36 Squid Game Set Design
For envisioning a technicolor trip into a battle royale of children’s games—and taking audiences around the world along for the ride
It didn’t exactly scream blockbuster: an allegorical look at the dehumanizing effects of capitalism made on a modest US$21 million budget. Yet the Korean drama series Squid Game defied the odds. Within a month of making its worldwide debut on Netflix in September 2021, it had raked in 111 million viewers and then went on to stake its claim as the most-watched program in the streaming service’s history. Part of the secret to Squid Game’s success? A can’t-look-away tale of brutal violence set against a candy-colored backdrop—a beautifully plotted feat that helped it win an Emmy for production design.
The storyline is built around 456 debt-ridden characters who accept a mysterious invitation to compete in a series of children’s games to win KRW45.6 billion. Chae Kyoung-sun is the mastermind behind the show’s surreal visual architecture. “Aesthetically speaking, we created the places and displays trying to make the viewers think about the hidden intentions of Squid Game with us,” she says. “We wanted the place itself to tell a story.”
The smashing triumph of that story is fueling a global appetite for more Korean exports (entertainment and otherwise), as well as heightened interest among entertainment execs for global content that transcends geographic borders. For its part, Netflix has already announced season two of Squid Game, along with greenlighting the development of a global reality competition based on the show. (Squid Game: The Challenge pits 456 real players against one another for a US$4.56 million prize—no actual bloodshed required.)
Here’s a deep dive into some of the design decisions Chae made for the project—each carefully engineered for maximum impact.
Childhood Gone Grotesque
The plot has desperate contestants forced to play six classic children’s games, each recreated with an air of terrifying menace. The show’s most iconic imagery may come from the opening scene, featuring a game of red light, green light and a huge camera-eyed deadly robot based on a well-known character in Korean textbooks. The intentional juxtaposition of childhood memories and a crushing sense of fear helped set the tone for the rest of the show. (A sign of the series’ grip over pop culture? Netflix temporarily planted a giant, fully functioning replica of the doll in Sydney, albeit without the bullet-shooting eyes.)
Architecture of the Impossible
It’s hard not to wonder whether the configuration of the series’ brightly colored staircase—the dreamlike pathway between the dorms and the deadly arenas in which the contestants compete—is even possible. (It’s based on the brain-bending M.C. Escher lithograph Relativity, in which a series of stair-climbers seem to defy the laws of gravity and reality.) To underscore that sense of uneasy fantasy, the show’s physical sets were built on a massive scale, making the humans inside them seem more doll-like and disposable. Chae scoured illustrations for inspiration, incorporating the structural composition of ladders and stairs throughout the show’s sets.
The dominant hues of the series—various shades of pink and green—were meant to evoke those typically used in Korean children’s school supplies in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet the nods to youthful nostalgia become perverse in the context of the contestants’ decidedly adult concerns: money, violence, disillusionment and terror.
On the Border of Fake and Real
Also in the red-light-green-light scene, the sky around the playing field is impossibly blue, brushed with gentle clouds. As the contestants make their way into the arena they focus solely on the towering robot and their jangling nerves, failing to notice the beautiful sky’s falseness until the game ends and a ceiling closes overhead.
Later, during the alleyway game of marbles, the rose-blush sun is once again used to disorient and confuse. “We put the most effort into that set—our main concern was how to display the sunset,” says Chae. “We thought it should also be a set on the border of fake and real. It has life and death, fake and real in it. This story is about a game being played in there.” This sense of the uncanny pervades the series, serving to keep the contestants—and viewers—unsure of what they can trust.
Set Design as Social Commentary
The dorm in which the contestants sleep each night is something out of a prison nightmare, with metal bunks stacked six high and an arrangement echoing a gladiator’s coliseum—fitting, given the to-the-death edict to which each contestant is bound. Chae’s art direction for the dorm set was highly intentional: Visually treat the contestants more like objects piled on warehouse shelves than people slumbering in bed. The message is clear—and clearer still once the beds are dismantled as players are eliminated, the competition descending into chaos.