Now officially Netflix’s most watched series, Squid Game has penetrated nearly every aspect of what dominates pop culture on the e-space today, and captured the imagination of more than a hundred million households all over the world. The hit K-drama has quite a number of things going for it: nail biting suspense, a great cast that successfully manages to establish an emotional connect with the viewers, a nearly universal nostalgia through the children’s games, and a much needed commentary on the socio-economic plight of an entire nation’s debt ridden young population. That coupled with the right timing and the success and recent acknowledgement of Korea’s immense contribution to the worldwide entertainment industry may have helped the show climb to the top, but there is another, relatively unspoken aspect that backs nearly every emotion the players (and viewers) go through in this brutal series of games.
Squid Game applies a dexterous, distinct visual character to all its spaces: from the grounds where the games are conducted to the quarters where its players are housed. Nearly all its designs are underlined to drive the point of the socio-economic divide home. Its meticulously thought about mise-en-scène is a living, breathing character in itself: continually morphing, transforming from space to space, almost like a sentient entity designed to surveil, to even terrify, to startle, but not to comfort. Alternating between utility, excess, and an intended playfulness masking the horrors behind, Squid Game’s built environment is what lends an interesting, almost academic angle to the series, instantly elevated from an object of interest to a world worth getting lost into.
With the same intention, STIR launches a space-by-space enquiry into the architecture of Squid Game, and the role its production and set design play in impinging upon its players, the series’ viewers, and virtually anyone touched by these marvelous confines.
The Dorms/ Player Quarters
As the first environment that the participants encounter in the aftermath of their abductions, the player dormitory is perhaps the most telling illustration of the capitalist socio-economic hierarchies critiqued throughout the series. Reducing the players to objects stacked atop one another for convenience, the rising bunk beds are placed in receding steps to ensure that all contestants remain in the workers’ field of view. Ladders are the primary means of vertical conveyance, in a well-crafted metaphor for every individual’s innate aspiration to climb society’s pecking order. Conversely, those at the apex of each sequence of tiers live in perpetual fear of the wrath of the ones below them, given no routes for escape without the cooperation of their ‘lessers’.
The transparent piggy bank suspended from the space’s ceiling is the players’ end-all, be-all throughout the contest - essentially the driving force behind the contestants abandoning their own humanity and turning on each other in pursuit of the vast riches promised to the final victor. As the game progresses, the space is gradually emptied of bedding, revealing pictograms with clues of each preceding stage while hammering down the loss of the deceased contestants.
A stark departure from the bleak, warehouse-like attributes of the player dormitory, the labyrinthine staircase chamber boasts lofty ceilings, staggered linearity, and varicoloured flights. Exuding references to both the vibrant colours and geometric sensibilities of Ricardo Bofill’s now-iconic housing complex La Muralla Roja (The Red Wall) in Spain, as well as the gravity-defying world of M.C. Escher’s famous lithograph Relativity, the hall is equal parts ambiguous and disorienting. Its role as a transition zone - between the dour sleeping quarters and the playful environments used to stage each game - illustrates the yearning for otherworldly escape that landed each of the players among the desperate and desolate convention of souls partaking in the game. Alas, their fantasies are cut short by the grim fate in wait at the end of each brief encounter with this space.
With little knowledge of their destination, the characters are simply ushered along like proverbial ‘lambs to the slaughter’, but given a short respite to gasp in awe at set designer Chae Kyoung-Sun’s masterful work. Interestingly enough, nearly all the shots in this space capture the near machinic movements of players through it from a fixed angle, almost as if seeing through a security camera affixed near the top. Some neat transitions in here help you to be transported to the POV of one of the ‘square’ enforcers, monitoring the game along with the Front Man, lending this an almost voyeuristic outlook.
An expansive ground inspired by rural cornfields sets the scene for the Red Light, Green Light game in the series’ first episode. Centered on the now-iconic but still unsettling animatronic doll equipped with motion tracking cameras - whose every word and movement spells the difference between life and death for the players, the space evokes surveillance systems in penitentiaries, with walls that are riddled with apertures for firearms to eliminate unlucky contestants. This space makes a comeback for the sixth and final stage of the game - bringing the narrative full circle while providing a fitting stage for the show’s conflict of ideals to play out. Interestingly enough, the Red Light, Green Light area is but the first playground-themed space that makes its way into the show’s narrative.
The oversized jungle gym, which serves as the setting for the dalgona challenge, reduces the perspectives of the players to that of young children - thrown into a world that seems large and forbidding. Surrounded by sky blue walls featuring crayon drawings of dappled clouds, this zone is the backdrop for some of Squid Game’s most tense moments, with its bizarre sense of scale adding to the unnerving atmosphere that pervades the second challenge.
Eerily reminiscent of the capsule units in Kisho Kurakawa’s seminal Nakagin Capsule Tower in Ginza, Tokyo, the individual quarters for each of the seemingly faceless and nameless workers behind the game could be viewed as a sterile distillation of a ‘machine for living’. Cramped, monk-like in their décor, and infused with rigid order, the units are an ideal mechanism to induce unquestioning obedience and conformity among the workers, stripping their individuality down to a simple number. In fact, this anonymity is paramount to maintaining the sense of dread felt by the players towards the workers. Only Hwang Jun-ho’s exploits serve to humanise these ant-like troopers, who are treated purely as disposable cogs in a larger machine beyond their comprehension.
Front Man floor
Clad in reflective diamond-patterns (also seen in the Front Man’s distinctive mask), the lair of the show’s primary antagonist is a study in gaudy opulence, centered on a large flatscreen console that hosts broadcasts of the game’s various stages. Art Deco-inspired geometric patterns adorn the elevator doors opening into the hallway, which rests beneath a sequence of luxurious glass chandeliers. Further along the corridor, doors on either side open into a bedroom space with an antechamber that doubles as an archive for records from previous editions of the game. Within the main living space, a brown Chesterfield-style sofa serves as the Front Man’s throne, from which he regulates the activities of his underlings as well as the larger operations of the game.
Marble Village Alleyways
While it would take an unhealthy amount of sadism to have adults compete in a series of children’s games in a match to the death, it would take an ounce more to have the same done in a part of their childhoods, recreated exactly as they were years ago. The psychology of it all, and an associated torment is exactly what Squid Game gets right, and this segment is an apt reminder of how thoughtful production design helps that set in, taking viewers through a plethora of emotions, even if deceptively, before landing the gut punch.
While most of it represents lived-in memory, the architecture here is endearingly nostalgic, also representing a certain urban character that seems to be lost now in modern cities, a glimpse of which we see in the happenings of the show set away from the island, in Seoul. In fact, the qualities of this space are best brought out through contrast. Comparing the burgeoning, figuratively crowded street of Gi-Hun’s house, and those of Il-nam’s older house, even if modelled, would reveal a stark contrast that would still make you choose the latter, knowing what horrors lay within. The courtyards, single storeys, painted inscriptions outside each home, low parapet walls, extensive use of exposed masonry, and small spaces for planters represent a rather romanticised, Idyllic notion of the past: a simpler time that the creator of the games obviously misses. The fake evening sky in the background of the enclosed space casts excellent light over the almost labyrinthine streets converging on each other, a definite mood-setter to the devastating final bits of this episode.
The Enclosed Arena
Owing to the intricate production design associated with the series, it is imperative to presume that the sets for the series were erected in isolation, making it difficult to ascertain a layout for the whole facility. However, one may comfortably make the proposition that the staircase area may be centrally connected to all the different areas of the game, linked to both the players and the enforcers/ workers. Interestingly, among the largest areas on the island to host a game also directly connected to the ‘Escher’esque staircases is the arena serving direct visual contact to the VIP room. This multistorey area, inherently darkened but only lit up by spotlights, is modelled along the lines of an unending abyss, each death in this room occuring only by a fall to a fathomless bottom. Naturally, all the happenings in this enclosed arena are set at dizzying heights, and the games here become much more about balance and strategy than pure brute force. Through minor adjustments to the same assembly, this enclosed arena hosts two games wherein victory lies at separate ends. Both are interestingly tied by the analogy of a bridge in the middle, and that is where the interesting architectural statement lies.
The aesthetic this area subsumes during the tug of war game is relatively simpler, mimicking an industrial crane, with a lift attached to one end, and the gantry broken in two, serving as bridges from where the losing team would hang on to for dear life. The markings on the floor and directional symbols all bear a similar outlook, done up alternately in black and yellow paint.
However, it is during the antepenultimate episode, during the glass bridge game, that the area really lights up to be adorned akin to a carnival, a circus almost. The latter comparison may especially have bearings to the intended garish aesthetic of the VIP room. The games in this segment are hosted like a performance to be viewed by the VIPs, complete with spot and flood lights. Here too, a heavily underlying industrial aesthetic forms the structural backbone of the bridge, rising above a condemned pit, wherein all but three of the final players fall to their deaths.
The VIP Area
The VIP area in Squid Game isn’t revealed until the series nears its end, until the VIPs walk in and are shown to be the actual viewers of the games. Characterising garish excess, and an almost tasteless approach to its decoration, the VIP area is a loud and clear manifestation of what Oh Il-nam states on his deathbed, about having an unlimited amount of money but not knowing where to spend it. The architecture and interior design of this area, all by intent, makes the Front Man’s floor look subtle in comparison. Themed along a jungle, an apparent metaphor for the nearly animalistic tendencies the VIPs display, the room is lined with human mannequins covered in body paint, and sheen and lustre bounce off of every corner in the room touched by light. The upholstery too is decorated in animal print, similar to the robes of the uber-indulgent VIPs, almost as if to make them disappear in their sin, while their jewel studded, animal shaped masks lend them more than just anonymity. The bright red floors, standing out in a room otherwise dimly lit, complete this area’s look as a precise room of horrors.