Game Pile: Son of Xenon

There are, officially, six Space Quest videogames, released in order from 1986 to 1995. They follow the adventures of Roger Wilco, a hapless janitor whose adventures started on the Arcada, a science vessel transporting a super-science doohickey that could be turned into a weapon, where everyone was killed but Roger, who avoided certain doom because he was sleeping in the closet. Each game ramped up the stakes and adjusted the setting a little, with Roger going on a series of adventures that were mostly about trying to survive extremely hostile situations in which he’d been flung by the machinations of someone else, or in some cases, great coincidence.

Mostly the Space Quest games were defined by a particular sense of humour, which in some cases doesn’t age great (of the six games, fully three of them pass before there’s a single woman character who says anything), and a gameplay system that’s much more about being a very ordinary person trying to construct solutions to things because of your limited expertise.

But the technology of full-time professionals in 1985 has long since passed into the skillset of the hobbyist, and so the Space Quest franchise, which has been dormant so long the company responsible for it has been dead for years, is mostly continued by fan games.

Like this one, Son of Xenon.

Son of Xenon is a 16-colour, 320-200 pixel resolution Space Quest fan game that is, ostensibly, about Roger Wilco before he became the janitor of the Arcada, before the sun of Xenon was dying, before the Star Generator was ever made. If you want to check out Son Of Xenon before I go on about it, here’s a link. It’s pretty good. I got stuck at a few points, but it didn’t feel nearly as unfair as the genre normally is, and you’ll probably get through it in a few hours on your own.

No spoilers after the fold, but rather, a consideration of Roger Wilco, and his place in gaming, and why we get fangames like Son of Xenon.

What the fuck is a Roger Wilco

It’s kinda weird to me that there are multiple fangames about Roger Wilco. Especially since part of the point of the character that he’s meant to be a kind of schlmeil (god I hope I’m spelling that right). He’s not possessed of a particular skillset, he’s not respected, and he’s not even a good janitor. His stories often feature truly humiliating weirdness, and it’s a full gameplay mode to try and work out all the different mundane objects in the world that can kill him. There’s definitely an appeal to the kind of character he is, but surely every story added to this hapless loser diminishes his loserness, his haplessness.

There’s an amnesia in the stories of Roger Wilco. Every game ends with you doing something triumphant and impressive, and the next game begins basically ignoring it. You end Space Quest 1 having literally fought your way out of an exploding space ship you sabotaged and at the start of Space Quest 2 you’re scrubbing the outside of a spaceship with a broom. Nobody cares what happened in Space Quest 3, and Space Quest 4 is all time travel so it doesn’t really happen.

I personally never felt we needed more Space Quest stories, and honestly feel that the series kind of ran its course at Space Quest 4 (which coincidentally, is the one with transphobic jokes in it). The more stuff you have in Roger Wilco’s life, the less and less he’s able to hold onto the idea of being a hapless, lucky schmoe. Hell, Space Quest 3 kind of ended the series by having Roger wind up on earth, having delivered his creators to the job where they’d create him. That kind of meta thing doesn’t tend to get incorporated into a longer canon.

Still, there are a lot of Space Quest fan games – a cursory search shows about five to nine games, depending on what you consider ‘a fan game’ to be, and that’s just focusing on narrative adventures like the original Space Quest games. There’s a lot of people who see Roger Wilco and think “I want to make more of this dude who sucks.”

Part of that is no doubt cultural momentum! After all, we grew up with these games, I can understand wanting more of them, and it’s a particular kind of funny. What’s interesting to me about this though is how Roger changes over time, and how that comes up here in Son of Xenon…

See in Son of Xenon, you are playing a blonde Roger (the hair colour is a thing in the franchise, don’t worry about it), but starting out in his life on Xenon, before the Arcada. This implies that the Arcada was after a period in his life, after something else happened to him, but also, what does this prequel life look like? He’s a code monkey. He has to sift code and find errors in that code – a code janitor, in the game’s parlance. And that works, kind of? Like the original job in the Arcada, janitor, was a kind of dead end experience you could imagine anyone winding up doing, and was a fundamentally funny idea; space was full of serious things and impressive things, what’s an unimpressive thing that still has a reason to be there?

A janitor!

In Son of Xenon, the story wants to be about Roger, but not in space; it wants to be about what he is on his version of Earth, and that’s… well, that job is a crappy code monkey, cleaning other people’s stuff up. He’s not even good at it – there’s a coworker who exceeds him at the task. What’s also funny is in this world, the job of janitor is shown as outmoded — there are multiple cleaning robots. Which, you know, is exactly what would probably happen by that stage of technology. Even in Space Quest 2 there are robots that clean things, which makes a lot of sense. Robots don’t have the same environmental needs as humans, and meeting those needs costs resources.

It’s not that the future won’t need janitors, but I bet that they’ll have a lot of automation at their hand and they’ll probably be skilled professionals rather than dorks who use mops.

That’s what fascinates me the most about Space Quest as a franchise. Back when it was created, the conception of life in space was so different to now, but even then they still had these moments of ‘wait, why wouldn’t we have robots for that?’

Annnnnyway, basically, I just find myself wondering: Why more on Roger Wilco? Why is this guy important? Why do we keep repeating stuff that follows Roger Wilco’s place in the universe, when he’s meant to be a nobody? And that’s the thing that drives this character’s place in the universe is meant to be his boring median normalcy (as represented by a white guy who seems to slack off at his job a lot). Which means that we’re suddenly presented with this character who doesn’t belong in a story like this but the more he shows up in stories like this the less he has the charm that makes him inappropriate to these stories.

And we focus on Roger because he’s a recognisable brand and when you ignore the greater context of all those games, yeah, Roger’s just a useful guy who sucks with a recognisable comedic trope. He’s a space hero who knows nothing about doing space stuff, just like you. It’s relatable and it’s this vehicle for the puzzles that are generally about mundane objects. It’s really interesting, too, because so often the puzzles of a Space Quest game so rarely are about science fiction items – they’re not about making complex devices do complex things, or sci-fi principles or anything. Broadly, it’s about simple objects used in the simplest ways.

Roger Wilco is meant to be Like You. He’s a schlubby dude with no particular expertise who has to solve every problem himself, because nobody is helping him (and even most of them are hindering him), and who can just take his time on his own to quietly mumble alone about some solution to things that involves throwing a bunny with an explosive in it at a mushroom.

And that character has moved in time. He used to be someone who imagined an unskilled labor position on a spaceship that had no idea about any tech at all because that’s how tech worked in his life. Now, he’s a coder who has some expertise, because that doesn’t seem like a more advanced job than janitor was back in the 80s. Roger Wilco is into mediocre TV and is bad with women and fails at everything because that’s more relatable than any of his specific abilities. Basically, Roger fails to alienate people who see themselves as a default, as long as he is reasonably clueless in every situation you see him.

Godspeed, Roger Wilco. May fans comically kill you forevermore.

(though really, maybe we could make some new things in the same space? Maybe?)

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