Childhood Games Take a Deadly (and Life Changing) Turn in ‘Squid Game’: Inside the Internet’s Newest Dystopian Phenomenon

Following its premiere on September 17, the internet has not stopped talking about Netflix’s newest K-Series in the suspense–*slash-*action drama genre, Squid Game. For both international and Korean audiences, the series’ unique, haunting twist to familiar childhood games is a sure point to intrigue viewers, but it’s truly the stories of each character interwoven in each round of the games that glue its growing global viewers to their seats and screens until the finish line.

The premise of the series is simple enough, and not really something we’ve never seen before. Squid Game is set in a survival game that crowns the last player standing with an inconceivable amount of money. Similar titles that come to mind are Battle Royale, The Hunger Games, Alice in Borderland, and more. But the one thing that perhaps sets this play-to-the-death series is its focus on the “losers”, as Director Hwang Dong Hyuk put it.

Production stills courtesy of Netflix

“The essence of survival games is the level of entertainment that is seen through and seeing how the participants struggle to win these games. Looking at differentiating factors, I would say the simplicity of the rules [sets us apart]. There’s not a lot of time or energy spent understanding the rules; it’s very simple. Rather than the game itself, Squid Game focuses on how they act and how they respond. Usually, we look at the winners in survival games but in Squid Game, we look at the losers. Without losers, there are no winners,” Director Hwang explained at the regional press conference for the show.

It took approximately 13 years for Squid Game to get the green light to shoot, as it was originally conceptualized back in 2008, but was seen as something too disturbing or true to life. Director Hwang recalled how he first got the idea just fresh off of his first project. He was reading a lot of comic books at a time, and wanted to write something akin to comic book stories in Korea. The script was finished in 2009, but he revealed that most people saw it as something very unfamiliar and violent.

Behind-the-scenes stills courtesy of Netflix

He further divulged, “There were people who thought it was a little too complex and not commercial. I wasn’t able to get enough investment and casting was difficult. I dabbled in it for about a year, but I had to put it to sleep then. It’s kind of a sad story, but this deadly game compares quite a bit to the things we see today such as investing in coins and such. Times have changed and people have told me that it reminds them of things that are happening in this tough society. With that, I expanded the story about two years ago and now we are here.”

Over a decade later, and “Squid Game” finally premieres globally with Netflix’s unbarred creative freedom to play with. This is highlighted even more in the set designs for the series that was almost completely done outside of computer graphics. Large-scale sets and props were used to accentuate the childhood-based designs, with colors and objects we would typically see children playing with. Because of this, the cast’s experience was all the more realistic, and ten times more exhilarating.

In fact, the game set shown in the series’ main trailer is for the popular Korean game, “Red Light, Green Light”, which is consequently also the title of the first episode (and the password players, at least Seong Gi-hun, gave before getting on that car ride that would change their lives). Lee Jung-jae, who plays lead protagonist Gi-Hun, and Park Hae-soo, who plays Cho Sang-Woo both noted it as one of the most memorable sets to shoot in because of its familiar, yet shocking depictions.

Production still courtesy of Netflix

“The first game set was the most memorable and made the biggest impression on me. The set wasn’t something that I had expected. I didn’t think it would be as big and I thought it would be all computer graphics, but it was actually real life. The scale was overwhelming,” Lee commented.

Heo Sung-tae, who plays Jang Deok-soo, added, “All the sets were amazing and just the fact that I was able to see the sets from the script in real life was amazing. There are a lot of details in the sets hidden here and there. It was the first time I applauded the arts team in person. There was soil sprinkled here and there in the alley set and I’d like to thank them for that.”

Even the music was meticulously selected to reflect the experiences of children, particularly in the ’70s and ’80s. “We took some music from those days and classic music that was popular back then were brought into the show. The music director is such a genius, so I got a lot of help from him and we were able to experiment. We created music using music played from a recorder. I actually put in a lot of effort to create the right music for the series,” the director revealed.

Related: Familiarize Yourself with These Names Before the Terror Begins on ‘Squid Game’ This Friday

But of course, the real highlight of the Squid Game series is the diverse stories of each of its characters. Given that they’ve all landed in a situation where only the most desperate can truly succeed, it’s fair to say that these stories all have the common thread of urgently needing a big sum of money.

The first of which is Seong Gi-Hun (Lee Jung-jae) who goes into the games for his very sick mother. Despite his positive and optimistic personality, he is riddled with a lot of worries on making ends meet and keeping his unstable job. At the Game, he tries hard to remain optimistic, while making friends with other players. There, he also reunites with Cho Sang-Woo (Park Hae-Soo), an old childhood friend he lost contact with throughout the years.

As Cho Sang-Woo went up the corporate ladder and “succeeded” in life, his friendship with Seong Gi-Hun deteriorates. But a sudden conflict got him into playing the Game, unexpectedly having a reunion with a dear old friend in perhaps the worst place to meet one.

Behind-the-scenes stills courtesy of Netflix

Actor Park Hae-Soo shared, “As I was portraying the role, it was difficult for me to read the inner feelings of Sang-woo so I had a lot of conversations with the director until the very end. What I felt from this experience was that there are some things that only he can do. As things develop, Sang-woo experiences some internal changes and how he changes over time is something you can look forward to.”

The duo had been jokingly referred to as “fraternal twins,” given their close-knitted past and their worlds-apart journeys.

“One goes on the path of success and the other goes on the path of failure until a certain point. Then they end up meeting at the same place, the game arena We live in an extremely competitive society, but because we live in such a society people who were on different paths can end up in the same place. This is the harsh reality,” remarked director Hwang.

Production stills courtesy of Netflix

Another character to keep an eye out for is Kang Sae-Byeok (Jung Ho-Yeon), a cold and intense young woman who picks pockets for a living to keep her family intact. In a desperate move to stitch her family back together, she takes part in the Games. This is Jung Ho-Yeon’s debut project as an actress, and perhaps it was her perfectly chilling poker face from modeling that ultimately caught everyone’s eye in her audition all the way from New York Fashion Week.

On getting her for the role, the director explained, “I auditioned a lot of actresses for the role, but I wasn’t able to find a perfect fit. I was able to watch her audition tape and I felt right away that she was perfect for the role of Sae-byeok due to her tone, glare, and aura. I contacted her and she came to Korea to audition in person, and I was certain that my impression was right.”

Production stills courtesy of Netflix

Of course, you can’t make a survival drama without a gangster to fear and respect. This is the role of Jang Deok-Soo (Heo Sung-Tae) who attempts to make his way through the Games by forming his own little gang inside to pay off all the money he owes, pay through his crimes, and move on with his life outside.

Lastly, one character who takes viewers through a very different ride is Hwang Jun-Ho (Wi Ha-Joon), a righteous police officer who goes undercover to investigate the “Masks” organization who started these wild games. Wi Ha-joon described him as a “decent and righteous undercover police officer. [Jun-ho] is searching for his brother, so he goes undercover and discovers the organization behind the games. He finds out what the audience is also curious about.”

Production still courtesy of Netflix

These are just a few of the stories viewers can witness on the show, but there’s a lot more given the Games’ 456 participants. The series is not a light show to watch, but it’s definitely one that millions have already binged around the world due to its brutal storytelling, and heart-wrenching developments.

After all, only one person can walk out the doors alive after playing Squid Game, and each game set to eliminate characters gets all the more violent as the series goes on.

If you want to see which character will come out alive and win the coveted 45.6 billion won cash prize, head on over to Netflix to watch the full story unfold.

Update (Oct. 3): Squid Game, reportedly is inching closer to becoming the most watched series on Netflix barely a month after its release, giving other titles like Bridgerton and Lupin a ‘run for its money’. Get it?

With additional text by Leo Balante