(BBC) – Even if you haven’t watched the show or seen the memes taking over the internet – chances are you’ve probably heard of Squid Game.
Everyone has been talking about the hyper-violent thriller that has become a massive hit ever since it launched on Netflix two weeks ago.
In fact, the Korean series – centred on a brutal survival game – is on its way to beating Regency-era romance Bridgerton to become the streaming platform’s biggest original series of all time.
While the genre of the show is hardly new, its striking visuals, relatable characters and disturbing study of human nature have spoken to audiences all around the world.
In Squid Game, a group of 456 people, in debt and desperate, are lured into a bloodthirsty survival game where they have the chance to walk away with 45.6 billion Korean won ($39 million) if they win a series of six games.
The twist? They die if they lose.
The games are simple enough – they are childhood games that the players grew up playing. And that surprising juxtaposition of innocent child’s play with violent deaths has caused viewers to sit up.
“People are attracted by the irony that hopeless grownups risk their lives to win a kids’ game,” Squid Game director Hwang Dong-hyuk said in an interview.
“The games are simple and easy, so viewers can give more focus on each character rather than complex game rules.”
There’s also the element of nostalgia. For example, the Dalgona honeycomb challenge featured in episode three is one that most Koreans remember playing when they were kids.
In the challenge, players must carefully cut out a shape from a paper-thin sheet of honeycomb candy using a needle. If you get a very intricate shape and the candy cracks, you lose.
One Korean user tweeted: “Squid Game makes me want to eat Dalgona [candy] again. It’s been 20 something years…Are they still around? I don’t think I can find one.”
Characters like you and me
Experts also attribute the show’s success to its characters, many of whom are marginalised members of society.
Though they are all linked by huge money troubles, they come from all walks of life.
The lead, for example, is an unemployed man with a gambling problem who struggles to gain respect from his family. Through the game, he meets a young North Korean defector with a tragic background, and a Pakistani labourer who is mistreated by his employers.
Kim Pyeong-gang, a global cultural content professor at Sangmyung University, told the BBC: “People, especially the younger generation, who regularly suffer from alienation and resentment in real life, seem to sympathise with the characters.”
Like its East Asian neighbours, the hyper-competitive nature of society in South Korea has left many feeling disillusioned. Despite hard work, it simply is not possible for everyone to get top university spots or good jobs.
The games in the show, however deadly, present an alternative world supposedly based on fair play.
As one gaming official says in the series: “All participants in the game are equal. We are giving people who have suffered unequal treatment and discrimination in the outside world the last chance to win a fair competition.”
Red light, green light
Western media outlets have drawn comparisons between Squid Game and Parasite, the Oscar-winning 2019 Korean film that also looked at the wealth disparity and unfairness of society.
But in east Asia, viewers have pointed out how the show bears similarities with the 2014 Japanese film As The Gods Will. The movie is centred on high schoolers but it follows a comparable storyline, and some have even accused Squid Game of plagiarism.
For example, As The Gods Will also features the traditional children’s game “Red Light, Green Light”. In one of the most famous scenes from Squid Game, a giant robot girl uses her laser eyes to spot players who have lost the game. They are then killed.
However, director Hwang has denied the accusations, saying that there is “no connection” between the two shows, and that parallels were drawn only because of the show’s genre.
“I started planning [Squid Game] in 2008 and began writing the script in 2009… the similarities that were pointed out are purely coincidental and there is no copying from either party,” he said.
In any case, all the hype surrounding his show has led to calls for a second season. But fans may have to wait a long time for that.
“I don’t have well developed plans for Squid Game 2,” he told Variety. “It is quite tiring just thinking about it.