After the release of the Graphic Adventure Creator, Gilsoft strike back with the Professional Adveture Writing System
The release of Incentive's Graphic Adventure Creator (GAC) caused great excitement last year - to be followed by much debate in adventuring circles about whether it really did represent a significant advance on Gilsoft's long-established Quill. Suddenly, however, it seems largely irrelevant whether it did or not. The reason? Well, coming up on the port bow, and preparing to deliver a broadside which looks as though it will settle the matter for good, is The Professional Adventure Writing System (PAWS) from Gilsoft.
You might be excused for doubting that there really is a need for yet another adventure-writing system. After all, you might think that with GAC and the old Quill (with its various add-ons) to choose from, surely any budding adventure author worth his salt should be able to cope. If you have such doubts, let me dispel them at once. Gilsoft have been at this business a long time, and in PAW their experience shows. This is a magnificent piece of software by any standards, and it's in a league of its own.
For your £22.95 you get a cassette and two manuals in a large box. The first of the manuals is a 66 page introduction which gets you started by leading you through the creation of a short adventure. The second one is a technical manual which wasn't complete at the time of this review, though most of the essential information was provided.
In order to release as much memory as possible for your adventure. PAWS uses a system of 'overlays'. These are recorded on the cassette as a series of short code blocks following the main program. Most of these are loaded in straight away so that at start-up, most of the program's extensive facilities are available. Then, as your adventure database grows in the writing, these sections are overwritten, but can be loaded in again separately as required. This isn't much of a problem for the 128K Spectrum owner, nor will it be a problem with the microdrive version that is promised - but for those of us with 48K machines a good deal of to-ing and fro-ing with the cassette recorder is going to be necessary. There are, I think, two views one can take of this. The first is that the program is so good that it almost justifies the purchase of a 128K machine anyway; and the second is that the program is so good that the hassle of fiddling with the tape is a small price to pay for the privilege of using it!
Completing the roundup a short adventure database is provided at the end of the tape as an example. This can be loaded into the system and hacked apart at will. And the whole of the other side of the tape contains - wait for it! - 22 (yes, twenty-two) different character sets! This may seem like gilding the lily, and yet it is typical of the whole style of presentation which underlies PAWS. Gilsoft have done everything in their power to help you to avoid that stereotyped appearance which has been a feature of so many Quilled games in the past.
Once you get the program loaded in and running, everything is menu-driven (no icons, thank goodness!). The overall 'feel' of the program will be quite familiar to those who've had experience of the Quill, though once you actually get involved, you begin to realise the enormous potential of it. It's easy to get started using the introductory manual as a step-by-step guide, but make no mistake - you won't master all the intricacies of the PAW for some time. I must emphasise that this doesn't mean the program is difficult to use. Rather, it means that you'll go on and on discovering new possibilities as you gain experience with the system.
I can't possibly cover everything that the program is capable of here, and it would take ages to explore the full potential of PAWS, but I can give you some idea of its scope by selecting a few examples. The parser, for instance, is probably as sophisticated as anyone will ever need. It accepts multiple commands (using punctuation marks, AND or THEN as phrase separators). ALL and IT are catered for - so that an input such as "OPEN THE CHEST, LOOK INSIDE IT AND GET EVERYTHING OUT OF THE CHEST" can be dealt with in a straightforward manner. The system anticipates that you may want to have other characters in the adventure, so speech can be accommodated using inverted commas in good old "Hobbit" fashion.
When it comes to sorting out the game logic, I can only say that the Gilsoft chaps seem to have anticipated pretty well anything you could possibly want to do. Again, I can give you no more than a taste, but you can, for example, define certain objects as 'containers' (i.e. capable of containing other objects) - and this alone can give rise to enormous fun, as you'll see a little later on. 'Flags' are needed to keep track of event (such as whether doors are open or closed) in an adventure, and there are 256 of these, but not all of them are available for use (though they can all be inspected) since the system uses some of them itself (e.g. to store the player's current location). That still leaves more than enough for you to work with.
The 'language' you use to program your game is similar to that used in The Quill, but extended in scope almost beyond recognition. Basically, commands are divided into conditions ("if so-and-so") and actions ("Do such-and-such") - but the list of available commands fills two pages of the manual! Possibly the best way to illustrate the flexibility of the system is to describe a particular sequence of events that took place while I was away actually working through the examples suggested in the introductory manual.
I'd arrived at a stage where I had a partly working small adventure, with a few locations in a park and a few objects. These included a canvas bag, defined as a 'container and inputs like "PUT EVERYTHING IN THE BAG", "LOOK IN THE BAG", and so on, were working beautifully. At this point I put the manual aside and thought what a clever trick it would be to allow the player to get inside the bag himself. So the canvas bag became "an enormous canvas bag", the inside of the bag was defined as a new location, and the necessary commands added to the 'Response Table'. Next, I wondered if we couldn't have some other character come along and pick up the bag while the player was still in it (and could this be done in real time?)
Well, it could indeed be done. All of it. There's a facility which enables the adventure program to break away from player input after a specified time and scan the 'Process Table' (which holds a set of condition tests and actions which don't depend on input from the player) so that real-time independently-acting characters are perfectly possible. By manipulating a couple of flags to keep track of what was happening, I found myself being merrily carried around the park inside the bag, by someone else, free to hop out or back in again at any point.
Although this was just a bit of fun, fans of The Hobbit will remember certain notorious escapades with a barrel and a butler... Well fls, you can do all that with the PAW, and it is very impressive indeed!
48K owners will possibly be worried about available memory, especially since this was an area where the GAC was somewhat deficient. At start-up, the 'Free memory' option tells you that 25,434 bytes are available for your game. This might not seem significantly more than the 23,194 that GAC offers, but in fact it is - for several reasons. PAWS already contains a large vocabulary and a variety of messages; since they're already there, you won't have to use precious memory to put them in yourself. The program also possesses a text compression facility which works superbly. I tried this with 1,500 bytes of adventure on board, and was rewarded by the system announcing that it had just saved me 600 bytes. This is very good news indeed, and suggests that the nominal 25K of free memory will effectively be the equivalent of considerably more than 30K, taking compression into account.
So much for game construction and logic. What about general presentation and graphics? As far as text is concerned, printing is automatically formatted onto the screen - with a word-wrapping system that works properly, unlike GAC's which doesn't, quite. Objects present at a location can be listed vertically, with each object on a new line, or as a piece of continuous text with the objects neatly linked by commas and "and" inserted where necessary. The choice is up to you. Several character sets can be stored at once, and the program will swap between them if required. In short, your text can be as varied and interesting in appearance as you care to make it.
In order to design graphics, as illustrations to particular locations, it's necessary to load in an overlay. As a bonus, this includes a character designer which can be used to change the shape of letters (in case none of the 22 sets appeals to you...) and also the fifteen patterns used for shading in the main graphics routines. The pictures themselves can be any size you lie and you can arrange for them to scroll away as text is printed - or to stay put while the text scrolls below them.
The method for designing the pictures is effective and easily mastered. Points can be plotted and lines drawn, areas can be filled either with solid ink, or a chosen pattern of shading, and areas of colour can be blocked in separately. Small pictures can be designed and called as subroutines for inclusion in other pictures at any one or eight scales of magnification. I found some difficulty in positioning these 'subroutines' correctly within larger pictures, but it's early days yet, and I'm sure things will improve with practice.
There's no escaping the fact that graphics need to gobble memory. PAWS' system, like GAC's, stores pictures as a string of graphic commands (rather than as a chunk of screen memory, which would be much less economical). The facility to call graphic subroutines also helps to save on bytes. For instance, if you're willing to use a standard picture of a tree in several locations you save memory because the sequence of commands for drawing the tree need only be stored once. Still, some of the pictures in the Gilsoft demonstration adventure use more than 2K each, for all that. They're very attractive as advertising material, but it would hardly be practical to devote so much memory to individual pictures (on a 48K machine, at least). Scattered about on these pages you should find some screen dumps to illustrate this. The good, highly detailed ones are the Gilsoft 2K jobs; my own rough doodles are much more primitive, costing only 500 bytes each, so you'll be able to pick them out with little difficulty! They won't please your eye much, but they should give you a better idea of the amount of detail you can actually afford to include in a 48K machine.
To sum up then, PAWS is precisely what its name claims it to be: a professional adventure writing system, with the emphasis (as far as the *potential* quality of its product is concerned) on "professional". It's the kind of program that an adventure writer dreams about, with what seems to be vritually unlimited scope - and I can say this confidently without even having seen the full details of the technical manual. It deserves to sell like hot cakes, and if you're at all interested in adventures, it's an essential purchase. Bring on the microdrive version, please...