What does the genus known as survival game? In what the Netflix series Squid Games takes up this genre? And why has it been so successful?

Hi, I'm Dodger and I'm here today to talk to you about Squid Games, that Seeker Y reviewed the other day.
No, I'm not making this hat just to buy time. It is absolutely not difficult to set a speech on the hit series of the moment everyone talks about. How could I have trouble finding something to tell you that you haven't already read, heard or commented on on social media? So, since the question does not arise, let's start from the beginning.

In this article there will be no spoilers on the Squid Game ending
Squid Game Cover
Promotional image of Squid Games

Squid Games is a South Korean series written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk. Distributed all over the world on Netflix starting last September 17, it boasts an explosive success, albeit with a slightly delayed burst.
In 9 episodes lasting about an hour (except one, just over 30 minutes long, because they wanted to make me swear), a group of 456 people puts his life on the line to get a prize of 45600000000 ₩. The participants are, essentially, the last of the last. They range from the protagonist who is indebted to the underworld and addicted to horse racing to the Pakistani immigrant exploited in the factory, from the North Korean refugee looking for money to make the family members run away from the elderly sick and forgotten by society.

È a social story that focuses on the mediocre, not to mention even the losers, inhabitants of a world where the only way is to compete to the death. And I don't think it's a coincidence that, although it has been in the works since 2008, Hwang Dong-hyuk's project has found its way to the light right now, after the success of films such as Us by Jordan Peele e P by South Korean Bong Joon-hom, both released in 2019.

But if you, like me, live on the internet, you will certainly have noticed a heated debate on the merits and demerits of Squid Games. Today, the questions on the lips of many seem to be: is this series really good or not? And why so successful?
It is probably too early to have a sure answer: it is always easier to weigh things over time. But, if we want to try to clarify our ideas, we can in the meantime get some issues out of the way and see what we have left in the end.

Cover of As The Gods Will, a Japanese survival game film
Cover of As The Gods Will, Japanese survival game film

What takes Squid Game from the genre of survival game?

The first bone of contention concerns theoriginality of the product. As often happens, on the one hand there are those who shout at the masterpiece and those who have already seen it.
Indeed, there are those who have accused Squid Games to plagiarize As The Gods Will, 2014 film directed by Takashi Miike and based on the manga of the same name released between 2011 and 2012. And yes, we could be here debating for a long time whether Hwang Dong-hyuk started working on his story as early as 2008, on the concept of parallel ideas and many other things.
However, assuming that we will never know the exact truth, we can be sure of one thing: Squid Games e As The Gods Will they are both gender products. And that genre is the survival game.

Where does the genre come from and how does it develop survival game?

If you have been in the world of anime and manga for long enough, you will surely have stumbled upon a work at least once survival game. And most likely that time you just met Battle Royale.
The story of Battle Royale begins with a novel by Koushun Takami in 1996 and then turns into manga and films in 2000, all produced still very popular today.
Here, the metaphor ofexcessive competitiveness of the Japanese company it is represented by a bizarre law. In fact, every year, a randomly selected eighth middle class will have to take part in the program, which requires participants to kill each other until only one person is left. If the goal is not reached within the allotted time, everyone dies: rebelling seems useless. The success of the work is enormous and there are many stories that draw inspiration from it.

In Japan il survival game becomes and remains very popular. Just to name a few titles, we find Gantz (2000 [1]), Mirai Nikki (2006) Deadman Wonderland (2007) and Sword Art Online (2009). In the West, however, the world of dystopian Young Adults has been marked since 2008 by the saga of Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. (And never let me read bestiality again about an alleged plagiarism of Hunger Games in Battle Royale, because until proven otherwise 1996 comes before 2008).

It should therefore come as no surprise to us that the original genesis of Squid Games it was in 2008, coinciding with the release of many of the aforementioned works, nor that there are large queues of spectators who exclaim: but I have already seen this!
And it's true: you have already seen it.
Because, after all, it is always a product of this kind.

Cover of the first volume of Battle Royale, progenitor of the survival game genre in manga
Cover of the first volume of Battle Royale, progenitor of the survival game genre in manga
In what Squid Games changes, compared to previous titles survival game?

A change, to be honest, there is.
In fact, if in most of the survival game the participants in the games (or at least the protagonists of the story) are teenagers or in any case very young, in Squid Games It is not so. Here we speak mostly of adults, people who have had their chance in an unfair society and where getting up after a fall seems impossible. And the fallen are the privileged: some of the players, like immigrants Ali and Sae-byeok, didn't even have a position to fall from.
That said, we still find many of the main human types and dynamics between characters that characterize the genre, with some variations on the theme that I don't go into because it would be spoiler alert.

Parasite's success probably put the spotlight on Korean products
The success of P probably put the spotlight on Korean products

Why Squid Games was it such a success?

But if it's not a new issue, why all this happened? Why right now? Because the survival game go from niche phenomenon to global hit?
Here I am entering the field of speculation, but if you like to follow me, these are my ideas.

The contribution of the “forerunner” works and the pandemic

It is probably a lucky (but not fortuitous) combination of several factors:

  1. Thanks to P (but not only a P) there is greater attention from the Western general public to South Korean productions. Previously, these were the object of the passion of the lovers of Park Chan-wook and of the phenomena K-pop and K-drama (which however contributed to the discourse);
  2. In December 2020, two "trailblazer" series appeared on Netflix. The first is the Japanese Alice in borderland, taken fromhomonymous manga by Haro Aso and renewed only two weeks after its debut. The second is the South Korean Sweet home, based on the webtoon by Kim Kan-bi and Hwang Young-chan, the first South Korean series to enter Netflix's Top 10 in the United States, reaching the third position;
  3. If on the one hand, the Western general public has probably become accustomed to the taste of these products, on the other hand perhaps also the pandemic played its role. In fact, today for many the world seems even more competitive than it was before. Thus, the nihilistic spirit, already typical of the Millennial generation, has found new life (which seems a contradiction in terms, but you understand what I mean).
The distribution power of Netflix

We must not forget who is distributing these series.
In fact, Netflix it is the liquid colossus that inhabits every tablet and every device, bringing a genre that until recently could be considered a niche under the eyes of unsuspected spectators. To understand: my parents drank Squid Games in two sessions, less than half of those that have served me.
And for this, just as we should not be surprised at those who say "but I've already seen this", we should not be surprised that there are also people who have found themselves in front of something new.

Squid Game, a scene from the Netflix series - Participants in the Squid Game survival game
Participants in the Squid Game survival game

Two conclusive words

These were the words I had to say on the phenomenon Squid Games.
Of this series, the thing that really leaves a bad taste in my mouth are the last three episodes, preparatory to a second season that I'm really not interested in looking at on these premises. But spoiler territory would open up here, and we keep them for another place and another occasion.
In the meantime, if I have somehow managed to interest you, please let me know, that I am hiring some translation professionals to talk to you, next time, about why they chose not to dub.

PS: Anyway yes, they are dressed like those de The paper house. Nothing can be hidden from it.


[1] For the sake of brevity, all the dates mentioned refer to the year of the beginning of publication of the manga.