Why is Squid Game such a huge international hit?

Squid Game is the blood-splattered South Korean drama series that has held the number one spot on Netflix in 90 countries since its September 17th release.

Its "play to survive" theme is nothing new to popular culture. So what about Squid Game holds the key to international success? 

Conspiracy theories, memes, and real-life (safe) recreations of the innocent but deadly games are flooding social media. The game "Red Light, Green Light" is the most popular meme. Usually soundtracked to the Korean playground song from the episode, it keeps the creepy, catchy children's song looping in my head. 

We enter the games through the lens of player 456: Seong Gi-Hun. All players, including Gi-Hun, are cash-strapped, debt-ridden outcasts who accepted an invitation to play the mysterious games hoping for financial redemption. The underdog alliance Gi-Hun forms include his childhood friend, an elderly man, a North Korean defector, a Pakistani immigrant, and a quirky hustler. Their dynamic sweetly evokes the innocence of making new friends in the schoolyard. Through every episode, I laughed and cried. My heart smiled and shattered. 

The nostalgic aesthetic of the adult-sized playgrounds made me want to jump in with the characters I grew so attached to. (Carnage excluded) 

The sentimental storytelling, the carefully designed sets, and the relatable critique of capitalism could be the formula that garnered the shows' high international interest. Whatever it may be, Squid Game has uniquely managed to turn traditional schoolyard games into an expression of Korean culture. 

As explained in the opening credits, Ojingeo Geim (Squid Game) is a kid's game in Korea. Right away, we're given a window into an aspect of culture that wouldn't always be considered an expression of culture. Western audiences see familiar bits of their childhood in games like tug-of-war or marbles. 

But even the familiar game of marbles leaves a distinct cultural mark in the beautifully heart-wrenching episode, Gganbu. When Seong Gi-Hun and the old man pair up to play a fatal game of marbles, the old man calls him his gganbu. As his gganbu, his neighborhood best friend, his ally, and playmate, the old man will always share all his marbles with Gi-Hun. It's a feeling English speakers know, but if you substituted gganbu for "best friend" the episode couldn't carry the same poignancy. 

Another episode has resurrected interest in a nostalgic Korean street candy called dalgona. In episode 2, players must carefully carve out a shape that is imprinted into the honeycomb without breaking it. A trend in recipe searches for the sweet, cheap treat has prompted articles from American-based websites like Delish to even The New York Times. Amazon and eBay are selling Squid Game kits to make the candy at home. Internationally, restaurants like Brown Butter Cafe in Singapore to KCal Kitchen in Scotland are offering for customers to take part in their versions of the Dalgona game. 

In the past year, 97% of Netflix's US members have chosen to watch at least one non-English-language title. Squid Game appears to be the biggest beneficiary of this trend so far. It may be hard to one-up the show's popularity anytime soon. However, a comparable "play-to-survive" themed Japanese series, Alice in Borderland, is already benefiting from Squid Game's popularity as it is now also trending on Netflix. So, if anything, perhaps Squid Game has left the door open wide for the introduction of more unique forms of cultural expression to become a regular part of our media diets.

Image: YOUNGKYU PARK / Netflix, handout