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How I survived the ‘Squid Game’ immersive experience

Three red-suited background actors stand in front of the orientation room at Squid Game: The Trials.
Red-suited background actors stand in front of the orientation room as instructions for Squid Game: The Trials appear on the screen and are heard through the intercom before players officially enter the first game.
(Ashley Ahn / Los Angeles Times)
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Netflix’s foray into live experiences just got deadly.

Following the success of the streaming giant’s “Stranger Things” and “Bridgerton” immersive experiences, its hit Korean series “Squid Game” is next in line for the pop-up treatment. I took on Squid Game: The Trials and lived to tell the tale.

Both “Squid Game” and the reality competition series “Squid Game: The Challenge,” which premiered Nov. 22, pushed contestants to the brink, testing their mental strength and cunningness. Tears were shed and goodbyes were had. But fear not. Squid Game: The Trials is a far cry from the trauma that the reality show contestants had to endure, several of them told The Times. It’s low-stakes, family-friendly fun that won’t make you break a sweat. Spoiler alert: Everyone will be able to advance through the game even if they “die” early on.

The experience features six games inspired by the original series and the reality show. Each participant wears a numbered wristband that buzzes if they “die” in a game.

The hit Netflix show has inspired an immersive experience — and a night market with Korean-inspired food led by Yangban chef Katianna Hong.

Oct. 25, 2023

The first game is the glass bridge, which requires contestants to memorize what tiles light up. Players must cross a bridge, only stepping on the tiles that had illuminated, one move at a time. It’s a memory game, not a chance game like that in the drama series when one wrong move would mean plummeting to your death. At the first game, don’t make the same mistake I did, eager to be first in line. The speed of the game and when to make your next move can be confusing so watch a few people fail before walking up to the bridge.

The second tournament is a combination of the episodes “Gganbu,” where players had to steal all their opponents’ marbles, and “The Man With the Umbrella,” where players had to cut a shape — circle, triangle, star or umbrella — from dalgona candy. Successfully land your marble into the shape on the table and collect all your rivals’ marbles that didn’t make it in the shape. The more marbles you collect, the more points you‘ll earn.

People seated in a dark room with pink lighting.
“VIP guests” socialized during a preview event for Squid Game: The Trials at CBS Studios in L.A. on Nov. 30.
(Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

The next two games are akin to childhood classics but not necessarily competitions that come to mind when you think of “Squid Game.” One of the games, called Warships and similar to Battleship, is also played in the reality show and emphasizes the importance of luck in “Squid Game.” The other contest, named Harvest Festival and comparable to Operation, in which players use tweezers to pull out body parts while avoiding hitting the edges, felt strangely analogous to what it might be like to anxiously break parts of dalgona candy so that a perfect umbrella shape remains.

For the record:

4:49 p.m. Dec. 4, 2023An earlier version of this story referred to the third and fourth games of the Trials by the classic childhood games they likened, not their official names. They’re called Warships and Harvest Festival.

The way Netflix adjusted the games to bring fans into “Squid Game’s” dark universe was spot-on, said participant Courtney Revolution, 31. He was on the winning team of Warships in his time slot.

“I couldn’t imagine how they would make these games accessible to the public, but they did,” he said. “It was so unexpected.”

A man lies on a pink carpet with his eyes closed and his head on a pink pillow.
Contestant TJ Stukes said participating in Squid Games: The Trials triggered the trauma he felt when competing in the reality show “Squid Game: The Challenge.”
(Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)
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Squid Game: The Trials saves the best-known game from the series, Red Light, Green Light, for second to last. The re-creation of Young-hee, a motion-sensing animatronic killer, looked eerily similar to the doll on the show, even triggering flashbacks for TJ Stukes, a contestant on the reality show “Squid Game: The Challenge.”

“It was everything — the music, the doll,” the 39-year-old said about reliving the trauma of the reality show as he went through the 70-minute experience. “I even get anxiety listening to classical music because of the classical music we woke up to every morning [on the reality show].”

In the final game, contestants must hold a plastic egg on a spoon and try to knock their opponents’ eggs off their spoons. While some of these competitions aren’t representative of the series and seemingly random at times, the background actors in red suits, the fake blood stains on the walls, the “Squid Game” theme song blasting in the rooms and the hyper-realistic sets are enough to make it feel like you’re one of the contestants in “Squid Game.”

Stukes, who’s a former professional basketball player, said the sets felt like an extension of the reality show.

“When you immerse yourself, you lose your sense of reality,” he said. “It’s an experience you can’t replace though, because I met so many new people.”

Two men hold up transparent balls with money inside.
“Squid Game: The Challenge” contestants Rex Ju, left, and Spencer Hawkins pose with props symbolizing the reality competition show’s $4.56 million cash prize.
(Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

But the most unexpected part of Squid Game: The Trials is the sense of camaraderie, with participants cheering each other on as if the experience were a team effort rather than a survival game.

“Playing in the Trials, it just gives me faith in humanity, in the way people were supporting each other rather than turning on each other,” said 23-year-old “Squid Game: The Challenge” contestant Spencer Hawkins.

The immersive experience will launch Wednesday at 200 N. Fairfax Ave. in L.A., and will feature a night market with Korean fusion favorites from the acclaimed culinary team of downtown’s Yangban.

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