undeniable that the idea of fighting to death is suspenseful and thrilling. But with so many interpretations comes oversaturation. We certainly aren’t at the peak of this genre anymore, so this new adaptation of it out of South Korea becoming a worldwide success is more than surprising. I theorize that a large part has to do with its creative spin on the “Hunger Games” formula. Rather than fighting against others, participants simply compete against each other in controlled environments, returning to their living quarters in the form of a large warehouse. They eat together, sleep together, form cliques and alliances, and even some romance ensues. Instead of falling into the survival/thriller genre like most of the type do, “Squid Game” feels like a high concept k-drama, and I commend it for that. 

A large part of the show thriving is in the stellar character writing and acting. You can understand what each character is in the game for, what they have at stake, and what their strengths as a player are. Players range from a naive yet humble father with gambling debt, to an immigrant looking to escape an abusive work environment, to a lone wolf North Korean defector. You can’t help but hope that every player involved leaves with the 456 billion won.

These symbols appear often in the record-breaking Squid Game. (Graphic by Eva Williams)

At its core, the strength of “Squid Game” is an understanding of the setting and the characters who inhabit it. The show isn’t afraid to break rules. I think that every choice made throughout all 456 competitors across the six deadly children’s games make sense, which is something that very rarely happens in many modern shows and movies. The show doesn’t cut corners to enable a tense situation, the tense situations come naturally and work perfectly. Twists open up all kinds of innovative storytelling as early as episode two, and create a real suspense that can be impossible to pinpoint, yet “Squid Game ” hits a bullseye. With character and plot nailed down, all that’s left is dialogue, which unfortunately is where the show falters. I noticed when reading the English subtitles, which I at first excused as a few translation errors, the weak dialogue really began to become evident. Combined with poor acting from the English-speaking characters, the writing was often difficult to take seriously. Not only did they sound unrealistic and read poorly, but they were cartoonishly bad to an extent that there were many unintentionally funny moments. It was very incohesive when transitioning from intense and dramatic standoffs between the characters I cared about to caricatures talking about nothing interesting. 

Nevertheless, after I finished the final episode, I really enjoyed my time in the world of “Squid Game.” I feel comfortable recommending this series to anybody, especially considering it has exposed many to foreign film and television. So many of the greatest cinematic experiences I’ve had have come from works of art overseas, and I am overjoyed that so many people around the globe have had that connection with “Squid Game.” But I think what is most important about “Squid Game” is that it gave me something to think about. This entire time I had been sitting back on my couch and finding enjoyment out of impoverished workers ruthlessly battling it out over the sole prospect of escaping their miserable conditions by participating in deadly playground games to please rich VIPs. Maybe the real villains are us, oblivious to the struggles so many and just mindlessly consuming and consuming.