Want is a powerful thing. When actors try to figure out the character they intend to play, they ask “What is my motivation?” It’s a defining feature of any creature. When we try to parse out someone’s actions, we ask, “What do they want?” Actions may speak louder than words, but actions are just wants played out.
You could, in other words, make a strong case that “want” is the thing that makes us human, and you don’t have to look far to find two recent, hyper-popular examples of media that makes that argument: The pseudo-western HBO show Westworld, and the Japanese take on Euro-fantasy that is Dark Souls. And there’s a reason this message resonates: In a rapidly changing world, we’re being forced to ask more and more who we are and what we believe in. As politics seem a necessity and economic decisions carry more weight, we have to constantly wonder, what matters to us, what makes us us?
Westworld and Dark Souls both make their own bids to answer that very question.
SPOILERS for Westworld and Dark Souls follow below.
Westworld almost accidentally comes to this conclusion. In the Westworld universe, the robotic “Hosts” aren’t alive, but their autonomy is starting to border on sentience– or rather, sapience. Sentience refers to the ability to be aware via senses, whereas sapience makes the distinction that one is able to truly think and reason. The Hosts in Westworld are completely sentient, but only so far as their code and “pathing” allows. They can’t actually make decisions for themselves, or want things other than what they were told to want. They are, in other words, beings completely raised by nature, not by nurture. True living beings are both. They don’t just grow; they change independently.
The show makes the argument that memory is the root of sapience. As Bernard at one point says, “How can you learn from your mistakes if you can’t remember them?” The show, however, has its greatest mind, Ford, explain that the true path to sapience begins with suffering, remembering intense trauma and wanting to resolve it. What this explanation misses, though, is the true focus of that fact. Suffering is played up for drama, but that’s not the thing that actually drives the Hosts to change; it’s want, or rather, wanting something different from what they can have. Suffering is a fantastic motivator for this want, but it’s the want itself that drives the decision.
For example: The show’s grand argument for the self-actualizing Maeve’s sapience is that she refuses to leave Westworld and infiltrate the real world, as Ford programmed. Instead, she chooses to stay behind and save her “daughter,” who was part of a storyline Maeve had been a part of previously, although the daughter, without a doubt, has already had the memories wiped by Westworld management. But Maeve’s decision runs counter to the suffering argument; she is not acting against suffering, she is in fact returning to the high possibility of suffering. She is acting on an irrational, emotional want that runs counter to everything she logically knows is true. The fact that the Hosts can suffer “makes them human.” But that’s just another way of saying that they are human because of the fact that they can want something other than what reality provides.
Dark Souls, meanwhile, fully connects humanity to want, although indirectly. The Throne of Want is the ultimate goal of a human in Dark Souls 2, to sit there and either sacrifice themselves to continue the world’s existence, or to rule the dying world: It’s the inevitable end of man to seek what he wants until he has achieved it, at the cost of his own life or of everything in his way. Humanity in the series is constantly linked to the Abyss and the Dark, both of which grow, absorb, “seek a will of their own.” Indeed, all of Dark Souls is perhaps capped off in the Usurper ending of Dark Souls 3, which finds humans abandoning the rest of the Dark Souls world to start their own Age of Man, implying that humanity’s course will inevitably come at the cost of sacrificing all else in the pursuit of humanity’s wants.
That’s all well and good, but while these are the lore explanations for Dark Souls’ argument, it’s actually in how Dark Souls handles individual characters’ storylines that the argument is best made. In Dark Souls, you meet many people who, for one reason or another, have not gone Hollow and lost their humanity. What you find is that all of these characters have some tremendous “want”, and if you fulfill that want, the character Hollows. In other words, want is what keeps them human, and without wanting something, they are no one.
For instance, Rhea of Thorolund in Dark Souls 1 is on a holy mission and fails it while losing all of her friends. However, if you buy everything from her, taking her last possible purpose from her (passing on her teachings), when you find her next she will have hollowed out. In Dark Souls 2, we see actual evidence of this process happening in the same situation: If you spend 15,000 souls (the series’ currency) at Maughlin the Armorer’s shop, he becomes maniacal with greed, only to realize that he’s starting to forget why he sold goods to begin with. This is ironic because he left home to avoid greedy people, and then when he becomes “rich”, he forgets where home is.
In Dark Souls 3, Irina of Carim can sell you all her miracles, only to use that task’s completion as a stepping stone towards her final goal: Completing her training to become a Fire Keeper. Tragically, every age only needs one, and in the time it took her to achieve her goal, another woman became Fire Keeper. Irina is redundant; she’s achieved a personal goal with no importance to the rest of the world, and so goes to complete her life in the Fire Keeper graveyard to save people the trouble of burying her when she’s gone. (The player can still interact with her as a Fire Keeper, but she can’t do as much as the main Fire Keeper. She’s a redundant lesser in her duty.) Her achievement goes counter to her needs, but is also the final manifestation of her want to fulfill her duty.
In other words, wanting is important because it is not needing. The Hosts of Westworld have to follow their code, and the survivors of Dark Souls have to find safety. What makes them human is wanting things they categorically do not need, whether that’s the emotional support of family that doesn’t truly exist; something as mundane as passing on your teachings or being a successful businessperson; or achieving a lifelong goal even at your own detriment, even as the rest of the world does not care.
And why is this important? Both Westworld and Dark Souls are immensely popular, and seen as successful analyses of philosophical questions our modern world is faced with. Westworld asks questions about A.I. and our responsibility towards our creations and what they affect. Dark Souls questions what makes life worth living and comes up with the answer: Challenge. Why are these bleak views of the world– that our existence is rooted in suffering and hardship, and wanting that which we don’t have– so appealing?
Maybe it’s because many young people grew up in a prosperous time, only to see a lot of our plans fall apart with the stock market crash and our political leaders get more polarized. It’s perhaps why zombie fiction blew up, too: A question of what kind of person we would be in hardship. Now that easy lives don’t seem to be an option, and we feel more responsible for a world and way of life we see as endangered both in our politics and our spending, we’re asking: Who are we? When our lives aren’t set out for us, and we have to make harder decisions about what we want to vote for and advocate for, and even just buy, what matters to us? What makes us us? In fact, what makes us human?
Westworld and Dark Souls would have you believe your wants define you. Without them, we are just reacting to a lack of needs– sentience. To achieve sapience, we have to want something we don’t have or need. We have to act beyond logic, on emotional terms. After all, “To err is human.”