Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

‘Squid Game: The Challenge’ is a binge-worthy dystopian nightmare

Netflix’s latest reality show brings fantasy ‘Squid Game’ into the real world
Image courtesy of Netflix, via Rolling Stone.

Four hundred fifty-six contestants stand at the starting line. Dressed in green jumpsuits, they intensely stare at the larger-than-life doll across the arena. The doll turns around, yelling “green light!” The players run frantically, desperate to avoid elimination. It’s a familiar scenario. But these aren’t fictional characters in a television show, they’re real people.

When Netflix announced “Squid Game: The Challenge,” a high-budget reality show spin-off of the Korean drama series, eyebrows were raised across the globe. “Squid Game” is an unabashedly brutal fictional show where impoverished characters compete to the death in various childhood games for a life-changing sum of money.

In the show, the games were created by ultra-rich elites known as “VIPs” seeking to enjoy a deadly spectacle à la “The Hunger Games.” In “The Challenge,” real-life individuals compete for a life-changing sum of $4.56 million, the single largest game show prize in television history.

From the get-go, it’s clear that viewers act as the show’s VIPs. While we munch on popcorn from the comfort of our own couches, contestants describe why they entered the competition, with reasons varying from needing help paying off student loans or hospital bills to buying groceries in an unstable economy.

When “Squid Game” premiered in 2021, it quickly became the streaming giant’s most popular series of all time, beating out even their most iconic shows such as “Stranger Things” and “Bridgerton.” The second season of “Squid Game” is set to premiere in late 2024, so “The Challenge” serves to keep the series on viewers’ minds, and boy is it successful in doing so.

The sets created for this competition are a 1:1 re-creation of the original series. Filmed in the UK, in Europe’s largest indoor space, everything — from the massive arenas to the sterile, concrete sleeping quarters — is the spitting image of the original K-Drama.

While it’s impressive to see these sets recreated, some aspects of the original series should not have been brought back for a real-life version of the show. For example, when a contestant is eliminated from the competition, a hidden ink pack behind their white t-shirt explodes, simulating a bullet wound to the chest.

The show’s producers must have realized the grim appearance of this elimination tactic, as the ink used in “The Challenge” is black, rather than blood red. This begs the question — why simulate a bullet wound at all?

After the ink pack explodes, contestants must fall to the floor and play dead for the rest of each game. For games such as “Dalgona,” wide-angle drone shots after the game’s completion show dozens of contestants sprawled out across the floor covered in the inky “bullet wounds” as though a real-life massacre just occurred.

In between games, contestants use equally grim verbiage. Most game shows see the classic “I don’t want to go home!” dialogue from its contestants, but not “The Challenge.” Contestants, usually behind a waterfall of their own tears, plead to their competitors how badly they don’t want to “die” or “get killed” in the next game.

Suffice to say, “The Challenge” gleefully basks in its simulated carnage.

Ethics aside, I must admit this is reality television competition at its finest. The pure dedication of each contestant to stay in the game, in tandem with a deeply unsettling musical score, creates an eerily tense, high-stakes atmosphere that keeps you wanting more.

The show is like other longform competition series such as “Big Brother” or “Survivor,” where contestants are continuously filmed via hidden cameras. To catch any strategizing or in-fighting amongst players, communal bathrooms, kitchens and dorms are filmed 24/7.

For each eliminated contestant, $10,000 is added to the prize pot — a larger-than-life piggy bank dangles over the players in their shared dormitory. As players drop and the cash grows the contestants, continuously immersed in the game and isolated from the outside world, become increasingly desperate to take home the grand prize. Alliances are made and broken and the humanity of all contestants is stripped away.

While the contestants quickly adopt a sink-or-swim mentality, we as viewers get to hear each player’s full story, removed from the “Squid Game” of it all. The producers pick certain contestants for aside confessionals, where we can gather the full scope of their character. Certain archetypes are developed — your classic reality TV villain, a mom and son competing together, an older man who joins the competition for his grandkids and more.

The production team does a great job of establishing the “main characters” of the show. I found myself rooting for my favorite contestants and praying on the downfall of others. As players slowly descend into each arena, you feel a palpable sense of anxiety, as you never know when a contestant could be eliminated.

I need to give a special shout-out to Player 278, Ashley Tolbert, a proud Smith College alum. Despite her controversial gameplay tactics, she made it very far into the competition. It’s always exciting to see the Pioneer Valley represented on such a massive platform.

While contestants are well-established, the producers did not have the luxury of knowing who would go far in the competition. Thus, we often learn a contestant’s backstory right before their elimination. As a general rule of thumb, the second a player speaks up, someone will aim to eliminate them.

For example, two randomly selected contestants are pulled into the communal kitchen to help prepare for dinner. They are given the choice of assigning an advantage to another player in the next game, or eliminating a contestant of their choice. Naturally, they choose to eliminate, hoping to add more money to the prize pot.

But who do they eliminate, you ask? The player they believed was the friendliest of the whole group. Of course, his backstory was just revealed to the camera moments before; in the blink of an eye, your favorite contestant can, and will, be eliminated.

Despite some flaws and questionable ethics, “Squid Game: The Challenge” is a guilty pleasure that will constantly leave you on the edge of your seat. I hope you’re ready for a second helping, because Netflix has already given season two the “green light.”

Nathan Legare can be reached at [email protected].

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All Massachusetts Daily Collegian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *