• Squid Game became a viral hit for its relatable themes of wealth, debt, and desperation, appealing to viewers worldwide.
  • The show taps into the cultural obsession with gameshows, making viewers put themselves in the characters' shoes.
  • The fictional contestants represent South Korea's anxieties, resonating with the youth who feel they have limited opportunities for advancement in society.

Squid Game was an instantaneous hit when it debuted on Netflix in 2021, and the "survival drama" followed "secretive contest" where indebted and impoverished contestants risked their lives for a chance to win $45.6 billion won (just over $38 million in American dollars).

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When Netflix released Squid Game in late 2021, it became a viral sensation -- and prompted discourse over its themes of wealth, debt, and desperation. A September 2021 review by British newspaper The Guardian summarized the premise of the "hellish horrorshow," and recapped its relatable themes:

"Most smartly, Squid Game taps into a cultural obsession with gameshows. The players are being watched, but the viewer is only one step removed, and it’s impossible not to put yourselves in their shoes. An episode of backstories makes it clear that anyone can fall into debt through bad luck, while the visuals are full of familiar touchstones. There are maze-like corridors, tinkling soundtracks and oversized slides, like the world’s worst children’s party. Within this world, writer and director Hwang Dong-hyuk sets up compelling dilemmas – would you betray your friend to escape death? – and lets them play out in agonising stretches."

Related: ‘Squid Game Star’ Lee Jung Jae Was Allegedly Paid $3.1 Million As The Main Cast In Squid Game

In October 2021, NPR examined the then-current viral popularity of Squid Game, linking its overnight success in part to the fact it "appears to tap into the universal nature of economic inequality." A New York Times analysis published the same month succinctly summarized the show's global following, observing that the "dystopian Netflix hit taps South Korea’s worries about costly housing and scarce jobs, concerns familiar to its U.S. and international viewers.

The Times said of Squid Game's fictional contestants and their real-life counterparts:

The 456 contestants speak directly to many of the country’s anxieties. One is a graduate from Seoul National University, the nation’s top university, who is wanted for mishandling his clients’ funds. Another is a North Korean defector who needs to take care of her brother and help her mother escape from the North. Another character is an immigrant laborer whose boss refuses to pay his wages ... The characters have resonated with South Korean youth who don’t see a chance to advance in society. Known locally as the "dirt spoon" generation, many are obsessed with ways to get rich quickly, like with cryptocurrencies and the lottery. South Korea has one of the largest markets for virtual currency in the world."

Related: YouTuber Mr. Beast Creates Real-Life 'Squid Game' With 456 Players And A $456,000 Price

Broadly, viewers of the original Squid Game across the globe identified with both the show's characters and its stressful situations in the context of fiction. South Korean office worker Koo Yong-hyun was quoted by the New York Times as saying of the drama: "I wonder how many people would participate if ‘Squid Game’ was held in real life[?]"

With the arrival of Squid Game: The Challenge, that rhetorical question was poised to be answered. Netflix published a blog post about Squid Game: The Challenge on September 22, clarifying an important difference between the original show's gruesome "high-stakes" and the reality competition's:

"Though the reality version of Squid Game isn’t a matter of life or death, there’s still a lot on the line: 456 players will compete to win $4.56 million, the largest cash prize in reality television history. Through a series of games, each player will be pushed to their limits and forced to ask themselves just how far they’ll go to win, with opportunistic alliances, cutthroat strategies and timely betrayals to follow."

According to Netflix, Squid Game: The Challenge boasted the "largest cash prize in reality television history" -- a claim the streamer introduced in June 2022. A 2021 ScreenRant article indicated Survivor previously held the title of largest cash prize at $2 million.

Netflix shared a teaser trailer to YouTube on September 22nd:

Like its predecessor, Squid Game: The Challenge featured 456 players competing for $4.56 million -- unlike the 2021 edition, the reality version was filmed in the United Kingdom. Squid Game: The Challenge is slated to premiere on November 22nd.

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