How Squid Game’s Surreal Sets Evoke Spine-Tingling Fear

The ultra-popular Netflix series pits hundreds of debt-ridden Koreans against one another in deadly children’s games within architectural sets that trigger both nostalgia and anxiety.

All images courtesy Netflix

In case you haven’t noticed, Squid Game is everywhere. The South Korean survival drama has become Netflix’s most-watched program ever, amassing more than 111 million viewers in just one month. In the highly binge-able series, 456 down-on-their-luck people are pitted against one another in a high-stakes series of simple children’s games—Red Light Green Light, Marbles, and Tug of War—to win 45.6 billion won ($38.4 million). The catch? There can only be one winner, and each loser faces an immediate grisly death. Chaos ensues.

While the storyline sparks timely conversations about class inequality, we were especially taken by the show’s hyper-real sets. Each one, impressively making minimal use of CGI, conjures a palpable sense of anxiety made entirely more unsettling thanks to the deadly game’s childlike backdrops. To reach each arena, contestants ascend a labyrinthine staircase that resembles a candy-coated cross between Ricardo Bofill’s La Muralla Roja and the engravings of M.C. Escher. The mint greens and pinks nod to the most common colors used in children’s school supplies in the ‘70s and ‘80s, triggering childhood nostalgia among Korean viewers. The armed guards are dressed in the same bright pinks, sparking spine-tingling fear among the participants as they prepare to face their next challenge. 

Each game unfolds in childlike settings designed to distort each contestant’s perception of place and scale. In the first game, a giant animatronic robot in the shape of a little girl conducts a deadly game of Red Light Green Light in a set wrapped with a blue screen that depicts an ominous tree within a barren corn field. The second challenge sees the survivors meticulously carve out shapes from a disc of sweet honeycomb candy within a playground of oversize equipment designed to make everyone look and feel like small children. “I tried to simulate the atmosphere of real playgrounds,” director Hwang Dong-hyuk said, noting that he and art director Chae Kyoung-Sun made the sets “look cute and sweet, as a place to trigger nostalgia. I thought those kinds of sets can give more of a sense of reality to the actors’ performance.” 

Those, of course, contrast the bleak, hangar-like quarters where the ill-fated contestants sleep in towering bunks arranged impersonally like goods in a warehouse—and the clinical dormitories where the callous masked guards report for duty. “When the mayhem breaks out, these beds collapse and get destroyed to look like broken ladders or stairs, which signify the hopeless reality of not being able to move upward,” Chae tells Variety.  The set for Marbles, meanwhile, took place in a masterfully recreated traditional South Korean neighborhood and alleyways awash in the orange glow of sunset. Besides being the most realistic set of the entire series, the directors admit it was the most difficult to get right. “We put the most effort into that set,” says Chae. “It also took the most time. Our main concern was how to display the sunset. We thought it should also be a set on the border of fake and real.” 

According to the actors, some sets felt so realistic that they experienced actual fear—their horrified expressions were genuine. For the fifth challenge, survivors were tasked with crossing a delicate bridge made of glass stepping stones that either shatter immediately or hold each player’s weight. The structure was made from actual glass panes, and while not set above an abyss as the show suggests, it gave the actors a five-foot drop—just enough to “make you frightened,” Hwang says. “I think we could express the unnoticed rigidity and fear of the body. The glass made them nervous. It felt like really jumping off a high bridge—the game was real and they felt real fear. We think that set has the power of realism.” 

Compounding the realism were colorful string lights evoking a circus, made all the more uncanny given how an elite class of citizens donning gilded animal masks watched the stepping stones challenge live, making bets on each participant’s fate. The VIPs, who stage the competition every year, “are the kind of people who take other people’s lives for entertainment and treat them like game pieces on a chessboard, so I wanted to create a powerful and instinctive look for the room,” Chae says of the lounge, which was outfitted with sumptuous floral-upholstered sofas, tropical flora, and statues shaped like subservient, life-size humans. “Every animal mask these VIPs are wearing, and every prop in their sitting area, comes with hidden meanings.” Perhaps that’s what makes Squid Game so compelling—the series gradually reveals more of itself with every watch. No wonder the show is shattering viewership records. 

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