Rockstar Games says they have divided the Grand Theft Auto series into three distinct universes as of yet. These universes are designed to be completely separate to each other, so that no characters or storylines can ever pass from one Universe to the next. However, there are elements (characters, places, etc.) which appear (or at least, seem to appear) in more than one universe, making Rockstar's claimed system ambiguous.

2D Universe 3D Universe HD Universe

A universe can be considered a completely separate 'canon' of places, people and events that exist in the same universe. Locations that appear in multiple universes are completely rebuilt, rather than just updated. A previous universe would be like a mythical universe that never really existed. However, some things do exist appear in multiple universes, including company brands, vehicles, placenames, weapons and in-series celebrities (e.g Lazlow).

Games being in the same universe means that they exist on the same planet, and theoretically characters could occur in multiple games across that universe. However, that does not mean that many characters will do so, nor that the games are similar or closely related at all.

Comparison to eras

The word era, despite having no official definiton by Rockstar Games, bears two different meanings employed by the GTA community.

Eras as periods of the history of the GTA franchise

Games taking place in the same universe (the fictional setting) are part of the same era, a generation of games starting with the beginning of a new universe. For example, GTA III, GTA Vice City and GTA San Andreas, all set in the 3D Universe, are also part of the 3D era, the period of the GTA series when most games had three-dimensional graphics and were released for 6th-generation consoles such as the PlayStation 2.

Eras as subsets of universes

In the GTA series, the eras are also the five set of games grouped according to the respective five numbered titles of the franchise, which represent significant changes in the style or "atmosphere" of the games. Games within an era are very closely related, often with many characters and storylines appearing in multiple games (and also expansions). Also, the visual style and most features are replicated within an era. In contrast, games within the same universe (but in separate eras) might be completely different and almost totally unrelated in terms of graphical style and mechanics. The futuristic GTA 2 is different from the 1960s GTA London games, even if they all purportedly take place in the same universe.

In this sense, it is possible for universes to contain more than one era. While the 3D Universe has only one era: the GTA III era, the 2D and HD universes each have two eras: GTA 1 and GTA 2 eras (in the 2D Universe) and GTA IV and GTA V eras (in the HD Universe). An era can be thought of as a group of closely-related stories (like a trilogy), told through several games within one universe. Different eras may be set in the same universe, even with a bit of crossover, but they are completely separate stories with different styles and a different feeling.

As GTA IV and GTA V are in the same HD Universe, that gives Rockstar the ability to continue some characters or even storylines into the new game, but Dan Houser has said this would only happen sparingly. GTA V is a completely separate game, with different features and a very different feeling - it is not "GTA IV: Los Santos", and is therefore not part of the GTA IV Era.

"Dan says that no one before GTA IV will be in it – the move to HD created a schism in this fictional universe, rendering CJ, Toni and co, as mythical characters from a bygone era. But will we see stories from the previous game looping into this one? "I think that might be too mannered," says Houser. "Niko had a particular kind of story and we're trying to make this different. We might allude to things from that world, but we didn't want it to feel like, well, here's the opposite of an immigration story – we wanted a fresh take on what it means to be a criminal in this world of hyper-real Americana"."
―Interview with Dan Houser in The Guardian

If numbered eras are taken into consideration, the GTA franchise is divided in the following way:


Although universes are designed to be completely apart, references to previous universes occur occasionally. References to previous names are the main and most common, but there are also renditions of streets or even characters. Some of the references, however, may be only internal jokes.