The White House is nothing more than an irradiated crater in Fallout 3's Washington DC because Bethesda didn't have time during development to actually make the entire building.
Lead artist Istvan Pely shared the studio's predicament in a new video chronicling the game's vision of the American capital. "While working on DC, we realized that we had not done the White House yet, and we didn't really have room on the schedule to do the White House," he explains. "We'd done a lot of the other landmarks and ruins of them scattered throughout the city, but that was kind of a major one. We were kind of running out of time. What do we do?"
Well, Bethesda had one idea: blow it up.
"Put a crater," Pely says. "The White House would've been the first thing they took out, so let's just wipe it. It doesn't exist here. It was sort of an Indiana Jones 'shoot the gun at the whip' kind of moment for us, but it did the trick and I think people got a kick out of that."
As Pely says, Fallout 3's recreation of DC does feature icons like the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, or at least what remains of them, and the contrast between them and the game's totally destroyed White House does sell the devastating effects of nuclear war.
This is also an interesting example of how the constraints of game development can influence creative decisions. We often hear about game developers taking the nuclear option and cutting features or areas entirely due to a lack of time or resources, and canonically dropping a nuke on the White House is maybe the most literal nuclear option possible.
In the same video, executive producer Todd Howard reminisces about the team's experience visiting these landmarks to take reference photographs, and sometimes being stopped by guards. "Someone was stopped at one point," Howard says. "They're like, 'What are you doing?' 'Well, I'm picturing this being blown up by a nuke.' And they're like, 'You need to get out of here.'"