Battle Royales have quite literally taken over the shooter genre, and while other forms of media have cooled off of the premise, Squid Game offers a take that’s profound and wholly unique. Unlike Hunger Games or the Kinji Fukasaku movie Battle Royale, Squid Game participants come to this slaughterhouse of their own volition. Humans on their last leg in massive amounts of inescapable debt drives all of the contestants, as a prize of 45 billion won (38 million USD) is up for grabs. Squid Game provides a thought-provoking narrative driven by its complex characters. So let’s dive into the philosophy of Squid Game through the lenses of these characters.
Note: This article will contain spoilers.
The hungry fly and the flytrap
The story follows Gi-Hun, a middle-aged man who lost custody of his daughter due to his inability to get his life together and still lives with his mom. Approached with a unique business card and what Gi-hun thinks is an easy opportunity to make some good money, he falls into a trap and is kidnapped. He wakes up with his childhood friend Sang-Woo and over 400 other dazed people on a deserted island and is told they all have to play in children’s games until only one person is left. But when eliminated, you die.
Following the first game, the players take a vote to forgo the game and go home. But after another quick dose of what their life is like, the contestants find another invitation to the Squid Game. And almost every player returns, convinced they would never be able to fix their lives going on as prior. While back home, Gi-Hun learns that his mother has diabetes and needs surgery, and his daughter is moving to the US with her mother unless he can prove he can financially support her. These two reasons are the primary motivations for Gi-Hun returning to the game, even knowing the odds are he dies.
A clash between friends
Here is the start of the first clash of philosophy between Sang-Woo and Gi-Hun. The two childhood friends are virtually opposed in every way, as Sang-Woo was the top of his class and accepted into the best school in South Korea and worked at an investment firm. On the other hand, Gi-Hun worked as a chauffeur, and his lack of intelligence compared to his friend is displayed even further through the games they play. Aside from the honeycomb game, Gi-Hun comes up with no clever strategies when playing the games, while from the first game, “Red light green light,” Sang-Woo exhibits his quick thinking and in every subsequent round.
Sang-Woo’s incentive for joining the Squid Game stems from his work, as he stole billions of won from his clients and now has a warrant on his head. And if he doesn’t pay it off before he gets caught, all of his mother’s possessions will be taken as collateral. So Sang-Woo’s reasons are all due to his choices, while Gi-Hun has no control of his mother’s disease or his child moving to the US.
The most significant difference between the two is how they play the Squid Game. After the second invitation, Sang-Woo consistently acts with only self-interest in mind, even if it means killing or leaving Gi-Hun at a disadvantage. Like withholding the knowledge of what game was next, causing Gi-Hun to choose the most challenging pattern for the honeycomb game.
Gi-Hun plays to win like every other contestant, but he shows an invariable kindness, especially for those he’s allied with, like Sae-Byeok. So while Sang-Woo is consumed by greed entirely to the point of direct murder, Gi-Hun displays only kindness and refuses to kill even during the final game, calling for a vote to suspend the game.
The cost of victory
After winning the Squid Games, Gi-Hun is in a state of shock, losing his childhood friend, everyone he met in the Squid Games, and his mother, who died while he was gone playing the game. A year time-skip occurs, and we see he hasn’t helped Sang-Woo’s mom or Sae-Byeok’s brother. In fact, he hasn’t touched his winnings at all and has gone back to his old way of life.
He mysteriously receives another Squid Game business card giving a time and location. When Gi-Hun arrives, the innocent older man Il-Nam is waiting for him, who Gi-Hun thought he killed when playing marbles. Instead, Il-Nam reveals he was the mastermind behind the Squid Game all along. And that he and his rich friends were finding life too monotonous, so they thought of the Squid Game to have some “fun.”
The older man asks Gi-Hun to play one final game while observing a drunk man passed out on the sidewalk in the cold. The terms are if someone comes to help the drunk man by midnight, Gi-Hun wins, and if nobody does, Il-Nam wins. This final game is a metaphor for another clash of philosophy taking place.
Il-Nam believes all people are selfish and greedy, while Gi-Hun believes compassion for others is essential, as demonstrated throughout the series with most of his actions. Now what establishes Il-Nam’s ideology is that he was so rich, and rather than use that money to help others, he constructed an elaborate battle royale for his enjoyment.
This event snaps Gi-Hun out of his trance of grief, and he fulfills the promises asked of him while in the games. He finds Sae-Byeok’s brother and puts him in the care of Sang-Woo’s mother while leaving a suitcase full of money for the two of them.
When in the airport to see his daughter, Gi-Hun miraculously stumbles upon the man, played by Gong Yoo, who gives him the aforementioned first Squid Game business card after slapping Gi-Hun senseless. Gi-hun rushes to confront the man, but alas he’s too late, but Gi-hun manages to steal the card from the man who was playing the slapping game with Gong Yoo’s character. He calls the number and confirms the game is still going, even after Il-Nam’s death, and pledges to come back and stop the game to save the new batch of contestants.
Greed of some fashion drives every character, but fulfilling the promises to his friends and returning to the game solidifies Gi-Hun’s ideology of compassion over greed. Il-Nam losing the final game displays that Squid Game also shares this conviction.