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‘Squid Game: The Challenge’ producers on new games, twists and why they ‘broke all the rules’

Executive producers Stephen Lambert and John Hay share with some of the challenges they faced filming a reality show with 456 contestants.
Squid Game
Squid Game: The Challenge. Season 1.Netflix
/ Source: TODAY

(Warning: This story contains spoilers from “Squid Game: The Challenge.”)

The series premiere of “Squid Game: The Challenge” begins with 456 players walking into an enclosed space with a giant robot doll at the opposite end. She begins to sing a song in Korean, indicating that the first challenge, Red Light, Green Light, has begun. After an anxiety-filled five minutes, the game ends and only 197 contestants remain. 

Those who were eliminated—and many of those still in the running as future episodes show—instantly became nameless faces, briefly making an appearance on Netflix’s newest reality show before their chance to win $4.56 million dollars evaporated. 

Throughout the first five episodes of the show, out Nov. 22, multiple contestants meet the same fate. But just like the hit Netflix series that the reality show is based on, some players become “main characters” who get to share their backstories and their motivations for competing on the show. 

So how did the producers behind the series decide which contestants out of nearly 500 to highlight? Executive producer Stephen Lambert tells that it was an “enormous challenge” the creative team faced early on during the filming process. 

“We broke all the rules,” Lambert says. “You’re not meant to have more than 20 players if you want to make a good unscripted show. We had 456. So, I mean, that was an enormous challenge.”

Fellow executive producer John Hay adds, “Everything about the show was on a different scale to anything any of us had done before. So all we could really do was watch the action, see who’s put themselves forward, see who emerged, see who had interesting relationships (and) cover as many people as we could.”

Some contestants, like mother and son duo Trey (Player 301) and Leann (Player 302), get plenty of screen time in Episode One through Five. Others, like Figgy (Player 033) — who reality television fans might recognize from “Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X”— briefly stand out before their sudden eliminations. Most are never introduced to the audience. 

Lambert reveals that the producers found it difficult to concentrate on certain players because they were constantly leaving the game. Although Trey and Leann make it to the end of Episode Five, other highly featured contestants from the first batch of episodes, such as Lorenzo (Player 161), Dani (Player 134), Spencer (Player 299) and Bryton (Player 432), are all eliminated. And Trey or Leann will likely not make it to Episode Seven since they have to compete against each other in the next round, which will likely been seen in Episode Six. 

Given the high probability that the contestants with the biggest personalities might not reach the finale, producers decided to film the contestants in what Lambert calls the “processing room.” The interviews are similar to confessionals in other reality shows, but eagle-eyed viewers will notice that the contestants are speaking to the camera while wearing their normal clothes. The interviews were filmed before they were given their official “Squid Game: The Challenge” tracksuits and the games began. 

Lambert explains that the processing room was where contestants discussed, “their lives and their families and their hopes prior to coming into the game.” 

“Those interviews were kind of therapy,” he adds. They also allowed the show to constantly introduce new characters if a fan-favorite was suddenly cut. 

He points to Spencer whose emotional journey on the show begins and concludes in Episode Two. Spencer is one of four contestants who must decide which shape to cut out from a cookie during the Dalgona round. As fans of “Squid Game” know, the umbrella is the most difficult shape to master. After being persuaded by three other competitors, Spencer begrudgingly accepts the umbrella, meaning he and everyone who is in his line must carve out the intricate shape. 

Spencer panics during the round and nearly vomits multiple times before failing to complete the task. He is eliminated early, but Lambert says producers felt they needed to feature him in the final edit because he was “three-dimensional.” 

“Then the baton would be passed to somebody else,” Lambert says.

“Squid Game: The Challenge” doesn’t solely rely on the interviews for character development. The series also introduces new twists and games that deviate from the show’s plot. 

When the contestants aren’t competing, they are still at risk of being eliminated. In the reality series, certain contestants can volunteer for special tasks or they are selected to perform the chore. They have to complete an activity to receive an advantage, like eliminating another contestant. “Squid Game: The Challenge” also added group votes and other unpredictable elements to help reduce the number of those participating.

“The thinking behind all of those tests was that in the scripted show, the script is obviously doing a lot of the work of appointing people off, or leading you through those moments of choices about trust, betrayal and moral choices. And if we just did the big games, we wouldn’t necessarily get those dynamics,” Hay explains.  So, the team created “tests of character” to reveal more about the contestants’ varying strategies and loyalties.  

In the first five episodes, the “tests of character” are doled out to certain contestants. Hays says the process was randomized. 

“Sometimes individuals were picked out, sometimes there were games for the whole dorm. Sometimes there were games that anyone could play, or tests anyone could take. And it was revealing and interesting who stepped forward and took them,” he says. 

In Episode Three, the contestants are surprised when they learn they must play “Warships”— similar to the board game “Battleships”— in the third round instead of the tug of war game from the original series. Lambert says he hopes the new challenge makes viewers nostalgic and captures a big theme of the original show: the importance of childhood games. 

“We wanted to (give) viewers the classic games of the drama, which everybody loved, but we also needed to come up with some surprises,” the exec says. The team chose Warships because they thought it would be “visually exciting” and force some players to “emerge as leaders to form alliances.” 

Lambert teases that the remaining episodes of Season One will also include more unexpected challenges and dorm games. The next group of episodes will arrive Nov. 29.