More than just a gaming franchise, Grand Theft Auto has – at various times over the last 20-ish years – served as something of a cultural touchstone, thanks in no small part to its biting satire and its controversy-garnering violence.
But while the manslaughter makes the headlines, you probably haven’t heard much about the plethora of interesting characters across the franchise’s history. Characters who, in many ways, may actually be more memorable than the games’ protagonists on account of having more fully-fleshed backstories and personalities – after all, game protagonists are often there merely to act as an avatar for your own motivations and desires within those game worlds.
Of course, as with real life, some people are more compelling than others (you know who you are), so who has stood out? Which ones are worth tracking down to engage in conversation, no matter how bizarre and/or inappropriate it may be? Which ones might just indulge in even more psychopathic behaviour than you? Here are Grand Theft Auto’s five most compelling non-playable characters.
BIG SMOKE (Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas)
One of the major non-playable characters in 2004’s GTA: San Andreas, Big Smoke seems relatively harmless for much of the game, serving as a seemingly comedic and bumbling sidekick with a love of fast food and thoughtlessly jumping into dangerous situations. So, when you discover that Big Smoke is actually Los Santos’ biggest underground drug lord who has betrayed the protagonist’s family and friends, even going so far as to indirectly murder the protagonist’s mother, it’s a genuine surprise.
Once it’s revealed, his attitude—already pretty salty—adopts a nasty vindictive edge and, yet, to add an extra layer of complexity to his character, his always-inevitable death sees him attempt to repent. But the damage is already done.
KEN ROSENBERG (Grand Theft Auto: Vice City/San Andreas)
One of the few characters to be featured prominently in more than one of the main GTA games (featuring in both GTA: Vice City and GTA: San Andreas), this lawyer/accountant might be taken at face value as a stereotypical tight-fisted ambulance chaser. But that would be a mistake on the player’s part.
On the surface, his one evident redeeming quality is his loyalty to his clients, which is just as well because his position provides him plenty of opportunities to screw people over. However, what actually makes Rosenberg interesting are his many neuroses, undoubtedly fuelled by his rampant cocaine addiction. Played like an even-more-anxious Woody Allen, Rosenberg is a paranoid, twitchy bundle of nerves, veering between self-deprecation and egomania on a regular basis, making for a potent mix of bravado and self-pitying one-liners.
LAMAR DAVIS (Grand Theft Auto V)
I’ve mentioned hidden depth on more than one occasion now, but that’s not Lamar’s deal. Best friend of one of GTA V’s protagonists, Franklin Clinton, Lamar is really nothing more than a low-level gangster with a huge chip on his shoulder and an equally big mouth. But what a mouth it is.
Armed with more curse words than the average series of a Gordon Ramsey show, Lamar’s machine-gun vocal delivery is a thing of beauty—kinetic and spiky, but with a flow that belies his perceived lack of intelligence. That much of this invective is aimed at his best friend adds an extra layer of intrigue to their relationship, as you question just where his loyalties actually do lie and just how far he’d be willing to go for paper.
CATALINA (Grand Theft Auto III/San Andreas)
In a franchise that has often come under fire for its depiction of women, Catalina stands out as a rare example of a fully fleshed-out female character, acting as the main antagonist in GTA III and a secondary character in GTA: San Andreas.
Don’t get me wrong—Catalina’s overriding character trait is that she’s batshit crazy. However, she’s also far more three-dimensional than that. In a similar vein to Lamar, she’s a million words a minute and mean as all hell. Unlike Lamar, she also has a cut-throat drive and determination you’d normally see from GTA’s protagonists. In other words, don’t mess with Catalina.
BRUCIE KIBBUTZ (Grand Theft Auto IV)
On the face of it, GTA IV’s Brucie Kibbutz has no right being on this list. In many ways, like Ken Rosenberg, he’s a walking offensive stereotype. A brash, vain, almost Guido-like character, he walks around bare-chested, regularly brags about his physique, and is forever talking about his conquests with women. He teases his best friend, Roman Bellic, mercilessly about his weight and his lack of success with the opposite sex.
Yet, beneath it all, there are some very clear insecurities, stemming primarily from doubts on his own sexuality (seriously, the overcompensation is off the charts) and his relationship with his overbearing, bullying brother, Mori (somehow even more vain than he is, despite a very clear Napoleon complex—he could just as easily have made it onto this list).
Truthfully, I could have filled this list with another dozen characters. Honorable mentions go to the likes of the aforementioned Roman Bellic, a caricature of an Eastern European dreamer with delusions of living the high life in the land of the free, or San Andreas’ Officer Tenpenny (voiced by Samuel L Jackson, no less), a fairly detestable and corrupt human being who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. You could even throw in the likes of Phil Collins. Yes, the Phil Collins, who makes fairly lengthy appearances as himself in both Vice City and its spin-off, Vice City Stories. No, really.
The point is that it’s a testament to Rockstar that, even whilst they retain a commitment to making fleshed-out game worlds, they never neglect the characters they fill those worlds with. They appreciate that a world can only feel alive when the inhabitants do. Too many game environments feel empty by comparison, so whilst the GTA series continues to court controversy, it does so with genuine character. Long may it continue.