Sure the Wasteland is a horrible place to live. Sure, 90% of the people you meet want you dead. Sure, you can play the game as the most evil person in the history of reality. But even the strongest heart of steel can be moved to tears by some of the simplest interactions in the game.
- The unique dialogue choices you get if your companions are there after you agree to go into the Project Purity chamber. If you go to tell Dogmeat he was a good boy one last time, you can discover a new line: "I think it's time for us to say goodbye, old buddy. Take care of yourself, okay?"
- Returning to Vault 101 in 3 and rescuing its inhabitants from the new draconian Overseer, only to be told that because I'd killed him I'd have to leave, never to return, by the character's childhood friend and possibly sweetheart is almost too much. Even if you convince him to give up peacefully, she still kicks you out. As a little bit of meta-text, talking either side down doesn't end the quest yet. The final mission objective reads "Leave Vault 101 forever".
- "If anyone can hear this, this is Bob Anderstein. [My] family and I have taken refuge in a drainage chamber not too far from a radio relay tower outside of D.C. My boy is very sick, needs medical assistance. Please help if you can. We're listening for your response. 3950 kilohertz." Exploring the source of the signal reveals their sad fate.
- There's a certain house with a Mister Handy that can be programmed to do several different things. If you make it read a poem to the family's children, you can follow it and witness it reading the story to two tiny skeletons. What makes it worse is that the poem is "There Will Come Soft Rains," which is a lecture about how nothing in the world would miss the human race after it's gone. This is actually the title to a Ray Bradbury short story, which in turn was named after the real-life poem by Sara Teasedale.
- The very sad background music that plays when you wander the wasteland; it almost makes you wish something will attack you so the confrontation score kicks in (or you could just use the radio). Even worse than that, though, is the bit with the player's father. Damn, just damn. You have to do so much just to see him again after you leave the vault, and on top of that, he dies soon afterward.
- Liberty Prime's death. "I DIE...SO THAT DEMOCRACY...MAY...LIVE." Made slightly better when you realize that the Brotherhood of Steel are working to rebuild him. It will take decades to do it, but someday Liberty Prime shall walk alongside humanity once again.
- The log entries of the nurse in Germantown. Even up to the very end, running out of medication and dying of acute radiation exposure, she and her colleagues still went out every day and did everything they could for their patients, even if all they could offer was whiskey and painkillers. Her last log details her dismay that she couldn't have been the last to die, as she knew there were still people out there that needed care.
- Take a look at your dad's computer before going to the GOAT exam. Turns out one of Butch's friends and fellow bullies, Freddie Gomez, has Vault Depressive Syndrome. Symptoms include lethargy, anxiety, and low self-esteem, and James notes that when Freddie has the energy to actually be active, he's a bully to try and hide what he's going through. The recommended Vault-Tec solution is medication, but James fears he'll be on it the rest of his life. If there was ever a way to get you to sympathize with a bully, this is surely it.
- Moira Brown in Megaton is normally an extremely cheery person, but clicking on a few dialogue choices reveals her heartfelt explanation for why she wants you to help her create the Wasteland Survival Guide:
Moira: Well, look around at the world we live in. It may be okay to you, but I've read about what it used to be like, and this isn't it. So we all need something that keeps us going, despite all the terrible things around us. For me, it's things like this book... did you ever try to put a broken piece of glass back together? Even if the pieces fit, you can't make it whole again the way it was. But if you're clever, you can still use the pieces to make other useful things. Maybe even something wonderful, like a mosaic. Well, the world broke just like glass. And everyone's trying to put it back together like it was, but it'll never come together the same way... the Wasteland Survival Guide isn't much towards that lofty goal, but it's an important one. And that's why I need your help. [voice cracks a little] I don't think I can do it alone.
- Even worse, if you don't help Moira complete the quest properly, Three Dog will completely bash Moira's book and call it the most useless piece of dangerous trash ever. Moira's dream is forever ruined, and it's all your fault.
- Here's one for Video Game Cruelty Potential: You can talk Moira into not writing the book at all, which gives you the Dream Crusher perk. Moira also stops being cheery if you take this path.
- Bonus: In Fallout: New Vegas, you find the Guide. Not only did it get published, but it's so good it permanently raises your Survival skill. A Crowning Moment of Heartwarming if there ever was one.
- In 3, the Wasteland towns and cities are filled with skeletons from when the bomb dropped, and sometimes you can see exactly what they were doing right when they died. Some were janitors chugging one last beer in a school hallway. Some had a gun in their hand and bloodstains by their head. But one that is often cited as the saddest is in Minefield. There's a house with two skeletons lying in bed, cradling each other, with two syringes of Med-X are by the bed, so they wouldn't feel any pain. In that same house is a second, smaller room next to the above, filled with darts and baseball gear. It's obviously a kid's room, and the skeletons next door were his parents. But there was no child-sized skeleton nearby. What happened to that child, and what must the parents have been going through?
- We can really, really hope that the child was on a field trip to the Lamplight Caverns. Though even then, the child's parents would have killed themselves in the mistaken impression that their child was dead.
- Somewhere in the outskirts of the Capital Wasteland is a little area with empty Nuka-Cola bottles lined up in a row, BB ammo scattered about, and a smaller-than-adult skeleton with a BB gun and full Nuka-Colas lying beside it. A short distance away is the blackened earth of a bomb impact. This kid went out for some leisurely target practice and probably never saw it coming.
- Wandering through the dead and barren wasteland and having "America The Beautiful" come on the radio.
- Similarly, standing on a bluff after "Trouble on the Homefront," having lost both your father and the place you grew up in, and looking out over the blasted remains of America as "Way Back Home" plays was bitterly, bitterly ironic. The countryside Crosby's singing of doesn't exist anymore, and you've got no home to go back to.
- Talking President Eden into destroying the Enclave at Raven Rock. As you flee the base and watch the security robots vaporize the Enclave soldiers, the background music turns into something that sounded like "Taps". Makes you wonder if those people under the armor were just Punch Clock Villains.
- One of the Enclave scientists at Adams Air Force Base has a holotape from her big brother telling her that he was being transferred over to the Satellite Relay Station. The player likely killed him and if the player got the holotape, you probably killed the last surviving member of that family.
- New Vegas implies that something like this did occur. Dr Whitley, the kindhearted creator of E-D-E was one of the personnel working at Adams Air Force Base in 2277 and is mentioned as being utterly devastated when Autumn cruelly ordered that his Eyebot "children" be scrapped and melted down into Hellfire armour. While his fate is unknown, it's speculated he most likely died at the hands of the Lone Wanderer.
- Arkansas of Minefield, an old man still patrolling the settlement of his youth, which was wiped clean of life when slavers captured or murdered everyone save Arkansas, including his family. Now he's dedicated to killing anyone who tries to despoil the ghost-town that's left, and you can't even help him if you try; too many years in the Wasteland make him regard everyone as an enemy. He's just gonna keep his post on that tower until he dies, or someone kills him, or you sell him into slavery. It just seems so... heartbreakingly lonely.
- Sort of Fridge Logic, but talking to people in Rivet City tells you that Trinnie, "loose" alcoholic, came from Lamplight. After running the Big Trouble in Big Town quest and realizing just how unprepared Lamplighters are when they're forced to leave, it kind of makes you wonder if bright, mature Lucy or adorable little Bumble could wind up like Trinnie someday.
- Watching the sun rising from Arlington Cemetery, with the blasted district spread out below and your PipBoy playing "America the Beautiful," is oddly affecting. Thank God "Taps" wasn't on the playlist.
- Going back to the Disaster Relief Station in the Point Lookout DLC after getting the Krivbeknih and finding that Marcella, the humble, goodhearted missionary you just met barely a few days ago, was murdered while you were gone. The ending of the audio recording you find with her, where she tearfully begs God for forgiveness even as she's bleeding to death, is just twisting the knife.
- Vault 87 is mostly straight up terror, but there's one moment that fits here as well if only for how horrifyingly effective it is. Early on in the vault, you find the log of a man named Peter Stevens whose son Jason has died. This hit him really hard, to the point that when he heard the children of Little Lamplight in the tunnels outside the vault, he went completely insane. This on its own would be bad enough, but later on you can find a medical computer with a "Fatality Records" option to click. Doing so will show "Natural causes: 4. Unknown/Unexplained: 87." And then it lists them. All of them. You just keep clicking through pages and pages and pages of the dead, almost all with that "Unknown/Unexplained" marker. The cherry on top? The second name on the list is Jason Stevens.
- It's a common misconception that the reason you can't harm kids in this game is because of the obvious moral and legal issues with allowing players to do that. No, the real reason is so you can hate yourself forever if you take the evil path and kill their parents/guardians. Take this line from Maggie if you talk to her after you kill her guardian, Billy Creel:
Maggie: Billy always said that I get too friendly with people I don't know, and it's dangerous... I miss him.
- When you activate the Purifier at the end of the main quest, the water inside the Rotunda chamber begins to bubble, swirl, and finally clear up. Standing in the center of all this is the classic statue of Jefferson, which becomes visible as the water gets less cloudy. But just for a moment, before any features are visible? It looks just like James, watching his child willingly make the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good. I did my best, dad.
- Seeing Jefferson in itself gives some tragic irony, given what became of the nation he created.
- This game can be hard to play if you're from the DC-Metro area. It's one thing to be moved by seeing the iconic Mall in ruins. It's another thing entirely to see Farragut West Metro and think "that's where my best friend lives" or knowing Rivet City is at the remains of your dad's office. For bonus points, try finding your own house in the ruins.
- A similar experience awaits players familiar with downtown Pittsburgh who install "The Pitt." This may be tempered, however, by wondering such things as "Who built a smokestack in the middle of Forbes Avenue?"
- The White House is gone. Not in ruins, not controlled by one of the factions. Gone.
- Three Dog shows some pretty cruel irony in selecting his music tracks. From the singers praising the tribal lifestyle in "Bongo Bongo Bongo" to the radiation-loving vocalist of "Let's Go Sunning," each cheery little song has something nasty to say about the blindness of 2070s America. And, of course, there's the return of the classic lyric from Fallout 2:
I don't want to set the world... on fire...
- Activating the nuke in Megaton and blowing it is very heartwrenching. Even if you did it deliberately and took the evil path, it is still shocking seeing one of the few civilized places in the wasteland being destroyed in seconds. Not to mention it was home to a couple of children, one whom possibly lost his father (Sheriff Lucas Simms) to Mr. Burke, who is also responsible for the nuke's detonation. The only survivors are a ghoulified Moira, and the head of the town's sentry bot.
- The Operation Anchorage DLC has a holotape simply labeled "Goodbye". It's from a soldier stationed at Anchorage, recorded just before he and the rest of his platoon go out against the Chinese, and is to be sent to his girl Molly. Sure, it's a bit corny (Operation Anchorage is a giant Affectionate Parody of war movies), and it's possible the soldier never existed, but... well, there's a reason history preserves so many last letters from soldiers.
I never told you this, but... That night in Cleveland? On the ferris wheel? That was when I fell in love with you.
- The holotape at Project Purity titled 'Better Days.' It's the only recording of the Lone Wanderer's mother and it shows how happy she and James were before everything went to crap. It can be deeply saddening, and James' own holotapes where he laments his past failures won't do much to raise your spirits either.