“I was not aware it would be such a painful experience!” Can you endure the real-life version of Squid Game?
My feet are numb and I am stuck in an uncomfortable squat for what feels like forever. The burning sensation of lactic acid is taking over my thighs. The towering 20-foot tall robot doll with a bright orange dress and precise motion sensors stares at me without mercy. In the corner of my eye, I see a fellow competitor fall with a loud scream. I can’t help but wonder how it must feel for their vest to explode on their chest. I had only ever seen a fictional version of this game, called Red Light, Green Light, in the popular Korean TV show Squid Game. I never imagined the real-life version would be so excruciatingly painful.
Yesterday, numerous participants stood still for approximately half an hour at a time in a frigid airplane hangar. I have heard that some disregarded warnings and recklessly dove over the finish line. According to Variety, many individuals fainted on set and needed medical assistance. The following day, after enduring these extreme circumstances, the headline on the Sun newspaper will declare “Squid Game Chaos in the UK!” The fictional drama has taken on a sense of reality in multiple aspects.
The popular Netflix series “Squid Game” has inspired a new reality competition called “The Challenge.” This ambitious competition involves 456 players from all over the world competing for a grand prize of $4.56 million. As a journalist, I am participating in some of the games with my colleagues, but I don’t believe we have a chance of winning even £20. However, we do get to wear stylish green tracksuits.
The brightly colored set is made even more confusing by the unexpected appearance of Anupam Tripathi, a member of the original cast. I wonder why he is here. Just as I am about to lose my balance, he catches my gaze and hisses, “Don’t just look – listen.” Confused, I focus on the doll’s head. Right before it spins around again, like in the movie “The Exorcist,” I hear the sound of something moving inside. This warning gives me an extra second to make it to the finish line. Maybe Tripathi is my guardian angel.
Stephen Lambert, the producer, reflects on his biggest surprise: the show’s ability to make the audience care about its characters. It is commonly believed in TV that viewers will not form a connection with a large cast of 20 people. However, this show shattered that belief by featuring a whopping 456 players. The show attracted tens of thousands of applicants, all enticed by the chance for self-discovery and a luxurious 16-day experience on Netflix’s expense account.
The streamer has invested a portion of the approximate $900 million earned from the original into this project, so I am anticipating a luxurious meal. As the masked security guards bring a cart filled with lunch boxes onto the dormitory level, I express my gratitude. However, my mood changes when I discover that the only food provided is a hard-boiled egg. “I have a degree in journalism!” cries out Ash, a writer for Entertainment Tonight. “And now I’m begging to keep my sweatpants and have another egg.”
The initial play, featuring adults in dire situations engaging in children’s games with deadly outcomes, was a parody of exploitative reality television. What does it mean that The Challenge has reproduced Squid Game without the critical analysis? “That is just one aspect of the play. However, drama encompasses a multitude of themes,” explains producer John Hay. “Many of us watched and pondered: ‘What would I do?’ The examination of human character in high-pressure situations is what we focused on.”
Hwang Dong-hyuk, the creator of Squid Game, recently paid a visit to the set and expressed his approval for the show. The team has skillfully translated his vision into reality while avoiding his anti-capitalist theme. They have shifted the emphasis from necessity to opportunity – the chance to win millions and enter your beloved show through the screen. Lambert explains, “Our actors are not in dire circumstances like those portrayed in the show. Some of them are entrepreneurs and quite affluent.”
I am surprised to find a camera pointed at me in a pink bathroom stall designed by John Waters. Despite feeling uncomfortable, I still need to use the restroom. I secretly glance at my reflection in the mirrored windows, which I suspect conceal the desks of producers. The intense game of Red Light, Green Light has left me shaken, but I sit down with a coffee and my vest suddenly explodes, covering me in blue ink. I wonder where my colleague, Ash, got the coffee from. Rumors have spread that today’s game involves real money. A loud buzzer interrupts my thoughts, signaling the start of the next round.
We were led to a deserted western town with a sunset glow, where the ground was covered in sand. The guards instructed us to choose a partner. Even though Jake is from LadBible, I’ve been having a good time with him. He’s the obvious choice, so we team up. But then we receive a heartbreaking task – to create a game for two players using marbles, with the loser being eliminated. What a disappointment.
“Hey buddy, how about we alternate throwing marbles into a box?” suggests Jake, innocently. But as we approach our makeshift line, he smugly reveals that there’s a sand pit in his backyard. This is his preferred activity. I’ve been tricked.
I struggle to hit the target directly. When I do manage to hit it, the ball bounces away. Jake laughs as he collects my balls. I refuse to give up like this. Also, who has a sandbox at their house? Trying a less cool but more consistent lob between my legs, I start to improve. I notice a patch of deeper sand in one corner of the crate that softens the fall of the marbles. I keep hitting it repeatedly. Jake is getting frustrated. In the last round, he hits the edge of the crate and curses. He misses his final marble. He is out of the game. I can’t believe it.
The success of this show relies heavily on strategy, alliances, and practicality. It’s not by chance, as it is created by the same teams behind The Traitors and 24 Hours in A&E. The player interviews reveal their backstories, which are interwoven with the gameplay. One particular storyline follows an intelligent older woman as she forms a bond with an unpopular alpha male athlete, making for a captivating plot similar to that of a novel. One player cleverly uses their charm to hide their tendency towards deceit. Another struggles with their faith and has an emotional breakdown.
Toni Ireland, the producer, states that they always had people actively listening on microphones to find an intriguing storyline. The team drew inspiration from Band of Brothers and Game of Thrones, both intense dramas where major characters are frequently eliminated, and the focus shifts to a new potential hero.
I am beginning to believe that I have a chance of winning. The guards lead us into a large room with sky-blue walls and fluffy cotton decorations. We are given a tin and a needle, and instructed to use the needle to cut out a basic shape from the honeycomb disc inside the tin. Failure results in death. However, this task seems achievable. I notice that my tracksuit is labeled with the number 456, indicating that I am the chosen one. I look at the other players, including Jake who surprisingly has been permitted to participate despite his previous loss in marbles.
Apart from the faulty vests, the technical aspects of the show are quite remarkable. The beds in the dormitories are stacked 30 feet high and there is an 800kg piggy bank that glows. Even the candy I hold in my hand is a testament to the enormous effort put into creating The Challenge. Game designers tried out 19 different recipes before finally finding one that did not break too quickly or too late. Each individually packed dalgona had to be left uncovered for the exact same amount of time to ensure fairness. Ireland recalls the experience with a shudder, saying “I’m having flashbacks just thinking about it.”
I suddenly recall the moment in Squid Game where players use their saliva to soften their candies. That’s the secret! I remove the lid of the tin. As long as I get a circle, triangle, or even a star, this should work.
I gaze at the intricate design of the umbrella etched into my candy: a bat wing shape on top, with a slender, curved handle below. Why was I chosen for this? The clock begins its five-minute countdown, as I reluctantly take a bite of the fragile disc. Two minutes have already passed. This is so unjust. I must start scoring with the needle. Three minutes. My mouth is filled with sand and the needle keeps slipping from my sticky hand. Four. Is there any hope left? I frantically scratch at the candy. Then it happens – a section of the umbrella breaks off. No, no. A guard in a jumpsuit stares at me and then walks away.
Pffffst. Pressurised ink explodes up my neck, coating my face. “Player 456 … eliminated.” So that’s how it feels. Blue faces litter the beach around me – including Tripathi, who also got an umbrella. Go gentle, brother. “The games become more morally complex as the series goes on, with storylines of trust and betrayal,” says Hay proudly. “It delivers on the mantra ‘How you play is who you are’.”
Fat load of good that did me. “I broke mine a bit, but covered it up with sand and they didn’t notice,” laughs Jake outside. The huge piggy bank descends from the ceiling, fluttering with banknotes like a mocking piñata. None of us passed all three games, so none of us are taking any of it home. If how you play is who you are, then colour me a bitter, blue loser.
Squid Game: The Challenge is on Netflix from 22 November