Dragon Age: Origins and Choice 2.0

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: An upcoming game is going to present you with many moral decisions, and the choices you make will have a dramatic impact on the story, how characters react to you, and, of course, the ending. It’s a deliciously tempting scenario that probably sounds more than a little familiar, given the recent spate of games hyping their particular take on the gimmick, but the disappointing truth is that the moral options we’re given usually boil down to save the puppy or eat the baby. Now here comes Dragon Age: Origins, promising, once again, that we’re going to be asked to make agonizingly difficult decisions whose effects will ripple throughout the game world. And you know what? I think they’ve actually pulled it off.

This week at GamesCom, BioWare showed off just one of Dragon Age‘s turning points, a choice the player faces that’s anything but a nice, clean puppy/baby path. Your main goal in the game is to assemble an army to fight the Darkspawn, gathering the different races together to form a unified front. You soon discover that the king of one of the sole remaining human armies is deathly ill, poisoned by Darkspawn. Only one thing will heal him – the Urn of Sacred Ashes, which holds the mortal remains of Andraste, Holy Prophet of the Chantry. To put this in perspective, the Urn is to Dragon Age‘s Chantry is sort of what the Holy Grail is to the Catholic Church.

The trek to reach the Urn is tough enough; it’s become the centerpiece for a cult that is, shall we say, passionate about protecting it. But hacking your way through zealots is the easy part – the real challenge comes once you finally reach the Urn. You can simply take a pinch of ashes, leave the Urn in place, and return to heal the king, but consider for a moment: The ashes can heal anything. With them in your possession, you’re all but immortal. An army that had the Urn would be practically unstoppable. A particularly sobering thought, given the proximity of the Darkspawn. Can you really afford to let that happen? Destroying so precious an artifact as the Urn would be tragic, of course, but it would make sure its immense power never fell under the control of the forces of evil.

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But before you pour out that dragon’s blood and trash the Urn, you may want to recall that you have two particularly devout people in your party; it’s unlikely they’ll just shrug off your destruction of the most sacred icon of their religion. They’re willing to die for their beliefs – are you willing to kill for yours? Because that’s what you’re more than likely going to have to do before they let you defile the Urn. Oh, and then there’s the Brother who guided you to the Urn’s temple. You’ll probably have to kill him, too. But surely it’s worth the death of a few to save hundreds of thousands, right?

But that’s all assuming that the Darkspawn somehow do gain possession of the Urn – a very big “if”. The Urn could serve as a beacon of hope in a land that’s facing a dire threat, and as any great leader knows, without hope, even the mightiest army is doomed to fall. It may even rally more people to your cause; you simply don’t know what the long-reaching effects of leaving it in place might be.

This is what it’s like playing Dragon Age. There is no one right answer, one way to see things, no “good” or “evil” path. As lead designer Mike Laidlaw put it, “You’re called a Grey Warden for a reason.” Every choice you make has an impact on your world, but that impact may be almost impossible to predict; you may not see the final ripples of your decision until the final chapter of the game. BioWare’s David Silverman refers to it as “Choice 2.0, if you will,” and it’s quite a bit different from the “hit save/see what happens” scenarios we’re used to.

If the demo from GamesCom is any indication, the situations you face in Dragon Age: Origins will be some of the most nuanced ever presented in a videogame. I’ll have more insight – and details about my hands-on time with the game (holy crap, it’s good) – for you soon. Oh, by the way, that dragon in the picture? He’s hungry and you’re tasty. Hope all that pontificating about your moral quandary didn’t make you too tired to fight.

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