Squid Game took Netflix by storm, with an estimated 82 million viewers in its first month. Down-on-their-luck players compete in a battle royale for a chance to win big, playing seemingly innocuous children’s games with lethal consequences if they lose.
Writer/director Hwang Dong-hyuk has stated that Squid Game is a critique of capitalism, and it’s not hard to figure the analogy out. After all, the motivation for all of the competitors is monetary, and financial ruin is a major motivation. What’s more, the organizers of the game are an ultra-wealthy, shadowy elite who not only arrange for, but enjoy, the suffering of the game contestants.
But this article isn’t about the high-minded allegory that is Squid Game, nor the cultural significance of its Korean origin, nor the hilariously terrible English dubbing. This article is about the games themselves… and the one game I was shocked didn’t make the cut.
But before we talk about the game I would have liked to see, I’d like to rank the games we do see by how much I enjoyed them:
5) Ppopgi (Honeycombs)
Despite its iconic status, this game was my least favorite. Maybe part of it is because of its iconic status. I’m tired of seeing ppopgi recipes all over the internet. (It’s sugar and baking soda. You’re welcome.)
But more than that, let’s talk about what the game represents: nothing.
I didn’t feel that there was a metaphorical message to this game. Most of the others feel like they carry a deeper significance, but this one is just eating candy, and you can’t even say it’s a “fair” game. After all, a slight error in the creation of the candy or the mold could spell the end for an unlucky contender; we see the honeycombs being made in huge vats the night before, and I don’t get the sense they went through any quality control.
And the assignment of shapes was random.
In case you’re wondering, yes, personally, I would have chosen the umbrella, which is the worst shape. It’s also the shape Gi-Hun chooses and is able to carve out by licking. Long before he resorted to this (at the last second), I was wondering why no one else was doing this. Since the honeycomb is literally made of sugar and baking soda, shouldn’t that technique have been obvious? At the very least, wetting the sugar before trying to carve it with a needle makes sense. I would have resorted to the licking technique before the needle technique, and so the stupidity of all the players in this game bothered me.
Except, perhaps, Sang-woo, whose actions were not dumb but were certainly insidious. Sang-woo figured out the game before it began and left his “friend” to take the worst shape. Why? What was Sang-woo’s motivation? More money? There was already plenty of money; at this stage in the game, Sang-woo’s decision to fuck over his fellow teammates felt purely insidious and nonsensical.
His betrayal of Ali in marbles was a necessary betrayal to win the game, but his betrayal in this game felt unnecessarily evil.
As far as spectacle, this game was not very fun to watch. A bunch of people sitting around, tedious chipping away at candy? No, thanks.
Like the honeycomb game, I disliked the marbles challenge because the players weren’t told what they were getting into.
This game is unique in that it lets the players establish the rules. Personally, that felt like a writing cop-out to me. Imagine if, in this article, I said, “Marbles is #4. …I’ll let you decide why.” The refusal of the gamemaster to define the rules for this challenge infuriated me.
Episode 6 was a great episode to watch as a viewer; certainly it was one of the most emotional. But that assumes you know the characters personally, which the VIPs did not. The game itself was boring. This episode really wasn’t about the game at all, but about forcing the players to decide whether or not to screw each other over. Which I understand was the point, but it felt contrived and artificial. If the players had known it was a competitive game instead of a cooperative one, they would have chosen different partners. (Imagine seeing Mi-nyeo and Deok-soo go head-to-head! That would have been a delight.)
As far as this game being a spectacle… it wasn’t. Sure, the back-alley setting was lovely, but the close-up marble action left something to be desired. If I were a VIP I would have been pretty annoyed by this particular game, which seemed to have little production value compared to the others. The marbles weren’t even cool-looking or made of solid gold or anything. They were just regular marbles.
Final complaint about this game: the guard allowing Deok-soo to redefine the rules to benefit him struck me as interference that never should have been allowed.
Honorable Mention: Ddakji
This is the dividing line between “games I liked” and “games I did not like.” Ddakji, which is similar to Pogs and involves trying to flip over paper origami squares, is the “entry” game that Gi-hun plays with the man in the suit. I loved the imagery of Gi-hun getting repeatedly slapped in the face by a well-dressed man. The game itself seemed rigged, somehow, but I thought the imagery of a working-class schlub getting slapped all over the place by a person of higher socioeconomic status was delightful.
Also, it amuses me that this had to have happened over 400 times to get all the players together for the game. And that no one on their early morning commute ever seemed to notice. “Hey, there’s that suit guy who’s here every day, slapping the shit out of a bum over a game of Pogs.” Hilarious.
3) Glass Stepping
This game really worked well with the show’s intention to be a critique of capitalism. It required players to sacrifice each other; the “you must go forward even though it’s deadly” inevitability of this game really resonated with me. Literally, the players were themselves stepping stones for other players to advance, and I thought that was great.
Like with the choosing of the shapes in honeycombs and the choosing of a partner in marbles, this game required players to choose a number before knowing what the game was. But I can overlook the random choose-without-context factor because I thought the writers did a fantastic job of explaining Gi-Hun’s dilemma of which number to choose. First or last place? Without knowing yet what the game would be, it makes perfect sense for the players to scramble to grab a “safe” middle number to hedge their bets. The remaining players grapple with the leftover numbers. That was some good writing.
Having a glass manufacturing expert was a bit plot convenience-y, but again, I was able to overlook that when they tried to determine the correct pane of glass by tossing a marble onto it and then realizing they have only one marble. Bravo. Another example of realistic character choices in a high-stakes moment.
I also appreciated seeing a character trying to speed-run the glass, which is what I would have done, and seeing the negative consequence it had on the other players.
This game wasn’t perfect but it had a lot of realistic actions and psychology that I enjoyed. The characters’ attempts to “figure it out” was rational and relatable.
In case you’re wondering, by the way, the statistical likelihood of crossing the bridge safely as the first player (assuming you’re not a glass manufacturing expert) is 1 – (0.5)^18, which comes out to 0.99999618531, or one in ten billion. So while it’s not technically impossible, it might as well be.
I’ve heard criticisms that the players should have tried to walk across on the bars that supported the glass, but I feel like that would have been prohibitively difficult and time-consuming, so I’m willing to overlook this most minor of plot hole “cheats” for the sake of enjoying the game. You might say I’m suspending my belief, pun absolutely intended.
2) Tug of War
This game was the best spectacle in my opinion. Obviously, we all knew the team with all of the main players on it was going to win, but it was still fun to see the strategy they used to get there.
As far as metaphor for capitalism go, I like the “struggling to avoid falling into a pit” visual imagery.
The deaths by falling were gruesome, and seeing the workers load a loser who wasn’t dead into a coffin for incineration was absolutely awful in the best possible way.
At the beginning of this episode I was upset that the game seemed strength-based, which would have been unfair to many of the players, but the triumph of our main characters’ team put that concern to rest.
Having characters both compete and cooperate in the same game gave this challenge a great symmetry. What’s more, being on a winning team meant you played a small role in the death of others… not directly, however, which really speaks to the “cog in the machine” systemic exploitation of capitalism. In this game, players were forced to participate in an unfair system knowing that their success would lead to another demise, but they were helpless to do anything about it. And having that guilt spread out among a team instead of on the shoulders of any one particular individual meant they could shrug it off, just as so many of us do in real life when we participate in a system that leaves a bad taste in our mouths.
Tug of war was great, but I would be remiss if I didn’t give the top slot to…
1. Red Light, Green Light
This is the most emblematic game in the series and I think it’s a fantastic one. The “rat race to the death” is good as an allegory for the lives of the players, and the set-up is so wonderfully creepy. This is a game that could be played alone but we see both cooperative and competitive behavior among players, which helps us separate “good” and “bad” pretty early on.
For example, we see Ali helping Gi-Hun avoid an untimely death, and what’s beautiful about this scene isn’t only that Ali is helping him, but that Ali is putting himself in direct danger to do so; if he lost his grip on Gi-Hun, both of them would have died. In this game, it’s easy, even beneficial, simply to be a bystander. And we see that in Sang-Woo, who wisely takes cover behind fallen players: an action that isn’t directly harmful but shows a ruthless lack of empathy and foreshadows his later actions.
What’s best is that we see players get eliminated mostly due to impulsive panic. The “play the game or get shot” feeling of helplessness is what gives this game its stick-and-carrot motivation to the players and serves as a clear mini-parable for post-modern capitalism.
Red Light, Green Light isn’t a complicated game but it does have a degree of strategy, a dramatic set-up, and introduces no randomness to make it more interesting. Honeycombs, Marbles, and Glass Stepping all had a contextless preliminary sorting method (choose a shape/partner/number) to make the game more interesting. Red Light, Green Light was sufficiently interesting to not require such a gimmick.
The reason I place Red Light, Green Light above Tug of War is that Tug of War requires the elimination of players, whereas Red Light, Green Light is theoretically able to be won by all players. The fact that it eliminates half, grossing the largest body count of all the games (255 players, to be exact), makes it all the more insidious.
And who doesn’t love the creepy laser-eye doll?!
Now, you might have noticed that my list didn’t include Squid Game. Why? Because we never see it played (except as a flashback in the beginning). And that’s just as well because it’s about as boring as Foursquare or Hopscotch.
Here’s the game we should have seen in the finale…
The finale is, of course, the titular Squid Game… supposedly. I am not Korean and found the rules incredibly confusing and complicated, even though they are explained in the very beginning of the series. Maybe I would have picked it up if we got to see it in action. We never get to see the game properly played out, though. Instead, in the finale, Gi-Hun and Sang-Woo just duke it out in the middle of the field.
(Once again, the VIPs should have been disappointed by this. If they wanted to see two guys mud wrestling, they could have done so for far less money and effort. A fight to the death isn’t exactly an inspired sport; it felt like the “gaming” aspect sort of fell apart in the final moments of the game. Not that the VIPs could probably even see it through their stupid gold masks.)
At this point a thing that had been bothering me a lot was that the game master seemed to have an expectation for how many players would survive each round. (How else can we explain the perfectly triangular table at the end, for the three remaining players? Is there a carpenter on the island who was ready to design a special polygon for however many players were left? If there had been 11 players left, would one of them been forced to sit at a kiddie table while the rest dined around a decagon?)
Squid Game is a team game, and would have been far more interesting with teams instead of being a one-on-one with only two players. This game never should have been the final challenge, title of the series be damned.
The final challenge should have been—follow me here—a claw machine.
First of all, how excellent is the imagery of a claw? And what better way to describe capitalism than with a rigged machine that requires you to put in money to play, only to get poorer and poorer while the promise of pay-out tantalizes you from an out-of-reach position?
Give the players “tokens” and make them play a claw machine. The prize inside? A ticket to leave the game and collect the money. Out of tokens? Shot to the head.
Better yet, what if the item in the claw machine was a gun, a real one, wrapped up in a box that looked like the game’s coffins, and winning required players to obtain the gun and shoot the other player(s) who remained, forcing them to kill directly after getting them used to indirectly killing each other throughout the series?
This would have been such a great call-back to the beginning of the series when Gi-Hun is playing with the claw machine and, from a narrative standpoint, would have been a great choice because it brings the story full-circle: he’s playing for his daughter. It would also give us a great explanation for why Gi-Hun would win (because he had practiced earlier and gotten pointers from the kid at the arcade). The only reason Gi-Hun wins the Squid Game is because Sang-Woo decides to kill himself, which didn’t sit well with me. Sang-woo’s ruthless character had repeatedly sabotaged other characters, sometimes without any discernible reason, so making the ultimate self-sacrifice when he was so close to victory was completely out of character, and nothing seemed to really prompt that change of heart, either. Seeing him struggle with a children’s arcade game (knowing his background was that of a “business man” who presumably looks down on such follies) would have been deeply satisfying.
In the final sequence, where Gi-Hun decides not to board the plane to America, instead of seeing the man in the suit lure in another person with ddakji (a scene that was important to explain his change of heart but also very, very contrived), he could have instead seen someone playing with a claw machine in the airport, which would have made more sense (there’s plenty of stupid money and time wasters in airports).
Squid Game had phenomenal world-building, character interactions, and set design, but for many, including myself, the ending left something to be desired. I believe replacing the Squid Game itself with a claw machine would have markedly improved the series.
Let’s hope they bust out the arcade tokens in season 2!