The Grand Theft Auto series isn’t merely a video game franchise. It’s a cultural phenomenon. Since Grand Theft Auto III in 2001, the open-world series has remained one of the strongest properties in all of entertainment. Some love it, some hate it, but there are few — gamers or otherwise — who haven’t heard of GTA.
Grand Theft Auto is popular for its open-world environments, its satirical take on American culture, and of course, its over-the-top depiction (and perhaps glorification) of sex and violence. While all of this is true, few speak about perhaps the main reason GTA has embedded itself into the psyche of those who play it: the characters. Specifically, its rotating cast of protagonists. From Italian thugs, street hustlers, and psychopaths, GTA has featured a unique and memorable assortment of criminal leads.
Below are some of the greatest Grand Theft Auto protagonists of all time.
GTA allows players the freedom to cause total carnage in the virtual streets the games take place in. In some installments (particularly GTAIV), this caused some level of cognitive dissonance. Why would a relatively low-key character like Niko Bellic want to shoot rockets into a park full of civilians? Even some of the crazier GTA characters wouldn’t do half the things players can make them. Then there’s GTAV’s Trevor Philips.
Unlike GTAV’s other protagonists (Michael and Franklin), Trevor embodies the pure and unbridled chaos of Grand Theft Auto. He is the perfect vessel for players to fulfill all of their destructive desires. Trevor is certainly not a person you’d want to hang out with in real life… but he’s sure fun to play as in GTAV. He is the quintessential GTA protagonist.
The complete opposite of Trevor Philips is GTAIV’s Niko Bellic. Most GTA protagonists are psychopathic American gangsters who love killing, looting, and whoring. Niko is a peace-seeking immigrant from Yugoslavia who fought in the Yugoslav Wars. Like most immigrants, Niko comes to America for the chance to start over and live “the American dream.” He soon discovers that for people like him, the dream is nothing more than a fantasy.
Many people didn’t appreciate Niko Bellic’s decidedly somber disposition. GTA games were always about pure fun, but GTAIV and its protagonist attempted to deliver something with more depth. Players can ultimately decide if moving GTA in this direction was wise, but no one can say Niko isn’t a unique protagonist in the franchise. There truly is no other character like him.
GTA: Vice City’s Tommy Vercetti is the first protagonist in GTA history who can actually speak. Because of that, it is easy to understand what motivates the Italian mobster. Like Trevor Philips, Tommy is a crazed individual who is quick to anger and violence. However, he is also highly intelligent and is a master planner; even if those plans simply involve killing all his enemies.
Tommy Vercetti is clearly influenced by Scarface, “Mister Blonde” from Reservoir Dogs, and even his voice actor, Ray Liotta. His story mirror’s those of the characters he’s based on. Like Mister Blonde, Tommy leaves prison after doing time for his crime family. Like Scarface, he arrives in Vice City (Miami) and forms his own criminal empire. Tommy is another prototypical GTA protagonist that players can’t get enough of.
Carl “CJ” Johnson
GTA: San Andreas is still considered by many fans as the very best GTA game. One of the reasons for this is its protagonist, Carl “CJ” Johnson. CJ appealed to a different audience than previous protagonists because he was the first African-American lead. Despite his ethnicity, CJ still had universal appeal because of his grit and determination. Although CJ was still a madman at heart, he is more composed and focused than either Tommy Vercetti or Claude.
CJ is also the first customizable GTA lead. Players can change his clothes and hairstyle. They can take CJ to the gym and make him muscular. Conversely, players could also take CJ to the local Burger Shot and let him get fat. Every one of CJ’s actions — from driving, swimming, running, flying, and shooting — gave him experience. Subsequent GTA games would let players customize their characters, but not anywhere close to the level they were with CJ.
Michael De Santa
Michael De Santa is one of the more unique GTA protagonists. In most games, you play a character who is building a criminal empire or who works for a crime boss. By the start of GTAV, Michael divorced himself from that life decades ago. Married with two children, Michael lives a life of luxury in Rockford Hills. Despite living what some would consider a dream life, Michael is absolutely miserable.
Michael is a self-described washed-up crook, but he comes to life while committing crimes. As he slowly becomes more like his former self, he begins to connect with his family in a way he was unable to while wallowing in self-pity. Michael also shines while mentoring Franklin Clinton, who he sees as the son he actually wanted. Michael’s self-loathing can get a bit grating at times, but that’s also part of his charm.
Franklin Clinton is essentially a younger version of a standard GTA character. He spent much of his youth committing petty crimes and getting into trouble with the police. At the start of GTAV, he works as a repo man. This line of work isn’t exactly getting him where he wants, however. Luckily, he meets Michael who needs him to pull of higher-paying criminal jobs. He also unexpectedly finds a father-figure in Michael.
Franklin is the glue that holds the main trio of GTAV together. He is the only one who is able to calm Michael and Trevor down whenever the two get into a dispute. Franklin stays focused on the task at hand and makes sure everyone follows suit. At the same time, he is also somewhat self-conscious. This is due to how his life-long friends and family see him as a “sell-out” even though he’s constantly protecting them. Franklin is a multi-layered character, that’s for certain.
Luis Fernando Lopez
GTAIV is the darkest, most sober entry in the GTA series. That’s just the main game, however. The two DLC expansions brought back the fun, over-the-top insanity GTAIV lacked. While The Lost and the Damned did a nice job course-correcting, it was The Ballad of Gay Tony that truly returned delivered the craziness GTA fans crave. This DLC is fun in no small part due to its lead: Luis Fernando Lopez.
Like a lot of other leads, Luis works for a crime boss (in this case, Gay Tony) and is trying to make a name for himself as a career criminal. Luis is the first Hispanic lead in GTA. As a Dominican, I was happy to play a character that was similar to myself (minus all the killing and dope dealing). Luis also enjoyed all of the mayhem he caused, which made playing as him even more fun. We’ll hopefully see Luis return in a future installment.
GTAIII’s Claude let his actions speak for him. GTAIII was revolutionary in so many ways. Despite that, it still featured the same kind of mute protagonist typical of older games. Claude’s silence didn’t hurt his stance with fans, as he’s often cited as one of their favorite protagonists.
What makes Claude great is that he truly is the player. Since he doesn’t have a personality, a player can easily inject theirs into him. He is a blank canvas for players to build on. This is essential for a game that allows so much freedom. Unlike, most other silent protagonists, Claude’s silence isn’t a distraction. His lack of voice is fitting. He’s the perfect character for such a seminal, ground-breaking title.
GTA games have mostly focused on crimes perpetrated by Italian mobsters or street gangsters. Because of that, GTAIV’s The Lost and the Damned DLC was a breath of fresh. In this expansion, players take on the role of Johnny Klebitz who is a member of The Lost biker gang. This DLC is clearly inspired by Sons of Anarchy. Fans of that show will feel right familiar with Johnny Klebitz’s adventures.
This DLC does a great job of making one feel like they’re truly a member of a biker gang. Perhaps this is why players took a liking to Klebitz. Though he could certainly drive cars, the fact Johnny mostly rode motorcycles certainly made him “cooler.” Unfortunately, Johnny would eventually meet an untimely and horrific end at the hands (or boots) of Trevor Philips in GTAV. You’re gone, but not forgotten, Johnny.
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