Rockstar Games says they have divided the Grand Theft Auto series into three distinct universes as of yet. These universes are completely separate to each other, no characters or storylines can ever pass from one Universe to the next. However, there have been no contradictions between stories, and some universes have the same characters and places, 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
Universes are closely linked to Eras, which are logical groupings of the games based entirely on their number (i.e. GTA III starting the 3D Universe). It is possible for universes to contain more than one era. The 2D Universe contains the GTA 1 Era and GTA 2 (which is its own separate era). The HD Universe contains the GTA IV Era and GTA V (which is starting its own era).
The difference is that games within an era are very closely related, often with many characters and storylines appearing in multiple games. 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.
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
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.
- Different renditions of Head Radio exist in 2D and 3D universes.
- El Burro, a Latin American character from Grand Theft Auto 1, re-appears in Grand Theft Auto III as the first phone mission boss. Despite this appearance is not physical, the game features an artwork of him, in which he looks very similar to his rendition in GTA 1. There is also a character named El Burro in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, though this one's physical traits are completely different.
- Francis International Airport is the name of the airport of both 3D and HD renditions of Liberty City.
- Lazlow Jones, a fictional character based in a real life talk-show host with the same name (voiced by himself) and Fernando Martinez, a Latin American radio person are the only characters whose voices appear in almost all games of 3D and HD eras (Lazlow also appears phisically in Grand Theft Auto V).
- Grand Theft Auto V makes several references to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas plot. Both maps feature a gang-controlled cul-de-sac named Grove Street which looks very alike in its two versions. In GTA San Andreas it is controlled by the player-allied gang, Grove Street Families (iconic by its green colors), whose main enemies are the Ballas (who use purple colors). In GTA V, a reincarnation of the Ballas has control over Grove Street while a green-using gang named The Families is their arch enemy and the player-allied gang.
- The band Love Fist, Kent Paul, radio hosts Lazlow Jones, Fernando Martinez, James Pedeaston, Marvin Trill, actor Jack Howitzer, stuntman Jock Cranley, and Founder of the Epsilon Program Cris Formage appear in GTA Vice City, GTA Vice City Stories, and GTA San Andreas, indicating the characters exist only in the 3D Universe. However, the characters have some appearances in the HD Universe. Like for example. several Love Fist references are in Grand Theft Auto V, including a physical appearance of band member Willy. This could be that the characters, brands and personalities that appear in both universes might be counterparts (I.E., the Lazlow of the HD era might not be the same featured in Chatterbox FM or V-Rock, neither Love Fist ever met a man named Tommy Vercetti).
- Several in-game celebrities are featured in Vinewood Walk of Fame, they might or might not be counterparts from the past eras, but just Easter Eggs.