Kids’ games played with death long before Squid Game

Cameron Williams chips away at the colourful facade of Squid Game

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Hello, I’m Jared Richards, editor of Netflix Pause, and weeks after watching it, I’m still thinking about Squid Game. The endless memes definitely help, as does this Instagram filter which puts you into the series’ Red Light, Green Light game. (I have not yet won.)

Even with all the endless Squid Game chatter, it still feels like there’s more to dissect, which is why for this week’s Scene & Heard, I reached out to critic Cameron Williams, since he was already tweeting about the show’s colourful sets, where deadly games are given an eerie pastel finish. 

Looking at one scene in the first episode, where Squid Game’s unsuspecting players are guided through a staircase maze, Cam dives into how the show’s childlike colour-scape is much more than an aesthetic choice, and how watching his own kids play reminds him that silly little games always have an undercurrent of danger and darkness.

JR: Cam, how do you think you'd go in Squid Game? I'd probably lose my mind walking up the neon staircases, let alone make it through any of the games.

CW: I’m easily distracted, so I’d be gone quickly after not listening to the instructions. I’d actually be too busy thinking about the colourful M.C. Escher-style staircase the players pass through before each round. I can’t stop thinking about them.

There are so many unforgettable moments from the series, but that staircase stays with you because it’s what you least expect from a series with a game of death premise. Often, most of the colour is washed out of film and television series set within worlds where these games are acceptable, like in The Hunger Games and Battle Royale

We’re so used to grey-on-grey-on-grey tones of dystopian settings, though there are exceptions: dystopian action film The Running Man used the aesthetics of 1980s game shows to great effect, and Squid Game does it in a similar way. It catches you off guard because we don’t often associate pink with pulp.

But back to the staircase, it’s integral to revealing the different layers of control in the series. The first time we see it, it’s the players being led in all different directions, and the second time, we see the masked employees similarly walk single file to their tiny, prison-like rooms. That mirroring is a fascinating part of the series because initially you think the masked employees must have a sweet deal, but the further you get into their world it becomes clear the game creators don’t necessarily view the workers as ‘above’ the players. 

You’ve got a society where a lot of people are under financial pressure and the choice is: well I either compete in the Squid Game, or I work for the Squid Game (or, at least, according to this fan theory).

The entire Squid Game — the actual game, not the show — is so meticulously designed, both for maximum sadism and maximum colour. Why would the game's organisers care so much about how the game looks?

The game itself is a huge power flex, so the design is a way for the people who control it to assert their dominance over the players. Again, the child-like aesthetic is completely disarming. In the beginning, you see the players are more willing to compete until the horrifying truth is revealed. During the first game, there are two players who start to bolt because they think it’s going to be easy.

It’s a way to mess with people to reveal their true nature, which goes back to the screening test the man in the suit plays with Seong Gi-hun AKA #456 (Lee Jung-jae) at the train station. At the end of the game, he’s is more excited to slap the man in the suit than claim his winnings. Sinister intentions hide in cute games and once the players get a taste of the reward it then becomes harder to walk away.

I also like to think of Squid Game as a brand, and that it’s someone’s job to put together a style guide to maintain the game’s aesthetic and psychological hold on the players. Without the look and feel, it’s probably less likely that players would complete because there aren’t those cues to manipulate players and nudge them further along.

'Sinister intentions hide in cute games' sounds like something Oprah would say alongside "the vultures are waiting to pick your bones". It's true though, and also gets one of the core ideas behind Squid Game: childrens' games are actually already pretty brutal. 

Childrens' games, like fairy tales, all have an element of darkness because they're intended to teach a lesson. Sometimes I'm terrified to look up the origins of an innocent childhood game. Apparently, Ring Around the Rosie is about the bubonic plague and the part “we all fall down” means death. And I read once that Snakes and Ladders originated from ancient India and is supposed to teach kids about morality: the snakes represent demons, and the ladders represent virtue. Apparently, the original board had way more snakes than ladders because there's more evil than good in the world. There are lots of snakes in Squid Game. 

It's also spookier to think about the way kids play these games, which is why Squid Game has been compared to Lord of the Flies a lot. Kids don't have those ethical and moral filters yet, so they play to win in brutal fashion. I've got two kids, five and seven, and I'm always terrified of the different ways that their sibling rivalry may kick in when they're playing games with each other. Even when they're playing with their mates, I'm always surveying the group trying to figure out which kid is going to take it too far. 

“All the colours in [Squid Game’s] real world are muted with a few pops of colour, which are mostly in commercial spaces or the arcade with the claw machines; places that want to take people's money.”

I remember all the times I was left alone as a child with other kids to play games, and it would always end in an injury. What's that saying? It's all fun and games until someone loses an eye. There were kids in our neighbourhood who thought it would be a good idea to dip a tennis ball in kerosene, set it on fire and kick it around; one of them ended up badly burnt and it became a cautionary tale in our community. Everyone has a story like that from their childhood where an innocent game went haywire. 

I get chills thinking about the rounds that would pop up in an Australian version of Squid Game – grenade handball, backyard cricket of death, duck duck noose.

Okay, which were you: the kid who took it too far, or the one running to the parents? I was, somewhat demonically, often both. 

I was always the one who stood back to assess the game for as long as possible until I was confident to join... and then I got hurt. Once we were playing this game called ‘Kill The Dill With The Pill’, which is basically just hammering whoever has a footy — a game with no score, purpose or winners — and this younger kid hit me so hard that I broke my arm. It was super embarrassing.  

Earlier you mentioned that most 'death game' series have very muted colours — but Squid Game also features a heap of grit too. I feel like the first memorable pop of colour is potentially the subway game, featuring the red and blue tiles?

There's a great contrast between the real world and the game, which is totally intentional. All the colours in the real world are muted with a few pops of colour, which are mostly in commercial spaces or the arcade with the claw machines; places that want to take people's money. The Squid Game is so much more lively than the real world, despite all the death.

The series thrives on the irony that these characters are sleepwalking through their lives in the real world, making big financial mistakes, but they come alive during the competition — the psychopathic players thrive. Compare the staircase to the drab locations the players occupy in the real world, it’s so vibrant and positive. Maybe this really is the best place for these people to be? But the vibrancy of the game is just another part of the scam, and the socioeconomic themes of the series kick in hard when you realise the financial forces in the real world have a flow-on effect to the Squid Game and it's a nightmare loop. 

Sorry to be this guy, but isn't that all just capitalism – giving exploitation and inequality a cutesy, colourful makeover?

Yep, and it's those capitalist elements that get under your skin the most, which is why I think the series is so popular when you put the gratuitous violence aside. Plus, the show's creator Hwang Dong-hyuk says he began to develop the show over a decade ago under extreme financial stress. 

But there's a crucial moment in the series where the players go from being passive to active in their participation in the game, which makes such a big difference to the story. In the beginning, Squid Game is just this bizarre thing happening to these characters but then they make a choice to keep playing. It makes you question all the ways you justify being on whatever rung of capitalism even when it’s hard to get a trace on where you stand. A lot of us are on that colourful staircase going in seemingly different directions, but we still end up in the same place.

Race you to the top? First one wins!!!

Sure! You'll win, but we all lose.

Cameron Williams is a Melbourne-based writer whose work has appeared in ABC News, SBS, Junkee, and The Big Issue. He wrote an episode of the ABC Radio National anthology series Untrue Romance titled ‘Slow Lane’ and is currently in development on several television projects. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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