The first episode of this Korean thriller opens with an explanation of a charming playground game called “the squid game,” cluing us into the origin of the show’s title. (Don’t worry if you don’t grasp the rules of the squid game right away, all the games are explained in full later on.) We then jump to Seong Gi-hun, our main protagonist, eating at his mother’s house. Despite her advanced age, she works very hard trying to provide for herself and her adult son, while Gi-hun appears entirely ungrateful, going so far as to steal her debit card to pull money from the bank before heading off to bet on horse races. We learn he has an immense amount of debt, most owed to violent loan sharks who threaten to steal his organs if he cannot repay them (yeah, you should accept the horrifying absurdity of deals like this early on, as there are even more to come).
We see Seong Gi-hun take his young daughter out for a birthday dinner, gifting her with a neatly wrapped box won in an arcade game—another demonstration of his gambling addiction—that turns out to be an all too realistic looking water gun. On his way home, he meets a well-dressed stranger who offers him 100,000 won if he can win a game of ddakji (another simple playground game), but if he loses the man will slap his face. Gi-hun plays for god knows how long, losing round after round until his face is red and bruised before he finally wins just once and is gifted with the money as promised as well as a business card and an offer to play more games for cash if he so chooses. While it’s clear that our lead has a lot of issues, he’s also frustrated with his dwindling role in his daughter’s life and the burdens he places on his mother. He decides to take the stranger’s offer and play another game. Oh, how he’ll come to regret that decision.
Now we enter the dystopian Hunger Games-esque competition promised in the trailer. Gi-hun and 455 other players, all of whom are revealed to owe massive amounts of money to the government and more nefarious organizations, find themselves waking up in a warehouse dressed in matching green tracksuits with numbers attached. We meet the rest of the ensemble cast, including Cho Sang-woo (a “successful” businessman and Gi-hun’s friend from childhood), Kang Sae-byeok (a pickpocket who earlier stole money from Gi-hun) and Oh Il-nam (an old man recently diagnosed with a brain tumor and by far the most interesting of the side characters). Masked individuals prompt them all to sign a contract with just three clauses—a player is not allowed to stop playing, a player who refuses to play will be eliminated and games may be terminated if the majority agrees—and then the horrifying and deadly “games” finally begin.