With K-pop leading the way, South Korean art and culture have become incredibly popular globally in the last few years. Netflix, for at least the past year, has been acquiring South Korean dramas by the dozens, with some only just beginning their runs. Squid Game represents a new milestone — a move away from niche with a big, buzzy K-drama breakout that everyone’s watching or at least talking about.
Of course, we’ve had our runs at this type of thing — deadly competitions that typically (but not always) involve young people — in the States: The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Saw, and The Divergent series to some extent. Though these movies and shows tend to be violent, often brutal, there’s a bit of humanity at the heart of the concept: Yes, we do terrible things to each other, but it’s the systems built around us that force impossible choices.
Keep in mind that, at least since 2000’s Battle Royale, the death game has been a wildly popular genre, so there are plenty of great examples that just aren’t easily available to American viewers. That being said, here are some movies and shows that represent the breadth of the “let’s throw people together and make them fight for prizes” genre.
Alice in Borderland (2020 — )
Video-game obsessed Arisu gets his wish, after a fashion: He finds himself, along with a couple of friends, transported to an alternate, eerily abandoned version of Tokyo — the title’s Borderland — vividly brought to life via some clever green screen work. The three are directed to an arena and given the instructions for the game, one they’ll be playing whether they want to or not. The first competition, for example, involves a locked-room-style puzzle; if they fail, the room goes up in flames with them in it. Think Ready Player One, with deadlier stakes. There are games each night, though the rules allow for winners to get time off…there are a lot of rules, actually, but the games are cleverly and sadistically constructed. It’s been renewed for a second season.
3% (2016 — 2020)
It would be tempting to see this as a metaphor for the American dream but, of course, it’s Brazilian, and it’s not as though inequality was invented in the United States — we’re just particularly good at it. In 3%, the impoverished young Inlanders have one shot at success: completing “The Process,” a series of interviews, puzzles, and escape rooms designed to test their worthiness to join a futuristic offshore utopia. Most fail, and some don’t survive, leaving a success rate of…3%. This is very much Hunger Games territory, but the show has a darker, more adult edge. It also has four seasons in which to develop its characters and mythology, allowing it to dig a bit deeper than some of its YA contemporaries.
Shows and movies involving deadly games very often lean into science fiction, making Intacto unique in that its premise relies on magic. Starring Max von Sydow, the Spanish film (directed by 28 Weeks Later’s Juan Carlos Fresnadillo) involves a concentration camp survivor and casino owner who has developed extraordinarily luck — not just in the usual sense, but luck, for him, is very nearly a super-power, but he also believes that there are ways in which his luck can be stolen. He comes into conflict with a former employee with the ability to steal luck, leading to a series of set pieces involving Russian roulette. Intacto came out internationally around the same time as The Cooler, a different kind of film but one that’s similarly about casinos and the tangibility of fortune. That might make for a good double-feature.
As the Gods Will (2014)
If you’re familiar with this film’s director, Takashi Miike, you know that you’re probably in for something violent and delightfully fucked up. Here, we begin in nearly media res with a game or red light/green light involving a big round Daruma doll (typically a good-luck symbol) that blows up the heads of the losers. It turns out that this is only the first game, and that students all over the world are being forced to participate in similar trials…by God, maybe? Perhaps the most disturbing thing is that, a la Battle Royale, it’s all done with a sense of hyper-violent fun, with violence that’s almost cartoon-like. (This kind of thing is going to play a little differently with American audiences, of course: School shootings are unheard of in Japan, so classroom violence is an easier subject of fantasy.) It’s a lot of fun in its way…just know what you’re in for.
The Platform (2019)
There’s plenty for everyone in “The Hole,” a vaguely futuristic prison that’s hundreds of floors tall. Each day and just once, a platform full of food descends through the various levels. Those at the uppermost levels get their pick, while those below are forced to collect the scraps that remain. If everyone took their share, there’d be more than enough but, alas, those at the top gather more than they need — a situation with absolutely no analogies in our present society whatsoever, this is clearly 100% fiction. Survival for those on the bottom is brutal and bloody, and, though people do change floors arbitrarily, we quickly learn that those that were once on the bottom haven’t developed much sympathy once they’re closer to the top. Surrounding all of this is a well-constructed and very bloody horror film that builds to a brutal climax.
Battle Royale (2000)
Though not easily available in the United States for over ten years after its release (for fear that the film’s juvenile violence wouldn’t play very well), Battle Royale still managed to be wildly influential — Quentin Tarantino has called it his favourite movie on more than one occasion. This list wouldn’t exist without it, nor would Squid Game itself, in all likelihood. In the near future, the Japanese government comes up with an absolutely brilliant idea to curb juvenile delinquency: Send the bad kids to a remote island, fit them with explosive collars, and make them fight to the last — sort of a modern riff on Lord of the Flies, except that here it’s the adults on the mainland who’ve engineered the conflict.
There are at least a handful of game shows (and a whole mess of reality shows) that force contestants to decide, by vote, who goes home next. Whose dreams get crushed. It’s such a popular device because we clearly revel, at least a little, in the mild cruelty of watching one group of people deciding the fate of another. We like to imagine ourselves in the situation of those who get to choose, and to wonder how we’d decide. The American film Circle takes those notions to the extreme: A group of fifty people awake to find themselves standing on markers and arranged in concentric circles. Someone dies every two minutes — and those in the circles are expected to vote on who goes next. If people decide not to choose, someone dies at random, or as determined by whoever does cast a vote. With that dark premise established, the movie does a pretty good job of exploring the fascinating calculations that we’re sometimes expected to make when it comes to our fellow humans.
You wake up in a literal cube with a bunch of strangers and no knowledge of where you are or how you got there. The cube is connected to other cubes, and each contains its own traps and puzzles, many of them deadly. The best you can do is try to stay alive. There’s a purity to the concept here that has helped Cube gain its status as a cult classic — just characters with different skills working together (or not) in order to survive and escape an impossible maze. The refusal to spend much time explaining the nature of the puzzle in which they’re trapped is an essential element of the movie, heightening its existential dread by suggesting that the carnage is almost entirely pointless. Life, amirite? it pre-dates Battle Royale, and never really caught on as more than a niche film, but still feels very much of a piece with the rest of the movies and shows here.
Though fairly low-budget, the cast includes a few faces that would shortly become familiar to sci-fi fans: ubiquitous character actor Julian Richings, Stargate’s David Hewlett, and Deep Space Nine’s Nicole de Boer among them. A Japanese remake is coming later this year.
Animal World (2018)
If your heart can take it, join Michael Douglas in the world of high-stakes, action-packed rock-paper-scissors(!), Animal World is a neat hybrid: a Chinese film based on a Japanese manga (Kaiji, a subject of earlier adaptations) and co-starring the oh-so American Douglas; it’s also a colourful action movie about a card game involving maths. In the film, Zheng Kaisi is a clown, literally, doing a floor show at a gaming arcade while dreaming of life as a superhero. In his real world, mum’s medical bills are piling up (American audiences might be confused by the concept of “medical bills” — just go with it), and so Kaisi winds up making a bad deal that puts him even further in debt and ultimately lands him on a ship with the devilish Douglas, forced to play a game in which the losers are doomed to become literal science experiments.
Brutal high school social dynamics are the target of Nerve, based on the YA bestseller by Jeanne Ryan. In an underground smartphone game, you can be a player or a watcher — watchers offer dares while players carry them out. The more dangerous the challenge, the bigger the payoff. Accepting a dare and then backing out involves the forfeiting of all of your accumulated cash, and for anyone who goes to the police…well, snitches literally get stitches. There are some impressive stunts involved, but largely this one stays on the lighter side of the dangerous games genre…serving as a bit of a cautionary tale about the dangers of pursuing social media fame too fervently. For a much darker take on a similar concept, stick around for 13 Beloved.
Panic (2021, miniseries)
There’s a lot here that’s familiar: a group of teens from a small Texas town compete in the annual competition of the show’s title, and it’s a lot of TV-attractive teenagers competing in a series of dangerous stunts. The primary innovation here, as in the Lauren Oliver novel on which the show is based (she’s also the writer and showrunner) are the stakes: They’re atypically low. Most of the other shows and movies on this list built tension by dangling dramatically big prizes before starry-eyed contestants. Here, the winner gets $US50,000 for engaging in a series of life-threatening stunts — indeed, as the series opens, two people had died the previous year, and the current year’s Panic won’t be without casualties. That’s good money, but it’s not an amount that’s going to set anyone up for life, and it’s not nearly enough to inspire the town’s better-situated kids to get involved. It represents a shot: at moving out of town, or going to college…things beyond most of the participants. While the richer kids go about their lives, the poor kids fight over scraps.
13 Beloved (2006)
Like many deadly games-style films, acclaimed and popular 13 Beloved begins with a broke guy: Chit Puengnathong is having a pretty rough go of things (including losing his job) when he gets a call from a viral, underground game show offering him money for accepting what seem like simple challenges: First he has to kill a fly. Then he has to eat it. The challenges get exponentially more dangerous and cruel, but each has its own payout, and there’s a potential 100 million baht payout at the end (roughly $4 million). There’s also a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire-esque twist: If Chit stops at any point, he loses all the money he’s accumulated, piling on the pressure as each new challenge is revealed — if he stops, not only is he back at square one, he will have also undertaken a whole bunch of degrading and illegal actions for nothing. The movie spawned an American remake (13 Sins, from German director Daniel Stamm) that’s not nearly as good…but not bad, either.
The Wilds (2020 — )
The Wilds has been an unexpected hit for Prime Video, working as a YA version of Lost — a slightly ridiculous scenario involving a plane crash with, nonetheless, characters who get more engaging as the show goes along. Situated between flashbacks and flash-forwards, an aeroplane full of teenage girls from different places crashes on the way to Hawaii and an empowerment program. It quickly becomes clear that this was engineered, and, though there isn’t a structured game involved as with most of the other shows on this list, that the whole thing is some sort of social experiment, forcing the survivors to compete against each other for survival. The show’s smart enough to understand the ways in which young women in the real-world are exploited and expected to compete against each other, which grounds the elaborate plot twists. It’s been renewed for a second season.