Think fast: what’s the first thing that pops in your mind when you’re thinking about mob flicks? Dinners at glitzy restaurants? Drive-by shootings? Mobsters being ‘’made’’? Waiters getting shot for no reason? Tony Soprano gorging on a bowl of ice cream while breathing heavily?
Regardless of your answer, all mob flicks have one common denominator that transcends eras and interpretations: fast-talking, verbose, and hysterical mobsters with an endless resource of street-wise one-liners and swear words that would make Gordon Ramsay blush. Which makes Claude, GTA 3’s legendary silent protagonist, one of the most unintentionally hilarious characters in video gaming history.
Unlike the smooth-talking, slickly dressed Italian-American Tommy Vercetti from Vice City, the ambitious gang-banger CJ Johnson, and the tormented Slavic mobster Niko Bellic who are fully-fleshed characters, Claude doesn’t utter a single word throughout the entire game. Apart from a few quiet grunts when he is injured and killed, which could indicate – if I’m allowed to speculate – that Claude doesn’t like to be hurt or killed, we get no information related to his background or personality. Though his oversized shoes might be proof that he used to skate, as one coworker jokingly put it, but I digress.
Though the decision to make Claude a silent protagonist had more to do with the realities of game development than zaniness – “[they] had so many other problems to solve and this did not seem like a major issue” -, one could argue that it went beyond offering players a character they could easily identify with.
The first titles in the series were simplistic, albeit entertaining, crime simulators that allowed players to commit whatever heinous crimes they had in mind. Grand Theft Auto 3 laid the groundwork for the franchise’s affinity for crime stories, colorful characters and satirizing modern American culture. Of course, contemporary media pundits weren’t ready to accept the scientifically proven benefits of video games in general, much less the cultural and historical significance of Grand Theft Auto 3, so the game was shunned for containing violence and graphic language.
Looking at the cast of characters, you can’t help but wonder how Rockstar, then a small-time studio, managed to bring over so much talent. There’s Michael Madsen as mobster Tony Cipriani, Frank Vincent (of The Sopranos and Goodfellas fame) in the role of mob boss Salvatore Leone and rapper Guru from Gang Starr as 8-Ball, to name a few. They even got freaking Stretch Armstrong, the reputed New York underground radio DJ, to play the host of Game Radio, the game’s hip-hop station.
So what better way to make this ensemble of hysterical sociopaths to shine than by making the protagonist mute as a fish? Throughout the game, Claude serves the double role of being the Mafia’s triggerman and drug mule and couch psychologist. He becomes an outlet through which the seedy characters that he interacts with vent their frustrations and Claude, the brave soul, doesn’t even flinch.
Because Claude doesn’t speak, these violent sociopaths are exposed for exactly what they are – deeply insecure, power-hungry, hypocritical and idiosyncratic 30-40-year-old man-children who believe they are entitled to everything. In a scene echoing Tony Soprano’s relationship with his manipulative and controlling mother, Tony Cipriani, the fearsome caporegime of the Leone Crime Family, is seen being dominated and belittled by his larger-than-life mother. This, of course, is followed by him bitching about his mother to Claude while driving to an objective. Amusingly, the final mission in Liberty City Stories has Toni Cipriani fighting the hoards of hitmen his mother sent to kill him, echoing another memorable Sopranos moment.
Out of all the characters that Claude interacts with, Toni Cipriani is the most important because it best showcases the advantages of opting for a silent protagonist. In contrast with his criminal peers, Claude seems calm, collected and in control. Sure, let’s not forget that Claude is a murderous piece of crap himself and he could very well share the same personality traits as the people who employed him, but we’ll never know – because again, he doesn’t talk.
However, we know he’s capable of some semblance of emotion, as proven by his drive to kill Catalina, his ex-girlfriend who shot and left him for dead during a heist (though we don’t know if his quest for vengeance is driven more by criminal pragmatism or raw emotion), and the fact that he went out of his way to save Maria, his on-again, off-again girlfriend. So, right off the bat, Claude has two redeeming qualities that separate him from the plethora of criminals populating the seedy streets of Liberty City.
With that being said, is Claude the funniest main character in the GTA series? That’s highly subjective, and the competition is quite fierce in this regard. CJ Johnson, Tommy Vercetti, and even Niko Bellic deliver some of the most hilarious moments from the GTA canon. But what Claude lacks in, well, personality, makes up with his uncanny ability to trigger arguably the best moments of situational comedy in the series. So here’s to Claude, the unsung antihero of the franchise.
About the author:
Marco Giuliani – Midwestern emo by night, video game journalist by day. Big fan and self-declared connoisseur of pop-culture. If I like something, you’ll probably hear me talk about it ad-nauseam, to the exasperation of everyone around. Lead editor at UnleashTheGamer; I sometimes tweet at https://twitter.com/unleashthemarco.