I find Dan Houser to be an interesting writer. He isn't the only one who has worked on the stories of Grand Theft Auto, but there is no doubt that he is a huge factor in the stories of the series current and biggest titles. With the help of James Worrall, DJ Pooh, and Rupert Humphries; my favorite Grand Theft Auto protagonists were created.
(SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT ON)
In Grand Theft Auto III you play as Claude. Betrayed by his girlfriend Catalina he seeks revenge and rises up Liberty City's crime ladder (primarily through the Yakuza). His main character trait is that he is completely silent. Not a single word is uttered by the character. Claude is in no way a deep character. He is as flat as they go. I feel the purpose of his character is similar to that of Gordon Freeman's. The big drawback is that we can actually see him and his actions from an outside perspective. He is a ruthless criminal with revenge as his only motivation. I simply find him OK. The only human thing about Claude is the fact that he saves Maria, but this is only a way for him to get to Catalina and it's implied he kills Maria anyway.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City introduces Tommy Vercetti. Tommy is sent to Vice City by the Forelli family and screws up. His intentions are to get the money and drugs he lost back for the family. In the process he loses track and ends up rising to the top of the city's crime ladder. He destroys his relationship with the family in the process.
In this entry our main character is given a voice. This adds an entire new level to the character. There is nothing dynamic about his character either, but at least he has personality. I feel this character is the one to truly embody the spirit of the GTA series. We are given a homicidal and power hungry maniac that mocks the death of his enemies. He may appear to be more sane than the men and women he works for, but underneath that he is just as fucked up as they are. That adds an element of brilliance to his character. It represents that a criminal is nothing more than...a criminal. No matter how much sensibility they may have, they are no different from the others. This is what aides the game into being the senseless fun it is. Not much complexity is given to his character, but he is just so damn likable.
San Andreas contains a much deeper protagonist by the name of Carl "CJ" Johnson. Unlike the past few entries he is given something special: family. This isn't the, "everyone I know is dead" drift, actual LIVING family members. His sister, older brother, and old friends join him in the story. He left his family after the death of one of his other brothers and went to Liberty City. After hearing about the death of his mother he returns to find out that things aren't the way they used to be. CJ is the first dynamic character in the GTA series. His first intentions are to fix his past, but he has no choice but to abandon them and start anew. He is then pulled back into his first intentions and fixes everything once and for all.
The change of the locations which go from one city to another and back to the beginning represents the change in CJ. He is betrayed by his best friends and makes new ones in the progress. His actions are dominated by thoughts of his family, but he maintains his own intentions. The game doesn't hide the fact that he is a ruthless criminal, but he is much more human than Claude and Tommy. He even expresses remorse for killing one of the friends that betrayed him. I thought of him as my favorite GTA protagonist until GTA IV...
Niko Bellic changed everything. His introduction changed the entire way I thought about the past entries. Niko is as deep as they get. He is so likable that I ignored the fact that he's a killer. I cared for him. If something happened to Roman I didn't hesitate to save him. Niko despised nearly all of the people he worked for, because he saw them for exactly what they were. I wanted Niko to escape his past and find the happiness he longs for. I don't find him boring in any way.
What makes his character even more enjoyable as playing is the fact that you have more control over him. Instead of the simple trying to live scheme you can make certain decisions for him. Most of them consist of sparring someones life or killing them, but that's a step up from past games. The only two scenarios of actual significance to the story and character are the two toward the end of the game involving Darko Brevic and Jimmy Pegorino.
Doing the Darko Brevic scenario once has instantly landed it into one of my favorite gaming moments of all time. Niko has to make a choice: let the man who is responsible for the death of his old friends live or let him live the rest of his miserable life as a drug-addicted mess. I've only seen and done one choice, which is letting Darko live. It was one of the most satisfying moments I ever witnessed. Niko felt bad for letting Darko live, but the praise from Roman and Bernie for his decision made it the better choice for me. After that it goes into the Pegorino situation. I choose the deal option as a way to help Niko go along the forgiving route and to abandon those ways. Unfortunately that led to the death of Roman, but the ending is way more satisfying than the former. I won't go into it simply because the Rev. already went over it here.
The series characters have progressed as each game comes. It has gotten to the point to where a secondary character is given a current and living family (The McReary Family). It acclimates from an emotionless protagonist to the nicest criminal you'll ever meet. Each story is deeper and more epic than the last. Niko Bellic is now one of my current favorite video game characters. I look forward to the next episode of GTA IV and the next big entry of the series.