Ranking the mainline GTA games based on their story's quality is surprisingly easier than most players assume.
The mainline GTA games are essentially the most important GTA titles. While games like GTA Chinatown Wars and GTA Vice City Stories are excellent in their own right, they're not mainline GTA games.
Likewise, GTA Online won't count as a mainline game as it's technically a part of GTA 5 (not to mention the story isn't over yet). These GTA games are by no means filler (and some are better than the actual mainline GTA titles). It's important to get that distinction out of the way.
A story's quality is a subjective matter, so most of the rankings are heavily influenced by community perception. GTA games, at their worst, are simple and otherwise forgettable. At their best, they tell an intriguing story that players can look back to fondly years after beating the game.
Ranking the mainline GTA games based on the quality of story
#7 - GTA 1
GTA 1 might have started it all, but it's unquestionably the one with the weakest story. Even if the player could choose which protagonist they want to play, they all have the same story, and none of them have a personality. Meaning that a large part of the story practically doesn't exist.
As far as the story is concerned, the player goes from one region to another to help one criminal (including a cop). Considering the point of GTA 1 is to get as many points as possible, there's not much to discuss.
#6 - GTA 2
GTA 2 is practically a better version of GTA 1 as all sequels should be. This game has a protagonist with a personality. Claude Speed (not to be confused with the GTA III protagonist) starts as a lowly thug but eventually infiltrates every major gang.
Eventually, he kills all of the important gang leaders and takes the money he's earned, and bails from Anywhere City. This was technically the only location in the GTA series to occur in the future, as it took place in 2013 (the game was released in 1999). It even had some Cyberpunk aesthetics, although it sadly doesn't play much of a role.
#5 - GTA III
Continuing the trend of ranking the GTA titles in chronological order is GTA III. Unfortunately, Claude is a silent protagonist, which negatively impacts the overall story given that there are no choices to make in GTA III. This also means that many major characters feel like bots that give missions with no discernible personality traits.
To GTA III's credit, there are some good characters and interesting storyline arcs. Characters like Asuka Kasen and Donald Love have memorable arcs. The whole plot of Claude's game trying to have revenge on Catalina is simple but effective enough for players to understand. It's the start of a more detailed story, but GTA III didn't master Rockstar's storytelling abilities yet.
#4 - GTA V
GTA V is an excellent game, being an obvious contender for most people's favorite GTA title. However, the story is the weakest aspect of the game by far. Some fans would argue that GTA V is the prime example of quantity over quality, as there are three mediocre storylines as opposed to one fully immersive one.
Out of the three-story options, Michael's is the most traditional one. It feels like a genuine GTA story, but its focus is cut back so the other two can have their moments.
Franklin had potential in his story, but he feels largely useless in the grand scheme of things, despite being the game's main protagonist. Trevor Philips has great moments, but his individual arc is pretty unremarkable aside from his involvement in Michael's story.
#3 - GTA San Andreas
Some fans don't like how the 'good guys' have it good throughout GTA San Andreas. Honestly, that's not the most fair criticism of GTA San Andreas. While the game may seem wacky and features a happy ending, these elements help improve GTA San Andreas's overall story.
It's a simple yet cohesive story where CJ returns to Los Santos after many years due to his mother being murdered. Eventually, he becomes Officer Tenpenny's goon and witnesses Ryder and Big Smoke betraying Grove Street, who starts his story in the countryside.
He tries to rebuild some connections to get revenge. Each of the three main islands has an interesting cast that helps make the story feel more immersive, so it's one most players won't forget.
#2 - GTA Vice City
GTA Vice City's story borrows many aspects from Miami Vice, Scarface, and other 80s flicks. However, that doesn't mean the story is bad. It's a delight seeing Tommy Vercetti build an empire and take over the drug trade after dealing with countless other ruthless criminals. By the end of the story, Tommy Vercetti is the most powerful man in all of Vice City, and it feels rewarding for players to see it.
Even the side missions involving the Malibu Club and the other properties are interesting enough to capture a player's attention. GTA Vice City is the quintessential GTA game in terms of story, as the protagonist is a ruthless criminal who builds a successful enterprise after starting from the bottom.
#1 - GTA IV
Prior GTA games celebrated the criminal lifestyle with over-the-top violence and hedonistic pleasure. Nico Belic stands out in that he took no pleasure from any of it. GTA IV was set to deconstruct the foundations laid by Vice City and San Andreas, which bestowed a realistic expectation of what it's truly like to be a criminal-for-hire.
Bellic undergoes a dramatic shift in GTA storytelling - rather than reward players with the multi-story mansion. It reminds them of the inescapable prison of solitude that Bellic constantly suffers from.
That's not even getting to the expansion packs, which offer different perspectives of Liberty City. From the gritty nature of biker gangs to the luxurious nightclub lifestyle, GTA IV truly gave way to GTA V's multiple protagonists.