Good characters are made of a lot of things, but only two of them drive everything they do: wants and needs.
The video examines The Last of Us’ Joel and how his wants and needs conflict to make a good story. This can be applied to other games, so it’s something worth understanding.
A character’s want isn’t too hard to figure out. It’s usually something they actively want for most of the story. It’s something you could ask them about and they would be able to say. For Joel, it’s his want to deliver Ellie to the Fireflies and get his weapons.
Needs are tricky. Needs are something the character isn’t usually aware of; they wouldn’t be able to say what it is until later in the story. Needs fulfill the character more than their want but they don’t know it for a large chunk of the narrative. When they finally realize what it is, they usually aim to fulfill it by the end of the story. Joel’s need is to deal with the grief from his daughter’s death.
How they conflict
The heart of drama is conflict, and therefore the heart of good characters is too. Wants and needs conflict and create drama that pushes the story forward. We see it in a variety of ways, both internal and external, but each way can say something about the character.
For Joel, we see him struggle to care about Ellie because he is afraid of losing another loved one in the game’s dangerous world. This conflict results in his attitude toward Ellie for the first half of the game. It takes a while for him to care and we get to see that gradual progression. This depends on the specific wants and needs, but any character can struggle with them internally.
The outside world
This one is easy for Joel. He fights to protect Ellie but gets more ruthless as the game goes along. For other characters, this really means how they affect things that aren’t other characters.
Characters can treat other characters in many different ways depending on their wants and needs. Joel tries to distance himself from Ellie for a lot of the game and eventually starts to care for her.
Changed by conflict
In the end, Joel goes through a big change. He realizes his need and decided to do everything in his power to fulfill it. That’s why we got such an amazing ending. You can see this shift for other characters all the time. It’s the turning point before the last act usually. It’s when they realize what was staring them in the face all along. They are changed.