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:
- 2D Universe
- 3D Universe
- HD Universe
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.
- Different renditions of Head Radio exist in the 2D and 3D universes. During development, the radio was planned to appear in Grand Theft Auto IV too.
- Radio Los Santos and WCTR both appear in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Grand Theft Auto V.
- The restaurants Burger Shot and Cluckin' Bell, as well as the brand ECola and its lemon soda, the Sprunk, all appear in 3D and HD Universes.
- Grand Theft Auto 1 features a boss of Mexican origin named El Burro, while Grand Theft Auto III features a homonymous Puerto Rican gang leader who appears as the first phone boss. Although El Burro from GTA III does not appear physically, the game features an artwork of him, in which he looks strikingly similar to El Burro from GTA 1; plus, both are Latin American. There is also a character named El Burro in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, though this one's physical traits are completely different.
- There is some controversy over Claude Speed, the protagonsist of GTA 2 and Claude, the protagonist of GTA III, being or not the same person. It is generally accepted they are not, though.
- Francis International Airport is the name of the airport of both 3D and HD renditions of Liberty City.
- Similarly, Liberty Tree is a newspaper in both versions of Liberty City.
- An easter egg in GTA IV shows a Liberty Tree headline reading: "Love's hate relationship with taxes", next to a picture of Donald Love, a 3D-Universe character.
- Lazlow Jones, a fictional character based on 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 the plot of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The maps of both games 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, or just easter eggs.