Water is a common feature in the GTA series that serves as a natural barrier for the world, break up landmasses, and give a more realistic effect on the game in both appearance and ambient sounds. After GTA III, Rockstar decided they did not like having inaccessible landmasses visible, so in-game worlds surrounded by infinite oceans on all sides even if lore dictates the world is land-locked - by implementing large bodies of water, the boundaries of the in-game world can be effectively hidden..
In the 2D Universe, water is limited in interaction. If the player falls into the water from a height, or tries to sail a boat, they will instantly die. If the player walks into water on their level they will be able to paddle for a handful of seconds before drowning if they do not get back out, this only applies to GTA 1 as water in GTA 2 is always fatal.
The first game of the 3D Universe, GTA III's water was opaque and toxic. If the player completely submerged himself inside water by walking or driving into it, the player's health would begin to decrease rapidly, and his body would slowly float to the surface. The in-game explanation for this was that an oil spill had coated the city's harbor in a thick hazardous film, a direct result of deregulation of the harbor. Fish are seen in Gone Fishing, but are not seen before or after.
GTA Vice City
In GTA Vice City more boats were available to drive, although the player would still die if fully submerged in sea water, the result of rip tides in the ocean currents. Compared to GTA III, the water was transparent and featured sea floors (although "deep water" still had no bottom), sunken wrecks, fish, sharks, and dolphins, although they were not solid and did not respond to interaction.
GTA San Andreas
In GTA San Andreas the player was for the first time able to swim in the water and even dive and swim underwater, as well as drive a large variety of boats. When underneath the water, CJ would slowly lose oxygen and eventually die if he stayed under water for too long. The water in GTA San Andreas is mostly transparent and has a better overall look than the water in GTA Vice City. There are many sea creatures this time such as jellyfish and dolphins, although animals still do not interact with the player at all.
GTA Liberty City Stories
In GTA Liberty City Stories, as in the games before San Andreas, the player couldn't swim, though they could drive some boats. The water was deep blue-colored and not transparent, much like it was in GTA III.
GTA Vice City Stories
In GTA Vice City Stories, after many complaints because swimming was impossible in the previous game (GTA Liberty City Stories), Rockstar made swimming possible again albeit without the diving function. It only permitted swimming for a limited amount of time, determined by a stamina bar which decreases as the player remains in the water. When the bar runs out, the player's health decreases, as the player will drown to death. Completing the Beach Patrol side mission, however, will stop the player's stamina from depleting. The water is turquoise and slightly transparent.
GTA IV + Episodes from Liberty City
The water in GTA IV and the EFLC is partially transparent and highly reflective. The player can not go underwater, being restricted to swimming on the surface of the water, non-player characters can also swim for a short period of time. The only actual advantage of water in the HD Universe is that it creates a quicker route between islands if the player finds a boat. Although Liberty City is described as land-locked to the North and West, it is surrounded by water in-game.
GTA Chinatown Wars
In GTA Chinatown Wars, like in the previous HD Universe games, the player can only swim on the surface. The boats are pretty much the same too, except for the Wet Ski. There are no fish. The water looks rather transparent, so some radioactive waste, as well as some underwater dunes and four "Here Be Dragons!" Easter Egg messages (one in the north-east, one in the north-west, one in the south-east and one in the south-west) can be found.
In GTA V, swimming returns with major upgrades. Just like in GTA San Andreas, the player can swim in and under water, albeit with some changes. To swim underwater, the player can use a scuba suit or drive a submarine. Underwater is much more detailed, and for the first time, there are sharks that can be interacted with. There are multiple vehicles the player may use to traverse the waters with. There are shipwrecks, hidden underwater that have hidden treasures inside, that the player can retrieve for money. Weapons, health, and armor can also be found underwater. A dead whale's skeleton and a crashed UFO can also be found in specific locations underwater. Another new feature into GTA V is if the player dives too deep, the submarine will be destroyed by the pressure, killing them. Like Liberty City, San Andreas is described as land-locked to the North and East, with the ocean only serving as a gameplay barrier.
- In most 3D Universe games (Grand Theft Auto III, Grand Theft Auto Vice City, Grand Theft Auto Advance and Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories), the water bodies serve as a mean to retain the player from a locked island, while the bridge that connects the locked island and the rest of the map is closed. However, with the advent of GTA San Andreas, players are able to swim between the islands without dying, incurring the wrath of the game's law enforcement agencies.
- In Grand Theft Auto: Vice City getting into shallow bodies of water outside of the ocean (pools and ponds) will not kill the player even if he crouches so that his head is submerged.
- In Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories when swimming has been limited, the river waves serve as a mean to retain the player from swimming across to locked island while the bridges that connects the locked island and the rest of the map is closed.
- In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Grand Theft Auto IV, the rivers are a means to reach locked islands, while awarding immediate, extreme (a 4 star wanted level in GTA SA and a 6 star wanted level in GTA IV) police attention.
- In Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, The Lost and Damned, The Ballad of Gay Tony, Episodes from Liberty City and Grand Theft Auto V, the map is unlocked from the beginning, so the player can swim freely around the city. It should however be noted, that in GTA V, the entire map is surrounded by water, instead of the traditional "islands" that would be unlocked throughout the storyline, therefore making the procedure of locking parts of the map until a later date irrelevant.
- In GTA V, it is possible to take damage from falling in the water from great heights, sometimes dying instantly from larger falls. This is realistic, as once at terminal velocity, the effect of striking water would be the same as hitting concrete at 70 miles per hour.