What is Squid Game and why the heck is it so popular?

Lee Jung-jae stars in Squid Game on Netflix
(Image credit: Netflix)

Squid Game is Netflix's latest sensation — and could soon top Bridgerton as the streamer's most popular series ever. The Korean drama was released on September 17 and hit No. 1 on the Netflix Top 10 list in the U.S. and many other countries. The show has held that spot ever since. 

The show is a grim, violent survival thriller that is part Hunger Games, part Battle Royale. A mysterious game recruits 456 people to risk their lives for a ₩45.6 billion prize (or $38.7 million in U.S. dollars). 

The show's intriguing premise, striking visuals and strong performances all contribute to its success. But how Squid Game really stands out is as a psychological study of the depths of human nature and as a provocative indictment of capitalism. Squid Game season 2 seems like a foregone conclusion, though there is one big obstacle to making it.

If you've seen Squid Game trending in your social media feeds and want to understand what this show is all about, we've got a Squid Game FAQ. But be warned: Squid Game is the most addictive show in years and we can't stop watching it.

Warning: This article contains massive Squid Game spoilers.

What is Squid Game about?

Seong Gi-hun is a chauffeur who is addicted to gambling and owes money to loan sharks. He lives with his mother and struggles to support his daughter. At a train station, a man gives Gi-hun a card inviting him to play a game with high stakes. 

He accepts, gets knocked out and wakes up in a dorm with hundreds of other people. There are 456 players in total, all of whom are financially strapped. They are identified by numbers on the front of their jumpsuits. Whoever wins six children's games in as many days will win a ₩45.6 billion prize. The operation is run by The Front Man, who is masked along with other staff. 

Gi-hun recognizes a couple of players, including his former classmate Cho Sang-woo. He also befriends Player 001, an elderly man.

Masked staff members stand behind a console with a green light and a red light on Squid Game

(Image credit: Netflix)

The first round is Red Light, Green Light, but the players are stunned when the losers are gunned down. More than half of them don't make to the next round. After they vote to end the game, Gi-hun goes to the police. Only Detective Hwang Jun-ho believes the story, because his missing brother also received the same card. 

The staff invites the players back and most of them return to the game. The next rounds include tug of war and marbles. The final round is the Squid game, a popular children's activity in South Korea.

During this time, Jun-ho sneaks into the game to find his brother. He raids Front Man's office and discovers his brother won the game in 2015. When he tries to escape the compound, Front Man hunts him down. He shoots Jun-ho, who falls into the sea. Front Man is then revealed to be In-ho, Jun-ho's brother.

Squid Game ending explained: Who wins?

In the sixth and final round, the Squid game, two players remain: Gi-hun and Sang-woo. Gi-hun beats his former friend, but refuses to finish the game. He invokes a clause that can end the proceedings, but Sang-woo stabs himself. While dying, he asks Gi-hun to use some of the prize money to help out Sang-woo's mother. 

Lee Jung-jae and Park Hae-soo star in Squid Game on Netflix

(Image credit: Netflix)

When Gi-hun returns home, he discovers his own mother has died. A year passes and he is still traumatized by the experience. He hasn't touched the money. 

One night, he gets a gold game card. After answering it, he reencounters Player 001, the elderly man, whose name is Oh Il-nam. T'urns out Il-nam is the mastermind behind the game, which he created to entertain bored rich people like himself. He also wanted to test whether humans have any innate goodness left in themselves. 

Il-nam reveals he decided to participate as a "fun" trip down memory lane and because he is dying. He asks Gi-hun to play one final game with him — to see if anyone helps a drunk man on the street before midnight. Gi-hun wins and Il-nam dies. 

Gi-hun snaps out of his depressed haze. He carries out the promises he made to help Sang-woo's mother and get Sae-byeok's out of the orphanage. He heads to the airport to reunite with his daughter. However, before he gets on the flight to L.A., Gi-hun sees the man who recruited him into the game. He takes the card and calls the number. 

"I can’t forgive you for everything you’re doing," he tells the person on the other line (presumably Front Man). He has a look of determination on his face. It seems like Gi-hun is ready to take down the game once and for all.

Who are the Squid Game cast members and characters?

Park Hae-soo, Lee Jung-jae and Jung Ho-yeon star in Squid Game

(Image credit: Netflix)

The cast of Squid Game is big — though we don't meet all 456 players. The lead is Lee Jung-jae as Seong Gi-hun, a divorced dad and down-on-his-luck gambler. 

The other major cast members are:

Park Hae-soo as Cho Sang-woo: A former classmate of Gi-hun who is an executive at a securities company and wanted by the police for fraud.

Jung Ho-yeon as Kang Sae-byeok: A North Korean defector who needs money to get her other family members across the border.

O Yeong-su as Oh Il-nam: An elderly man designated Player 001 and also the game's creator.

Wi Ha-joon as Hwang Jun-ho: A police detective who infiltrates the game to find his missing brother

Lee Byung-hun as The Front Man: The masked organizer of the game, who is revealed to be Jun-ho's brother, Hwang In-ho. 

Gong Yoo as an unnamed game recruiter

Will there be a Squid Game season 2?

Squid Game season 2 seems extremely likely, since it's on track to become Netflix's biggest show of all time. 

The main obstacle is writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk, who has previously spoken about the arduous process of making Squid Game. And currently, he hasn't formed an idea for season 2. "I don’t have well developed plans for Squid Game 2. It is quite tiring just thinking about it," he told Variety.

Netflix’s global TV head, Bela Bajaria, told Vulture that a second installment will depend on Hwang's schedule and vision. "He has a film and other things he’s working on,” said. However, she also noted that Hwang could work with other writers to make season 2. "We’re trying to figure out the right structure for him.”

What are the Squid Game translation issues?

A bit of controversy is swirling around the English subtitles of Squid Game. Korean-speaking podcaster Youngmi Mayer said the "translation was so bad" and that "if you don’t understand Korean you didn’t really watch the same show." Mayer used a scene featuring Han Mi-nyeo (Kim Joo-Ryoung) to illustrate.

Interestingly, there are actually two different sets of English subtitles. One is called "English [CC]" and one is simply "English." Neither is perfect, but the latter seems to be a better translation.

Why are there two versions? "English [CC]" is actually meant to play over the English-dubbed Squid Game. The other is meant to play over the Korean track.

Is the Squid Game doll real?

In the first round of Red Light, Green Light, a terrifying, giant robotic doll oversees the proceedings. It can detect the smallest movements by contestants, who are then shot and killed. 

The doll is actually real, though don't worry — it isn't murderous. It sits at the entrance of a horse carriage museum called Macha Land in Jincheon County, about three hours north of Seoul. 

The show's producers borrowed it for filming, then returned it. But now it seems to be missing a hand, which is sort of more terrifying.

What's the deal with the Squid Game cards?

The distinctive recruiting card for Squid Game is printed on light-brown paper. On one side are the game's symbols: a circle, triangle and square. On the other side is a phone number.

But the symbols are more than that — they actually represent letters in the Korean language. As Jasmine Leung explains in The Focus, "The circle is the letter 'o', the triangle is part of the letter 'j', and the square is 'm.' So side by side, it reads 'O J M', which are the initials (of) squid game in Korean, which is read as Ojingeo Geim (오징어게임)."

As for the phone number, Mashable Southeast Asia reported that it's actually owned by an actual person, who complained of "receiving endless calls and text messages." 

With the popularity of Squid Game around the world, naturally, some designers have created their own Squid Game cards. You can buy a version on Etsy and incorporate it into your Halloween costume.

Kelly Woo
Streaming Editor

Kelly is the streaming channel editor for Tom’s Guide, so basically, she watches TV for a living. Previously, she was a freelance entertainment writer for Yahoo, Vulture, TV Guide and other outlets. When she’s not watching TV and movies for work, she’s watching them for fun, seeing live music, writing songs, knitting and gardening.