You can't have a ginormous fantasy epic without at least three different races — elf, human, dwarf, etc. — and you can't have elves and dwarfs without racism according to fantasy standard-setter J.R.R. Tolkien.
In typical BioWare fashion of reinventing the plot wheel, Dragon Age: Origins aims to redefine the fantasy genre; and it'll start by rearranging the racial tension between your standard fantasy stock types. Normally, say BioWare headmen Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, high fantasy like Tolkien's dictates that elves are creatures that "sashay through the countryside" - they're very pretty, very aloof and very, very elitist.
"So," said Muzyka, "here's an example of elves being different in Dragon Age: Elves were enslaved by the humans at one point in Dragon Age, so they hate humans, they despise them. Humans in turn have a lot of disrespect towards elves. [...]That's something that hasn't really been done before is introducing a lot of racial tension and back story and intrigue behind the scenes that's sort of totally optional, but it makes the world feel that much richer and real."
Certainly, BioWare is no stranger to racial tension — you couldn't expect the sheer number of alien species in Mass Effect's galaxy to all get along with each other, right? But this is the first I've heard where you get to make a conscious choice to be the oppressor — or even the oppressed.
"Your experience... is going to be very different depending if you choose to play an elf origin story or a human," said Muzyka.
In a way, it doesn't sound different than making the choice to have Shepard be a man or a woman. But there's a subtle difference to Dragon Age that you don't see in Mass Effect or even in close fantasy cousin The Witcher: Shepard was Shepard; Geralt was Geralt — the main character was somebody else. If BioWare has their way in Dragon Age, there won't be that layer of separation between player and character. You'll be the racist; you'll be the persecuted — depending on which race you play.
"We're defining a new type of fantasy genre," Muzyka explained. "That's one of our goals is to make this a landmark event in fantasy, defining something that hasn't been done before quite the way we're doing it — dark heroic fantasy."