How to explain the unlikely success of “Squid Game”?
Published on 10/31/2021
Published on 10/31/2021
On October 12, Squid Game became Netflix’s best launch with 111 million views in 17 days. It surpassed Bridgerton, watched by 82 million subscribers in one month at the end of 2019, and became the number 1 show in more than 90 countries. Squid Game has a satisfaction rating of 8.2/10 on IMDb, and 92% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, which gives some indication of its quality.
The series tells how 456 over-indebted misfits will become players in a competition based on children’s games, with a cash-prize of 33 million euros for the winner. They will discover a detail on the spot: only the winner will survive the deadly trials.
The show’s exceptional and unforeseen success is due both to creator, writer and director Hwang Dong-hyuk – who claims to have lost 6 teeth due to stress during filming – to the very good casting, and to the original and sumptuous artistic direction. However, it remains very surprising that an ultra-violent rated 16+ South Korean series about a bunch of losers became so popular so quickly.
One might expect that the cultural gap and the very concept of the series, spelling out a massacre over 9 episodes, should rather exclude a very large part of the audience. This is probably why the scenario, intended for a movie, took more than 10 years to win over investors and actors to end up as a Netflix miniseries.
So how can we explain the unlikely success of Squid Game? Here is a spoiler-free analysis, as all mentioned elements are featured in the trailer.
The main critics of Squid Game blame the series for making something new out of the old. Indeed, this original creation pushes the codes of several audio-visual phenomena to the extreme. If the comparisons with the Hunger Games and Maze Runner sagas are numerous, Squid Game is especially similar to Battle Royale, the last film of Kinji Fukasaku, one of the greatest directors in the history of Japan.
Released in 2000, Battle Royale tells the story of 42 high school students sent by the authorities to an island where they must kill each other within three days while respecting the rules of the game. Only the survivor will return home with a reward. Long banned in several countries including the United States, Battle Royale then became cult and the benchmark of the genre, considered by Quentin Tarantino as his favorite movie.
Squid Game also recalls reality shows like Survivor which is in its 41st season in the United States! Called, Koh-Lanta in France, the show is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year with the “La Légende” edition, which still achieves more than 25% audience share, attracting 6 million viewers each week. As in Squid Game, without the gore aspect, players suffering from hunger and sleep deprivation compete in physical trials to eliminate each other, and the winner receives a large amount of money.
Netflix’s biggest hit has many similarities to the most popular video game of all time: Fortnite. Even though the series written before the game’s release is much bloodier and the characters don’t come back to life, it largely evokes the Fortnite aesthetic. Besides, Squid game characters and children’s games rapidly invaded the video game that is itself like a TV series with seasons, each with its own trailer and surprise events.
Other references include La Casa de Papel, another cult Netflix series, with the fifth and last season due to be launched on December, 3, especially for the outfits worn by the guards, and Westworld, broadcast by HBO, showing how in the near future the bored rich will be able to torment, abuse and kill androids for fun in a theme park.
As lead actor Lee Jung-Jae explains, the sets are like additional characters. They express messages, hide secrets, evolve with each episode, and make viewers increasingly uneasy. At first murdered by the guards, players then kill each other in a childish, colorful, disproportionate, surreal, and fairylike environment, as in a macabre reverie.
The vast minimalist spaces, with clean geometric shapes and bright colors, are unsettling and immerse viewers in a quirky universe full of the unexpected. The characters evolve in a ballet scrupulously choreographed and masterfully filmed, which gives some shots an unexpected beauty for a horror series. You suddenly go from wonder to terror and vice versa. There is something fascinating about this emotional yoyo.
The sets are like puzzles that must be solved. They reveal their mysteries as the plot unfolds. Audiences fond of conspiracy theories will get their money’s worth. These colorful and enchanting play spaces contrast with the external scenes, in the “real world”, where everything looks dark, gray, rainy, depressing, and scary.
The most interesting place in the series is the players’ dormitory, whose beds stacked along the walls resemble a stadium seating. This creates an arena effect with a large empty space in the middle and big steps around it, reminiscent of gladiatorial fights or circus games. The structure is made of storage racks, as if the players were merchandise, gadgets, or toys. They no longer have a name, but a number written in large on their clothes. Sometimes you get the impression they are in cages like animals in a circus.
Another impressive space is the large hall filled with multi-colored stacked stairs that connect the players’ dormitory with the playing areas. This tangle of steps, doors, and windows finds its inspiration in two main works: La Muralla Roja by Ricardo Boffil and Relativity by M. C. Escher. In this maze, players appear disoriented and trapped, tiny and insignificant, like pawns in a game. Other equally elaborate settings will not be described so as not to spoil the series.
The Squid Game series benefited from such a successful viral marketing campaign that even those who haven’t seen it know the characters, costumes, sets, cult scenes, and the main storyline. Yet Netflix has not sought to create a buzz around this series more than any other.
Squid Game has invaded social media with countless memes, visual hijackings that refer to situations in the series. Hundreds of thousands of tweets have been posted each day with the #squidgame which has been steadily leading the global trends since launching on September, 17.
Hundreds of YouTube videos are dedicated to Squid Game. We can cite those by YouTubers MrBeast Gaming (22.6 million subscribers), Brent Rivera (16.8), Norman (12,1), or Stoke Twins (9.89), not to mention videos from late shows like The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon, and the Saturday Night Live, and YouTube media channels like ABC News or WatchMojo. On Tiktok, the videos with the #squidgame have accumulated 50 billion views.
Many events around the series created the buzz. A pop-up store was opened in Paris for a weekend and sparked riots due to unmanageable crowds. The giant doll from the first episode was installed at a pedestrian crossing in Manila, Philippines, to deter people from crossing at red. A hotel in Gangneung, South Korea, will recreate some of the Squid Game challenges for its guests and sold out in two days.
White Vans Slip-On shoes like the ones worn by the players in the series have seen sales increase 80-fold. The player’s outfits, along with those of the guards, are among the most sought-after Halloween costumes on Amazon and some models have sold out. Ironically, Squid Game, which attacks the excesses of capitalism, is generating a business frenzy.
For its creator, Squid Game is above all a critique of capitalist society and the inequalities it produces, like the South Korean film Parasite, unanimous Palme d’Or at Cannes Festival in 2019 and the first non-English-speaking movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2020. Squid Game denounces the loss of reference points, the isolation, the humiliations, and the despair of a large part of the South Korean population, and by extension of the whole world.
Beyond entertainment, the popularity of Squid Game reflects a belief in its message against the excesses and injustices of modern society: rampant insecurity, incivility and criminality, extreme poverty, discrimination against foreigners, women or the elderly, social exclusion of the “weakest”, various addictions, consumerism and over-indebtedness, depression and suicides… Each character reveals a distress and a form of fatality against which he feels powerless.
Players are free to leave at any time, as long as a majority decides to do so, as happens after the carnage in the first game. Yet almost all of them come back! These desperate characters are rejected or fail to fit into a world that seems hostile to them and giving them no chance to get out of their misery. At least in the game they have a one in 456 chance of becoming a millionaire.
This situation is reminiscent of Discourse on Voluntary Servitude by Étienne de la Boétie who wrote in 1576: “There is in Man a preference for voluntary servitude, because servitude is comfortable and makes you irresponsible”. In Squid Game, players are so alienated from the society in which they survive that they freely choose to be prisoners and end up murdered for the illusory chance of getting rich.
Given the success of the series, which cost $ 21 million and grossed $ 900, and the opening of the final episode, there’s a good chance that a second season will be produced, even though the series’ creator assures that he does not yet have enough ideas and that this time he will need to surround himself with other writers and directors to help him.