The Problem with Squid Game: The Challenge’s Final Game

The end game on Squid Game: The Challenge is flawed ... but not for the reason you might think.

A key in the sand on Squid Game: The Challenge
Photo: Netflix

This article contains spoilers for SQUID GAME: THE CHALLENGE through episode 10. 

Netflix‘s Squid Game: The Challenge is as tense and difficult a reality competition as you’re ever likely to see.

Based on Netflix’s own South Korean hit drama Squid Game, this 10-episode series brought 456 people from around the world together to compete in a succession of games, votes, and tricks all for the opportunity of being the last player standing and winning $4.56 million.

Even without the occasional reports of unsafe environments and threatened litigation, it was apparent to those watching that Squid Game: The Challenge was one hell of a … well, challenge. The show is positively filled with sobbing contestants dealing the psychological and physical perils of engaging in a battle to the (thankfully metaphorical) death. Poor player 299 even got so stressed that he nearly puked up chunks of dalgona all over the colorful, fabricated playground.

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As such, by the time the very last game in the 10th and final episode rolled around, viewers were expecting something truly epic between the Mai (Player 278) and Phill (Player 451) to determine who would be the Squid Champion once and for all. What they got instead was “rock paper scissors.” Needless to say, some folks were disappointed.

We were also disappointed with Squid Game: The Challenge‘s choice for a final game, but probably not for the reason you think. Allow us to explain.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: there was never any chance that The Challenge would copy the original series’ closing match of the actual “Squid Game.” The rules are quite simply too confusing for most non-Korean audiences to keep up with. Not only that, but Squid Game‘s iteration of it is really just a mano-a-mano fight to the death, something that The Challenge would naturally struggle to recreate. The show’s executive producers confirmed as much in a Making Squid Game: The Challenge documentary that Netflix added to its servers following the finale.

Squid Game: The Challenge had no way of knowing the physical profile of its final two contestants ahead of time. Therefore it had to find a game that: A. Everyone knows how to play. B. Doesn’t favor a particular body type over another, and C. Involves at least a little skill. With those qualities in mind, rock paper scissors is actually a pretty shrewd choice. Sure, it might involve more random chance than one would prefer but Mai’s superior performance in the game suggests that strategy does matter. Additionally, it’s not like Squid Game: The Challenge has been a luck-free zone up to this point. Seemingly half of the games and elimination challenges presented throughout the season incorporated pure luck. Hell, the very challenge before this one involved players merely pressing a button and learning their fate.

The problem with Squid Game: The Challenge‘s final game isn’t luck. The problem is those keys. There’s just too damn many of them! Introducing the element of one correct key in a veritable haystack of false ones seems like creative twist on rock paper scissors at first. Winning a match doesn’t win you the game, it just buys you a metaphorical lottery ticket to the safe containing the $4.56 million. The more games you win, the more lottery tickets you get before eventually someone opens the hallowed safe.

Unfortunately, Rock paper scissors has so many keys in that pile that it really has no way of generating real tension throughout the game. We see this bear out in the editing. While the show dutifully depicts the first six rounds of rock paper scissors, by the time it gets to the seventh it has no choice but to speed things up with a montage as Mai and Phill keep on finding false key after false key.

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When The Challenge re-emerges from the montage, viewers know that the correct key is coming up soon. Sure enough, the second post-montage key opens the safe and Mai wins the whole thing, even if the show tries to hit us with a brief Phill fake out before it.

As the aforementioned making-of documentary depicts, Squid Game: The Challenge was a triumph of logistics in reality TV show programming. Through nine episodes, the series producers do an admirable job of juggling hundreds of competitors, dozens of games, and (presumably) many strict safety regulations to create a pretty compelling show. It’s a shame then no one looked at the pile of keys at the end and thought “eh, maybe just seven of these is fine.”

All 10 episodes of Squid Game: The Challenge are available to stream on Netflix now.