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Alice In Borderland is a fun, bloody reminder that there's no "keeping politics out of games"

Netflix's latest streaming sensation is a surprisingly thoughtful treatise on the art of creating games—and neck bombs

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Tao Tsuchiya in Alice In Borderland
Tao Tsuchiya in Alice In Borderland
Photo: Kumiko Tsuchiya/Netflix

Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?


Over the holiday season—and in a cunning (and, in my case, effective) gambit to scoop up some of that precious binge-heavy holiday downtime—Netflix released the second season of bloody Japanese TV series Alice In Borderland. If you haven’t seen the show (which released its first season back in 2020, and which is based on a manga that ran from 2010 through 2016), the hook is pretty straightforward: A bunch of people get transported into an alternate universe version of Tokyo, where they’re then forced to play sadistic, murder-based games in order to survive.

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It’s not hard, obviously, to see why Netflix snagged the show a few years back, and why it pushed out another season at a time when it might catch a bunch of bored eyes: Alice’s similarities to Korean streaming mega-hit Squid Game are undeniable. That’s all the way down to the frequent uses of children’s games (including “Tag” and “Hide And Go Seek” in the case of Alice) with lethal consequences, taking the simplistic and innocent and then jamming a bunch of bombs and sky-lasers and literal, no-fucking-around tigers into it.

Alice in Borderland | Official Trailer | Netflix

What’s interesting about Alice, though—and the reason it deserves some inches in a column dedicated to gaming—is the way it puts its focus on the act of game design itself. Whereas Squid Game largely anonymized the creation of the games its hapless participants were run through—the better to tie each contest into the faceless and indifferent cruelty of the capitalist system they were meant to evoke—Alice In Borderland (eventually) puts its designers front and center. That’s especially true in the show’s second season, where Arisu (Kento Yamazaki) and his friends graduate from more basic games into elaborate spectacles organized by the “face cards”—mysterious denizens of the Borderlands who not only design the games, but are also active players within them.

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Even before Arisu faces off against The King Of Clubs or The Queen Of Hearts, though, he’s already cottoned on to a fundamental principle of game design, one that oh so many “keep politics out of games” types oh so deliberately miss: Game creation is an act of communication. Of transmitting ideas, values, and assumptions to the people who end up playing them. From his very first game, Arisu—an obsessive gamer who finds himself in a very dark version of his element in the Borderland—notes that every game contains a “signature” of its creator, detectable in the ways it’s meant to be played. It’s a recurring theme of Alice that no game can be won until you understand the principle that it’s trying to demonstrate; Arisu wins out time and time again not because he’s especially strong, or even tremendously brilliant, but because he has a talent for sussing out the minds of each game’s creator before calamity can strike.

And that’s a big part of what makes Alice compelling, even when it occasionally loses its way through over-the-top violence or drawn-out melodrama. (I like the show, but do I “80-minute final episode” like it? Eh.) Each game is a mystery that Arisu or one of his friends has to unravel, usually with a ticking clock and a bunch of neck bombs putting pressure on the process. The victories, then, are ones of empathy even more than physical prowess—and despite the inherent, deadly cruelty of some of the games in question. (The communication doesn’t have to be nice, after all.)

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That whole ethos is also a powerful rejection of the idea that games can exist without messages, even if that message is as simple as “running around and jumping is pretty fun” or “You need to think for a minute before you start shoving people through murder doors.” That’s a big part of why games are fun, after all: They connect us on intuitive, often non-verbal levels, serving as art that we don’t just perceive or receive, but actively participate in and create. Beneath all the gore and angst, Alice In Borderland gets that: That asking (or, uh, forcing) someone to play a game with you is to invite them into your world.