Opinion: Why is ′Squid Game′ so successful? Because it′s simple | Opinion | DW | 15.10.2021

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Opinion

Opinion: Why is 'Squid Game' so successful? Because it's simple

The simple message and stunning, often brutal visuals of "Squid Game" are a formula for success. The violence finds a way to tap into our inner kid, DW's John Marshall writes.

A figure wearing a red suit and a mask points a gun at people standing in line

The henchmen in the show act like another cog in the machine

The Korean reality-style TV show Squid Game, written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, is shattering every record, and with good reason. 

Rounding up 456 desperate, indebted souls and tempting them to play childish games in order to win $38 million (€33 million) or die if you lose makes for good TV. Add the relatable message of stark inequality, sympathetic characters and an uncomplicated approach, and it becomes the most watched show on Netflix, ever.

Don't get me wrong, Squid Game goes to an extreme. But where a series like Game of Thrones or Dark, which have plots within plots, dozens of different settings and scenarios jam packed into each show, Squid Game keeps a narrow focus on the lives of its characters and its settings to a minimum. That's what makes it so appealing.

Its main message comes across so well that you don't need to take the time to understand any innuendos. All this makes the series predictable, but no less fun to watch.

DW editor John Marshall wearing an open jacket over a sweater

DW editor John Marshall

Keep it simple, stupid

Simplicity is evident in the show's message: starkly evoking a poor and dissipating middle class with a top 1% who do what they want regardless of the price everyone else has to pay — a reflection of society in the real world. In its dark depiction of inequality and class, it has drawn comparisons to Bong Joon-ho's 2019 Oscar-winning film, Parasite. It is easy to grasp and for the majority to relate to. 

The simplicity goes beyond the message and into its execution. Take the rank structure of the henchmen that escort the players and enforce the rules of the game, often by the means of killing people. There are three simple shapes that they wear on face coverings that a two-year-old could recognize: a square, triangle and circle. Square is in charge of the triangle, and triangle is in charge of the circle. 

It is these things that make the show a low effort to watch and cast a wide net.

Adding to the simple message is the playfulness of the setting. The characters all wear school-like track suits, they find themselves in a big gymnasium with murals of kids playing games (a reflection of the games played in the series) and, as if in summer camp, they sleep on stacks of bunk beds. 

Whenever the players go from their gymnasium to the games they find themselves in a pastel M.C. Escher-like staircase that looks as if it belonged in a kindergarten. All of this makes for a visually appetizing experience, one of the show's best attributes, that almost deflects from the inherent violence. 

The staircase in Squid Game

Fun colors and playful settings make 'Squid Game' visually appealing

Life or death?

Studios rejected Hwang's Squid Game pitch for 10 years, seeing it as too unrealistic and violent. It's hard to imagine what the juxtaposition of schoolyard playgrounds and bloody murder would look like.

Although there is a lot of blood and gore in the show — and there were certainly times where I had to look away — it is nothing new. 

Tarantino wouldn't be Tarantino without his comical amounts of bloody

scenes. The end of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood comes to mind.

What is new is how the visuals play with your psyche. The violent scenes during children's games find a way to tap into our inner kid at the most basic level. I remember taking schoolyard games so seriously, it would mean life or death, metaphorically speaking.

Hwang went to every other visual extreme in the show — why stop at copious amounts of blood flying all over the screen? Again, I think the message is simple: Life is brutal. His simple approach to allegory is to show us how brutal life can be.

Though many will continue to dissect the show and either rave about or denounce its successI see it as a riveting, straightforward show with a hypnotizing use of visual effects — simple enough for everyone to understand and entertaining enough to suggest to a friend.