Squid Game and the Curse of Popularity

It’s gotten to the point where I’m hearing people at work are calling Squid Game overrated.

I almost don’t blame them; the only reason my brother had any interest in starting to watch it with me is because his boss brought it up. If you work with computers all day and your boss is talking about television while you’re both on the clock, the show he’s talking about is a hit. While I’m writing this, I know for a fact that I have good things to say about Squid Game. I enjoyed my time with it and recommend it. But I also feel this ounce of “oh god, do I really have to?” It’s kind of like recommending a Marvel movie like it’s some unheard-of gem. “Oh, have you seen Endgame? It’s only this cinematic masterpiece that nobody’s talking about, that beat the record-setting Avatar in terms of its performance at the box office.” If you want to read my opinion on it, here it is: I liked the characters. The acting was top-notch stuff, and although it falls apart in some places near the end, it kept me hooked and ready to see what the next episode had to offer. I can tell pretty easily that it was engineered to be binged, and it does its job effectively. I have issues with the culture of Bingewatching (something that I’ll likely write about at some point; saying I have issues with it is a massive understatement, in fact), but Squid Game doesn’t sacrifice any of the excitement by choosing to craft its episodes in the way that it does. The end result is cliffhangers that sting like a wasp and resolutions that have to be ultra twisty to justify the time investment, even if some retroactively dampen the emotional impact of earlier episodes. If you’re into that sort of thing, it more than has you covered.

But let me ask you a question: are the people who are complaining about Squid Game being overrated actually talking about Squid Game? Those co-workers that I mentioned just said they watched the show and didn’t say anything about it other than ‘it’s overrated.’ You don’t need to sit down for fifty minutes to say one good or bad, thing about a piece of entertainment. You just say that you didn’t like the ending, or you didn’t like the characters, or you hated how anti-climactic the ending was. The fact of the matter is, they’re talking about it because other people are talking about it. I was not the first person to bring Squid Game up. If I was, the conversation would have been different. If you look on social media or talk to somebody who’s watched the whole thing through, everything that I said about it will be repeated. Memes will be made to hammer home the same point. Suddenly, Halloween costumes based on the show are in the style, and if you’re not already tired of it, you’ll have no energy to watch the show once people are done talking about it.

A better way to ask the aforementioned question would be: hey, do you remember Undertale?

You know, that indie darling from six years ago that was cute at first, but was run into the ground by social media sites like YouTube, Tumblr, Reddit, and Twitter? I remember there was a time when Sans was a character that people enjoyed. Now his name is an in-joke that me and my brothers have. Even with the added context, it’s hard to describe why it’s funny to put “Sans” as an answer in Jackbox. It’s one thing to be told that something became too popular for its own good, but it’s another to live through that and the discussions that come directly from it. I remember there was a time when I considered not spoiling Undertale for myself. A copy of it for my PS Vita, that I bought off of eBay when I was collecting physical copies of games for the platform that would have otherwise been digital only. I’ve been meaning to play it for years. I even own a copy of it on GOG. But the plastic case above my desk is collecting dust, and its been in my backlog for longer than I care to admit. There are likely things that the internet has not had the opportunity to spoil for me, but I know how Flowey is. I know what the two endings are, and how they affect your game. If I had played Undertale at the same time as everybody else, at the same pace that they did, I would probably understand it a little bit more. But as it stands, no sequel to Undertale can capture the same lightning in a bottle that was starting high school at the same time as people who could do nothing but talk about it.

The truth is that there are only so many things you can say about a piece of entertainment. Unless the piece of entertainment you’re tallking about is your life, every story has a definite beginning, middle, and end. If it never gets to that endpoint, it still at least has a beginning. There are only so many ways you can analyze the plot of a film before you run into a brick wall. Once you reach that brick wall, it becomes tiring to hear new people say so many of the same things. It nearly becomes cyclical. But unlike a snake eating its own tail, at some point, the snake digests itself. You end up with a macabre display of people moving on, rushing toward the next big thing that they can get ahead of before other people ultimately push them away from it. It’s sort of like going to see the Beatles preform live during Beatlemania. Except, when the concert ends, a new band goes on stage that sings the exact same songs and everybody in the crowd reacts to them as if they’ve never heard it before.What I said about Undertale can be said about Five Nights at Freddy’s and Friday Night Funkin’; can be said about Cyberpunk 2077 and The Witcher 3; can be said Skyrim and Fallout; can be said about Blade Runner and Drive. More devastating in the case of Squid Game, it can be said about a vast majority of Dystopian fiction, which Squid Game is most comparable to. Squid Game only feels fresh because it doesn’t have teenagers, an evil government pulling the strings, and a love interest thrown in for a steamy make-out scene. It’s brutal and it pulls no punches. It also feels fresh because Hollywood stopped milking these settings a long time ago. A cured body can only be pure for so long, though. Once comparsions to Hunger Games start rolling in, so do the people who associate that comparison with an idea being old hat. On top of all stories having a clearly defined structure, they also have the tendency to steal from each other. It’s not like they can help themselves; even the most original movies are derivative of another body of work.

Squid Game is going to have another season, that much has been confirmed. What hasn’t is if the co-workers I have at the time of its release will react to it with enthusiasm, begrudgingly accept that it’s a thing that exists, or have to be reminded of it at all. Only time will tell, but if the Austrailian band Men at Work is anything to go off of, people will still call you a one-hit wonder if your previous success overshadows every single hit you have that breaks the hot-100 after it.

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