I think there’s a big part of character development which is neglected by many story-focused RPGs. I’m thinking of games like Burning Wheel, Hillfolk, and to a lesser extent, Apocalypse World. These games are great at helping players make dynamic, changing characters, however they can leave characters feeling limited in other ways. I'm going to use a dumb, overly long analogy:
Think of Walter White and Tony Soprano. Walter White is a character completely defined by change. We see him go from feckless suburban dad to ruthless drug kingpin. During his journey, we see these two sides battle across time and on several different fronts -- his daily, work, sex, and family life. By the end, these two sides resolve into a truer, more complete Walter White. This is the kind of character supported by the games listed above. On the other hand, Tony Soprano is a character that almost never changes and still manages to be a complex, well developed character. Rather than see a single internal conflict play out over time with him, we are instead introduced to a hundred internal conflicts which never really resolve: he keeps dating people like his mother, he might hate his son, he might hate his nephew, etc. We also explore many of his memories and dreams. This is the kind of character development I feel is neglected by these RPGs.
To clarify, both characters are very comprehensive in one dimension but limited in another (this is not criticism of either show, in both cases it’s intentional and works very well). We don’t really know too many things about Walter. Everything we learn about his family life or his past relates directly to his central conflict. What's he like around his high school friends or his parents? What are his habits? His hobbies? His childhood memories? Why does he like Walt Whitman? We don't know any of these things, because Walter's story is highly focused. Back on the other hand, we can’t really know Tony either, but for a different reason: he never knows himself. Tony, like most of us, is a ball of a million unresolved conflicts. He is never tested or forged into a more complete person. We have a lot of different pieces but we can’t see anything close to a definite person formed out of them, or, more importantly, we don’t know how these different pieces battled over time to become a more complete person (because they never did).
For me role-playing is about bringing the PCs (and to a lesser extent, the setting) to life. If you want, fast-paced drama and dynamic characters, than Walter White and Burning Wheel have everything you need already. Personally, I would prefer to take the time for both kinds of character development. In this regard, player-driven RPGs have actually made me miss some things about how I used to play Pathfinder. Shoving players, by means of a convenient storm or other agent of fate, into weird situations where none of the character’s stated beliefs or backstory could guide them, actually led to some great role-playing. "Boom, you two have switched bodies, you've switch genders, and you're a cockroach." Some of my absolute favorite moments came from throwing players into a bar full of weird NPCs and saying “well, you’ve got some time for small talk”. This meant sometimes having players with absolutely nothing to say or do, but in spectacular moments, a new fetish, obsession, lifelong dream, or childhood memory would be discovered about a character, one the player never would have thought of or needed to mention if every scene was directly related to his revenge mission or love story. In player-driven games, the GM can only challenge the PCs on beliefs/habits/internal conflicts set by the player, which can leave characters feeling a bit narrow. He’s not really supposed to challenge the player himself to add new layers to his character, but that’s one of the best things the GM can offer the player: getting them to think outside of their "story arc", asking questions the player never thought they would have to confront and have absolutely no idea how to answer. Maybe the GM should get to drive a session every once in a long while.
Or maybe my ranting doesn't make any sense and I just play games wrong or something. Thoughts?