The meteoric success of “Squid Game” is unparalleled in quite a few ways. Netflix is certainly happy with it—“It’s only been out for nine days, and it’s a very good chance it’s going to be our biggest show ever,” NBC quoted the streaming platforms co-CEO Ted Sarandos.
The show has not even been around long enough to secure definite numbers on viewership, and it’s already getting descriptions such as “unprecedented” and “a global hit” from Julia Alexander, senior strategy analyst at Parrot Analytics.
So how is a show featuring extreme violence, Korean-only dialogue, and no source material from which it was adapted (truly a big deal in an era of comic-book film dominance) become such a phenomenon?
The answer is surprisingly straightforward: it’s extremely well-made, in virtually every way. Let’s track those ways, using our Principles of Scribology—content creation principles that brain science and neuroscientific studies have proven to create the highest rates of retention and engagement in viewers.
Oh—quick interlude for the uninitiated, served up spoiler-free: 456 contestants participate semi-voluntarily in a series of contests based on children’s games. Losers die, and the one survivor gets a major cash prize—an overwhelmingly tempting one, as all contestants are deeply in debt. Now, on to the reasons for Squid Game’s success.
First, we have the principle of Accent Color: A single accent color focuses the viewer on the most important part of the frame in TruScribe’s content. While this principle plays out a bit differently in live-action TV like Squid Game (as viewers expect to see the variety of colors that a ‘realistic’ image would contain), we do see the same purposeful use that we see in whiteboard: identifying important parts of the frame, and taking on thematic significance. Contestants are coded as green and white. Guards are coded red and black. The game’s business cards are gold and black. Every time we see a strong single color, we should correctly associate it with the game, and as those colors gain plot significance, we use them to focus on the most important elements of the frame (almost always players and guards).
This allows for rapid communication of information that might otherwise slow the story’s momentum—such as simply using the player colors (and their immediately noticeable Human Forms, another Scribology principle) to show how long the game has been going on, and how many contestants are left. What’s initially a crowded dormitory room filled with green-and-white-suited players rapidly becomes a mostly-empty space with just a few, tiny green and white figures remaining.
Using the dormitory as a familiar setting is also a brilliant design choice as it creates a major dynamic in Image Density—that “crowded” room emptying into the “remaining” human forms shows how the density of images in a frame can change the audience’s understanding and perception of the mood and message. A full room means a certain kind of tension, with the characters we know almost lost in a sea of faces. The empty room, though, is even more intense—now, we’re up close and personal with characters near their breaking point, and the absence of everyone else makes them feel more vulnerable than they did in the group. We know them better, and the stakes are clearer… in a much, much scarier way.
Motion, a Scribology principle that we understand moves the eyes (and even the head) to track onscreen movement and heighten engagement, is central to Squid Game. It’s almost used self-reflexively, particularly in moments like Red Light/Green Light—too much motion is lethal, but so is too little motion. You can consider the robot driving the violence against the losing players to be an audience surrogate: too much motion is distracting and will hinder their retention as they follow it; too little is dull, and you’ll lose viewership just due to the attention span’s time limit.
There are two principles that stand even above these in importance. Those two are Story, and Message. Story, our human coding language, makes information exciting and retainable, and provide a fantastic vehicle for the Message—the most important takeaway of a video or piece of content.
Squid Game’s story, described above, is fairly simple: how will people react when faced with such enormously high and life-changing (more frequently life-ending) stakes? The Message appears in some of the finer plot points. There’s an element of choice to the game, too; why do people keep participating? When does the tragedy of a character’s conditions excuse their behavior in the game?
There are several other questions and points (some subtle and some glaring) that drip out of the sides of the absolutely engaging story of Squid Game to form its final message. I think I’ve managed to avoid spoiling the show so far, so I’m not going to get much deeper into what its message actually is. Just know that it’s a) very strong and b) born out of a powerhouse story.
Lots of questions can be found regarding Squid Game’s colossal success (CNN Business reports Netflix “having added 4.4 million subscribers in the third quarter of 2021” and attributing this turnaround from two “consecutive sluggish quarters” to the show), one of the most common relating to its country of origin. How can a South Korean show be so well-received around the world?
There are many proposed answers, but as stated above, I’d argue the real one is very, very simple: because it’s good. Its creators worked hard on their aesthetic, their design principles, and their message. They cast great actors who gave strong performances. And their story is inherently fascinating.
Squid Game isn’t a fluke. It’s what happens when good television combines with word of mouth and succeeds, around the world. The principles of Scribology, upon which we base our content, show up time and time again in the hit show—proving that dedication to strong visual and communication principles works anywhere, anytime.