Behind the Scenes of Squid Game: The Challenge

A year before Squid Game (re)captured the world, Netflix invited a group of journalists to a round of diabolical games. It only took a day for me to lose my marbles
 Sirena He
Published: 5 December 2023

Listen up, players. A robotic voice shouted into a giant dormitory stacked to the gills with 456 bunk beds. I craned my neck all the way up to the ceiling—which was at least ten Shaqs high—to catch sight of the giant piggy bank that was suspended in the air. If you're reading this, you probably know where I was. On the set of Netflix's brand-new reality showSquid Game: The Challenge.

Did you watch Squid Game in 2021 and think to yourself, I would totally sign up for these death-defying games to win major dough? Well, I didn't. When I watched the South Korean dramawhich follows a down-on-his-luck man who is invited to play a series of games with fatal consequences—I thought to myself, I would die immediately. Despite that, in late January, Netflix invited Esquire to a giant production studio in Northern London, where they had painstakingly transformed the world of Squid Game into a living, breathing space.

Why, you may ask? Well, Netflix staged a reality competition series, called Squid Game: The Challenge, where players would compete in games inspired by the show for a US$4.56 million jackpot. 456 contestants would arrive and begin the competition mere days after we toured the set—and they'd have tough it out there for three weeks. Cut to Thanksgiving week, when The Challenge premiered to the tune of more than a million viewers in the first five days.

After releasing another batch of episodes this week and whittling down its playing field to just three players, The Challenge is gearing up for its endgame—which debuts next Wednesday. Meanwhile, those million-some viewers of The Challenge are wondering what it's actually like to live and play in this batshit world of Netflix's creation, which is where I come in. Hell, I even wondered how a reality show that removed the serious social commentary of Squid Game would even work.

So, after a comfortable (non-drugged) ride to the The Challenge's production lot, I—along with a group of journalists—were prepped to start our two-day-long tour. Squid Game's director Hwang Dong-Hyuk, also visited the warehouse that week. He was just as bewildered by the detailed recreation of the Squid Games sets as us. I asked him what it takes to win Squid Game. "You have to be lucky," he said, somewhat cryptically. Yikes. Could this possibly be the most gruelling competition series to ever exist?

The real game: IKEA or Squid Game: The Challenge set? SIRENA HE

The Digs

When we arrived to the set, we received our green tracksuits and designated numbers. For the next two days, I wasn't Sirena He—I was 388. Afterwards, we were squibbed. In place of, you know, death—The Challenge gives each player a vest with an ink pack, which explodes when they lose a challenge.

Once we were all set with our squibs and our suits, those guards—the ones dressed in red jumpsuits and black masks—ushered us into the world of The Challenge. They were fully in character. No matter how many jokes I made about competing in the "Squib Games," the faceless guards didn't crack. In a single-file line, we arrived to the first section of the set: the giant dormitory that would house 456 people, lined with rows of stacked bunk beds. When we signed our liability waivers that morning, we were told to be careful while climbing the beds. Cut to me a few hours later, nailing my head on a bunk bed railing.

But that wasn't the most ominous line from the liability waiver. One clause claimed that the show can’t be held liable if I suffer any "emotional damage," prompting the natural follow-up question: What kind of emotional damage will I experience in The Challenge?! I'd soon find out.

Anupam Tripathi, who played the beloved Ali, from Squid Game, said he felt like he was back on set. SIRENA HE

Don't Lose Your Marbles

Later that day, the guards led us through the pastel-hued staircase until we reached two large doors. They pushed them open, revealing the sprawling marbles set. The walls were painted in the tones of perpetual dusk, with an orange glow shining down on us. Anupam Tripathi, who played the beloved Ali from the original Squid Game was present with us. "I feel like I am right back on set," Tripathi tells me.

We wandered around in awe, exploring the replicated alleyways. But we didn't have much time—it was time to play. Just as in the original show, we would have ten minutes to play. Game rules were explained to us over the intercom, and guards handed us bags of marbles. My partner was was another journalist from a fashion outlet.

We decided to play a game from the show—the one where you put your hands behind your back, clasp the marbles in one hand, bring them in front of you, and your partner guesses which hand the marbles are in. As the countdown clock on the wall ticked away, with guards dragging losing contestants to unknown corners, the game started to feel real.

"Hurry up and pick already!" he said. His eyes constantly flickered to the giant clock looming over us.

Well, the thing was—I was taking my time to try to make him anxious. Because my partner had a tell. He held his marbles hand further behind his back than the other one. I won all of his marbles, and since I knew that a guard wouldn't actually shoot my friend, I did a little victory dance.

Doggone Dalgona!

Our last stop of the day was to the playground—which means, of course, that it was dalgona time. The guards handed us candy tins, and I placed my palms over the box and tried to manifest a triangle shape. By some brush of extraordinary luck—just like Director Hwang said I’d need—when I opened my tin, a neat little triangle was inside. I flashed my honeycomb at the closest guard. He didn't react.

The 10-minute countdown began. I tried Player 456’s winning technique of licking the back of the dalgona to break down the edges. Almost immediately after I switched to the needle, my dalgona split and took a chunk of the triangle shape with it. Even with the best candy shape, I still lost. Patience is the name of this game. I heard my number, 388, over the intercom. And the squib? The one I was wary of all day? SPLAT! Cold, black ink spurted out all over my chest and neck. I screamed—as dramatically as possible, mind you—and keeled over in defeat.

This wasn’t your third grade classroom’s game of ’Red Light, Green Light.’ SIRENA HE

Red Lights Look Like Green Lights

There she was: Younghee, the giant schoolgirl with laser eyes. The next day, we found ourselves on one end of a football field-sized playground with dozens of cameras peering in through sky-painted walls. "Red Light, Green Light" was our last challenge— and the most gruelling. Here's why: in the show, The Challenge edits the game to appear as if it's only five minutes long. Really, contestants have to remain frozen for an indeterminable amount of time, while a group of impartial panelists analyses the footage and decides who moved and who didn't.

When the countdown began, I immediately broke into a sprint. My heart was pounding hard, as if Younghee’s eyes could actually shoot lasers. When she spun her head around, everyone froze mid-stride—some unfortunate players were in a half sprint. Thankfully, I stopped my right foot planted on the ground, ready for my next step. I fought back a yawn. (Would a yawn disqualify me?!)

A voice called out the numbers of the players who were eliminated. Eventually, I reached the halfway point, clenching every muscle. Minutes passed like hours. Just as I ran past the middle of the field, I heard my number over the intercom. I had to accept my fate. My squib exploded once again, hissing and spraying my face with ink.

As soon as you see Younghee for the first time, shit feels real. SIRENA HE

This is when I went full reality-TV diva mode.

"This is rigged!" I shouted in defiance, while a silent guard tried to take me away. "Check the video! I didn't move!"

When they finally managed to bring me backstage, I spied on my fellow contestants through the gaps in the walls where the production crew propped the cameras.

"The cameras caught you moving," a production assistant informed me.

"But... I don't think I moved," I insisted, though I was beginning to doubt my own recollection.

"We've got a lot of cameras and a panel of experts examining the replay. You definitely moved," the production assistant said.

Director Hwang's words rang in my head: You need to be lucky. And I just didn't have any luck. Though I'm still considering filing a formal complaint to Netflix.

Originally published on Esquire US

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