Carl Johnson (Grand Theft Auto)

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Carl Johnson
Grand Theft Auto character
Carl Johnson's official artwork
First appearanceThe Introduction (2004)
First gameGrand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)
Created byRockstar Games
Voiced byYoung Maylay
Motion captureYoung Maylay
AffiliationGrove Street Families
FamilySean "Sweet" Johnson (brother)
Kendl Johnson (sister)
Brian Johnson (brother, deceased)
Beverly Johnson (mother, deceased)

Carl Johnson is a fictional character and the playable protagonist of Rockstar North's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, published by Rockstar Games. Carl is a member of the Grove Street Families, a gang located in Los Santos. While playing San Andreas, one controls the movements and actions of Carl as he proceeds through the storyline and finishes missions. Throughout the game, he slowly rises in prominence as he successfully completes increasingly difficult tasks.

Character design[edit]

When asked about the character model of Carl, actor Young Maylay stated that the development team took "very professional" photographs of him to model Carl.[1]


Unlike the principal characters of previous Grand Theft Auto games, Carl's appearance is highly customisable,[2] as the player can purchase hair cuts, tattoos and clothing for him. Certain clothes, tattoos and hairstyles improve Carl's standing with his fellow gang members as well as his sex appeal to his selective girlfriends. As Carl rides bikes, drives cars and motorcycles, and flies aircraft, his skill will improve in each. The same is true for the weapons that he uses. The player can also choose to exercise, which improves skills such as Carl's muscle and stamina. Visiting fast food restaurants and regularly eating their large meals will increase Carl's size over time, eventually leading to him becoming overweight. Carl can lose this weight by frequently exercising.


Carl's personality markedly differs from other playable protagonists in the Grand Theft Auto series; while Claude, Tommy Vercetti, and his successors Mike and Toni Cipiani are depicted as sociopathic and feeling no regret for the murders that they commit, Carl is depicted as having a considerably less violent personality, occasionally giving his victims a chance to redeem themselves, one example being his failed attempt to convince Edward "Eddie" Pulaski to leave Frank Tenpenny's side.[3] Furthermore, Carl also displays genuine remorse for having to kill fellow Grove Street members Ryder and Big Smoke, whom he had previously considered two of his closest friends.[4][5] However, he still has no problem and feels no regret with killing members of other gangs, and willingly murders anyone that gets in his way of reclaiming Grove Street Families' turf or try to sabotage his businesses, though the gangsters are also trying to kill Carl in return. Carl's naïve personality, inexperience, and face-value interpretations of other characters' responses occasionally leads them to question Carl's intelligence (notably The Truth and Catalina).



In 1987, shortly after the downfall of the Grove Street Families five years prior to the events of the game, Carl causes the accidental death of his brother, Brian. Soon afterwards, Carl decides to leave his gang life behind by moving to Liberty City, where he begins working with Joey Leone in the car theft business.[6]

Return to San Andreas[edit]

The game's main storyline begins with Carl's return to Los Santos following the death of his mother, Beverly Johnson.[7] Upon his arrival, Carl is confronted by Officers Frank Tenpenny, Edward "Eddie" Pulaski and Jimmy Hernandez, three members of the town's community policing unit, C.R.A.S.H.. Tenpenny and his associates warn Carl early on that they intend to frame him for the murder of police officer Ralph Pendlebury, whom C.R.A.S.H. killed to prevent him from exposing their illegal activities. They also force Carl to work for them in exchange for his safety and the safety of his family and friends.

After his confrontation with C.R.A.S.H, Carl returns to Grove Street where he is reunited with his siblings, Sean "Sweet" Johnson and Kendl Johnson and his childhood friends, Melvin "Big Smoke" Harris and Lance "Ryder" Wilson. Carl learns that his gang, the Grove Street Families lost much of their power and influence to their rival gangs, in particular, the Ballas, during his absence. Shortly after his return, Carl aids his allies in re-establishing the Grove Street Families' dominance by expelling crack dealers, acquiring weapons, and regaining lost gang territory. Carl also aids his friend Jeffrey "OG Loc" Cross in jump starting his rapping career, destroying the career of successful rapper Madd Dogg in the process, and is later introduced to Kendl's boyfriend Cesar Vialpando, the leader of the Varrio Los Aztecas street gang.

However, the Grove Street Families' resurgence is short lived as Carl discovers that Smoke and Ryder have betrayed the gang by forming alliances with C.R.A.S.H. and the Ballas. Sweet is ambushed by a group of Ballas on that same day and is wounded in the subsequent gunfight. Carl arrives on the scene and saves his brother's life but both are arrested by the police. Sweet is tried, convicted of several felonies and sentenced to life in prison whilst Carl is taken by C.R.A.S.H. and left in the countryside. In the aftermath of these events, the Grove Street Families lose their power and influence once more and subsequently relinquish all of their territory to their rival gangs.

Exile, new alliances and business ventures[edit]

During his time in the countryside, Carl is introduced to "The Truth", he aids Cesar's cousin Catalina in performing a number of robberies, being dumped by her after a racing competition, and he takes part in two illegal street races where he meets and befriends a blind Chinese-American Triad leader, Wu Zi "Woozie" Mu. After his brief stay in the countryside, Carl and his associates head north for San Fierro, where they establish a vehicle chop shop and dealership. Carl also works for the local Triads, strengthening his ties with Woozie and his superior Ran Fa "Farlie" Li in the process, and infiltrates and destroys San Andreas' largest drug cartel, the Loco Syndicate. With some help from Cesar and The Triads, Carl also exacts revenge on his former friend Ryder by killing him during his meeting with the Loco Syndicate.

Following the destruction of the Loco Syndicate, Carl is contacted by one of its members Mike Toreno, now revealed to be an undercover government agent. Carl begins working for Toreno in exchange for Sweet's release from prison and subsequently ventures into the desert and Las Venturas. During this time, Carl acquires a pilot's license, a jetpack from the Area 69 military base for The Truth, and later, in Las Venturas, aids Woozie in running the Four Dragons Casino by planning a heist against the rival, mafia run Caligula's Casino, and saves Madd Dogg's life by intervening in his attempted suicide, later becoming his manager. Carl also kills Pulaski, who had just killed Hernandez. At the conclusion of these events, Carl and his associates begin preparing for their return to Los Santos.

Return to Los Santos[edit]

Upon his return to Los Santos, Carl regains control of Madd Dogg's mansion, later reclaiming his career and stolen rhyme book from Loc, and is later reunited with Sweet after his release from prison. However, Sweet refuses to leave their gang life behind and talks Carl into re-establishing the Grove Street Families once more. Together, they take back Grove Street and begin slowly rebuilding their gang by removing drug dealers and drug addicts from the streets. Meanwhile, Tenpenny is tried for his crimes but all charges are dropped due to a lack of evidence, resulting in a city-wide riot. In all the chaos, Carl aids Cesar in re-establishing his gang, the Varrio Los Aztecas, before confronting and ultimately killing Smoke at his crack palace penthouse. Afterwards, Carl pursues Tenpenny in a thrilling car chase which ultimately ends with Tenpenny crashing in front of the Johnson House. Carl prepares to shoot Tenpenny, but Sweet stops him as Tenpenny is already dying from his injuries and shooting him would leave evidence behind. With Tenpenny now dead, any loose ends in Carl's life are resolved and the city returns to its normal state.

At the conclusion of the game, Madd Dogg visits the Johnson house and announces that he has received a gold record for his new album. Everyone inside discusses how they must now shift their focus to maintaining the gang and their business ventures and otherwise keep a low profile. Carl then gets up and leaves the house. Kendl then asks where he's going, and he replies, "Fittin' to hit the block, see what's happening," as the game's main storyline ends.

Influences and analysis[edit]

Voice actor Young Maylay stated that he was influenced by his own life when portraying Carl. "[The development team] wanted authentic L.A., that's where I'm from and they knew that, so that's what I gave 'em," he added. "I put Maylay on CJ. I make him as much me as I can, without too much changing of the script."[8]


The character of Carl Johnson received critical acclaim after the release of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, managing to become included in many lists of the best characters in video games. He was included on Jesse Schedeen of IGN's list of Grand Theft Auto Favorite Badasses. They said, "Of all the protagonists in all the GTA games, few are as compelling or flat out badass as Carl "CJ" Johnson," and also went on to praise the character customisation and available assets.[9] Crave Online's Paul Tamburro also placed Carl eighth on their Top 10 Most Memorable GTA Characters, stating that "it was refreshing to take control of a character who was considerate about when and when not to commit wanton mass-slaughtering."[10] Matthew Cooper of Sabotage Times placed the character in his list of the top 10 characters in the Grand Theft Auto series, stating what stands out him from other central characters is the fact "he was the first to appear with a conscience, the first that didn't seem to enjoy killing copious numbers of people."[11]

GameDaily listed Carl among their list of the best black characters in video games, refusing the idea that he reinforces negative stereotypes since he is "more ghetto-born James Bond than straight-up gangsta".[12] Similarly, Larry Hester of Complex Gaming placed Carl second on his list of the 10 Best Black Characters in Video Games, naming him the "gangbanger with a good heart."[13] Carl was also placed 77th on GamesRadar's list of the 100 Best Heroes in Video Games, quoting that "few [Grand Theft Auto] heroes have been as charismatic as him, and few likely will in the future."[14] UGO Networks have placed Carl as the second character who most deserves his own live-action film.[15]

In 2008, The Age ranked Carl as the 33rd greatest Xbox character of all time, noting him as "the most humble" of Grand Theft Auto anti-heroes, and as "one of the first strong African-American lead characters in any major videogame."[16] In 2012, GamesRadar placed Carl 77th on their list of "most memorable, influential, and badass" protagonist in games, saying that "Few GTA heroes have been as charismatic as him, and few likely will in the future."[17] Although Carl ultimately did not make the cut, Game Informer staff considered his inclusion in their "30 characters that defined a decade" collection, with Matt Helgeson saying, "He could have easily been another gangster stereotype, but by the end of San Andreas we see CJ as a flawed, but ultimately good man who did the best he could in the worst of circumstances."[18]

In 2011, readers of Guinness World Records Gamer's Edition voted Carl 'CJ' Johnson as the 22nd-top video game character of all time.[19]


  1. ^ "Young MayLay Speaks (07/06/05)". Planet Grand Theft Auto. GameSpy. 6 July 2005. Archived from the original on 16 April 2014. Retrieved 16 April 2014.
  2. ^ "Grand Theft Auto: Favorite Badasses". IGN. April 28, 2008. Retrieved April 16, 2013.
  3. ^ Rockstar North (October 26, 2005). Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. PlayStation 2. Rockstar Games. Mission: "High Noon"
    Carl: "Eddie, Tenpenny's just using you, he's using all of us. You're the next one he's gonna silence, man." / Eddie: "Shut the fuck up, scum! And it's Officer Pulaski to you!"
  4. ^ Rockstar North (October 26, 2005). Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. PlayStation 2. Rockstar Games. Mission: "Yay Ka-Boom-Boom"
    Carl: "Fucking Ryder man! That was my homie. And I've killed him!"
  5. ^ Rockstar North (October 26, 2005). Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. PlayStation 2. Rockstar Games. Mission: "End of the Line"
    Big Smoke dies / Carl: "Damn, man. What a waste."
  6. ^ Rockstar North (26 October 2004). Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. PlayStation 2, Microsoft Windows, Xbox, Xbox 360, OS X, PlayStation 3, iOS, Android, Windows Phone and Fire OS. Rockstar Games. Level/area: "The Introduction".
  7. ^ McLaughlin, Rus; Thomas, Lucas M. (May 6, 2013). "IGN Presents The History of Grand Theft Auto". IGN. Retrieved June 8, 2013.
  8. ^ "PlayStation: The Official Magazine" (85). United States: Future plc. October 2004. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  9. ^ Schedeen, Jesse (April 28, 2008). "Grand Theft Auto: Favorite Badasses". IGN. Retrieved June 8, 2013.
  10. ^ Tamburro, Paul (November 2, 2012). "Top 10 Most Memorable GTA Characters". PlayStation Beyond. Archived from the original on December 20, 2014. Retrieved June 8, 2013.
  11. ^ Cooper, Matthew (June 13, 2012). "GTA V - Top 10 Greatest Characters In Grand Theft Auto History". Sabotage Times. Archived from the original on August 20, 2013. Retrieved July 7, 2013.
  12. ^ Swiderski, Adam. "Gaming's Greatest Black Characters". GameDaily. Archived from the original on March 23, 2009. Retrieved July 31, 2013.
  13. ^ Hester, Larry (June 26, 2012). "2. Carl "CJ" Johnson — The 10 Best Black Characters In Video Games". Complex. Retrieved June 4, 2013.
  14. ^ Staff (November 9, 2012). "100 best heroes in video games". GamesRadar. Retrieved June 4, 2013.
  15. ^ Meli, Marissa (July 19, 2011). "Video Game Characters Who Need Their Own Movies". UGO Entertainment. IGN Entertainment. Archived from the original on December 7, 2012. Retrieved July 27, 2013.
  16. ^ "The Top 50 Xbox Characters of All Time". The Age. September 30, 2008. Archived from the original on November 15, 2013. Retrieved July 8, 2013.
  17. ^ "100 best heroes in video games". GamesRadar. Retrieved May 5, 2013.
  18. ^ Bertz, Matt (November 19, 2010). "The Snubbed List". Game Informer. Retrieved December 18, 2014.
  19. ^ Marchiafava, Jeff (February 16, 2011). "Guinness Names Top 50 Video Game Characters Of All Time". Game Informer. Retrieved February 2, 2018.
Preceded by
Tommy Vercetti
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
Protagonist of Grand Theft Auto
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Succeeded by
Grand Theft Auto Advance