What Roger Wilco Taught Me About Problem Solving

You know who Roger Wilco is, right? Space janitor extraordinaire and the everyman hero of the Space Quest adventure game series? No? Well, he’s changed his appearance (and hair colour) a few times over the years, but he looks something like this:

A more dashing hero, you never will meet.

He was, and still is, my ultimate childhood hero for a number of reasons. If you’re not familiar with the games, I can strongly recommend you stop reading this right now to go and play them (you can grab all six games from GOG.com in two separate packs) – according to HowLongToBeat.com, it should take you a mere 30 hours to get through them all and it will be one of the best decisions you ever make, improving your life immeasurably. Guaranteed.

The reason I’m talking about Roger today is that, as the star of such an epic series, he has been in countless situations that result in highly teachable moments. From the innovative use of a bottle of dehydrated water to dispose of the Orat on the planet Kerona to navigating the broken roads of the information superhighway in virtual reality, Roger always comes out on top using a combination of strategic planning, ingenuity, quick reflexes, and good old-fashioned luck. He has plenty to teach us, albeit most of it unintentional on his part.

Let’s see what Roger Wilco can teach us about solving problems and how you can apply these lessons to everyday life.

You never know when you’ll need an old fish

Something you will quickly learn during any playthrough of Space Quest is that you should never underestimate the value of something that might appear pointless at first. Roger Wilco understands this to an extreme degree – his apparently bottomless pockets are legendary and he can fit an endless supply of items in them.

From gems to whistles, various foodstuffs, rocks, thermal underwear, and all kinds of weird and wonderful items, Roger will gather every resource he can, knowing that he will be able to find some kind of use for it later on (except for the unstable ordnance of course). Perhaps one of the best examples of something appearing useless at first is the fish in Space Quest VI. Roger is given an old fish early on in the game as an afterthought and frequently loses it only to have it returned to him over and over again.

Ultimately, the fish is the final item you use in the game to defeat Sharpei, the primary villain. Roger carries this thing all across the galaxy through all of his adventures and, as the player, you have no idea why until right at the end when its use becomes clear (or at least, clearly the last resort after you’ve tried everything else).

You never know when you’ll need an old fish, or rather – you never know when you’ll use that seemingly small nugget of wisdom you learnt from your earliest manager when you started your first job. Maybe you learnt about a creative way to solve a problem, or you were told about a particularly useful project management tool – keep those old fish in your inventory so you can pull them out when you need them.

Always read the documentation

Long before the days of online copy protection for computer games, Sierra had an elegant solution to the problem of theft by including physical game manuals with coded puzzles that were critical to getting through certain parts of the game. In true Sierra fashion, these were frequently presented as in-universe magazines, complete with articles, jokes, interviews, adverts, and more. A couple of great examples of this are the Space Piston and Popular Janitronics magazines:

If you failed to read these then Roger would never have been able to complete his quest – Sludge Vohaul would have lived on in the body of Roger’s son or Sharpei would have achieved immortality and continued to wreak havoc on the universe. Not only are these magazines incredible artefacts of a gaming era that is sadly lost to us forever, but they’re also proof that reading the documentation, no matter how innocuous it may seem, is always a good idea.

There’s always value in reading any documentation or other resources you have available to you. Much like this blog post.

At first glance, both of the magazines above just look like a bit of fun. Indeed, nothing in the game specifically tells you to use them – you need to figure it out on your own. This is true of resources that are available to you professionally – they may not seem relevant at first and you may not be told where they are, but there’s always value in reading any documentation or other resources you have available to you. Much like this blog post.

Cheating isn’t always a bad thing

Sometimes you’re just stuck and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t figure out the way forward or you can’t find the solution to your problem. Roger faced this dilemma when he needed to beat Djurkwhad (yes, that’s really his name) at the classic arcade game Stooge Fighter 3 in order to win the buckazoids he needed in Space Quest VI.

No matter how many times you play against Djurkwhad you’ll never actually beat him – it’s designed to be impossible. Impossible, that is until you get hold of the cheat code from Elmo Pug, Roger’s arch-nemesis from Space Quest III who’s now a washed-up drunk. Elmo’s old company created Stooge Fighter and he’s willing to sell you the cheat code (which I will always remember is “ABBACACA” of course) along with the afore-mentioned fish that becomes an ever-present item in your inventory.

Sometimes a cheat code, or rather that thing you learned that saves you hours of repetitive work, is acceptable and even necessary to unblock yourself. Maybe you know a shortcut in your work that might seem like a cheat to other people, or you have a connection with someone who can get things done much faster than you could on your own – those are excellent resources and you should use them as much as you can. Don’t ever feel like you’re doing something wrong just because you found a more efficient way to accomplish your goals, or you have skills that other people don’t.

Learn from your mistakes

As any seasoned player of Space Quest will know, it’s not difficult for Roger Wilco to die in one of many extremely creative (and frequently disgusting) ways. When wandering around the planet Phleebhut in Space Quest III, for example, Roger can easily stroll under some harmless-looking “pods”. These pods will immediately snap him up and eat him (fun). If you haven’t taken Sierra’s oft-repeated mantra of “save early, save often” to heart then this would prove quite problematic of course, but it also shows you a clever way to solve an upcoming puzzle in the game.

Through an unnecessarily convoluted situation involving a destroyed slot machine, a misappropriated whistle, and years of compound interest, the Gippazoid Novelty Company sent a terminator droid named “Arnoid the Annihilator” (shamelessly modelled on Schwarzenegger’s Terminator) to pursue Roger across the galaxy and kill him. Equipped with an invisibility belt, Arnoid is difficult to outrun, but using the previously acquired knowledge of how dangerous the pods are, Roger can easily dispose of Arnoid by luring him along the same path allowing the pods to handle the problem on their own. Genius.

Mistakes can only be named as such if you don’t learn from them.

What mistakes have you made that you have not only learnt to avoid but also used to solve problems that you later encountered? Mistakes can only be named as such if you don’t learn from them so you can use your new knowledge to solve other issues you encounter.

Track your progress

From time to time, Roger gets into situations that involve crawling through dark, or otherwise obscured tunnels. The two most clear examples of this are the underground maze on the planet Labion in Space Quest II (that Roger can only navigate by holding a glowing gem in his mouth as a light source) and the air shaft tunnels on the SCS Goliath spaceship in Space Quest V.

Getting through these mazes successfully requires carefully tracking your progress as you go. The one on the SCS Goliath is by far the most frustratingly difficult part of the entire franchise and there’s no way of finding the way out unless you draw a map that covers the entire area. My family’s old Space Quest game boxes (yes, those used to be a real thing) were full of sheets of paper with maze diagrams from previous playthroughs.

If you don’t track your progress you won’t know where you’ve been and, perhaps more importantly, you won’t know where you’re going. Take the time to record your progress as you work on a project – note down achievements, mistakes, and other milestones so you can refer back to them later on. Maintaining a living document of project progress is vital to the success of any work.

Take your time to look around

Sometimes you have a tight deadline or you need to act fast. Maybe, like Roger, you’re about to be ingested by the Orat or an Estrosian Sea Slug and you need to act quickly to survive the situation.

It’s certainly important to be able to think on your feet and solve things quickly using a nearby gas canister, but the majority of the time you will be able to take things slowly and have the freedom to make considered decisions based on research and other external input. When you have the opportunity to work slowly, take advantage of it. If there’s one thing you learn from playing through Space Quest, it’s that taking your time to figure out almost any problem is essential. It’s not uncommon for Roger to be in a situation where he has no idea what to do and tries to use all of his inventory items on everything in the environment until something sticks. Ulence Flats and Polysorbate LX are standouts in this regard.

Taking the time to look around your environment and get a feel for where you are is just as important as moving forward with a solution. When you’re working on an individual task, it is seldom done in isolation – you’ll be working on something that is a part of a much larger project. You’ll only be truly effective if you take your time to look around, get an idea of where you are, and figure out how your work fits into the larger scope.

Take care of the little guy

The ‘little guy’ may not always be quite so little. They may appear weaker or less skilled than you, but in reality, they’re going to save your life either now or sometime in the future. Roger found this out on Labion when he encountered a member of a local species hanging from a trap (clearly set by the hunter that actually caught Roger soon afterwards). Roger could choose whether to rescue the person or not without knowing what the result of the decision will be later on in his adventures.

As it turns out, rescuing him is not just the right thing to do, it’s also necessary to complete the game. A little later on Roger lands in a canyon where he meets the same person properly, along with what looks like the chief of his tribe. If you never rescued him earlier then they won’t speak to you and will simply pelt you with rocks before leaving you with no way of progressing any further. However, if you chose to do the right thing earlier then they will greet you warmly and help you on your way.

Taking care of someone in need, even if they don’t look like they could offer you anything in return, is always the right thing to do. They might be able to help you out later on, as was the case for Roger, or maybe they won’t – either way, taking care of the little guy will never set you back in any meaningful way and will always have a good result. Maybe it’s the new person at work or someone in your community who is asking questions that seem overly simple to your experienced mind – do what you can to help them out and you won’t regret it.

OK, so maybe this post was a little self-indulgent and just fulfilled my desire to dive back into the world of Roger Wilco. I won’t deny that there’s some truth to that! But you can’t argue with the fact that we can learn a lot from this bumbling hero and his unique brand of problem-solving.

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