Many video game heroes have memorable origin stories, but in Dragon Age: Origins, you get to live yours. You won’t be thrown into the main quest straightaway after creating your character. Rather, you’ll spend some time living the life you’ve chosen for your hero. Born into a life of privilege and high-level political machinations? You’ll have to maneuver your way among the elite to find your grander purpose. As you play through the early chapters of the game, you’ll not only get a feel for combat, conversation, and the various in-game menus, but you’ll also be forging your character’s identity. In our recent demo, we took to the mean streets of the underground dwarven city of Orzammar to see what it’s like to grow up a poor duster from the wrong side of the cavern. We’ll tell you one thing right now: It ain’t pretty.
The first challenge you’ll face in Dragon Age: Origins is choosing a character you can live with throughout hours and hours of epic adventure. You have to choose a gender (male or female), a race (human, elf, or dwarf), and a class (warrior, mage, or rogue). Then you choose an origin story. As a female dwarf warrior, our choice was between noble and commoner. The dwarfs have a rigid caste system in their society, so a noble dwarf was sure to start out with advantages like expensive armor and three hot meals a day. We went the other route, interested to see how the other half lives. After customizing our dwarf with suitably rugged features, we took a brief glimpse at the character attributes and skill tree. Adding a few points to strength and constitution seemed warrior-appropriate, and we invested our skill points in some dual-weapon skills that would allow us to hack enemies up twice as fast (or so we hoped).
An introductory cutscene then set the stage for our life so far. The city of Orzammar was once a powerful dwarven capital, but it waned into decay after being cut off from the outside world by the darkspawn. In the caste-based dwarven society, different neighborhoods house different castes of citizens. Our dwarf was casteless, born into the slums where thievery and murder are common and beggars line the streets. The cutscene launched us into a conversation with our sister, who was dressed up quite prettily, something we didn’t expect in our rough-and-tumble neighborhood. It all became clear when a swarthy goon wandered into the room and starting talking her up. Apparently this anything-but-charming fellow was a local crime boss who, over the course of our childhood, had become something of a patron to our family. Our sister was dressed up prettily because he was hoping to set her up with a rich nobleman. Gaining a noble’s favor would not only ensure her prosperity, but ours and the boss’s as well. Our role in the deal was to act as his strongman, robbing and murdering to suit his whims. Apparently there aren’t many ways out of poverty in Dragon Age: Origins.
As tempting as the offer of a sharp blade and new armor seemed, it was hard to warm up to the idea that this guy was basically trying to sell our sister off. We spoke a few sharp words in hopes of getting him to ease up, but were chastened by our sister who, according to the boss, “knew the slope of the land.” A little more cheek earned us the warning that we were “on loose sand.” Like most dwarves, those in Dragon Age: Origins appear to be deeply connected to the earth and the stone from which they carve their cities. It was great to hear this connection permeating the gameworld in the dwarf’s geologically themed vernacular, and it added another facet to our rapidly crystallizing world.
Eventually, our levelheaded sister convinced us to calm down and behave for both our sakes, so we headed out into the street to collect from someone who owed our boss money. On the way out we passed a familiar-looking woman sitting at the table who turned out to be our mother. Our very drunk mother. Face pinched from years of hard-living, dear old mom came to long enough to sling some abuse our way, break down into tears, and then pass out. Dragon Age: Origins is definitely a mature game, and the unflinching look at poverty and desperation that we got in the first few minutes of the game certainly shows that it's grim on many levels.
A BioWare employee then explained to us that the simple task of collecting money from our boss’s debtor proved to be not so simple and gave us a look at the myriad ways you’ll be able to solve problems and manipulate situations to your benefit in Dragon Age: Origins. The debtor isn’t eager to pay up, obviously, but some strong-arming (and possibly murder) would certainly get results. Talking a more subtle route, we were told we could accept a costly item as payment, though that probably wouldn’t please the boss. We could have brought it to him and faced his wrath, or we could take the item and sell it to an accommodating buyer. Of course, it seems a shame to do all that work and not benefit, so rather than fork over the money, we hid the cash and returned to the boss empty-handed. Though we might suffer some harsh words or some other unspecified scolding, we were told the boss would eventually stomp away, leaving us that much richer.
We glimpsed a few other quests connected to the crime boss, like rigging a fight so the boss could collect on a bet (drug the opposition or steal the fighter’s armor so your boss is actually betting on you?). It’s clear that there will be plenty to do along the road to becoming a Grey Warden and that not all your quests will be black and white. You’ll get to feel out your own play style as you determine what sort of temperament you want for your character and how virtuous or corrupt you want to be. Living your own origin story looks to be a great way to dive into the world of Thedas headfirst, and we can’t wait to take the plunge when Dragon Age: Origins comes out on October 20 for the Xbox 360, PC, and PS3.