Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto isn't just a series of games. It's far more than that. It's embedded itself directly into modern culture. Since the release of the first Grand Theft Auto game back in 1997 for the Game Boy Color, the controversial open-world series has established itself as one of the most popular franchises in the entertainment industry.
While the GTA games are as infamous as they are celebrated due to their glorification of sex and violence, over-the-top action, and satirical take on modern culture, one of its most underrated and best aspects is its characters.
It doesn't matter which GTA game we're talking about. Every single one features a memorable criminal lead that, despite their morals (or lack thereof), remains compelling characters.
Below, we've ranked every GTA protagonist from worst to best.
Interchangeable Protagonist - Grand Theft Auto
In a series as great and as memorable as Grand Theft Auto, you can't exactly blame the earlier games for not measuring up to the later titles. The first game, in particular, was not as fleshed out as the more recent entries. In fact, the characters were largely forgettable. You may have been able to choose from one of eight characters to play as, but all of them were identical except for their hair and pants.
Mike - Grand Theft Auto Advance
Due to how the game is designed, Mike, similar to Claude, suffers from a lack of personality. However, of the little that we know of Mike, his loyalty stands out. He goes out of his way to take care of any job given to him and he's not above avenging the deaths of his bosses. He even kills a longtime friend of his after he betrays him.
There were also times when we see Mike show more depth. In these few instances, we see him questioning the jobs given to him or how safe someone is while in the custody of the Cartel, which shows that, deep down, Mike isn't as bad as the players make him out to be.
Should Rockstar Games ever want to circle back to an older Grand Theft Auto game, we're hoping that the studio goes back to GTA Advance to do Mike a bit more justice.
Claude Speed - Grand Theft Auto 3
Grand Theft Auto 3 is considered the turning point for the series. It was what turned GTA from a series of games with tons of potential to what is one of the most influential and enduring franchises in video game history.
Unfortunately, the protagonist was far from memorable. Claude, as he would later be named, is a blank slate.
The design choice was probably intentional. It's as if Rockstar wanted gamers to project themselves onto Claude, so he was a silent protagonist who always had a mean smug face that won't flinch regardless of what you do.
Victor Vance - Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories
Victor Vance is one of the lesser-known GTA protagonists. Vance is an army veteran who finds himself forced to live a life of crime to pay for the hospital bills of his brother.
Not only is Vance one of the few "good guys" to become a playable character in the series, but he also happens to be featured in the little-known Vice City Stories. The game was exclusive to the PlayStation Portable on its launch year before it was ported over to the PlayStation 2 the year after.
Toni Cipriani - Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories
The best thing about Toni Cipriani is that you see him rise through the ranks of the Leone Mob Family. He's also got a bit of a noble side in time, helping keep Salvatore Leone in check while he tries to stay out of prison himself. All the while, he tries his best to impress his mother, all of which was great in Liberty City Stories.
We say "was" because, by the time the events of Grand Theft Auto III comes around 3 years later, Toni seems like a shell of his former self.
Huang Lee - Grand Theft Auto: China Wars
Grand Theft Auto: China Wars is widely considered one of the best games to release on the Nintendo DS. It received critical acclaim and was praised for how it was able to condense the sandbox experience that the GTA series was known for in a portable console. However, while everything else in China Wars was amazing, its lead protagonist was not so much.
China Wars' lead protagonist, Huang Lee, is someone who is on a stereotypical revenge mission as he seeks the person who murdered his own family. The cliche that the real killer is actually close to him didn't help either.
For what it's worth, China Wars is proof that you can have an excellent game with an otherwise lackluster main character.
Johnny Klebitz - GTA IV: The Lost and the Damned DLC
GTA IV was a breath of fresh air for far more reasons than just Niko. The DLCs explored a different set of characters as well. Case in point, Johnny Klebitz. As a member of The Lost biker gang, which takes cues from Sons of Anarchy, the DLC does an excellent job of making players and Johnny, feel like members of the aforementioned bike gang.
It's just unfortunate that GTA V does him dirty. He has to beg for his girlfriend not to leave him and gets stomped to death by Trevor Philips.
Franklin Clinton - GTA V
Franklin Clinton's story follows that of a stereotypical GTA character. He's a bit on the young side, but he's lived a life of crime so far. However, he wants to graduate from committing petty crimes to doing something big, which he finds after working with Michael who hires him to pull off higher-paying and bigger criminal jobs.
Surprisingly enough, Franklin is the most level-headed of the GTA 5 trio. He tries to keep everyone in check and despite being a "sell-out" as his friends and family call him, Franklin does his best to protect everyone around him.
Luis Fernando Lopez - GTA IV: Ballad of Gay Tony DLC
The Ballad of Gay Tony DLC for GTA 4 was more of a conventional GTA experience in a rather unconventional GTA game.
Similar to other GTA protagonists, Luis Fernando Lopez works for a crime boss and wants to establish himself as a known career criminal. As the first Hispanic lead in GTA working for an openly gay crime boss, he also represented Rockstar Games' willingness to add more representation in GTA in its own weird and convoluted ways.
Perhaps the best part about Luis is that he seemed to revel in all the chaos that he caused, which made playing him all the more fun.
Michael De Santa - Grand Theft Auto 5
Michael De Santa is different from other GTA protagonists in that he's not someone who works for a crime boss. He was a career criminal who has since retired from that life to live the rest of his days with his wife and children in his luxury estate in Rockford Hills. However, what is a dream life for a lot of people is actually the exact opposite for Michael.
As you play through the entirety of GTA V, you'll see Michael grow from someone who's wallowing in his own self-pity to someone who's come back to life after rediscovering his old self.
Michael also acts as an excellent mentor to Franklin Clinton, one of GTA 5's other playable characters. He sees Franklin as the son he never had and does his best to do Franklin right. Although Michael can get a bit grating at times, you'll eventually come to accept if not even love Michael's self-loathing.
Tommy Vercetti - Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
GTA: Vice City gave GTA fans their first-ever non-silent protagonist and he was quite memorable. Tommy Vercetti is part Scarface and part Mister Blonde (Reservoir Dogs). He's done time for the sake of his crime family and now he wants to establish his own criminal empire. He's also masterfully voiced by Ray Liotta.
Everything about Tommy makes sense, as morbid as that may sound. He's not above killing people if it gets him what he wants and what he wants is, as we've already mentioned, make the entirety of Vice City his own little playground.
He's got the wits, looks, ruthlessness, and prowess, to pull all of that off, which he does successfully by the end of Vice City.
Carl Johnson: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Many consider GTA: San Andreas as the best GTA game ever released. Regardless of where you stand on that, one can't deny that a good reason for this is Carl "CJ" Johnson. CJ, as he is often referred to in-game, was the first black lead in a controversial series of games. Yet, despite his ethnicity, CJ appealed to everyone.
While CJ was just as much of a crazed killer as every other GTA protagonist before and after him, he's much more focused.
San Andreas also lets you customize CJ down from the way you style his hair and clothes, as well as make him muscular, fat, or skinny, depending on how often you exercised. Everything CJ did had a reaction, which is something that's sorely missing in subsequent GTA games.
As a bonus, CJ went up against arguably the most iconic antagonist in GTA history, Frank Tenpenny, who was voiced by Samuel L. Jackson.
Niko Bellic - Grand Theft Auto IV
Niko Bellic is the antithesis to the stereotypical GTA protagonist. He's not a psychopath or a murder machine. He doesn't like violence. Instead, he's an immigrant from Yugoslavia who just wants to go to America after fighting in the Yugoslav Wars. His goal is just to start over and live what, he refers to as, "the American dream".
Unfortunately, Bellic's decision to fly over to the United States is far less peaceful than he's ever hoped to dream of, and while his somber disposition might have turned some players off, Rockstar's attempt to deliver a protagonist with more character and depth did not go unnoticed.
It doesn't matter if you were a fan. Niko is the best GTA protagonist, by far. There's just no one else like him.
Trevor Philips - Grand Theft Auto V
CJ might have been the protagonist of the best GTA game, but Trevor Philips is the best GTA protagonist of all time.
What separates Trevor from the other protagonists in previous GTA games is that his status as a playable character feels just right. Unlike Michael and Franklin, as well as his predecessors, Trevor is the embodiment of pure chaos. He isn't just a blank vessel. He is every player's desire to destroy everything that's come to life.
While Trevor isn't the type of person that you'd make friends with in real life, he's the sort you'll to play in a game that lets you shoot rockets into a park full of innocent people like in GTA 5.