Squid Game - Symbols and Signs

The series that blew up streaming platforms worldwide and captured the hearts of millions of viewers with its gripping intrigue and deep dramatic twists and turns is "The Squid Game." This phenomenal masterpiece of South Korean cinema, created by Hwang Dong-hyuk, draws the viewer like a whirlwind into the world of a cruel game where the stakes are one's own life and the intrigue knows no bounds.

This survival drama series consists of nine episodes, all written and directed by Hwang. The series first became available to stream on Netflix worldwide on 17 September 2021. All nine episodes are watched literally in one breath and are amazing in their inventive violence. It's a Hunger Games-style series where all the characters fight for their survival. Like many doramas - it's about class inequality in South Korea, which can only be truly understood by knowing the Korean mentality and structure of this country. I also wrote about it in my review of another very popular dorama - the film "Parasite".

Let's try to decipher the series, crack its cultural code, and understand what tropes and storytelling techniques the creator of The Squid Game used to make the series as compelling and ambiguous as it ultimately turned out to be.
Plot Summary
Middle-aged chauffeur Song Gihoon lives with his mother in perpetual poverty, knee-deep in debt due to a failed business and gambling addiction, and struggling to support his daughter after a divorce. One day, Gihoon is late for a train and is approached by a strictly dressed salesman. The man offers him 100,000 won ($70) if he wins a game of light gambling while getting slapped every time he loses. After Gihoon accepts the offer and wins a few games, the man gives him a business card and invites him to play similar games where much more is at stake.

After accepting the offer, Gihun is taken to an unknown location with 455 other people, each given a green tracksuit and number, and all of them are watched by pink-suited guards reporting to a mysterious masked man known as Front Man.

It is explained that all 456 people have unsustainable debts, but they are given a chance to get rid of their plight once and for all by playing six children's games over six days, after which they are either eliminated or win the grand prize of 45.6 billion won (100 million won per player). However, it is only during the first game that it becomes clear what exactly was meant by "eliminating" players.

As Gihoon finds allies and enemies in others through physical and psychological challenges, an interesting outside factor also emerges - a police officer who has a missing brother and is determined to bring all those behind the game to justice.
It was originally supposed to be a film, but the writers felt that the 120-minute time frame would not be enough to accommodate all the storylines and characters, so the series was expanded to 9 episodes.
Careful, there are a lot of spoilers in the text!
Before we get to the breakdown, let's start with a little clue as to who's who. Because it's very hard to read descriptions when South Korean names are used in them. Of course, I will try to call the characters by some "nicknames", but we can't avoid completely Korean names, so let's make it easier for ourselves.

Gihun is our protagonist - number 456
Ilnam - grandfather - number 001
Sanwu - Gihun's clever brother - number 218
Sabeok - a girl from North Korea - number 067
Ali - Hindu - number 199
Doxu - criminal evil type - number 101
Minyok - the "mum" who was hanging around with Doxu - number 212
Jiyoung is the young girl that played pebbles with Sabeok - number 240
Jung Ho is a cop who digs into the organisation but is out of the loop.

You can open this cheat sheet in front of you on another device while reading this article. It may make it easier to understand.
Do they remind you of anything? Perhaps the games are intentionally reminiscent of school sports or physical education, where everyone is forced to wear a tracksuit. After all, the whole show is a reference to childhood as a phenomenon. The games themselves are simple, childish, and popular in Korea (and some around the world), only the price for them isn't as low as it used to be. And the guards follow the players like teachers follow their wards.

All players volunteer to play, and are allowed to leave the game by majority vote whenever they wish. This turn even applies after the first game, but eventually the majority still goes back in.
- First round: "Red light, green light". The Korean version of the game uses the phrase "mugunghwa flower blooms". Anyone caught making a minor movement during the Red Light will be shot, as will anyone who fails to make it to the end in the allotted time.

After the massacre in the first episode, 201 players remain alive. They invoke clause 3 of the player agreement and vote to leave the game, although after returning to their dismal lives, most decide to return to the game to try and win money. The majority - 187 players return, while 14 do not. The frontman remarks in passing that he keeps track of those who don't return, but doesn't mention them again.

- Round Two: "Honeycomb". Using the sewing needle provided as a tool, you must remove the shapes imprinted in dalgona (a candy made of sugar and baking soda).

Each figure has a different degree of difficulty: Triangle is the easiest, Umbrella is the most difficult. Whoever breaks a figure or does not finish it in the allotted time is killed.
- Round Three: Tug of war on elevated platforms.

Players are divided into several teams, and the two teams take turns competing until only the winners remain.

The losing team drops dead.

- Round four: Marbles. - Players get ten marbles each and are divided into pairs. The goal is to collect all of your partner's marbles.

It is up to the players to decide which game they will play, provided both agree and no violence is used. If neither of them wins before the time expires, they will both be executed.
This game is the Wham episode that changes the course of the series. Up until this point, there have been many deaths of contestants, but the main characters have always made it through the game. In this episode, there comes a point where even they are no longer safe, and close allies turn against each other to survive, forcing some players to reveal their true colours. From that point on, things only get worse, and we see the deaths of some really important and already dear to us characters.
A disproportionate number of players also disappear during the fourth game. Four teams of 10 survive the tug-of-war, but one player is killed for being involved in an organ smuggling scheme. Minyok is removed for not having a partner, but she actually managed to skip the game and survive. The remaining 38 players form 19 teams of two, of which half must survive, leaving a total of 20 players. However, at the time of returning to the dorm, the counter shows 17. It's possible that three players were eliminated for rules violations - using violence or not finishing a Marbles game on time - but we'll never know.

- Round Five: Bridge. Players must walk across a bridge made up of pairs of glass panels. The panels can be regular or tempered glass, but only tempered glass is strong enough to support the weight of a maximum of two people. One can easily guess how players die in this round. When the timer expires, the bridge collapses, taking with it everyone who didn't have time to cross it.
Sanwu anticipates before the last game that Gihun will try to stop the game to save Sabek from death, and kills her to prevent this. He then goes out to fight Gihun in the last round, knowing full well that if he loses, all he has to do is refuse to stop the game and end up dying anyway - by Gihun's hand, the guard, or his own so that Gihun gets the money and ends up helping his mother. Which is exactly what happens.
- Round Six: Squid Title Game. The players are divided into attackers and defenders: the attackers must force their way through the squid's outline, while the defenders must prevent them from doing so. Any form of violence is allowed, as the game is already marked as more physically violent in nature. The game ends when either the attacker touches the goal (the winner is the one who does), or all but one of the defenders are unable to continue.

Although these games are very bloodthirsty and violent,the world outside the game for our heroes is no better. The financial problems are so great that even after learning about the true nature of the game and being given the opportunity to escape, a hundred players choose to gamble with their lives rather than try to survive the daily grind. The participants of the "Deadly Game" are recruited from the very bottom of society - people either very poor or mired in debt. No one will even look for them.

In episode five, it is revealed that the games have been running since at least 1988, and judging by the number of files, probably much longer.
The visual aesthetics of the isolated rooms where games are played are very important. Since the entire game consists of deathmatch versions of children's games, most arenas mimic the environments in which these games would take place, from parks to schoolyards. Even the quirky, brightly coloured staircase between arenas looks like something from childhood. The closest to this concept is the area for the second game, which is an indoor playground with painted walls, giant climbing walls and swings clearly designed to make the adult players feel like children.

All players experience "survivor's guilt"as they progress through the game. In the end, Gihun manages to survive all six games. However, most of the people he knows have died, and he feels guilty about it to the point where he doesn't even touch the cash reward for a year.

It's amazing how much you can bond with complete strangers when you have to hike together through a deadly ordeal. After all, all of these people (with the exception of Sanwu) were supposedly total strangers to Gihun. On the other hand, we're talking about people who don't exactly live strongly conscious lives, after all.

But anyway, everything that happens in the game opens them up a lot and shows who is who. The so-called "false friends" - Sanwoo and Ali - appear. Doksun and Minyok, to some extent Ilnam and Gihoon too, since Grandpa wasn't completely honest with his friend.

Gihoon, from the first episode, repeatedly shows his kindness towards others, even when it's not necessary. But he also sometimes does some ambiguous things.
During a game of Marbles, when he realises he has to beat a terminally ill old man, and to save his life, he starts cheating to win. And he still can't kill Sanwa in the finale.

Sanwu, on the other hand, made it to the final game mostly due to his cunning tactics and willingness to use others. In the second game, Sanwoo guessed what the game was going to be before it was even revealed. However, he does not try to dissuade Gi-hoon from choosing the most difficult piece. Sanwoo seems friendly and encouraging towards Ali, but as the game progresses, he becomes vicious and willing to kill to get the money. After defeating Gihoon in the final game and being able to leave alive with him, Sanwoo decides to commit suicide so that Gihoon can get the money and give some of it to his mother because he thinks it is the only way out for him.

Ali, Sanwu and Gihun represent a kind of triangle "beauty, brains and brawn" and this is a very rare male example. Ali, physically the strongest and most capable, is the brawn, the calculating and educated Sanwu is the brains, and the outgoing Gihun, who becomes the leader of the group, is the beauty/heart.
Doxu is the most blatantly antagonistic player in the game, responsible for the deaths of several players and the loss of his own allies. However, he is also killed in the penultimate game when his former ally Minek drags him to his death with her to avenge his betrayal.

In storytelling, there is a technique called "killing behind the scenes". This is when we hear a shot, but we don't see if a person is actually killed. In "The Squid Game" this technique is realised 3 times - with Ali, and he is actually killed, with Ilnam, and this is the most memorable example, and with Minyok, who is taken away in front of Marbles because she doesn't have a date, but in the end it turns out that she survived.

In addition to the characters, the security guards and the show's audience also play an important role in the narrative

They are dressed in pink jumpsuits and wear masks of different shapes depending on rank.

- Workers (the lowest rank of the three) wearcircular masks.
- Soldiers (middle rank) wear triangle-shaped masks.
- Managers (highest rank) wear squared masks.
- Their leader, Frontman, wears a 3D mask with a geometric pattern, as well as a black suit and long cape.
- VIPs who have come to watch the last two games appear in shiny gold helmets with animal motifs.
- Similarly, the Host is wearing a gold-coloured mask with a picture of an owl (symbolising his intelligence).
- The waiters serving the VIPs are wearing black masks in which only their eyes are visible.

If the guard's identity became known, he would be executed.

VIPs are the most ridiculously wealthy people in the world; ironically, this makes them all extremely unhappy as nothing else gives them pleasure as they can buy anything they want at their whim and without any financial risk.

Notably, VIP 4 doesn't meet any other VIPs after the guard comes to check on his unconscious body when police officer Joon Ho knocks him out. If the "deadly disguise" rule applies to them as much as it does to the guards, we can assume that VIP 4 was executed because his identity also became known.

Interesting fact - the models who played "live furniture" in the VIP lounge were not told what show they were starring in.
There's a huge number of characters in the show
The most obvious and important of these are geometric shapes: circle, triangle and rectangle. They are found everywhere: on business cards, guards' masks, and the scenery where the games take place. They are three of the four shapes that players can choose from in the game of "Cells", and make up the chalk drawing used in the final game of "Squid". When Gihoon, Sabeok and Sanwoo have a fancy dinner before the finals, the table is arranged in the shape of a triangle on a circular platform with a chequered pattern.

These figures have been interpreted as symbolic of human society. The Square represents the bulk of the population, the unconscious masses who simply go about their lives. The Triangle above it represents the privileged managerial class that commands them. The Circle below represents the poorest segments of society who are about to fall out and become prey to the games. The Upper Circle represents the shadowy top of the ruling elite who have conspired to create these games.


"The Squid Game" references various Stanley Kubrick films several times:

2001: A Space Odyssey
- The version of the Blue Danube waltz that plays when players enter the game is the same as in "2001".
- The ascetic aesthetic of the waiting room for some games, where the pink outfits of the guardsmen contrast with stark white, is reminiscent of the 2001 Moon Lounge with its pink chair.
- Il-Nam's appearance as the games host as he lies in bed dying is strongly reminiscent of the final shot of Dave Bowman lying in bed with Monolith in front of him. Il-Nam's sheets are even the same shade of green as Dave's, and the Monolith is presumably replaced by Gihun, dressed in all black.

- The costumes of the VIPs seem to be borrowed from Eyes Wide Shut: similar gold masks and a similar depiction of the corrupt elite.

- The bunkers in which the players sleep have been compared to the barracks from the film Full Metal Jacket, but on a much larger and surreal scale.

- "The Matrix" is not mentioned, and the reference to it is there anyway. Minyok only remembers it as "that film where the guy swims backwards".

Throughout the series we see hints and clues to what will happen next

The most obvious, perhaps, is the paintings on the walls. When almost all the players are eliminated, and there are only three left, and the beds are taken out, we see that all along the walls have been depicting all the games. Had the players known this earlier, they would have been more prepared.

There are hints throughout the series that Ilnam is one of the game's creators, most of which you probably won't notice on first viewing.

- The motion camera on the doll in the episode "Red Light, Green Light" scans him a fraction of a second later than the others, and in a lighter shade of green.
- In episode 2, there is a van behind Gihun when he meets and drinks with Ilnam in the shop, similar to the ones that transport the players.
- When police officer Joon-ho checks the player profiles in the Frontman archives, he starts with player 002.
- When Gihoon's team plays tug-of-war, an attentive viewer might notice that Il Nam is the only player not handcuffed to the rope.

And here are the "Chekhov's guns" that appear at the beginning to "fire" at the end:

  • Minyok's lighter allows her and Dox to get through the second game by heating up the pin.
  • Gihun keeps thelast Ilnam balloon from the fourth game. At the end of the fifth game, Player 017 reveals that he is a glazier and can tell tempered glass from real glass by hearing something bounce off each pane. Gihun suggests a ball for one pane, but when Player 017 states that he needs a second ball for comparison, Gihun no longer has anything to offer, rendering the idea pointless.
  • The player mentions that he is a maths teacher, in the lead up to game four. In the fifth game, he pauses to calculate his chances of survival, realises that they are so small that he has no reasonable chance, and simply tries to run across the glass as fast as he can without breaking it. It fails, but he makes it across four panes before his luck betrays him.
The main point of the series
1 - Critique of capitalism and the social system: "The Squid Game" highlights the ruthless aspects of the society in which the characters live. It is a reference to inequality, exploitation and alienation, where people are forced to engage in cruel games to survive and cope with financial problems.

2 - Moral Dilemmas and Human Values: In the course of the series, the characters are faced with tough decisions and moral dilemmas where they have to choose between survival and human values, sometimes to the detriment of the latter.
3 - Loss of Spirituality and Humanism: The harsh conditions of "The Squid Game" cause the characters to lose their humanism and spiritual values. They are forced to adapt and survive in extremely immoral situations.

4 - The Price of Human Life: The series raises the issue of how human life is often ignored and put on the line in exchange for money, power or entertainment.

Here are some other tropes of storytelling we can encounter in the series


- Sanvu emphasises that the first and last games are played at the same venue as the pitch is perfect for both.
- Gihun's communication with Player 001 Ilnam begins and ends with the latter lying on the bed.
- The first mention of the existence of games comes in the form of a smiling salesman. Gihoon mistakes him for a preacher and tells him that he is not interested in his religious speeches. When the games are over and Gihoon is sent home, he collapses on the pavement next to the man who was publicly preaching.
Bottle series is the eighth episode, in which the action takes place in a closed space - a dorm room. There are only three players left, they are having dinner and trying to sleep. The episode lasts only half an hour and does not go beyond one room.

Anybody Can Die: The show's creators don't hesitate at all and kill off almost the entire cast by the end of the series. Which is pretty much the way it was intended.

Arc Number - 456: In the first episode, Gihoon wins 4.56 million won on bets (which Sebyeok then steals from him), and there are 456 players in total, with a grand prize of 45.6 billion won (100 million won per player). In the final game, Gi-hoon uses a PIN to access his winnings - it's his player number 0456.

Arc Words: The phrase "Can I borrow 10,000 won?" is repeated several times.

Match Cut: the scene in which Minyok drags Doxa to fall and crash to his death in a game of bridge crossing is immediately cut short by their chess pieces falling off the bridge layout, with one of the VIPs noting that it was the perfect ending to their characters. It's a kind of "coincidence" of the different elements of the show.

- Cliffhanger: at the end of the fourth episode - when Gihoon's team is steadily losing the tug-of-war, Sanwoo suggests that everyone take three steps forward, even if it might take them over the edge. He counts to three, the team moves forward, Gihoon's feet are rapidly approaching the edge - and the episode cuts to black, credits roll.

Also, the cliffhanger is the end of the first season of the series. While we don't know if Joon Ho sent proof to his boss, the chief received his distress call and became alarmed when Joon Ho said he needed backup on an island in the middle of nowhere. Not to mention that most smartphones automatically save copies of their data to a remote cloud, which means that this data could exist somewhere.

The frontman also admits that the likelihood of the Korean police launching an investigation is extremely low, but if they do, it will take so long for the organisation to go into hiding due to the corrupt and inefficient police force.

Sale continues to recruit every year, and even waves at Gihun when he sees him give the card to another potential player and fails to stop him. The 2022 games seem to be going according to plan.

Thanks to the winnings, Gihun gets a second chance to mend his relationship with his daughter, possibly helping him pay the child support owed. But after his meeting with Seller, he has the urge to take the card away from the man he played ddakyu with, ban him from dialling and playing games, and call him himself and demand answers. A "frontman" appears on the air and gently but firmly orders Gihun to leave everything as it is and get on a plane to his daughter, while informing him that his every move is being watched. This call prompts Gihun to turn back, determined now more than ever to end the games for good.
"Squid Game" turned out to be not just a TV series, but a cultural phenomenon that stunned the world with its gripping storyline and deep references to human nature. Boldly mixing elements of drama, thriller and social criticism, the creators of the series not only offered a fascinating entertainment, but also made the audience think about morality, human values and their preservation in a world where survival sometimes seems to be the only goal. This masterpiece of television art leaves an indelible mark in the hearts of viewers, making them think about the essence of human nature and causing a lot of emotions that will live in the memory of viewers for a long time.