In the gory thriller that has swiftly become a smash hit on Netflix, competitors play children’s games for huge cash prizes … and if they lose, they die. Can you stomach it?

What if winning playground games could make you rich? That’s the basis of Squid Game – the South Korean show currently at number one on Netflix around the world – where debt-ridden players sign up to compete in six games for a cash prize of 45.6 billion won (around £28m). The small print: if you lose, you get killed. In the first episode, a game of Grandma’s Footsteps (known as Red Light, Green Light in South Korea) leaves bodies piled high as the shell-shocked winners proceed to round two. It’s blood-splattered child’s play – a kind of Takeshi’s Castle with fatalities, or Saw with stylish shell suits.

If you can stomach the events of the first episode, what follows is a tightly written horror thriller that has captivated viewers. The nine-part series is the first Korean show to reach the top spot on the streaming platform in the US, and is currently number one in the UK. Its success won’t come as a surprise to a generation of viewers who got hooked on murderous dystopian series The Hunger Games and cult favourite Battle Royale. But Squid Game’s backdrop is South Korea’s present-day, very real wealth inequality.

Its closest comparison is another South Korean drama, 2019’s Oscar-winning, zeitgeist-capturing Parasite, where the country’s class divides led to a bloody conclusion. Like that film, the show’s analogy is sometimes overdone – particularly when the game’s cliche-heavy spectators are introduced – but it’s an instantly hooky premise. Yes, the games are terrifying but how much worse are they than the half-lives of those living in interminable debt?

Masterful cliffhangers give the series a requisite bingeworthy appeal and the set pieces are hideously inventive, but it’s the show’s eclectic cast that keeps viewers watching. Our unlikely heroes are led by Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a gambling addict with a heart of gold, and his slippery childhood friend Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), a disgraced banker on the run from the police. One of the series highlights is watching the icy, resourceful pickpocket Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon) – a North Korean escaper trying to save her separated family – learn to trust those around her.

This rag-tag group provides a surprisingly sweet heart for a show that features the regular murder of hundreds of people and an organ trading subplot. The nights in the dormitories – where relationships form and fray – provide the quieter drama, often more shocking than the games hall itself. And Lee is so unfailingly smiley that he single-handedly brings back the lightness whenever the terror almost becomes too much (which is often).

Most smartly, Squid Game taps into a cultural obsession with gameshows. The players are being watched, but the viewer is only one step removed, and it’s impossible not to put yourselves in their shoes. An episode of backstories makes it clear that anyone can fall into debt through bad luck, while the visuals are full of familiar touchstones. There are maze-like corridors, tinkling soundtracks and oversized slides, like the world’s worst children’s party. Within this world, writer and director Hwang Dong-hyuk sets up compelling dilemmas – would you betray your friend to escape death? – and lets them play out in agonising stretches.

Netflix has experimented with interactive drama in the past with its 2018 film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, in which viewers could make choices that affected the plot. A kind of television version of choose-your-own-adventure books, its own cleverness sometimes came at the expense of storytelling. Squid Game shows that you don’t need on-screen choices to get viewers invested in characters’ fates. Even without an interactive element, there is a relatability here that likely explains its huge popularity. The stakes are higher here but the emotions are viscerally familiar, tapping into playground politics at every turn. In one episode, there’s a heartwrenching scene about picking team members before a game starts. Even without the possibility of death, didn’t being picked last always feel like the end of the world?

Squid Game is available on Netflix now
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