Rockstar continues to reap the benefits of Grand Theft Auto V's massive success. And it's perhaps because of that success--it was the second-most downloaded PS4 game of 2020 on PSN in the US--that there have still been no real details on GTA VI, more than seven years after GTA V's release. We have only rumors of GTA VI to speculate about. We don't know when GTA VI is coming, what city it will be set in, or who it will star, though there have been plenty of rumors about those subjects. One of the latest concerns the prospect of a female protagonist, which would be noteworthy given that the long-running feature has exclusively starred male characters, dating back to the first game in 1997.
With this in mind, we wanted to take a look back at the various playable protagonists to appear in the core Grand Theft Auto games throughout the franchise. Dating back to the nameless antiheroes from the early games to the personable hustlers of modern GTA, we’re shining a spotlight on the franchise's key players and what this could mean for a potential GTA VI. We do go into some spoiler territory, so be warned about the info ahead.
Grand Theft Auto | The Protagonists
In the original Grand Theft Auto, players had a bird’s eye view of the action as they took part in missions to strike it rich and take out rival gang leaders across the explorable locales of Liberty City, San Andreas, and Vice City. While the franchise would eventually settle into telling stories with evolving characters, the mega-franchise's first game took a more modest approach with a playable protagonist, allowing you to choose from a set of eight characters to serve as the basis for your anti-hero.
To date, the original Grand Theft Auto still has the largest roster of playable protagonists in the series. Throughout the years, Rockstar Games has snuck in different references to films, TV shows, and pop-culture icons, and GTA I includes references to characters like Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver and Foxy Brown from the ‘70s Blaxploitation film. The playable protagonists in GTA I include the aging gangster Bubba, the African-American femme-fatale Divine, and the Eastern-European gun-for-hire Kivlov--to name a few.
GTA: London 1969 | London’s Protagonists
In this expansion to the original game, players could explore a GTA version of 1960s London and run afoul of the city's gangs. Like its direct predecessor, GTA London had a set of playable protagonists that also pull from films and cultural icons from the era. These antiheroes include Maurice Caine--a clear homage to Sir Michael Caine and his roles in The Italian Job and Get Carter--and Charles Jones, a British Hippie that evokes London’s strong counter-cultural movement. Like GTA I, these characters only served as stand-ins as the player’s choice for protagonists and didn’t really influence the plot in any way.
GTA II | Claude Speed
The first sequel to the original GTA was when the franchise began to focus more on the story. Instead of choosing from a set of templates as your protagonist, GTA2 put you in the role of Claude Speed, an up and coming criminal who gets in deep with Liberty City’s biggest gangsters and corporations. Using a mix of in-game storytelling and live-action cutscenes interspersed throughout, we saw Claude’s ascent up the criminal ladder as he takes on the police, Russian gangsters, and even the Yakuza. Though he was successful in his criminal enterprise, he’d eventually meet his end at the hands of an assailant from the Zaibatsu corporation, one of the earlier rivals throughout the game.
Grand Theft Auto III | Claude Speed, Again
The release of Grand Theft Auto III in 2001 was a watershed moment for gaming, and it would go on to set the standard for open-world action games. While it was the third core release of the franchise, GTA III was a reboot, focusing on a new storyline and cast of characters. However, it brought in a new interpretation of Claude Speed, now a mute bank robber who got double-crossed during a high-stakes job. After breaking out from prison transport, he set out for revenge against his former lover Catalina and made significant waves in Liberty City's criminal underworld.
At the time, GTA III was the most story-driven game of the series. While Claude Speed was a silent protagonist and was largely just a hired gun for the city's criminals, he came into contact with larger-than-life gangsters and scumbags that exuded charisma and presence. One such mob boss that players got to know was Toni Cipriani, who eventually made an appearance in a later GTA game as a protagonist. Unlike Claude’s previous incarnation, this version of the protagonist survived his time in Liberty City. In some regard, Claude is the quintessential GTA protagonist, and in other games there have been minor appearances as easter eggs that allude to him. Claude even showed up in the prequel GTA: San Andreas as a racing rival to GTA: San Andreas’ CJ.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City | Tommy Vercetti
Bringing the series to the 1980s for the first time, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City reinvented the original game’s Miami-inspired setting to bea vibrant and equally chaotic place to steal cars and commit crimes. The next playable protagonist was the aging gangster Tommy Vercetti, who was voiced by Goodfellas actor Ray Liotta. Like the previous anti-hero, the gangster was double-crossed and had to reinvent himself in a new city by taking on bold jobs and taking out ruthless crime lords. Unlike Claude, though, Tommy was a tough-talking and charismatic gangster who was quick to stake his claim on Vice City, and nearly 20 years later, he’s still regarded as a fan-favorite anti-hero in the series. And yes, there are TONS of Scarface references throughout Tommy’s rise to power, culminating in a mansion shootout that feels ripped straight out of the film.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas | Carl ‘CJ’ Johnson
As another prequel to GTA3, but following the events of Vice City, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas reinvents GTA1’s San Andreas as an entire state that encompasses the cities of Los Santos, San Fiero, and Las Venturas. While GTA I featured multiple cities, San Andreas marked the first time in the franchise where players could explore different locales seamlessly. The focal point for this chaotic journey across the state was Carl ‘CJ’ Johnson (voiced by 2000s underground rapper Young Maylay), the Grand Theft Auto series’ first fully-voiced African-American protagonist. Hailing from Los Santos, and with a background with the Grove Street Families gang, CJ eventually came to blows with low-level drug dealers, corrupt LSPD officers, and other criminal organizations. This rising conflict soon forced him on the run across the state of San Andreas. At the time, it was the most ambitious game of the series, and CJ’s confidence and poise made him not only the most capable protagonist the franchise had seen, but also the funniest and most personable.
Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories | Toni Cipriani
Appearing first as a high-level member of the Leone Crime Family in GTA III, the prequel Liberty City Stories placed its focus on Toni Cipriani’s rise to power just three years before Claude tore his way through town. Set in 1998, Liberty City Stories' plot is about the fallout from Toni Cipriani’s choice to kill a made man from a rival crime family. To win back favor with Don Salvatore Leone of the Leone Family, Toni is forced back into low-level work throughout the city. While taking on jobs across town, Toni deals with regular calls with his abusive mother, who has ties to the mafia and even called out a hit on her son. Towards the end of the game, Toni and his mother make amends, and she calls off the hit. Compared to other GTA protagonists, he's been through a lot, yet despite it all, Toni is still an honorable character throughout the main story. Toni’s appearance and personality is modeled after James Gandelfini’s performance in HBO’s The Sopranos.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories | Victor Vance
Vice City Stories takes place two years before Tommy Vercetti's arrival in the tropical setting. Playing as Victor Vance, the brother of Tommy Vercetti’s right-hand man Lance Vance, the prequel sees Vic's fall from grace in the military and subsequent rise to running one of the city’s major crime organizations. Throughout his rise to power, Victor crosses paths with low-level gunrunner Phil Cassidy and the Cuban gang leader Umberto Robina, who would eventually meet Tommy Vercetti years later. Victor even had a stint working as the head of security for musician Phil Collins, culminating in a recreation of his iconic performance of In The Air Tonight during a Vice City concert.
Grand Theft Auto IV | Niko Bellic
In the franchise’s next evolution, Grand Theft Auto returned to Liberty City once again, and this time, with a new protagonist that had just arrived on American soil. The central anti-hero of Grand Theft Auto IV was the Eastern-European immigrant and Bosnian War veteran Niko Bellic. After arriving in Liberty City to meet his cousin Roman, who embellished his tales of success in America, Niko eventually falls into a life of crime. He gets into conflict with gangsters in the Italian mafia, befriends a family of Irish bank robbers, and even encounters the Eastern-European mob who have ties to his past. Niko’s story took him across the city's different boroughs, and over the course of Niko’s story, we saw a glimpse of rare diamonds that would trade owners throughout the story. This set of jewels would end up being the core item connecting other protagonists in the larger story of Grand Theft Auto IV.
Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned | Johnny Klebitz
In the first expansion for GTA IV, players stepped into the role of biker Johnny Klebitz, who was also The Lost Motorcycle Club's vice president. While trying to keep his family and motorcycle club together, along with taking care of his addict girlfriend, he’d occasionally work with Niko on minor jobs and errands to provide for his club. Eventually, Johnny and his gang made their way to Los Santos' outskirts, where he would meet his end at the hands of another anti-hero--Trevor Phillips.
Grand Theft Auto IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony | Luis Fernando Lopez
In the final expansion for GTA IV, players controlled Luis Fernando Lopez, a former drug dealer turned bodyguard for Tony Prince, one of Liberty City’s nightclub owners and a significant influence in Liberty City’s social scene. When Luis wasn’t managing his boss’ anxiety and keeping him and his business out of trouble with the mob, he’d assist his old friends from the Northwood Dominican gang to expand their operation. Along the way, he’d cross paths with Niko and Johnny, robbing them of a deal to secure a set of valuable diamonds. Luis’ exploits in Liberty City featured some of the most outlandish and over-the-top moments of Grand Theft Auto 4, which set his story apart from the more dramatic plot with Niko and Johnny.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars | Huang Lee
In the first and only GTA game for the 3DS, this side-story brought in the first Chinese protagonist, Huang Lee. Like Niko’s story, Huang Lee’s experience and subsequent growth in Liberty City are from the perspective of an immigrant. After facing betrayal that results in the theft of his late father’s ancestral sword, Lee works his way through Liberty City to secure more power and resources to face off against the town’s most ruthless gangs. Along the way, he partners up with other individuals in the city to expand the Triads’ operations, eventually becoming the organization's new leader.
Grand Theft Auto V | Michael De Santa and Co.
Taking cues from Grand Theft Auto IV, the GTA series' latest game has a sprawling storyline with three core protagonists. Letting you jump between each character at any time and see the city and surrounding region of a revitalized Los Santos through their eyes, Grand Theft Auto V is still an ambitious entry in the series even seven years after its release. When looking back at each of these characters, a common thread among the trio is that they have a level of self-awareness that feels more palpable than other characters in the series.
The figurehead of GTA5’s main story is Micheal De Santa, voiced by Ned Luke. As a former bank robber turned reclusive in Los Santos, he longs for the days when he can get back into his career as a professional thief and burglar. He’d eventually get his wish when Franklin arrives in his life. Taking cues from movies about bank robbing and the criminal lifestyle, he’d adopt cheesy one-liners and ideas he saw from films into his professional life. When Michael wasn’t planning the team’s next score, his missions were centered around keeping his family safe and happy, even if they were ungrateful for all his efforts.
Grand Theft Auto V | Franklin Clinton
The second protagonist of GTA V was Franklin Clinton (voiced by Shawn Fonteno), a former repo man who eventually teamed up with Michael and Trevor to pull off daring heists. When he wasn’t getting clowned on by his friend and associate Lamar, who was quick to call him out on his bad haircuts, he’d spend most of his time trying to improve his living situation by moving out of his aunt’s house. Though he’s the youngest of the trio, Franklin is the more reserved and pragmatic, and he’s the first to realize who quickly their exploits escalate out of control. Along with having the best understanding of the city, he’s also the most skilled driver of the three.
Grand Theft Auto V | Trevor Phillips
The third protagonist of GTA V is the embodiment of all the chaotic energy, bloodshed, and ruthlessness of the series. Trevor Philips (voiced by Steven Ogg) is chaos incarnate. His shocking introduction in the game, where he brutalizes Johnny Klebitz and wipes out The Lost MC in his first mission, is an effective opener for his rise in Los Santos with Michael and Franklin. While the other two characters often put up with his antics, they’re still quick to rely on his blunt and brutal approach, considering how effective it usually is. To further cement his chaotic presence, playing as Trevor gives you access to the game’s Rampage side missions--which were previously left behind in 2002’s Vice City.
Grand Theft Auto Online | The Online Protagonist
While GTA V’s main story focuses on three anti-heroes, the online mode has its own playable character of your own making. Though GTA IV’s online mode allowed for players to make their own characters, the protagonist of the current GTA Online embarks on their own story within Los Santos, even rubbing shoulders with characters present in the main story. Once your character has been established, you’ll embark on a set of missions ranging from low-level heists to large-scale government-backed operations taking you to the most secure areas of Los Santos, and even beyond. Given the expanding scope and stakes in which GTA Online continues to see, it’s fair to say that The Online Protagonist has had the most exciting, death-defying, and thrilling criminal career of any other protagonist in the series.
Grand Theft Auto 6 | ???
We don't know where GTA VI will take place or what kind of characters will star, but rumors of a playable female protagonist made the rounds in early 2021. If true, she would be the first playable female character in a mainline Grand Theft Auto campaign. While this would be huge for the series, Rockstar has not officially commented on the rumor, nor has it confirmed any information about what to expect from the next entry in the franchise. We can only wait and see.